Reviewing Ofsted

The National Audit Office Report issued today about the work of Ofsted seems to have received coverage that is slightly unfair to Ofsted. But, as an inspection body, it is an organisation it is easy to regard with distaste or even hate. https://www.nao.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Ofsteds-inspection-of-schools.pdf

Interestingly, in January this year I asked a question at Oxfordshire Cabinet about schools not inspected since 2010.

Could the Cabinet Member please identify those primary schools that have not had an Ofsted inspection since 2010 with the year they were last inspected and whether they are maintained schools or academies – if an academy, which MAT they currently are associated with of if they are a standalone academy.”

Most not inspected were outstanding schools, but two schools had only been rated ‘good’ in their last inspection report. There was confusion among officers when complying the reply to my question, because Ofsted lists on their web site the letter that goes to schools on conversion to an academy and, in some circumstances, this might look as if Ofsted had inspected the school when in practice it hadn’t.

I think the NAO’s overall judgement of Ofsted is fair.

24 Ofsted provides valuable independent assurance about schools’ effectiveness and as such is a vital part of the school system. It has faced significant challenges in recent years, as its budget has reduced and it has struggled to retain staff and deploy enough contracted inspectors…..

25 The Department plays an important part in whether the inspection of schools is value for money. The Department affects Ofsted’s funding, how it uses its resources and what it can inspect. The current inspection model, with some schools exempt from re-inspection, others subject to light-touch inspection and the average time between inspections rising, raises questions about whether there is enough independent assurance about schools’ effectiveness to meet the needs of parents, taxpayers and the Department itself. Although government has protected the overall schools budget, it has reduced Ofsted’s budget every year for over a decade while asking it to do more.

NAO Report, May 2018 page 11

As the DfE now realises, and the NAO acknowledges, the complex governance nature of the education system in England does not effectively work in favour of helping school improvement. The removal of funding for local authority inspection and advisory services across much of the country, in the lemming like desire to push all funds to schools, didn’t help with intelligence gathering and the lack of action at regional school commissioner level also hasn’t helped.

How do you improve an academy declared inadequate by Ofsted and with the worst attendance record of all secondary schools in the county for the autumn term after it declared inadequate if the regional school commissioner won’t take action and the diocese responsible for the MAT of which the school is part has failed to improve the school? Would a former municipal Education Committee have allowed this state of affairs to linger on without resolution?

What can Ofsted do, other than continue to report while children’s education suffers? This is surely a much more important question than why 0.2% of the target for inspections was missed over a five year period.

The most important conclusion of the NAO Report is ‘that Ofsted does not know whether its school inspections are having the intended impact: to raise the standards of education and improve the quality of children’s and young people’s lives.’ (Paragraph 20 of the summary). The government must make clear how that gap can be closed, and provide the funds to ensure that improvement is supported effectively progress monitored and any failure to improve has consequences. Such a system should include a key role for democratically elected local authorities.

 

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Headteacher Boards: Value for money?

Last week, the Minister, Nick Gibb, was asked by Labour’s Angela Rayer about the cost of Headteacher Boards. There are the Boards set up to help the DFE over the issues relating to academies, by providing support to their Regional School Commissioner. The Board has a mixture of elected and appointed members. The Minister’s answer, reproduced below, is illuminating.

The compensation paid to elected, co-opted and appointed members of the eight English Headteacher Boards (HTBs) was £472,530 for 2017/18. For 2018/19 that cost is expected to be approximately £450,000. The Department has not yet profiled the budget for years beyond 2018/19. The schools/trusts of each HTB member are paid £500 per day when head teachers attend HTB meetings, plus in some cases, £250 for half-day reading/prep time. If HTB members are not serving head teachers, this money is paid directly to them.

Written Answer: 142872 15th May 2018

On top of this there are the secretariat costs associated with serving the purpose of the Boards. At present, Readers can find the minutes of decisions from these Boards and other information about their roles at https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/schools-commissioners-group/about including the register of interests of both commissioners and board members. The government has announced that there will be greater transparency

On the day following the written answer quoted above, another Minister, Nadhim Zahawi provided more information about the government’s thinking on these Headteacher Boards.

