Reflections on 2017

This has been an interesting year in education. 2017 started with great anxiety over the proposed new common funding formula for schools. The government’s original version left many rural and small schools out of pocket and losing actual cash. The revised version just left them out of pocket. Indeed, from government data released in December, it seems secondary schools have been dipping into their reserves for the past three years; many primary schools are now having to do so as well.

The other key topic of interest a year ago, the creation of new selective schools, has fallen victim to the unexpected outcome of the general election. Apart from Brexit, it seems any contentious reform is not now being contemplated.

Selection as a topic has been replaced by social mobility as the key goal of government. Unfortunately for many areas, the funds are largely being targeted at key ‘opportunity areas’ that look suspiciously like the Education Action Zones once championed by the Blair government in the 1990s. Smaller pockets of deprivation, as can be found in many parts of the country, seem less likely to attract much if any additional funding above the Pupil Premium and free school meals.

There are worrying signs, including in the Report of the Chief Inspector, that some schools may be actually frustrating social mobility by offering challenging pupils the opportunity to be home educated or on a reduced timetable. Many of the parents do not have the background to challenge these decisions that can blight a child’s possible future almost as much as the alternative of a permanent exclusion.

Although there have been changes in the junior ministerial ranks, the Secretary of State has served throughout the year and is now approaching the point in her tenure when she is in the zone where many politicians find themselves either changing jobs or being removed from office in a reshuffle.

Teacher workload, pay and recruitment have once again dominated the teacher associations concerns during the year that has also seen the creation of a new association, with the coming together of the NUT and ATL.

The dead hand of the revolution initiated by Mr Gove, when he was Secretary of State, still affects schools, especially in the design of the curriculum and examinations where reforms take several years to reach full implementation.

The most worrying outcome of 2017 for schools was that following the general election spat between Labour and the Tories over university tuition fees, some £800 million appeared in the budget Red Book for student fee initiatives. That’s money that could have been spent in schools, FE or early years now diverted to the already most highly funded part of our education system.

So, what of 2018? Might we see a resolution of the academy and maintained school divide? Will the DfE really launch a free vacancy service in time for September 2018 and what will be the response of existing players if they do? How will the DfE save money to pay for social mobility programmes?

Above all, will the teacher supply crisis reach its zenith in 2018 and will the depressing numbers entering teacher preparation courses in September 2017, coupled with increases in school rolls, create a real sense of urgency to do something about the problem?  Perhaps the pressure on school budgets will finally mean secondary schools are really forced to cut teaching posts and the shortage of trainees won’t matter. Time will tell.

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Hymns and Schools

What better way for a writer of an education blog to spend Christmas Day than to recall some of the Victorian hymns that feature schools and education, either in their title or the actual words. However, research hasn’t yet yield up a ‘carol’ with a direct school reference.

In 1829 there appeared in the USA, ‘Hark, the infant school bell’s ringing’ by a Miss M. J. and composed for Infant school Number 1. This appeared in the aptly named ‘The infant School and Nursery Hymn Book, published in New York as long ago as 1831.

Of course, it is necessary to winnow out the much larger collection of hymns about Sunday, or as the Americans seem to call them Sabbath Schools, when seeking for those hymns about schools as more general education establishments. However, it is worth recalling the debt that the development of education has paid to those that started the ‘Sunday School’ movement more than two centuries ago.

Hymns about schools in general, and especially schools for younger children capable of instruction, appeared throughout the Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries, especially in the USA. Some of their first lines included:

Lord and Saviour, true and kind

We build our school on thee, O Lord

To infant school. To infant school

Dear God, a school day

Gracious God, our heavenly father, meet and bless our school

How we love our infant school

The bell rings for school

Our youthful hearts for learning burn – with the third verse starting ‘Our teachers are so very kind, We love to go to school.’ This hymn appeared in hymn books up to the 1930s.

Henry James Buckoll an assistant master at Rugby School was responsible for two of the more enduring hymns relating to the school year: ‘Lord dismiss us with thy blessing’ and ‘Lord, behold us with Thy blessing, Once again assembled here’. I am not sure what new pupils made of the reference to ‘once again’, but perhaps it was the schools as an entity and not the pupil as a person Buckoll was writing about.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the large number of Church of England and Roman Catholic primary schools in England, not to mention the remaining few Methodist primary schools around the country, there appears to be little specifically written hymns for these pupils to sing in modern hymn books.

