Trying to succeed is not failing

The BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme has been looking at pupils stuck in the cycle of multiple resits as the government tries to ensure everyone, or as many young people as possible, reach the established milestone of Grades C in English and mathematics.

Now, I can see both sides of the debate on this issue after a lifetime in education and also from personal experience. The three years of my sixth form career was punctuated by the regular visit to the examination hall to try and pass English Language ‘O’ level. While my ‘A’ level studies were progressing well, and much better than my progress during the previous five years at secondary school, I carried the millstone around my neck of not having passed English Language ‘O’ level. In passing, regular readers of this blog will have noticed the longer-term effects of a poor start in our native tongue on my writing style.

Anyway, in the third year of the sixth form, I eventually passed, but only after nine months without any additional teaching. As a result, I was able to go to university, but my UCCA application, as it was in those ways, was heavily dependent upon universities and courses that didn’t require either Latin or English at ‘O’ level, since at that point I had neither. I would probably have ended up at LSE anyway – required neither – as I did, but the choice might have been wider.

I do understand the motivation of governments to ensure higher attainment in literacy and numeracy skills for our population as a whole, but I sat on a panel discussion in Abingdon on Friday night last week and listened to a FE lecturer calling for greater understanding of the range of examinations and functional skills we could accept from those for whom the traditional examination isn’t a good test. I have a lot of sympathy for that view. One size probably doesn’t fit all in this case. A range of skills test linked to the new investment in technical qualifications might be a helpful way forward.

So, my message to these young people forced to re-sit is, don’t give up and don’t regard it as an imposition. But, my message to government is, do consider the appropriate nature of the examination and one size and shape probably doesn’t fit all.

What we must never do is deter either young people or indeed learners of any age by making them think learning is just a chore to be endured. In later life, I have written many thousands of words and I am grateful that the school made me continue to re-take English language. Now, English literature was a different matter: that subject I passed first time.



Politicians rule: OK?

The recent Select Committee report on Multi Academy Trusts (MATs) raises two significant issues in my mind.

These issues are of

Community and,

Democratic control

They are rather neatly summed up by the Select Committee in their executive summary as follows:

We have outlined six characteristics which we believe trusts must possess in order to be successful. These include strong regional structures, robust financial controls, enhanced opportunities for career development and tangible accountability at all levels.

Some of the earliest trusts expanded too quickly over wide geographic regions and the performance of their schools suffered as a result. We are encouraged by the development of a MAT ‘growth check’ and urge the Government to use this to ensure that trusts are only allowed to take on more schools when they have the capacity to grow successfully.

…There is also more work to be done to ensure that MATs are accountable to the communities in which their schools are located. There must be more engagement with parents and clarity around the role of local governing boards.

In my view the Committee could have used this report to go further and to have started to make the case for accountability for schooling to be brought back through the local ballot box. This would have fitted in well with the National Audit Office’s recent report where they highlighted the lack of coherent pupil place planning and the lack of any one body having overall control of the process, although local authorities retained the obligation to ensure sufficient places were available for all pupils that wanted one. And, it was local authorities that sent out the offer letters to parents this week, even where they have no control over the admission arrangements.

After nearly half a century when rampant capitalism has held sway at Westminster, under governments of all political persuasions, and municipalisation gave way to mega deals brokered in Whitehall, is the tide finally turning?

I don’t think BREXIT has yet had the time to change the public consciousness about the role of parliament at Westminster and the possible effects on the delivery of local services. However, it is clear that Westminster will be a much busier place, if it does its job properly, once Article 50 has been triggered.

Alongside the exit management process will be the return to a requirement that the sovereign parliament at Westminster must craft all our laws and not just fill in the gaps from European legislation. This will affect some parts of government more than others. Although education wasn’t as affected by the transfer of powers during our EU sojourn, as some areas of government, it is a moot point whether government will be able to meet the demands of operating a universal education service while still meeting the needs of all local communities.

Sure, some local authorities were poor at providing education, as some are with all services. Sometimes this comes down to money; other times to leadership and ambition. For instance, using the LAIT tool on the DfE web site, Oxfordshire comes 6th best on percentage of children still being breastfed at six weeks, but 125th on the percentage of pupils with free school meals achieving expected levels of phonics decoding. Public health is now a local government responsibility, whereas for academies and free schools there is little the local authority can do to change the phonics outcomes, regardless of whether you think the approach is the correct one.

So, what to do? A simple solution would be to rethink Schools Forums to include politicians as voting members in proportion to the political balance of the council. A 50:50 balance overall might be the first stage of change. Alongside this to also make clear the relationship between all schools and the local community. Could we see academies as a 21st century form of voluntary added school?

