750 not out

After celebrating its 5th birthday in January this year, this blog has now reached another landmark: the 750th post. The administrators tell me that means somewhere close to 450,000 words have appeared so far, with a word count averaging somewhere between 550-600 words per post: slightly shorter in recent years than in 2013 and 214.

Key themes in recent times have included, the place of local democracy in the school system and the recruitment scene for teachers, whether into teacher training or for the labour market for teachers and school leaders. This blog has published an analysis of the monthly figures from UCAS for applicants and applications to teacher preparation courses for graduates almost since the day it started. Those post followed on from a monthly review I wrote during the first decade of the century. It that case, circulation was only to a band of paid subscribers.

My involvement with TeachVac www.teachvac.co.uk and its global affiliate www.teachvacglobal.com has allowed me to make comments on the state of the labour market for teachers and school leaders in England. However, since much of the data TeachVac holds is unique to the company and TeachVac is a free to use recruitment site for both schools and teachers it isn’t a good idea to give away everything for free, so the data has been used sparingly on the blog.

How did this blog come about? Between 1998 and 2011 I wrote a series of columns for the Times Education Supplement, the venerable and much respected publication for the teachers and their schools. When I retired from their service, I wrote for Education Journal for a year or so, but was never really satisfied by being tied down again to a publication schedule: hence, eventually in 2013, the blog.

The nature of blogging provides freedom to the creator of the pieces to say what they want when they want. Originally, it was a blog about the numbers in education. To some extent it still is, but it has widened its approach, especially after I became a Liberal Democrat County Councillor in Oxfordshire in May 2013. My experiences with schools in Oxfordshire has resulted in a number of interesting posts since then, some of which have subsequently appeared in print in the Oxford Mail.

Where next for the blog? I suppose the next goal must be to reach 1,000 posts, probably by sometime in 2020. There is certainly enough to write about.

I would like to thank the many people that have added comments to the various posts over the years. There are some regular commentators, such as Janet Downs, and there are those that have just posted a comment about one specific post. Then there are the many people that have liked various posts. Thank you for your votes of support and appreciation.

The blog is mainly read by United Kingdom readers, although recently there have been more readers from the USA than in the early days and there has always been a small number of visitors from locations in different countries around the world.

If you have read this far, thank you for letting me indulge myself and I hope to keep you entertained, informed and possibly sometimes even educated.

 

 

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More or less local democracy in our school system: who cares?

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) at Westminster has published a short and interesting Report into ‘Converting Schools to Academies’. https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmpubacc/697/69702.htm

There is little to disagree with in the Report. The process has been expensive and has caused problems with the remaining statutory duties of local authorities. The Committee cited pupil place planning as an issue, but could have included SEND issues and the education of children taken into care. They could have also realised that Free Schools and the dalliance with the 14-18 sector that brought us UTCs and Studio Schools also contributed to the problems with pupil place planning.

Oxfordshire is one of the few, (perhaps the only?) local authority to require a regional school commissioner to appear before its Education Scrutiny Committee each year to give an account of progress of academies within his remit. The answers to the Scrutiny Committee’s questions have revealed a weak and probably largely ineffectual system for improving school performance among academies. The PAC were right to comment on the need for better links with the Education and Skills Funding Council and the RSCs.

Of interest to Oxfordshire was the PACs comments about small rural schools and academies. Oxfordshire has a large number of small rural primary schools that are much loved by the county. The PAC said

Small rural schools, particularly primary schools, can face particular difficulties in finding suitable sponsors. Low pupil numbers may make rural schools financially unviable and their geographical isolation can make it more difficult for multi-academy trusts to provide support. The Department told us that, since 2010, 1,379 rural primary schools had registered an interest in becoming an academy. Of those, 984 had gone on to apply to become an academy, including 262 that were small rural primary schools.

 The PAC asked what, particularly for small rural schools, the barriers were to becoming academies and how the barriers could be addressed. The Department told us that, in principle, the opportunity presented by a joining multi-academy trust should be greater for a smaller school than a larger one, because there was the potential to achieve more economies of scale.

One wonders why, if the point on economies of scale is true, it is secondary schools that have rushed to become academies while these small primary schools have held back, even in many diocese where they already had links outside of the local authority. It may be that under the 2010 Act many original converters became stand-alone academies and only now are they joining together into multi academy trusts.