Like other popular songs, hymns appear to go out of fashion, although at Christmas the staples of O Cone all ye Faithful; Hark the Herald Angels Sing; Silent Night; O little town of Bethlehem; Away in a manger and while shepherds watched their flocks by night, all seem to come around every year.

So, festive best wishes to both regular readers of this blog and those that have alighted on this festive post. May 2018 be a wonderful year for you wherever you are reading this Christmas epistle.

 

 

 

 

 

Not a rural idyll?

Once Again the DfE has categorised four primary schools within London boroughs as meeting their definition of a rural school. Two are in Enfield and the other two, an infant and junior school with the same name, are in Hillingdon.

I am sure the residents of Theobalds Park Road in Enfield will be delighted to know that they live in a ‘rural village’ according to the DfE. Their school was founded in 1858 as a National School, but it is moot point whether it is really a village school or a small school in in a relatively isolated locality on the fringe of London. On the other hand, Forty Hill Primary School, the other rural school in Enfield is genuinely in an area of isolated dwellings with little in the immediate vicinity other than the church and a few houses. Realistically, these four schools are a statistical anomaly on the fringes of our capital city.

Nationally, the DfE lists 3,806 rural primary schools in this year’s database. This list doesn’t include any rural academies as it only lists local authority schools but, it still contains 1,553 community schools; 2,079 voluntary schools, both aided and controlled, and 174 foundation schools. I don’t see why a full list of state-funded rural primary schools, including academies should not be published by the DfE..

North Yorkshire has the largest number of designated rural primary schools, with just over 200 such schools. Cumbria is second with 168; Devon and Lancashire are in joint third place with 157 each. Overall, 92 of the local authorities in England have at least one designated rural primary school within their boundaries.

648 of these primary schools are designated as in isolated hamlets or hamlets and sparse dwellings whereas 1,786 are located in or around rural villages, with a further 1,310 in a rural town or on its fringe. The remaining schools are close enough to rural towns to be regarded as in a sparse setting near the town.

These schools represent both the history of education in England and the country’s complex geography. Whether all will survive the new National Funding Formula is a moot point. Many are small, often one form entry or less schools. Although they all will probably receive more cash under the new settlement it is unlikely that the increase will be enough to meet the ever growing expenditure pressures faced by schools, especially when the pay cap is finally removed.

If these schools are going to be expected to meet pay pressures from a national funding settlement then many may find themselves unable to make ends meet. Such a situation is not one where it is easy to recruit a new head teachers, so it may be alright while the present incumbent remains in post, but finding a successor could be more of a challenge.

We know relatively little about how difficult this type of school finds it to recruit classroom teachers. Are there still a cadre of teacher willing to work in such schools? I suspect that the answer is in the affirmative for the school that is rural, but not isolated, as are many in the south of England, but not as much the case where such schools are really isolated. There was a story recently from Scotland of a school in the Highlands that has had to close because both teachers were leaving at Christmas and no replacements could be found for January.

I do hope that these schools survive, but they won’t without some serious campaigning. With the present weak state of the government there has never been a better time to put pressure on MPs with such schools in their constituency.

 

Thank you Laura

Buried in the opinion section of Schools Week is the news that Laura McInerney has stepped down as editor of that publication after a three year stint in the role. During her time at the publication it has become a leading publication for news and opinion on the education scene. It has especially helped sharpen up the use of data and statistics with some compelling on-line graphs and other representational methods. I much appreciate the work Schools Week has achieved in this field.

Despite a small staff at Schools Week, I have always considered the level of journalism to be exceptionally high, and I read the on-line version most days, often before choosing what to write in this blog. Sadly, that means I don’t pay for what I read.

As a regular blogger, as well as the founder of the free recruitment site for schools and teachers, TeachVac, I know how frustrating the freedom of the web can be to those trying to make money from publishing. I am sure that Schools Week is not a philanthropic publication, but trying to make money must be a real challenge.

One of the early staff at Schools Week, along with Laura, was Sophie Scott. She interviewed me for one of the first dozen Profile pieces, even before Laura had become editor. I had first known Sophie when she had worked for the Oxford Mail and Times, a paper that has created many fine education journalists that have subsequently worked on national titles. The link with Sophie helped create an excuse for Schools Week to ring me up from time to time to ask for my opinion and sometimes just to take note of what I had written in my blog.

