The State cannot just abandon children

Less than three weeks ago I wrote a post about ‘closing schools’.  I concluded by saying that:

‘We are better equipped to deal with unforeseen events these days, whether fire, floods or pestilence; but only if we plan for them.’

Last night, I was talking live on a local radio station when the news about school closures was being announced. I was immediately struck by the very lack of planning I had suggested was needed. Obviously, no announcement was made about the consequences for the examination system and the knock-on effects about entry to higher education this autumn. True, that doesn’t need to be solved immediately, but it is a major worry for a group of young people and their parents.

Of more concern, not least in rural areas and other locations with small schools, was the statement about children falling into two groups: those of key workers and those regarded as ‘vulnerable’.

With budgets devolved to schools, decisions the education of children in these groups may have to be made at the level of the school site. Firstly, there needs to be agreement of those actually falling into each category. Secondly, for small schools, what happens if all the staff are either off sick or self-isolating: who takes responsibility? Clearly, MATs can handle decisions across their family of schools, if the finding agreement allows. But what of other schools?

My initial reaction, live on local radio, was to call for a strategic group in the local area formed from the Anglican and Roman Catholic diocese and arch-diocese, the largest Multi-Academy Trusts in the area and the local authority.

The local authority can coordinate transport and special needs and work with the other groups on ensuring a skeleton of schools are able to open, even if staff are asked to move schools. There is no point in every small rural primary school staying open for just one or two children, unless it can also in those circumstances take other children as well.

This is where the lack of planning ahead in a society dedicated to individual freedom and choice has created a set of questions we are ill-equipped as a society to answer. Is it right for government just to dump the problem on its citizens, or should it take a more interventionist approach: especially to ‘so called public services’? It is interesting that in transport the approach to services in London by the Mayor seems much more coordinated.

Perhaps this crisis will finally bring home to policy-makers the need for a coherent middle tier in education, able to do more than arrange school transport and adjudicate on school offers.

Faced with the prospect of schools being closed until September, and the possible default of some schools in the private sector as they lose their summer term fee income, there needs to be some coherent planning, both for the closure and an orderly return to a fully functioning sector. You only have to search back through this blog to know how I feel we might move forward.

No room in the school

Last week the Children’s Commissioner for England published a disturbing report about children placed into care and moved away form their local area. Entitled Pass the parcel: children posted around the care system is resonated with concerns raised by this blog in the past about the education of these children. https://www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/cco-pass-the-parcel-children-posted-around-the-care-system.pdf

The report highlighted the fact that 30,000 children are placed in care setting ‘out of their area’. Of these, some 11,000 are more than 20 miles from what they term ‘home’, with 2,000 placed more than 100 miles away. There may be good reasons for such a move. These include safeguarding issues such as avoiding former gangs or groups that were sexually exploiting the child.

However, the Children’s Commissioner Report suggests that often this type of move is because there is nowhere locally for these children to live. Pressure on Children’s Social services was always going to intensify as the number of children taken into care increased.   With local government having experienced a period of significant funding cutbacks from government it is not a surprise that services where need is expanding, such as this, are facing particular challenges, especially as the concept of  a ‘just in time’ economy meant resources could not be funded to be on stand-by if needed..

This blog has highlighted the issue of schooling for these children placed ‘out of area’ in several previous posts. Indeed, all Oxfordshire MPs in 2017 wrote to the Minister about the matter. As a result, it is disturbing that the Children’s Commissioner’s Report highlight this issue as still a matter for concern.

We spoke to children during September and October and many of them had no school place for the beginning of the school year. This was a common occurrence for older children, a number of whom were stuck waiting for decisions from professionals. This waiting game could last weeks or months, despite statutory duties to prioritise education, and in the case of emergency placements to secure suitable education within 20 school days.14 Virtual School professionals responsible for managing education plans for looked after children informed us that when children are placed outside of their local area it can contribute to delays because different areas have different application procedures to be understood and navigated. We were advised that children with Education, Health and Care (EHC) plans15 usually suffer further setbacks because their applications must go via Special Education Needs and Disabilities (SEND) teams and because schools take time to assess whether they can meet children’s needs. Page 15 of the Report – my emphasis.