My right hon. Friend, the Secretary of State said in his recent speech to the National Association of Head Teachers conference that he wants greater transparency about the workings of Regional Schools Commissioners (RSCs) and Head Teacher Boards (HTBs) that advise and challenge RSCs. The department will work with the sector over the coming months to develop proposals, for consultation in the Autumn, to support a clear and simple accountability system. This will build on the information already available regarding RSCs and their work, including academy transfers. We currently publish records of HTB meetings. In July 2017, we produced updated Terms of Reference for HTBs as part of the summer HTB elections. We publish conflicts of interest registers for HTB members and RSCs, as well as information on the roles and responsibilities of the RSCs and criteria for all relevant types of RSC decisions

Written Answer: [143140 16th May 2018

In Oxfordshire, where I am a county councillor, the Education Scrutiny Committee has held an annual meeting with the Regional School Commissioner for our area or a member of his staff if he could not attend. The Committee regards such meetings as part of their function in monitoring and understanding the policies behind the operation of academies of all types educating children in the county.

Personally, I have not always felt that there is enough transparency or urgency when academies face problems. Spending nearly half a million on a set of Boards that process information may provide some legitimacy for the process, but whether or not it is good value for money is another matter. Could the cash be better spent elsewhere?

 

Absence rates are still a concern in some schools

Earlier today the DfE published the results of the data collected about pupils’ absence from school during the autumn term of 2017 https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/pupil-absence-in-schools-in-england-autumn-term-2017 Not a lot had changed since the previous autumn term and the overall picture has remained broadly at the same level now for three years. However, as the DfE concede, – levels of authorised absence have decreased, while the levels of unauthorised absence has increased.

For state-funded primary and secondary schools, the authorised absence rate decreased from 3.3 per cent in autumn 2016 to 3.2 per cent in autumn 2017 and the unauthorised absence rate increased from 1 per cent in autumn 2016 to 1.1 per cent in autumn 2017. Part of the increase was down to the fact that that the level of absence among persistent absentees rose slightly from 11.4 per cent in autumn 2016 to 11.5 per cent in autumn 2017.

Illness is the most common reason for absence and heavily influences overall absence rates.  It accounted for 58.3 per cent of all absence in autumn 2017, a lower proportion than seen in previous years; it was 58.4 per cent in autumn 2016 and 58.8 per cent in 2015. This variation from autumn term to autumn term can be the result of winter illness patterns and in particular whether the flu season starts early or not. The level of absence for religious reasons is also variable from year to year; depending upon when major moveable festivals appear in the calendar. In 2017, there were some dates that fell outside of term time and that reduced the number of days pupils were absent.

Authorised family holidays are now very largely a thing of the past, but there is still an upward trend in days lost to unauthorised holidays, albeit the increase from the previous year was relatively slight. For some families the fine can be seen as just another expense as part of the overall holiday costs and if the holiday price is cheaper in term time there may actually be a cash saving even if it can affect a child’s education.

Interestingly, just over a quarter of pupils had no recorded absence in the autumn term. However, the trend towards not arriving on time is gathering pace, with 266,905 recorded occurrences. Not a huge number, but the highest figure for the past few years.

I fear 14-18 schools frequently seem to appear close to the top of the list of schools with well above average absence rates. In Oxfordshire, three of the eight schools with the worst overall absence rates are 14-18 schools. I need to check whether there are issues about how some pupil activities in these schools are recorded. Otherwise, it seems likely that turning schools into academies hasn’t proved a magic bullet in terms of curing high levels of absence: leadership is, I suspect, much more important than school organisation in bringing down absence rates. It might be worth asking MATs how much of their central funds are aimed at reducing absence rates in schools where it might be an issue?

Missing the point

For the past year I have been drawing attention to the fact that children taken into care during the school year and then placed away from home may well have to change schools at short notice and mid-year. In many cases, schools asked to admit these young people recognise that the Admissions Code provides for priority for looked after children during the admissions round. However, in some cases, schools take an entirely opposite approach to in-year requests for a place and do everything to stall an admission.

Yesterday in parliament, my MP asked a question about this issue:Layla Moran (Oxford West and Abingdon) (LD)​

Looked-after children in Oxfordshire could have to wait for up to six months to get into the secondary school that they need to, primarily because local authorities do not have the directive powers over academies that they do over maintained schools. What is the Minister doing to ensure that the most vulnerable children do not miss a day of school?

