More absent, but no alarm bells yet

Each year the DfE published data about school attendance and absences for terms 1 & 2 of the school year. The information on 2017/18 appeared yesterday and can be found at: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/pupil-absence-in-schools-in-england-autumn-term-2017-and-spring-term-2018 Sad to say, the data shows a negative change, with most indicators worse than in the previous year. However, levels of attendance are still better than a decade ago.

The DfE note in the text of the Report that the rate of authorised absence has increased from 3.4 per cent to 3.5 per cent in autumn/spring 2017/18. This is due to the percentage of possible sessions missed due to illness increasing since last year from 2.7 to 2.8 per cent, and “other” authorised absence has also increased. Illness remains the most common reason for absence, accounting for 60.0 per cent of all absences. The unauthorised absence rate has also increased across primary and secondary schools since last year, from 1.1 per cent in autumn/spring 2016/17 to 1.2 per cent in autumn/spring 2017/18. This is due to increased levels of unauthorised family holiday and “other” unauthorised absence.

I wonder whether the Beast from the East and other bad weather over the winter may have contributed to the upward tick in the numbers last year. I suspect that many schools will have declared ‘snow days’ in 2017/18 compared to recent years.

However, it was disappointing to see increases in the absence rates for those that are rated as persistent absentees. As the DfE noted:

The percentage of enrolments in state-funded primary and state-funded secondary schools that were classified as persistent absentees in autumn/spring 2017/18 was 11.3 per cent. This is up from the equivalent figure of 10.4 per cent in autumn/spring 2016/17. Secondary schools have the higher rate of persistent absence, 13.6 per cent of enrolments, compared to 9.6 per cent of enrolments in primary schools. The rate of persistent absence has increased in both since last year, when the rate was 12.8 per cent in secondary schools and 8.7 per cent in primary schools.

This is a group where the lack of attendance can seriously affect their educational attainments.

As ever, pupils with disadvantages, as measured by Free School Meals, often have higher absence rates than those pupils not on Free School Meals. There is a wide range of attendance outcomes by ethnic grouping with the highest overall absence rates being for Traveller of Irish Heritage and Gypsy/ Roma pupils at 17.6 per cent and 12.3 per cent respectively. Overall absence rates for pupils of a Chinese and Black African ethnicity were substantially lower than the national average of 4.7 per cent at 2.5 per cent and 2.8 per cent respectively. As the DfE note, a similar pattern is seen in persistent absence rates; Traveller of Irish heritage pupils had the highest rate at 60.7 per cent and Chinese pupils had the lowest rate at 3.7 per cent.

Given the complaints about difficulties obtaining appointments with GPs and a lack of dentists in some part of the country, it is interesting to see that medical/dental appointments were at their lowest recorded percentage of missing session over the past five years.

Overall, a slightly disappointing year, but not one to set alarm bells ringing nationally, even if some governing bodies will have to be asking searching questions about the trend sin their schools.

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Funding issues remain

Yesterday, I received two comments from different parts of the country about issues that this blog has been highlighting over the past few months. I have reproduced these comments below:

The funding issue is key here and seeing all this unfold is quite alarming.  It seems that the government is intent on more MATs forming, though some of the income streams are becoming more uncertain, especially ones that can buoy up emerging MAT central teams.  I think it is crunch time at the moment because the government is essentially funding two systems at the moment—an enlarging academy sector and a diminishing LA sector.  I think this is one of the reasons why money is so tight.  

 There remains the question of small schools, as they will not fit into MATs (put simply, they do not bring in enough cash and are too difficult for most), and the diminishing funds available to LAs  means that small maintained schools are suffering and will continue to do so.  You cannot get rid of many of these schools as they are strategically important in many rural areas, and losing them would just consign many rural communities to being retirement destinations, the economies would lose any vibrancy without families living in them, and there would be potential food security problem if farms cannot pass onto younger families to run.  