This means that there are now three separate governance systems for our schools, often running alongside each other; maintained schools, mostly primary schools; standalone academies, mostly secondary schools and Trusts that can be either primary, secondary or a mixture of both with a smattering of all-through schools as well.

These separate systems are expensive to operate and can cause problems as the PAC Report demonstrated. The DfE will, at some point, have to think how to re-join the parts into a whole. For me, one key question with be the place of local democratic accountability in the system. Do we want an NHS style school system with little local accountability or one more akin to what there was between 1944 and the early 2000s, with a significant role for a democratically elected local body aligned to the rest of local government? Regular readers of this blog will know where I stand.

Funding dilemma

There is an interesting story on the BBC web site today about a school with 300 holes in its roof. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-44456241 Now this is not a crumbling Victorian pile that ought to be knocked, down but a modern building recently re-built – with shiny design features and a landscaped setting. Unfortunately there appears to be a substantial issue with the roof.

Under the regime initiated by Labour and continued by the Coalition and the recent Conservative governments, education budgets have been devolved to schools and increasingly taken away from democratically elected local authorities. The professional association that represents most secondary head teachers, the ASCL, has supported school-led financing for ever and a day.

The Common Funding Formula now being introduced is a direct result of this line of thinking. I well recall when head teachers couldn’t even authorise the change of a light bulb without an order number from their local authority and that was obviously as crazy in education as it has been elsewhere in the public sector where I have encountered such rigid rules controlling expenditure. There has to be a degree of trust of those in authority at all levels. Heads know this when allowing heads of department latitude in how the spend money on their subject or age group.

The problem comes, as with the school in the BBC story, when there are special needs in terms of problems facing a school. I wrote about this issue in terms of UTCs with extra equipment needs because they specialised in high cost areas such as engineering or manufacturing. A common formula doesn’t take this aspect into account.

The stark dilemma is either a common formula that hurts those on the extreme of spending demands or a formula plus add-ons decided by someone either nationally or locally. The government has solved the dilemma in Multi-Academy Chains by suggesting, in Lord Agnew’s recent letter, a return to the status quo ante whereby money can be vired between schools at the behest of the MAT governing group.

So, the solution for this school may be to join a MAT rather than remain as a single academy or a sin this case a Voluntary Aided school that presumably had to pay for part of the rebuilding cost?. The problem for these schools is that no self-respecting MAT would want a school with such horrendous building problems that affects their budget. This can leave such schools in limbo until someone somewhere finds the cash to solve the problem.

More than century ago, Sidney Webb considered the issue of school funding in a chapter in one of his books. He discussed the issue of a non-specific grant versus the totally hypothecated funding stream of the time: his preference was for the former rather than the latter.

This debate comes on top of the wider debate about the funding of schools and the need for more cash. It is disingenuous of anyone to try and mix up the two problems. The former will remain even if there is more cash overall, unless the system of distribution is altered.

Of course the system can also make economics, as I have demonstrated by backing TeachVac, the free vacancy web site for schools and teachers. www.teachvac.co.uk So far TeachVac seems to be doing much better than the DfE site in the North East, but that’s a story for another day.

Interesting news

So the THE is to be sold off from the TSL Group. https://news.sky.com/story/tpg-plots-break-up-and-sale-as-teachers-bible-hits-end-of-term-11411284 Where does this leave the TES and the education community it has served for more than 100 years? The new story says that:

The remainder of TES Global’s ‎business, which includes the magazine previously called The Times Education Supplement, is expected to be sold separately in the coming months.

As reported earlier on this blog, TPG acquired the TSL Group in July 2013. The accounts of TSL Group or last year, ending in August 2017 didn’t make pretty reading and I wonder whether predications for the outcome in 2018 could possibly be at the back of this move to split up the TSL Group, starting with the seemingly most saleable part of the business?

TPG has not made a total success of its venture from the Lone Star State into UK markets: think Poundworld and Prezza restaurants and the TSL Group makes the third less than financially satisfactory outcome. Still, TPG are large enough to take the hit and make use of any tax losses that might come with it.