Local democracy may be imperfect, but in my experience communities do care about the local standard of education, even where many parents opt out of the state system. I would ensure a tighter regulation than in the past, so that Commissioners can be called in to run poorly performing authorities for a period. But if there is a patterns to these types of authority requiring commissioners; too small; too poorly funded; not attractive places to work, then central government does need learn the lessons and create reforms. What it doesn’t need to do is to privatise the service. In the modern world profit can take many forms and not just dividends, as the lucky shareholders of Snapchat discovered yesterday.

Post BREXIT we will need a successful education system even more than before if we are to pay our way and fund thriving services for future generations. Bring back education as ‘a local service nationally administered’.


Uphill task, but not yet panic mode?

At the end of January, when that month’s UCAS data on applications to ITT postgraduate programmes was published, I wrote in a blog ‘The next four weeks are vital ones for teacher supply and the number of teachers entering the labour market in 2018.’ So, it has turned out to be.

The February data was published earlier today. It is worth noting that it is data up to 20th February this year, whereas the comparative data for 2016 was up to the 15th February. On that basis there are several more days for applications included in this year’s figures.

As a result, the fact that applicants with a domicile in England are down from 26,130 last year to 24,720 this year is disappointing to say the least. Applications aren’t just down in one region, but across most of the country. In London, a key area of need for teachers, applicants are down by around 200 and in the usually buoyant North West, numbers are down by around 300.

Most alarming is the haemorrhaging of applications form those under 22. Compared with 2016, there have been around 1,000 fewer applicants from this age-group, to just 7,850.

The loss of keen bright new graduates has not been fully offset by additional applications for career changers and other older applicants. It is worth recalling that in February 2012, before the School Direct programmes were included in the process, there were 34,936 applicants at this point in the cycle. So in five years, teaching has seen around 10,000 fewer applicants by February As that month marks the half-way point in the application cycle, time is already slipping away to make up this deficit.

Of course, if the smaller number of applicants are of high quality, this may not matter. But, assuming no change in the profile or even that fewer doesn’t mean better, this poses a problem for providers. Do they lower the quality mark when offering places?

Interestingly, this is a dilemma for higher education as much as for school-based providers thus year since applications to higher education are holding up better than for school-based training. HE institutions have attracted 36,260 of the 73,440 applications. School Direct salaried has only attracted 10,350 compared with 11,680 last February. This is despite the greater proportion of older applications that would be eligible for the School Direct Salaried route. Of course, there may be fewer places on offer, but that fact remains a mystery since government won’t publish the national targets.

In terms of subjects, geography and history are doing well, several other subjects are holding their own and schools might well start making room for PSHE by axing business studies since there are likely to be few teachers. After all, it isn’t a subject we are going to need post BREXIT anyway.

Teaching seems to be looking less attractive as a career to women. In February 2012, some 24,265 women has applied for courses in England. This year, the number was just 17,360. Down by nearly 7,000 or more than a quarter. In the same period applications from men fell from 10,600 to around 7,400: some 3,200 fewer.

With the exam season approaching and no obvious reason for career switchers to increase their level of applications, the remainder of the recruitment round looks like being a real challenge. Not yet a crisis, but the problem of recruiting the next generation of teachers certainly hasn’t been solved despite three reports in the past twelve months.


Funding: the good years and the bad

The well-respected Institute for Fiscal Studies has today published a longitudinal study into the changing levels of education finance.

However, although factually accurate, as local authorities do still ratify the funding formula, the following statement early on in the report might be regarded as potentially mis-leading:

At the moment, it is local authorities that are responsible for determining the level of funding for state-funded schools. Each local authority receives a grant from central government, which it then distributes to schools in its area using its own funding formula.

After all, it is the Schools Forum, assisted by officers that decides on the local formula. Politicians, those that comprise the local authority, realistically now have no say in the matter, unless they are governors and elected through that route to the Schools Forum.

However, what the IFS have reminded us, at least in respect of schools, is that the 1990s were a period of funding constraint that lasted until the Blair/Brown leadership team took the brakes off education funding after their first few years of government when they were endorsing the Tory spending plans they had inherited in 1997: subsequently there was a period of increased funding as the new century unfolded. This allowed the creation of PPA time in primary schools and the growth in support staff numbers as well as generous spending on IT and improvements in pupil teacher ratios.

As this period coincided with the demographic downturn in pupil numbers, schools were relatively well funded, although the long period of decline in 16-19 funding commenced. The coalition supported school funding after 2010, but everyone now agrees that the next few years are likely to see reductions in real terms in school funding that will only be partially masked by increases in pupil numbers and any new national formula.

Even with tight floors and ceiling, there will be winners and losers with the new formula. This is partly because the gaps between the decisions on funding go way back into education history and are frequently associated with the municipal attitude to education and the size of the local tax base. When business rates were collected and spent locally, areas with good levels of industry and commerce often had well-funded education systems. As manufacturing and other industries declined, so did local funding and eventually business rates were nationalised. Successive governments missed opportunities to reform the basis of school funding preferring just to transfer the budgets to schools and away from local authorities and their politicians.