In all, the Report concludes that ‘5% (140 children) of this out of area group missed a term of school or more, compared to 2% of those staying in their home local authority.’ The Report doesn’t identify the reasons why finding a school place should be so time-consuming for these young people whose lives have already been disrupted. Is the issue especially bad in areas where there are clusters of Children’s homes taking in children placed into care?

The Report concludes with the recommendation that:

‘The DfE ensure that its review of the role of virtual school heads looks at education processes in response to out of area placements. This review, which is already in progress, should consider: how virtual school heads can have a greater role in placement decisions; giving local authorities powers to direct academy schools to admit children placed away from their home areas; how delays in school transfers can be minimised for these children, especially unaccompanied asylum seeking children (UASC) and children with Education, Health and Care (EHC) plans, including how admissions processes can be simplified; how children can be kept in mainstream schools as far as possible.’   Page 17 of the Report

I would add and also look at what happens when children used to a comprehensive style of schooling are placed in secondary modern schools. These young people deserve better from Society.

Firm but understanding

Teachers are graduates, and many that enter the profession come from backgrounds that are comfortable, although not well-off. By dint of being a graduate they have generally been successful at school and college; perhaps even more successful than some of those they have followed as teachers. I wonder, having failed ‘O’ level English and just scrapped maths, whether these day I would be allowed into the sixth form to gain 3Bs at ‘A’ level and a pass in the ‘special paper’ in geography?

Fortunately, not achieving at 16 need not the be all and end all, it was too often in my day, and there are those that become teachers after persevering at learning, sometimes well into adult life: I salute them. Indeed, we need to encourage more such learners as a potential source of new teachers.

Why am I writing this post? Well, for two reasons. Firstly my attention has been drawn to a range of books for new and early career teachers designed to help them navigate through their training year and first two years of teaching. The series has been launched by the National Association of School-Based Teacher Trainers (NASBTT). This blog recognises the excellent work teacher trainers and groups such as NASBTT undertake in preparing new entrants into the profession and increasingly with their concern for post-entry professional development. The first two books, in what will be a series, are now available to order at https://www.nasbtt.org.uk/essential-guides-early-career-teachers/

My second reason for this post is not unconnected to the first. In the past week, I have attended presentations by amongst other the CEO of Child Poverty Action Group; The Rees Centre on Children in Care, about exclusions among such children, and the report of the local Safeguarding Board for Children. I was also privileged to attend the local Music Services’ awards evening where more than 50 groups and individuals received awards for various aspects of music and musicality.

What is the significant of these events for new teachers? Many of the problems they face in the classroom come from children with backgrounds different to their own. Understanding that for instance many children in care lack self-esteem and self-confidence, and consequently are not so much ‘naughty’ or ‘ill-disciplined’ as emotionally challenged, and even seeking attention. It’s hard understanding as a teacher what it must be like to come home from school and find your belongings in bin bags and social worker waiting to take you to a new placement. Even if you can remain at the same school it’s tough; changing schools as well mid-term is even harder.

I know that one of the books yet to be published in the NASBTT series is about discipline. I hope another will help new teachers fully understand what some children bring with them to school each day. Whether they are in care; from families facing poverty; confronting safeguarding issues or even acting as a young carer, teachers need to be aware of what this can mean and how they should respond.

Too often, compared with say attitudes in Scotland, where exclusion rates are much lower, England has official documents couched in punitive language. Perhaps the new government, after the election, will look at this aspect of schooling. More cash is needed, but so is a recognition of what is driving the attitudes of so many children in our schools today.  There is a place for compassion as much as for compulsion.

Education for All

The new Report from the Education Policy Institute (EPI) about exclusions, building on their work earlier this year, is deeply worrying. https://epi.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Unexplained-pupil-moves_LAs-MATs_EPI-2019.pdf

Among the most concerning of EPI’s new findings are;

Amongst the 2017 cohort of pupils, we also found that approximately 24,000 children who exit to an unknown destination do not return to a state-funded school by the spring term of year 11.