There is still a great business to be had working with UK teachers and their schools as TeachVac has shown on the recruitment side and SchoolsWeek on the news side. However, the entry of the DfE into the recruitment market probably won’t make it easy to attract buyers for the TES part of the group unless they can see a clear strategy to create an integrated education news and information platform serving the whole education community including teachers, parents, administrators and the general public in a low cost environment that is entirely a digital presence.

As a former employee of the TSL Group, they bought my business in 2008 when the government was establishing the School Recruitment Service: a recruitment site that the TES no doubt helped reach a swift demise. I worked for TSL from 2008 until 2011 and then retired. The world has moved on since 2011 and the digital environment is much more organised than it was then as TeachVac has demonstrated in the recruitment field www.teachvac.co.uk in just four years from a standing start.

Protecting the teacher vacancy market must be a major concern for all interested in ensuring that schools can recruit and retain teachers and other staff in an orderly manner. Everyone needs to be thinking about the 2019 recruitment round to ensure that there will be a secure operational market place for vacancies for the whole of that round. What must not happen is a disorderly market that leaves schools and teacher struggling to know where to place and find vacancies. As Chair of TeachVac, I am not a disinterested party in this debate. At this stage it is merely a matter for concern. It must not become a real issue.

 

Leadership matters

Is the fact that there are both good and less good local authorities and multi-academy chains (MATs) the main message from today’s new report of the Education Policy Institute? It is certainly likely to be one of the headlines when the report is being discussed. The Report is a follow-on from the one they published in 2015 and has the advantage of being by the same author. https://epi.org.uk/publications-and-research/performance-academy-local-authorities-2017/

However, for me, there are two other key issues raised by the report. The first, given it was generally known that there are good and less good local authorities and MATs, is, how important is democratic accountability in the governance of education?

Where poor performing local authorities are in areas where political control hasn’t altered for many years and there is often one dominant political party running the authority, how can challenge be created and maintained. Did we do better when there were Education Committees as opposed to Cabinet Government, with power sometimes residing in a single cabinet member, subject only to post-hoc scrutiny. Education Committees did have non-politicians in full membership in most authorities and this helped where they created an effective challenge, but it didn’t always work well. As I have mentioned in other posts, local authorities also have geography on their side and I do think that is important.

The EPI report might like next time to look at the outcomes for non-geographical MATs compared with those that have a stronger sense of place. EPI might also like to look at the effective size of governance units and whether there is any relationship between central costs and outcomes? But, commentators must be wary of dancing on the head of a pin. Where teacher supply is an issue, as it is in large parts of England at the present time, then schools that cannot recruit teachers will surely often suffer in terms of their outcomes.

The other concern raised by the EPI Report is that of the span of control faced by the DfE. EPI identified 237 bodies it rates for KS2 outcomes and 218 for KS4. Outwith these tables are the stand-alone academies and free schools that also need central oversight. Indeed, the fact that local authorities still make up two thirds of the listed bodies at KS4 make come as a surprise to many and shows how the ‘stand-alone’ schools are an issue EPI needs to address in the future.

The government also needs to work at deciding upon the model for governance of education that well allow the good to flourish, but also respond to decades of under-performance in some parts of the country. Recent decades have seen the repeated use of the stick to beat local communities for failure and spasmodic attempts, from Blair’s education Action Zones to the current Opportunity Areas programme, to recognise that carrots also have a part to play in improving performance.

Leadership matters and developing the next generation of system leaders ought to be high on the agenda of the government. Leadership is inextricably linked to values and the ability to put them into practice and EPI might also want to explore that most intangible of elements when they do their next study in a couple of years’ time.

Primary schools want children

Last week the DfE published the outcomes for admissions to primary and secondary schools for the school year starting in the autumn of 2018. As might be expected at this stage of the cycle of overall pupil numbers, where primary pupil numbers are falling and secondary numbers are increasing, more pupils gained a place at once of their preferred schools in the primary sector and fewer were successful in the secondary sector than in the previous year.

These trends are likely to continue until the government either starts culling places from the primary sector as a matter of policy or allows the National Funding Formula to achieve the same end by forcing the closure of schools unable to balance their books.