Here is the Minister’s response
Nadhim Zahawi

Those most disadvantaged children, to whom the hon. Lady referred, are actually given priority during the admissions process.

https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2018-05-14/debates/28B7B87C-B33B-4B69-B2D5-16AF519F3309/OralAnswersToQuestions

The exchange shows how it is necessary to be very precise when wording parliamentary questions, as indeed journalists tell me that it does when wording Freedom of Information requests. The Minister is technically correct, but that answer seems to apply more to the normal admission round for the start of the school year than to casual admissions in-year, as happens when a child is taken into care.

The DfE does need to address this issue. I would ask readers to check what is happening in their locality. Are there children in care being tutored away from schools because a school place cannot be found? How closely is the local authority monitoring this issue and what are the large children’s charities doing about the matter?

It is tough being taken into care and, as the admissions code recognises, we should be ensuring priority in the education of these young people at any time of the year. This includes continuity of provision.

I recognise that there are some areas of the country where there are large numbers of such children being placed and so of these are areas in selective systems further reducing the option of schools that can be approached. Should we offer more boarding school places for such children rather than trying to find foster families or is that too much like returning to institutional care – they is still the issue of how to handle school holidays in those cases.

Being taken into care presents a big risk to the education of a young person. At least trying to ensure that they can be found a school place quickly and that schools recognise the need to transition these newcomers into school life effectively and with sympathy is the least we should ask of a civilised society. Please do not allow these children to be forgotten.

 

Red alert for English

TeachVac, the free National Vacancy Service for teachers, trainees and schools today warned of a ‘red’ alert for schools seeking to appoint a teacher of English. TeachVac www.teachvac.co.uk issues such an alert when the volume of vacancies tracked is sufficient since the 1st January of that year to have absorbed 80% of the total trainee numbers as recorded in the DfE’s annual ITT census. TeachVac has issued red alerts for English in previous recruitment rounds, but never as early in the cycle as mid-May. In 2017 the alert was issued at the end of May and in 2016, not until late into the autumn term.

TeachVac, where I am chair of the Board, says that the situation in English is complicated by the large number of trainees in the DfE’s census on programmes such as Teach First and the School Direct Salaried route. These trainees are not usually available to all schools. If their numbers are removed from the census total, then in some parts of England it is quite possible that all trainees will have been offered jobs by now. That is already the situation in subjects such as Design and Technology and Business Studies. TeachVac is also monitoring the position in science very closely, as a recent upsurge in vacancies has meant the percentage of trainees remaining is likely to be approaching critical levels quite soon. Full details are available to schools registered to use the TeachVac service that has saved schools many millions of pounds in recruitment advertising, at no cost to the public purse.

Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised by any of the above, since it was clear at this point last year that not all training places would be filled. The scale of the shortfall was confirmed when the DfE issued the ITT census data late last autumn. In reality, the latest data is just confirming what has been known would be the case for the past twelve months.

As the 2018 recruitment round is looking worse than at this point in 2017, and there will be even more pupils in our secondary schools in September 2019 than in this coming September, the signs are for an even worse situation in 2019 unless a new supply of teachers can be found from somewhere.

With the abolition of external agencies such as the TTA and NSCL of former years, Ministers have nowhere to hide and nobody else to blame if the crisis deepens. Setting up a task group, as has been put in place for workload, might offer Ministers some breathing space, as might a helpful pay settlement that boosted entry pay and provided for a salary for all during training along with pension credits.

The sad thing is that unless something is done, schools in many parts of the country will be paying large sums to recruit for those unavoidable January 2019 vacancies and some private sector companies will be making profits out of the situation.

Another slice of fudge?

Congratulations to the civil servant that worked out it was possible to circumvent the cap on faith-based admissions placed upon new free schools by reviving the concept of voluntary schools, where there has never been any such cap on admissions. The proposals are contained in the government’s response to the 2016 Schools that Work for Everyone Consultation. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/706243/Schools_that_work_for_everyone-Government_consultation_response.pdf

The determining paragraph is on page 14:

To enable the creation of these places, we will be establishing a capital scheme to support the creation of new voluntary aided schools for faith and other providers. Schools created through this scheme will have the same freedoms as existing voluntary aided schools, including over their admissions which will enable them to select up to 100% of pupils on the basis of faith. There has never been a general route for any faith group to receive 100% state funding for a school with 100% faith-based admissions. In line with this, and our longstanding approach to funding of voluntary aided schools, the Department for Education expects those groups establishing voluntary aided schools to contribute 10% of the capital costs relating to their schools. Local authorities will play a key role in supporting and approving any new voluntary aided school, to ensure it fits well with our integration and community cohesion objectives. They will be well placed to consider how new proposals will meet demand from, and potential impact on, the local community. The Department for Education will develop the details of this scheme over the coming months and will set out the arrangements by which proposer groups can apply for capital funding later this year.

