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.

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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.

 

Pressure on academy budgets in 2015-2016

The DfE has now published the financial data on single academy schools for the year 2015-2016, covering the period to the end of August 2016, almost two years ago now. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/income-and-expenditure-in-academies-in-england-2015-to-2016

What is striking is the similarity with the trends in non-academy school finances for 2016-17 highlighted in my post of the 14th December 2017.

In today’s tables, about this select group of academies, all groups of schools spent more than their income in 2015-2016. For the primary academies, this is the first year where median expenditure exceeded income. In the secondary sector, it is the third year running median expenditure has exceeded median income.

In the year ending August 2016, the total revenue expenditure in this group of academies exceeded income by £280m. This represents 1.5% of income, up from 1.0% in 2014 to 2015. However, as the DfE notes, this does not mean that these academies are inevitably in debt, as they may have had reserve funds from which these costs were able to be met. Nevertheless, it is not a trend that can continue for ever as reserves are eventually exhausted.

There is a strong probability that the gap has widened since then as the funding crisis in schools has intensified. If the next pay rise isn’t fully funded, then some schools may well be in real financial difficulties.

As might be expected when budgets come under pressure, these academies spent a great proportion of their income on teaching staff than in the previous year. Although expenditure on teaching staff as a proportion of total expenditure has fallen by 3.2 percentage points since 2011/12 when the data were first collected. However, it rose by 1.2 percentage points in 2015/16 over the previous year.

Supply staff cost these schools 2.3% of their budgets in 2015-16, so even the recent government announcement about driving down the costs of some supply agency activities, while welcome, is hardly going to make a big difference to most schools’ budgets. The fact that 12% of the 4.3% of other expenditure was spent on PFI costs suggests that for some schools this is a real burden and must affect how they can manage their budgets. It would be helpful if the DfE could have shown this table for schools with PFI costs and those without that burden. Some eleven schools are shown in the detailed tables with expenditure of more than £1,000,000 on PFI costs, with one school in the South West paying more than £2,000,000. Not surprisingly, its expenditure on both teaching staff and resources is not at the upper end of the scale.

The data on supply staff costs looks somewhat suspect, since some schools may have filled the same figure in for both supply teaching staff and agency teaching staff columns, generating an overall total that is twice both amounts. This might be the case in some schools, but seems too common not to be worth investigating further. However, the school that spent £1,700,000 on supply staff doesn’t fall into that category of schools.

With the announcement from the Secretary of State at the NGA Conference, we can now expect more of this information, including for multi-academy trusts.

 

‘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.

 

Tackling Academies and Trusts

Dear Secretary of State,

When addressing the NGA recently, you said;

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.

In relation to maintained schools you also said that ‘an Ofsted Inadequate judgement alone would lead to hard action to convert a Local Authority maintained school to an academy.’ However, you didn’t say what intervention would mean for an existing academy declared Inadequate by Ofsted?

Can you explain what action will be taken where the school declared Inadequate is already part of a multi-academy trust?

Where the school is also under financial special measures, one might expect some form of obvious action, such as a published notice of intent to close by the Regional School Commissioner. Where the school has well above average absence rates one might expect action to intervene fast, if you mean what you said.

Now, either your words were empty rhetoric in relation to academies or you really do want all schools to be good schools and will take steps to improve inadequate schools. Can you please reassure me that no school in Oxfordshire would be allowed to drift for more than a year after being declared an Inadequate Academy by Ofsted and with a recent monitoring inspection that concluded that ‘Leaders and managers are not taking effective action towards the removal of special measures.’

If this is not a case for the use of your policy of fast intervention, perhaps you can explain why it doesn’t meet your criteria.

You are also going to take action about the transparency of multi academy trusts and the pay of those that work in central offices administering the Trust. This can only be a good thing. In Oxfordshire several of the Trusts with headquarters outside the County pay their CEOs more than the £150,000 level you recently wrote to Trusts about, whereas according to their published accounts, none of the Trusts with its headquarters in Oxfordshire has come close to this limit.

Many primary schools are not now willing to join a Trust or even become an academy because once the decision has been made it is irrevocable. However, a Trust may either broker a school to another trust or in extreme circumstances give up the school altogether, but a school may not leave a Trust, even if the terms on which it agreed to join change dramatically. Such a risk doesn’t seem worth leaving the certainty of their present governance arrangements in the eyes of many governors, especially where the central charge may be little different to that offered for the purchase of traded services by their local authority.

Your speech did little to dispel the fog of uncertainty about how the system of schooling across England works for the benefit of all pupils. Please consider how all schools can work together and where there are many MATs in an area who has the ability to coordinate both their actions, those of academies not in Trusts and the remaining maintained schools whether they are voluntary or community in nature.