The vast majority of unexplained exits do not appear to be a managed move.

51.9 per cent of all unexplained exits are to an unknown destination in the term following the exit.

Both LAs and MATs among the school groups with higher than average rates of unexplained exits, i.e. this is not a problem that is most prevalent amongst a particular structure of school governance. However larger MATs (those with at least ten schools with secondary pupils) all have above average rates of unexplained exits.

These snippets, taken from the Key Findings of a long and detailed report, suggest a system that is not operating to educate all children. Some teenagers have never been easy to educate. Indeed, challenging though schools are today most are not the same as they were up to the 1990s.

There is undoubtedly a trade-off to be had between the cost of educating challenging pupils and the funding a school receives. This trade-off may be starker in areas where Pupil Premium and High Needs Block funds are lower because of high employment and government funding calculations.

Nevertheless, the issue cannot and should not be solved by schools excluding pupils with nowhere to for them to go. EPI might also like to look at pupils that move into an area mid-year and the extent to which some of those with challenging problems are not offered school places.

The education of all our children is an issue for government to tackle. In the present governance hiatus, only central government can identify and tackle both the root causes of the problem and those schools and MATs that are the worst offenders. Ministers have been willing to take on academy trusts over the issue of high pay for Chief Executives. This is another issue for action by central government, with Ofsted, Regional School Commissioners and the Education and Skills Funding Council all acting together.

There is little local authorities can do except identify the size of the problem in their area and ensure missing children are identified and then put pressure on schools. But, with budgets largely in the hands of schools, there is little authorities can do even with maintained schools, and virtually nothing with these academy chains, often with headquarters located far away in another part of the country.

Sadly, one casualty of any intervention might be the right of genuine home schoolers to educate their children as they see fit without the need to keep the authorities informed. This principle goes back to 1870 and the start of state education. However, it must be at risk if it allows for a system that lets so many young people disappear from sight before the end of their statutory education. Out of sight must not mean out of mind.

Young carers

What follows is the text of a speech I gave in a debate about Young Carers at the recent Lib Dem Party Conference. You can find how it was delivered on YouTube if you are especially interested. However, the main reason for viewing the YouTube video is to listen to the testimony of the young carers that spoke in the debate. I was humbled by their accounts of experiences that most of us would find challenging as adults, let alone as children.

As a Councillor you are invited to lots of different events. This summer I witnessed a group of young people taking part in the National Citizen Service programme champion the needs of young carers. This is an important motion about an often overlooked group in society. A group that has been hit by the cuts to local government and to schools and especially the social care budgets..

We need to ensure that both academy chains and other schools have plans in place to help young carers and not to treat them as a nuisance. I call on Layla Moran as our Education spokesperson to further the needs of this group of pupils to ensure that their education is not endangered. Please ask schools to support and encourage, not complain and punish young carers for being inconvenient to school procedures.

I was only a young carer for a short period before going to university when my grandmother came out of hospital. That was many years ago and for a short period of time. Now for many young carers it is for years and is also a challenge to their education.

This motion recognises their needs. I would also say to university admissions tutors, including those in the 2 universities in Oxford where I am a councillor, please interview anyone that tells you they are a carer. Their grades may not represent their ability. The same is true for employers: make young carers feel valued.

I hope everyone will fully support this motion.

They did, and it was passed. You can find the text of the motion at: https://www.libdems.org.uk/a19-young-carers

Admissions still a headache for everyone

The DfE has recently published data about appeals for admission to primary and secondary schools. The data relates to admissions for the start of the 2018-19 school year; mostly for September 2018, but some schools may start their year in August. Although the data relates to admissions to any year group at the start of the school year, it seemingly doesn’t cover in-year admissions from parents moving into an area during the school year. There also doesn’t seem to be any mention of special schools and the evidence appeals could provide about the pressure on places in that sector. The basic information is available at  https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/admissions-appeals-in-england-academic-year-2018-to-2019

As pressure on primary places has eased, with the downward trend in births, so the percentage of appeals lodged in relation to admissions to infant classes in the primary sector has also reduced; from 3.3% of admissions in 2015/16 to 2.0% for the 2018/19 admission round. There has been a similar, but smaller percentage, decline in appeals for places in other years in the primary sector.