It is interesting that new voluntary aided schools don’t seem to be restricted to faith providers. However, anyone contemplating such schools is going to have to raise 10% of the capital costs, so best to start with a small school and then expand it later if successful. These schools will, presumably, have to be built under the ‘presumption’ route, as otherwise they would need to be free schools and hence capped as to faith limits.

This may well provoke some interesting discussions where a small local authority such as a London borough or a unitary council needs a single new primary school. How is the evidence of demand going to be assessed? It may well be challenging to believe the data from parish priests and diocese. I well recall the demand for a Catholic secondary school when Oxfordshire replaced its three tier system with primary and secondary schools and the Catholic diocese wanted to break up the existing Ecumenical Upper School and establish a wholly Catholic secondary school. They sent a procession of parish priests along to explain the demand for such a school. They got their way, but the school now has less than 40% of its pupils as Catholics.

There is a strong case for granting voluntary aided status for a set period of time. If the school roll falls below the 50% of pupil numbers of the free school threshold for the faith at the end of a set time period then, unless it can regain that threshold within a set period, the school should revert to being a community school.

The challenge, of course remains that discussed by the Wesleyan Methodists before the 1902 Education Act was passed. Are teachers that are Methodists called to be teachers of children or of Methodists? Faith groups demanding voluntary aided schools need to have an answer to that question.

 

 

A fudge with no teeth

Today’s political announcements about the shape of new school places in England might mark a turning point. Conversely, it might just be a neat solution to two problems that needed a resolution. First on grammar schools, and the £50 million funding for the expansion of places. Let me state at the outset that I am opposed to selective education, especially at age eleven. I believe that the Liberal Democrats should campaign to remove these schools even though the Lib Dems run councils in Sutton and now Kingston upon Thames in London that have such schools within the council boundaries.

The BBC has an interesting chart showing what has happened to the size of grammar schools between 2009-10 and 2015-16. Of the 20 such schools shown, all have expanded. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-44067719 Whether this means that the remaining 140 or so grammar schools haven’t changed their intakes isn’t mentioned. As I have remarked before, the government faced a dilemma. With pupil numbers rising sharply in many of the areas in the Home Counties and outer London where a disproportionate percentage of grammar schools are to be found, doing nothing would effectively decrease the percentage of pupils in these areas able to attend a selective school. Such a policy risked creating the worst of all worlds; not pleasing those that want the abolition of grammar schools, but also upsetting parents who would find it difficult to secure a place for their offspring in an increasingly competitive application process. Today’s announcement will, the Secretary of State no doubt hopes, placate the latter while doing no more than enrage the former, but without lasting political damage, and be seen as the best compromise on offer.

Liberal Democrat Education Spokesperson Layla Moran has said in a press statement: “Grammar schools are the wrong answer to the wrong question. This money should be spent on local schools so that every young person across the country can get the education they need to prepare for the future.” But has stopped short of calling for the removal of these schools. Perhaps this is because such a policy is already implicit in the Lib Dems approach to education. I summed much of that approach as I see it in a recent chapter in a book by the Social Liberal Forum that I co-authored with Helen Flynn. A review of the book can be seen at https://www.libdemvoice.org/a-21st-century-liberal-approach-to-education-57473.html albeit written by a committed Liberal Democrat.

How the government will enforce the rules on selection, offered as a sop to opponents of selective schools and a fig leaf to make the policy more attractive overall, is an interesting question. I assume it is to be just a fig leaf. After all, will any new rules apply to applications for all the places at the schools that take the money or only to applicants for the additional places funded through the new cash for the extra places? This would potentially create two admission rounds: one for existing places and the other for the new Hinds’ places. The latter might perhaps only be open to pupils from certain primary schools with, say, a history of not sending any pupils or only very small numbers to the selective school sector. Alternatively, the rules might stipulate only pupils on Free School Meals in the year they apply for a place. One might envisage some other such permutations. All would need monitoring, plus a clear set of sanctions, especially where the selective schools are not co-educational schools, but the primary schools in the area are co-educational.

The other announcement today, about faith schools, is potentially more momentous and deserves a blog post of its own.