 Finally a word about SEND.  The situation is dire, with in effect there being a cut in money for SEND—at a time when there is a massive rise in demand.  For this year, the ** Schools Forum has put 0.5% of the Schools block funding in to the Higher Needs block (though there would still be a £4.5 million deficit), and is consulting on putting 1.0% into the Higher Needs block next year.  

 To my mind the whole system is unsustainable, and clearly shows that the Tories simply do not care about children with SEND.  I reckon that all of our PRUs and current alternative provision in the county will disappear in its current form over the next two years, as the funding is being cut by half next year.  This is a massive crisis as it will just mean that the system as a whole will have to pay more for these hard to place youngsters as they get older, and their problems have not been solved whilst they were children in the education system.

Shortly after I received the above, this note followed:

Another dimension which has not yet been much talked about is the impact of the so-called ‘Hard formula’.  If that means money is allocated direct to every school from London, the scope for the Schools Forum to make minor tweaks is removed for maintained schools, but MATs will still be able to make transfers within their schools, as far as I understand it. This is because the DfE money will, in the case of MATS, go to the MAT and not the individual schools. This potentially puts schools in MATs in a difficult position. The Schools Forum is at least public and democratically observed, whereas the MAT trusts seem to me to be able to do whatever they want.

Both comments are from those with experience in education and whose views I fully respect.

If The Secretary of State is really intending to reduce exclusions, as he said yesterday, then these are the issues he has to ask his civil servants to start to address.

With birth rates now lower than a few years ago, the plight of rural schools where there is no now housing in prospect, could be dire, especially if they have any extra costs not catered for in the national formula. Time for some Tory MPs to wake up and smell the milk, so to speak.

How to build a new school

WHAT a mess the process of creating a new secondary school for pupils in Oxford has become.

Way back when government know what it was doing and how to conduct itself properly, the creation of new schools for an expanding population was a partnership between the relevant local authority and the government department in London.

Then came Labour’s academy programme and then Michael Gove’s desire to promote so-called ‘free schools’.

Especially in respect of the latter, local authorities became side-lined once they had identified a need or even if they had not done so, if a promoter want to create a ’free school’ in a particular area. The same was also true for UTCs (university technical colleges) and studio schools.

Oxfordshire’s identification of the need for new secondary school in Oxford in their Pupil Place Plan in 2015 attracted the interest of Toby Young, the promoter of a free school in West London.

As a result, a second proposal for a free school was launched by what is now the River Learning Trust – a multi-academy trust based in Oxfordshire.

This trust was successful in being granted permission to operate the new ‘free school’ in September 2015.

Local authorities can oversee the development of new academies and Oxfordshire has successfully done so for several new schools, including the new secondary school in Didcot, which opened on time.

However, the development of free schools is the responsibility of the Education and Skills Funding Agency.

In July 2016, I asked a question at the county council about the possible site for the new school and was told: “The sponsor’s and EFA’s current preferred location for The Swan School remains The Harlow Centre.”

The cabinet member who answered did not know when the school might open and how it would be linked to the annual school admissions.

Fast-forward two years until 2018, and at county council in March 2018 I was told in answer to another question that ‘the completion for the Swan School may not be ready until 2021’ and a planning application should be submitted by the end of May.

I was told that in summer 2019 Meadowbrook College, on the proposed Swan School site, should start to be demolished and its new build would complete by September 2020.

In early 2021 the Swan School should be complete but until then the school will probably be in temporary accommodation for two years, the answer added.

So, by March 2018, it was already known that the school would be two years late and have to open in temporary accommodation.

At county council in July, I asked more questions about progress, including if we had absolute assurance that the Education and Skills Funding Agency would not pull the Swan School given the delay in receiving planning permission.

The cabinet member undertook to ask the agency for an answer.

We can assume that the trust still wish to go ahead with the scheme, as there is still a need for a new school. With the appointment of a headteacher, this must still be the intention.

However, it seems increasingly unlikely that it will open in 2021, and temporary accommodation will need to be found if the first round of pupil is to arrive in 2019.

It is assumed that planning permission will be required for any temporary buildings needed from September 2019.