Laura had a great interest in the lives of those who have been Ministers of Education or Secretary of State for Education. Indeed, I think she may be one of the few people that has read Ellen Wilkinson’s book, ‘The town that was murdered’ about Jarrow in the 1930s. She has also, I know, read Fred Blackburn’s biography of that other post-war Labour Minister of Education, George Tomlinson, Eileen Wilkinson’ successor after her untimely death. No doubt she has also read all the books of the lives of all other holders of the top ranking education post at Westminster.

Laura doesn’t say what she will be going on to do now she has relinquished the editor’s chair, but I am sure she has a great career ahead of her in whatever field she chooses to work. I note that she hasn’t entirely severed her connection with Schools Week, but will write for them from time to time.

Laura, thank you for everything you have achieved over the past three years at Schools Week, and I am sure you will be enjoying your first Christmas without having to worry about either the next story you have to write or editorial decision you have to make. Thank you for your tenure at Schools Week; you will be missed.

 

Figures back heads views on funding pressures

Most commentators will be focusing on the primary performance data published today. I am sure that is not why the DfE also chose to publish the annual update on maintained school finances for 2016-17 today. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/la-and-school-expenditure-2016-to-2017-financial-year

Although this is time series data, comparisons from year to year are handicapped by the conversion of schools to academy status and their removal from these tables. Nevertheless, at the national level, some pointers do become clear, especially as the funding between academies and maintained schools is now roughly the same for most of their government funded revenue income. They do, of course have different accounting years, and this can affect issues such as spend on salaries and the payment of increments.

If the average percentage of revenue income held as balances by maintained schools  is considered, this has now started reducing after a long period when the percentage was on the increase in both the primary and secondary sectors.

Maintained  Schools:

Total revenue balance as a % of total revenue income

Primary Secondary
2009-10 5.9% 3.2%
2010-11 6.6% 3.9%
2011-12 7.9% 5.6%
2012-13 7.9% 6.2%
2013-14 7.9% 6.4%
2014-15 8.2% 5.0%
2015-16 8.4% 4.6%
2016-17 7.4% 3.0%

This is the first year that the primary sector has recorded a decline in balances as a percentage of revenue income. In the secondary sector, the decline started in 2014-15 and there has now been three years of declining revenue balances overall.

For schools with a deficit, overall the aggregate position is also deteriorating:

Primary Secondary
2009-10 (3.5)% (4.0)%
2010-11 (3.6)% (4.8)%
2011-12 (3.7)% (5.7)%
2012-13 (3.1)% (5.2)%
2013-14 (2.9)% (5.8)%
2014-15 (3.3)% (7.3)%
2015-16 (3.0)% (7.7)%
2016-17 (3.5)% (8.4)%

Again, the position is worse in the secondary sector. This may be partly due to the remaining secondary schools that haven’t converted to academy status being more likely to be in deficit. Of the remaining maintained secondary schools included in the data for 2016-17, 26% had a deficit budget compared with just 7% of primary schools. This may also reflect the fact that rolls have been rising across the primary sector but falling until this year across the secondary sector.

The average spend on teaching staff increased in the primary sector by £68 per pupil and in the secondary sector by £58 per pupil over the two years 2015-16 and 2016-17. In the same period, the primary sector reduced running costs by £30 per pupil and secondary sector by £25 per pupil.

Schools overall increased non-government revenue income by £25 per pupil in the primary sector and £13 in the secondary sector in this period. Some of this is just income taken in to cover the costs of trips, meals and other expenses, but it also includes parental contributions and donations.

Overall, the figures show that the squeeze on income is now really beginning to affect schools, especially in the secondary sector. These figures back up the complaints of secondary head teachers about their funding levels. With general inflation now over three per cent and the  need to offer recruitment and retention payments to counteract below inflation pay increases, the next few years are going to be challenging times for maintained schools, and almost certainly for academies as well.

Schools can no longer rely on dipping into their saving for a rainy day: that day has now arrived and the cash is being used up.

 

 

 

Time for action

Burnt out teachers in struggling schools where nobody has the long-term strategic responsibility for improvement. That’s what I take from the headlines about the Ofsted chief Amanda Spielman’s first annual report. Apparently, there are about 100 schools which have not reached “good” status in inspections since 2005.