The importance of place in education governance

Is it time to reinvent LEAs? The Local Education Authority, democratically elected and supported, when there were also Education Committees responsible for the LEA, by persons of experience in education and representatives of teachers and any diocese with voluntary schools in the locality had a great advantage over today’s muddled arrangements for education. This was a geographical sense of place.

Should we return to a place based system of education with a degree of local democratic control and oversight? Reading the news about an academy head paid £270,000 leaving at short notice; about an academy trust with a £1.5 million deficit and a school turned around despite rather than because of the Trust it was a part of at the time, I do wonder whether the dislike of local authorities that was a feature of both main political parties for so many years has actually managed to produce a system that is worse than before: costly, undemocratic and in many cases lacking in a public service ethos.

The idea of Regional School Commissioners and head teacher boards hasn’t worked. Neither, now the money distribution is controlled to a large extent in Whitehall has the idea of the Schools Forum, bereft as they are of any really political accountability and link to policy making.

Would we have a funding crisis if local politicians were more involved in policy-making for the schools in their local area? I don’t know, but in some parts of the country we now have a generation of local politicians with little or no engagement with the local schools service and its development.

One has to ask the question about developing local resilience in terms of pupil places, teacher supply and a coherence for career development and effective professional development. Do competing and overlapping MATs willing to swop schools or just give up if the going gets tough present an education system that is resilient to local needs? Does it matter if there is no local democratic accountability? After all, who cares about the future?

Support for my concerns has come in a new report by academies at LSE and a lawyer from the Matrix Chambers. http://www.lse.ac.uk/News/Latest-news-from-LSE/2018/06-June-2018/Academisation-of-state-education-has-reduced-freedom-and-autonomy-for-schools published this week.

They conclude that despite some benefits of academies, there is on the other hand, ‘the lack of transparency in the way academies are run. In contrast to maintained schools, where decisions are taken by governors appointed through an open process, academies are run by ‘trustees’, whose opaque appointments are not subject to openness rules which apply across other areas of public life.’

The authors recommend that:

To address fragmentation within the education system, the authors recommend statutory intervention. Restoring a local democratic role where academies operate under legal contracts with the local authority, rather than the Secretary of State, would help strengthen schools’ relationships with their stakeholders. The authors also recommend a new legal framework enabling academies to revert to become schools maintained by the local authority, as opposed to central government.

I am not sure that I could have put it better.

 

 

 

More about children in care and education

Here are the details of another recent question about the education of children in care. After some years of being overlooked, these vulnerable young people do seem to be once again receiving the attention that they deserve.

Emma Lewell-Buck MP recently asked the Secretary of State for Education, how many schools have refused to admit looked-after or previously looked after children and were subsequently directed by his Department to do so in the last three years.

Nick Gibb, the Minister at the DfE gave the following written answer:

The Department recognises that looked after children are amongst the most vulnerable in our society. That is why the School Admissions Code requires admission authorities of all schools to prioritise looked after children and previously looked after children in their admissions criteria. Local authorities (LAs) have the power to direct the admission authority for any maintained school in England to admit a child who it ‘looks after’, even if that school is full. Therefore, the Department does not hold information on individual applications to maintained schools made on behalf of the looked after child. The Department itself can direct a maintained school if required, but so far it has not had to. For academies, trusts and LAs work together at a local level to prioritise the admission of looked after children. As a last resort, a LA can request a direction for the academy to admit from the Secretary of State, via the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA). The ESFA has collected and recorded data on such direction requests since March 2017. Since then, there have been 28 requests. However, the ESFA have successfully worked with LAs and academies to ensure that a formal direction was only required in four cases.

I think it would have been helpful to make clear the difference between the normal September admission round and in-year admissions that I suspect most of these refusals are about. Now is surely the time to remedy the confusion of in-year admissions and return them to the same footing as the normal admissions rounds, administered for all publically funded schools by local authorities as suggested in the 2017 White Paper.

The EFSA does seem to be more alert to the issue than previously and I hope that those local authorities that parked this issue in the ‘too difficult to handle’ box will now, once again, take on these academies and free schools that treat corporate parents differently to any other parent making a request for in-year admission.

The government might also like to reflect how these children fare if placed in an area with selective secondary schools? I don’t like such schools as a matter of principle, but they do exist and undoubtedly some of the young people would have passed the selection test if they had been in the locality at the time the test was administered to their age cohort. How many children taken into care have been offered a place in a selective school?

With a large increase in the number of children taken into care in recent years, society really does need to ensure everything possible is done to help them through a difficult period in their lives, including providing the best quality education possible.