In July 2018, I asked at county council whether, in view of the very large number of children from within the EU that are within city primary schools, who would be transferring into the secondary sector in the next few years’, the school might not be built as a result of Brexit.

I have not received an answer to that question.

The city council’s East Area Planning Committee turned down the planning application for the school at their meeting in September – a decision that was called in and will be reconsidered today.

The county council’s cabinet will discuss the Swan School in an exempt session tomorrow.

The whole saga from start to the current uncertain situation shows the lack of coherence in our present education system.

Under the former rules, it seems certain that the county council, having identified the need for a secondary school, would have designed and built it in time for a 2019 opening, possibly even 2018.

Even had the school been designated an academy, this might have been achieved.

The creation of the school as a ‘free school’ has created delay and allowed concerns about the site to create the present high degree of uncertainty.

The situation for parents in the city of Oxford is now complicated with respect to admissions to secondary school for 2019.

Parents in Oxfordshire have been short-changed by this shambolic process and county council taxpayers stand to lose out for up to three years if the temporary accommodation requires pupils to be offered free transport to school.

Should the new school not be built, the ongoing cost to council taxpayers in additional transport costs could be considerable, depending upon how many of the 1,260 pupils would be eligible for free transport.

In the present financial climate, this cost could probably only be met by cutting other council services.

Were Oxford part of a unitary council structure, then school place planning would have been a function of the council deciding the planning application.

Under the two-tier system currently in operation across Oxfordshire, the city council is the planning authority, but the county council has the responsibility for pupil place planning and the number of schools.

However, the county has lost control over the building of these new schools.

This article first appeared in the Oxford Mail on 15th October 2018. As many readers know, I am an Oxfordshire County Councillor and the Lib Dem spokesperson on education on the county.

An accident of birth

There is an interesting parliamentary procedure called a ‘Ten Minute Rule Bill’ that allows MPs to raise subjects they deem to be important, but that are not currently part of the legislative process. In some ways it is like a junior version of a Private Members’ Bill, but with even less chance of success.

Yesterday, a Bill was presented in the House of Commons with support from all three of the main political parties in England. This was the Criminal Records (Childhood Offences) Bill, presented by its sponsor, the Conservative MP, Theresa Villiers.

In her speech about the aims of the Bill, Teresa Villiers said,

‘A key problem is that we have no distinct criminal records system for children. Apart from some limited differences providing for slightly shorter rehabilitation periods and other timeframes, children are subject to the full rigours of the disclosure system that I have outlined. Records relating to under-18 offences are retained for life. I believe that the childhood criminal records system in England and Wales is anchoring children to their past and preventing them from moving on from their mistakes. It is acting as a barrier to employment, education and housing. It is therefore working against rehabilitation, undermining a core purpose of the youth justice system. The current rules also perpetuate inequality. The Government’s race disparity audit concluded that ​children from a black and minority ethnic background are sadly more likely to end up with a criminal record. A system that is unduly penal in its treatment of such records has a harder and more disproportionate effect on BME communities. Similar points can be made about children who have spent time in care.’ https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/2018-10-10/debates/1205F56C-ECAF-4272-81F7-BA1E629CA816/CriminalRecords(ChildhoodOffences)

I entirely agree. In September 2009, almost a decade ago, I wrote a piece for the TES in my regular column at that time. It was headed 93,601 – the number of 10-17 year olds gaining their first criminal record. https://www.tes.com/news/93601-number-10-17-year-olds-gaining-first-criminal-record

In that TES piece, I pointed out that some 700,000 young people gained a criminal record between 2000 and early 2008; not including those handed a caution or other out of court disposal. Fortunately, attitudes to dealing with petty offending have moved on from the days of Labour’s target culture and in 2016-17 there were just 49,000 proceedings against young people either in a court or by way of cautions for an admitted offence. This is still way too high, but half the level of a decade ago. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/676072/youth_justice_statistics_2016-17.pdf

Those children from a decade ago are now adults, but as I said in 2009, and Theresa Villier’s Bill sought to highlight, they carry the stigma of being an offender with them into their adult life. Not only must they declare it on an enhanced disclosure for a job as say, a teacher, but it can also affect their ability to travel to some countries that require visas, such as the United States.