So, what happens now? If there is to be a period of austerity associated with cuts to funding to schools it is imperative that the cash is used wisely. But one person’s saving can easily translate into another’s burden. Close rural primary schools and someone has to pay for the transport of the pupils to another school. The same is true if small sixth forms are axed as no longer affordable. In the commercial world it is clear who takes decisions over cutting branches of banks or supermarkets that don’t pay. Who now decides on where schools are located: parents through the admissions system; the EFA as the national funding agency; MAT; Regional School Commissioners, but not presumably local authorities?

Many of the issues fudged when funding was adequate cannot be ignored when cash is being squeezed out of the system.



Working harder, working smarter and generally longer

The DfE has just published its latest workload survey for teachers in primary and secondary schools. Not sure what happened to the special school sector. The survey was undertaken during the spring term of 2016 in order to make it as comparable as possible to the 2013 TALIS Survey produced by the OECD.

In the 1990s and 2000s, there were a series of dairy studies of workload conducted by the STRB. This report suggests that diary studies had relatively poor response rates because they were time consuming to complete. However, only 3,186 school teachers and leaders completed this easier 2016 survey: a response rate of 34%. In the 2000 diary survey, the response rate was 78% for schools and at 3,394 some 87% of teachers. Although the later series of dairy surveys may have produced lower responses, those in the 1990s seem more robust. Of course, both dairy surveys and other surveys not actually conducted as an activity is taking place, do rely to an extent on perception of time spent on an activity.

The 2016 survey report concluded:

.. some increase in workload has been seen between 2013 and 2016. As per prior workload studies, primary classroom teachers and middle leaders self-reported higher total working hours in the reference week (a mean of 55.5 hours) than teachers in secondary schools (53.5 hours). Primary teachers were also more likely to report total working hours in the reference period of more than 60 hours. As a result, teachers in the primary phase faced more workload pressures.

It is interesting to compare the latest data with those of the 1990 diary studies

PRIMARY 1994 1996 2000 2016
HEAD 55.4 55.7 58.9
DEPUTY 52.4 54.5 56.2
CLASSROOM 48.8 50.8 52.8 55.2
HEAD 61.1 61.7 60.8
DEPUTY 56.9 56.5 58.6
HEAD DEPT 50.7 53 52.9 55.6
CLASSROOM 48.9 50.3 51.3 52.6
CLASSROOM 47.5 50 51.2

Compared with the 1990s, teaching does seem to be a more onerous occupation, with longer hours spent on work during the reference period. That raises the question as to whether this extra workload is spread across the year of just contained in the spring term. I am sure secondary teachers would insist that greater demands are placed upon them throughout the year now they are fully responsible for the learning of every child and not just every class. They also face demands to be present when exam result at A level and GCSE are released during the summer holidays: probably not a task undertaken by as many teachers twenty years ago.

Primary teachers may have initially benefited from the introduction of PPA time and the designation of certain tasks as ‘not for teachers’ during the discussions over workload in the mid-200s, but whether because of greater assessment pressures, or just larger classes, their working hours seem to have increased by the time of the 2016 survey.

Interestingly, when comparing the 2000 and 2016 studies, primary classroom teachers now spend more time teaching than in 2000. This is despite the introduction of PPA time and accounts for most of the difference in working hours as non-teaching activities have only increased from 32.3 hours to 33.2 hours during the reference weeks; probably within the margin of error.

For secondary teachers the greater increase is in non-teaching hours. This is not surprising, as the pupil-teacher ratio overall in the secondary sector is still generally more favourable than in the late 1990s. The planning, preparation and assessment are probably the areas where more is now demanded of secondary teachers and these tasks cannot be achieved in teaching time.

On the face of these results, teachers are working harder than twenty years ago. If this is generally the case throughout the year, and these doesn’t seem to be anything to make the reference weeks look atypical, then the government will have to consider whether the curious form of employer-drive flexi-time teachers work is now making the job unattractive with regard to both recruiting and, even more importantly, retaining teachers at the classroom level. This is especially true in a period when overall remuneration levels in teaching are probably no longer keeping pace with comparable private sector graduate jobs in all except the least well paid sectors.

Finally, the study should give pay to the canard about long holidays. Indeed, it would be interesting to do a diary study for a so-called holiday period to see on how many days a committed teaching professional actually managed to ignore the demands of the job.

With pressure on funding at the national level, and increasing pupil numbers, this report on workload is not good news for the government. It is also one what they cannot ignore.



Who builds our schools?

The National Audit office report on Capital Funding for Schools, published earlier today, echoes many of the comments already made in previous posts on this blog.