By contrast, in the secondary sector, where pupil numbers are on the increase, appeals are on the increase, up from 29,000 in 2015/16 to nearly 38,500 for the 2018/19 admission round. The percentage of these appeals decided in the parents’ favour has also been in decline during this time period as pressure on places has intensified.

This data is important to parents that will soon be struggling with the admission process for 2020. Local Authorities must publish their admission booklets by the 12th September, in order to allow parents to express their preference for schools by the end of October, for the secondary sector, and by early 2020 for the primary sector.

Last year, parents in Oxfordshire faced the problem of deciding whether or not to apply for a place at a school that didn’t exist. Some parents in the London borough of Enfield face the same prospect this autumn. Wren Academy want to open a new school and have created a set of admission criteria, including:

The remaining places will be allocated equally between Foundation and Community applicants as follows:

  1. a. Faith places (up to a maximum of 92) allocated in the following order: i. Up to 55 places for Church of England applicants ii. Up to 37 places for other Christian faith applicants b. Community Places (up to a maximum of 92) for all other children 
  1. Where there are places available in either category 3 or 4 above,these will be filled from the other category.

Leaving aside the issues parents will have about whether they can apply for both a Foundation category faith place and a community place as well, and whether both parents need to be of the Christian faith for a Foundation place or just one will do, there is the issue surrounding the fact that the school hasn’t yet been created by the DfE, and thus no Funding Agreement has been signed.

The DfE really needs to update the Admissions Code to deal with this situation and make explicit that any school included in the admissions booklet is guaranteed to open the following September.

 

 

 

Rods, poles and perches

The announcement of 10,000 new prison places and increased use of stop and search by the Prime Minister made me think about what he might announce for our schools and colleges once he goes beyond the financial carrot necessary to shore up our under-financed education system.

With such an ardent Brexiter in charge, could he direct that the curriculum change on 1st November to throw out any reference to the decimal system and witness a return to imperial weights and measures? Could the government mandate that temperature again be expressed in degrees Fahrenheit rather than Centigrade, and kilometres be banished from the language once again? Any other summer and these might seem silly season stories, but not in 2019.

I have no doubt that schools would rather that spend the £2 billion to build new prison places that this cash was spent on youth services, more cash for special schools and strategies to reduce exclusions and off-rolling by schools. This could include better provision of professional development courses to help teachers educate challenging pupils, rather than exclude them. Such measures might obviate the need for building new prisons.

I do not want to return to the dark days of the Labour government, just over a decade ago, when, at any one time, around 4,000 young people were being locked up: the number now is closer to 1,000 despite the issues with knife crime that like drugs issues is now seeping across the country at the very time when it seems to have plateaued in London.

More police and other public service staff are necessary for society to function effectively, but the aim must be focused on prevention and deterrents not on punitive action and punishment. Criminals that know they are likely to be caught may well think twice: those that know detection rates are abysmal will consider the opportunity worth the risk.

The State also needs to spend money on the education and training of prisoners as well as the rehabilitation of offenders after the end of their sentence; especially young offenders. The recent report from the Inspector of Prisons makes as depressing reading as the study highlighted in a previous post of the background of many young people that are incarcerated for committing crimes. If we cannot even work to prevent the smaller number of young people imprisoned these days from re-offending, what hope is there if society starts to lock up more young people again?

A recurrent theme of this blog has been about the design of the curriculum for the half of our young people not destined for higher education. Here the new government could do something sensible by recognising that schools have accepted that the EBacc offers too narrow a curriculum to offer to every pupil and to encourage a post-14 offering that provides for the needs of all pupils. This might be achieved by encouraging schools and further education to work together.

A start might be made by increasing the funding for the 16-18 sector and identifying what was good about the idea of University Technical Colleges and Studio Schools and why the experiment has not worked as its promoters had hoped.