My solution was that any summary offence, and most either way offences, including theft, should be removed from the record after a period of say five years free of offending.

I hope that the government will find time to either insert a clause in an appropriate piece of legislation or take up this Ten Minute Rule Bill and provide parliamentary time for it to proceed. Carrying a criminal record for the rest of your life should not be a matter of when you were born, but of the severity of your criminal behaviour.

Commuting pupils: are most to be found in London?

How much does the provision of free transport affect the choice of secondary school in London? What is clear from data published recently by the DfE is that pupils in London, and especially those living in Inner London, are among the most mobile in the country, especially at secondary school level when it comes to attending a state school outside the boundaries of the local authority where they live.  https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/schools-pupils-and-their-characteristics-january-2018

The percentage of pupils living and attending schools in a local authority, as a percentage of resident population, ranged from almost 100% in Cumbria to just 54.6% in Knowsley in Merseyside. However, along with Reading, at just less than 64% attending schools in the borough, these latter two authorities were very much outliers. Some 26 of the 30 mainland local authorities with the lowest percentage of their resident population attending schools in the authority at secondary school level were London boroughs. I don’t know how much of the explanation in Reading is a combination of the presence of two highly selective schools and a distribution of schools dictated during the twenty years when Reading was part of the County of Berkshire before it was broken up into different unitary authorities.

History, as well as free transport, may also play a part in the reasons why London figures so largely in the authorities with the most movement. For around a century, school building in Inner London was governed by a single agency; first the LCC and then the ILEA (Inner London Education Authority) that was abolished by Mrs Thatcher’s government. In outer London, although the creation of the boroughs dates back more than 50 years, many of the secondary schools in north and west London were built on sites created by the former Middlesex County Council.

The creation of academies, free schools, UTCs and studio Schools will also have help encourage movement of pupils, but, I suspect, to a lesser degree than the historical location of schools.

Although there is cross authority movement at the primary school level, it tends to be at a lower level as most pupils will attend their nearest school except when different demographic pressures put pressure on specific schools in urban areas creating a movement across boundaries. By contrast, the movement across local boundaries for pupils in the special school sector is higher than in either the primary or secondary sectors in many local authority areas. This is not really a surprise, since creating specialist schools is often more cost effective if they can reach a certain size and not every authority wants to provide specialist provision for every type of need.

Outside of London, many of the pupils moving across boundaries will have to pay for their own travel costs, as authorities have modified their travel policies, in an effort to reduce expenditure. However, county council’s expenditure on travel is still a large burden to many authorities, especially for children living in rural areas where the local bus service has now disappeared and either a special bus must be run or a taxi provided at significant cost to the authority.

 

Governors warn of teacher recruitment crisis

Tell us something we didn’t know, might be the first reaction to this headline from today’s Times newspaper. Indeed, October is a slightly odd time to publish such a survey, as it is well after the start of the school year and at a point where teacher recruitment is heading towards its autumn low point before picking up again in January.

However, I guess it took the TES some time to put together the answers from the National Governance Association members that completed the survey. Anyway, a survey of this type does help to keep the pressure on government, lest they try and bury concerns about teacher recruitment.

The figure for the extra number of teachers needed by the mid-2020s is also not really news, since the DfE has been publishing the forward planning associated with the Teacher Supply Model for the past couple of years. We have David Laws to thank for opening up this key planning tool to general visibility when he was Minister of State.  The next iteration of the Model is due to be published in a couple of weeks, towards the end of the month and will confirm future needs as the school population increases. No doubt this blog will comment on the DfE’s views at that time.

I was surprised that the NGA/TES Survey didn’t highlight the issues many schools have had this year trying to recruit a teacher of English. Indeed, TeachVac http://www.teachvac.co.uk  where I am the chair of the board, surveys key subjects on a daily basis and across the whole of England and we would rate English as more of a problem subject in 2018 than mathematics. As I pointed out last week on this blog, that might not be the case in 2019.