As academies don’t need to stick to national pay norms and returners to the profession don’t need to be paid the salary they earned when they left, we might see some battles over the morality of teachers either being asked to take pay cuts or doing so voluntarily to keep a local school open. Whether we ever return to the sponsorship of local schools, as happened in the 1980s, when a women’s magazine helped out a small Oxfordshire primary schools, is something to watch out for over the next few years.

Percentage of entrants successful with one of their preferred schools

Entry Year Secondary Sector Primary Sector
2010/11 96.6 NA
2011/12 97.2 NA
2012/13 97.6 NA
2013/14 97.8 NA
2014/15 96.8 96.4
2015/16 96.4 96.5
2016/17 96.5 96.9
2017/18 96.1 97.7
2018/19 95.5 98.1

Source https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/secondary-and-primary-school-application-and-offers-2018

Anyway, this year there are also the usual regional differences, with parents in rural areas more likely to receive a school they have selected and parents in many parts of London the least likely to be successful. The distribution of secondary schools across much of London predates the current administrative boundaries, especially in the former LCC/GLC/ILEA area that used to lie across the more central areas of the Capital. This historical distribution of school sites affects some parts of the capital more than others and closures and housing redevelopments have also left the location of secondary schools not always ideally linked to the wishes of parents, whatever successive governments have said about wanting to support parental choice.

Even though the majority of schools are now achieving higher standards than a generation ago, there are still areas with either clusters of schools or individual schools that parents try to avoid. In most cases not all parents can do so, and these are often the parents that don’t receive any of their expressed preferences and can end up at the very school that they are trying to avoid. In many cases, they will then appeal the outcome of the admissions procedure.

With more secondary school places still needed, the importance of good pupil place planning at a local level cannot be over-stated. The DfE now seems to have recognised that fact, but has yet to create a single coordinating body and remove the Education and Skills Funding Agency from the data to day operation of opening new free schools.

 

‘intervene fast… take the serious action necessary’. Promises

Why has the Regional School Commissioner for North West London and the South Central Region not issued any warning notices to any school about poor performance since the end of 2016? The updated DfE list of such notice published earlier this week  https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/list-of-letters-to-academy-trusts-about-poor-performance reveals that the last notice issued was in December 2016 and that was to a school issued a pre-warning notice at the start of that year. Indeed, all the schools issued with notices in 2016/17 had previously received an earlier letter, meaning no new school in the region has been added to the list since early 2016.

Is the Office of the RSC not communicating to the DfE or has the RSC decided that the Secretary of State’s words in his speech to the NGA that ‘on those rare occasions when a school is failing – be in no doubt – we will intervene fast and we will take the serious action necessary’ doesn’t apply in the North West London and the South Central Region?

It cannot be that there are no Inadequate schools within the region, although there may not be many. The RSC appears also never to have issued any sort of notice to a school run by any of the faith groups in his region. This may explain why the school I highlighted in my previous blog post hasn’t received any overt indication of concern about performance, except from Ofsted when it declared it Inadequate in the spring of 2017 and received expressions of further concerns in the two follow-up s8 monitoring reports.

Is the RSC for the North West London and the South Central Region trying a new policy, at variance with the words of the Secretary of State, by seeking to improve schools beyond the glare of publicity? Interestingly, the figures for number of notices issued by the North West London and the South Central Region are also matched by some other regions that have also not published any notices in 2017/18, whereas the RSC for the South West has issued five of the 12 notices in 2017/18.

There are clearly Inadequate academies, as rated by Ofsted, in the regions where no notices have been published in 2017/18  as well as previously rated Inadequate schools where progress to return to an effective standard of education has been unsatisfactory. How are RSCs handling these schools now the notices seem to have fallen out of fashion? How will the Secretary of State’s promise to intervene fast be acted upon if the general public do not know what action is being taken by an RSC?

The Secretary of State has also promised more openness from Headteacher Boards and their minutes, so that is one possible way forward. Local politicians might also like to call RSCs before their Education Scrutiny Committee to given an account of how the RSC’s Office is raising standards in their local area among the academies and their Trusts. Oxfordshire’s Education Scrutiny Committee has been holding such meetings for the past three years with the RSC or their Office. Sadly, the ESFC have yet to agree to such a meeting despite two academies being in financial special measures for more than two years.