None of this is news; none of it is unknown. Indeed, one might ask whether politicians of all Parties have created barriers to overcoming this situation. The two parallel systems of maintained schools and academies, created since Mr Gove’s revolution, have not led to a system of oversight that allows meaningful discussion on how to deal with the schools that need the most support.

Labour now plans a National Education Service, on the lines of the National Health Service, without explaining where any extra funding for improvement will come from. As readers of this blog know, the cost of just the minor changes the government are making to student funding is going to cost £800 million according to the Budget Red Book. That doesn’t leave much for schools and early years. The Conservatives having failed with a system to encourage teachers to work in challenging schools are now trying Opportunity Areas, a scheme seemingly not dis-similar to Labour’s Education Action Zones of the late 1990s.

Nowhere yet at Westminster does there seem to be a recognition of the need to re-energise local democracy into taking an interest in developing and improving education services. If you believe services such as schooling should be subject to democratic oversight, then that surely requires a coherent form of local government backed by Westminster retaining oversight for strategic matters and with the power to intervene should local government prove not up to the task. Central government will also have to bear the funding of schools, but must recognise that sending all the cash to schools is not the right way to either create economies of scale or aid schools that need help from time to time.

What the government at Westminster can do is end the era of schools competing with one another. All state funded schools are part of the same enterprise: the development of learning for all our children. We do need to work together for the common good and not just for the good of the school. If burnout is a real issue for those working in some schools then managed moves for teachers and periods away from the classroom may be necessary. This is challenging when schools in MATs are spread geographically long distances apart and downright impossible when maintained schools cannot fund such a system under the present rules.

Then there is the growing practice of putting secondary deputies into primary schools, either directly as heads or to work alongside heads. Dioceses can do this with their schools, as can MATs, but it is difficult to see how maintained schools can create effective systems without overall control. These are but two examples of why the present system won’t tackle the concerns of the Chief Inspector.

The time has come to end the present unworkable governance system in schools and return to a common framework with a single purpose: every school a good school.

No room in the Inn?

More than 13,000 children taken into care in the last financial year were placed outside of their local authority area. Some will have had relatively short-term placements, but for the majority of school age children taken into care, this can mean some disruption to their schooling. Data on the effects of being taken into care on time away from education isn’t published by the DfE in their tables associated with Statistical First Release 50/2017. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/children-looked-after-in-england-including-adoption-2016-to-2017

I would hope that in the future this issue might be better researched, since these are a highly vulnerable group of young people. Regular readers of this blog will recall that after the general election, all six of Oxfordshire’s MPs wrote to the Minister about the problems of in-year enrolment of children taken into care and requiring a change of school. I would hope that officials and the charities concerned with the welfare of these children will look at what is happening, as only yesterday I heard of a school employing a solicitor to challenge any request from another local authority for a place in the school for a child in care.

This issue needs attention because being taken into care must not be the start of a slippery slope towards a life of crime and marginalisation by Society. It is welcome news that the number of children taken into care and subsequently sentenced to custody fell in the latest year the data are available for from 500 to 410, but this is still way too high, and above the 370 custodial sentence sin 2013.

Sadly, the number of care leavers between 19-21 in custody in the latest figures remains just over the 1,000 mark, with similar numbers in each of the three age groups. Many of these young people will be well on the way to a long period of criminal behaviour and a revolving door syndrome of prison punctuated by short periods of unsuccessful life in the community. There is a growing recognition that these days looking after young people up to the age of 25 is more sensible than casting them adrift at eighteen. However, this does demand more resources and even more investment for these young people that are in a fight for resources with many other groups.

Sadly, only 50% of care leavers are in education, training or employment, leaving the other half of the group either as NEETs or without a known destination. The rate of pregnancy is seven per cent nationally. There are examples of these young mothers subsequently going on to complete their education and flourish where they are provided with care and support; others perpetuate the cycle of mothers with children taken into care. The percentage in higher education is still very low at well under 10% compared to a 40-50% for the age group as a whole.

A shortage of resources must not be allowed to blight the lives of young people taken into care and after they leave as young adults. Schools, especially, must help to play a part in working with this group. As we approach the Christmas season, these children must not find there is no room for them in our schools.