The report in the Times article didn’t mention regional recruitment issues. At TeachVac, we believe that the recruitment situation is generally at its worst in and around London. That’s not to say school elsewhere don’t face problems for specific reasons, but that a higher proportion of school in London and the Home Counties may expect to find recruitment difficult.

The Times newspaper article also ignored the challenges in vocational subjects such as business studies and parts of the design and technology curriculum. That’s probably not surprising, as the DfE shows a complete lack of interest in these subjects, not even offering a bursary to business studies students despite the real challenges schools face in recruiting these teachers.

With the government’s school-based training scheme, School Direct, having stalled this year, the NGA ought to be asking what can be done to ensure teachers that train through higher education courses end up in the schools where they are needed. It is absolutely no use attracting more mature entrants on the back of the BBC Radio 4 series with Lucy Kellaway, if they are in the wrong place and wrong subjects. The Treasury ought to be asking why so many teachers of history are being trained at £9,250 a head. Wasting money training too many teachers is as much of an issue as not training enough, but receives fewer headlines.

 

Funding still not fair?

Is opposition to the current National Funding Formula for schools growing? There are those that see it as neither national, because it has so many variations, nor a formula, because it carries so many restrictions carried over from what went before. Indeed, the F40 Group of local authorities that campaigns for fairer funding has issued a recent document outlining their concerns about the present state of play.

In one sense the idea of every child having a basic unit of funding tied to the provision of their education has been the Holy Grail of many educationalists ever since the autonomy of local authorities over education funding began to be curbed around the time that local management of schools or LMS began to be introduced in the early 1990s.

At that time there were wide disparities in the funding of schooling across the country. Local business rates meant that Inner London had access to vast resources of income generated from the City of London and the West End. At the other end of the scale were former manufacturing areas and many rural areas where income was insufficient and central government had to provide funds to support an education service. These areas were also joined by many of the shire counties where education competed with social services for a limited amount of resources.

The goal of those seeking a National Funding Formula was to level up less well funded areas, so that all received the same basic level of funding as close to that of the best as possible. Of course, if it wasn’t at the level of the best then there would be losers. The first attempt at a Formula created too many losers. It is now becoming apparent that the current version also has problems associated with it.

As the F40 briefing note says;

One of the key principles set out in the early NFF consultations, supported by f40, was that pupils of similar characteristics should attract similar levels of funding wherever they are in the country (allowing for the area cost adjustment).  Therefore, NFF should be applied to all schools on a consistent basis.  However, the protections applied, such as the 0.5% funding floor, ‘lock in’ some of the historical differences for those schools which have been comparatively well funded for several decades.

Their solution:

The government must continue to develop the national formula so that it is fit for the future i.e. is fairer, more easily understood, transparent and adjustable. Transition to the new formula is sensible but locking in past inequalities is not.

The F40 Group is also seeking continued funding flexibility to support specific local issues or organisational requirements. They assert that no two schools in the country are exactly the same, but the current formula assumes all schools are almost identical.  The F40 say that are good local reasons why some schools have costs that others do not have, and an inflexible national system cannot support these schools equitably.  As a result, some local flexibility is essential in achieving a fair formula that works and stands the test of time.

Here is the nub of the argument, how to manage a national formula with a degree of local flexibility. The government’s solution for academy chains is to allow funds to be moved between schools as necessary, but that approach doesn’t help either stand-alone academies or maintained schools.

With increasing pupil numbers and an under-funded 16-19 sector, the government has limited room for movement in the short-term, even if austerity really does come to an end as a policy objective. Perhaps we might see a return to the separation of funding into two separate funding streams with pay as one funding stream and other costs funded through a different funding stream more open to local flexibility to reflect local circumstances. This might imply a return to rigid national pay scales and limits of promoted posts to control the pay stream.

What is clear is that without more thinking, the present arrangements for school funding are likely to be unfair for many pupils across the country.