Although the NAO report covers all aspects of school building, the key section that interests me is the relationship between school place planning and the emerging school system. The executive summary contains two key paragraphs reproduced below – with my highlighting of key points – that make most of the issues clear in simple language.

14 Local authorities have a statutory duty to provide enough school places in their areas but they do not control the number of places in academies or free schools. This means that responsibilities and accountabilities for providing school places are not fully aligned. To fulfil their responsibility local authorities work with individual schools to expand existing provision. However, their plans to create new places are affected by, and in some cases dependent on, free schools and academies. Local authorities cannot compel academies to expand or contract. Many local authorities have good relationships with academies. However, where academies do not want to expand or relationships are weaker, local authorities’ options for creating new places are constrained. In the case of free schools, while local authorities can initiate the process, they are dependent on the availability of an appropriate applicant and the Department’s approval. In addition, in the 30% of cases where the opening of a free school has been delayed, local authorities may have had to make alternative arrangements to provide the necessary places. The Department is working increasingly closely with local authorities when opening free schools (paragraphs 1.11, 1.28 and 1.29).

15 In seeking to increase choice, introduce innovation and raise standards free schools often meet a demographic need for new school places, but they are also creating spare capacity, which may have implications for schools’ financial sustainability. By September 2016 the Department had opened 429 new free schools, and plans to open 883 in total by September 2020. The Free Schools Programme aims to give parents more choice and increase competition between schools, and thereby improve the quality of education. Free schools also have a role in meeting local need for new school places. There can be an inherent tension in the extent to which they can meet these aims cost-effectively. The Department estimates that some of the places in 83% of the mainstream free schools approved since September 2013 address a need for more school places. It also estimates that 57,500 of 113,500 new places in mainstream free schools opening between 2015 and 2021 will create spare capacity in some free schools’ immediate area. Spare capacity can affect pupil numbers, and therefore funding, in neighbouring schools. The Department’s data indicate that spare places in 52 free schools opening in 2015 could have a moderate or high impact on the funding of any of 282 neighbouring schools. The financial sustainability of free schools themselves may also be affected if a significant number of their places are not filled. The Department assesses financial viability as part of the process of approving free school applications. It has also sought to assess whether creating free schools is having the intended effect of improving educational standards through competition but the sample size is currently too small to draw meaningful conclusions.

The government does need to show who is responsible in the end: where does the buck stop?

Yesterday, before the publication of this report I addressed Oxfordshire’s Cabinet on the issue of a new free school – The Swan School – the Education Funding Agency has found a site that is not in everyone’s view sited in the best location. My concern is if the school opening is delayed beyond when the places are needed, who bears the costs, especially if there are recurring transport costs should some academies not offer to help with additional places? Hopefully, it won’t come to that and council tax payers won’t have any extra cost to bear.

At least in the case of the Swan School the EFA won’t have overpaid as the site selected is owned by the county council. The NAO did find the government had to pay premium prices for some land. The NAO were also critical of the cost of the former ‘building schools for the future’ scheme and although its replacement has been less costly, it too appears to have exceeded its budget.

School building is a challenging area and we can ill-afford to lose the expertise from local authorities.  No doubt, once gone, the government will have to recreate the knowledge and skills to help us both build sufficient schools and effectively maintain those we already have.

Both Mrs Thatcher and Ted Short, her Labour predecessor, wanted to replace all pre-1906 schools. That ambition has still to be achieved nearly half a century later. Whether we should do so is a matter for debate, even if we could afford to do so.


Have you tried TeachVac yet?

Recently, a head teacher told me he wasn’t using TeachVac because there must be a catch. I don’t see how you can offer a free service without there being a catch, the head told me. Clearly, this head wasn’t a user of twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or one of the other disruptive new technologies that are free to use. I wonder if this head grumbles about the cost of recruiting staff, but doesn’t do anything about it.

Now let me be absolutely clear, and please do pass this on to others, TeachVac was established to do two things. Firstly, to offer a free recruitment service to schools, teachers, trainees and returners and, secondly, to use the information to collect better data on the working of the labour market for teachers about which in recent years, since the decline of the local government employers surveys, we have known relatively little.

I suppose it is the cynicism of the current age that many in education don’t believe a group of individuals would have set up TeachVac in the way it was just for altruistic reasons. But they did.

Does TeachVac pass on details of those that register to anyone: no it don’t. Does TeachVac bombard users with adverts every time they log on or receive a match; no it doesn’t. Is TeachVac a front for a larger organisation trying to corner the recruitment market that will then charge monopoly prices once it has removed the competition: no it isn’t.

My motivation in gathering a group of like-minded individuals around me to establish TeachVac was based upon putting back something into the education world in the only area where I had some expertise. A decade ago, the government tried to help the recruitment of teachers through the School Recruitment Service: it failed. Why it failed makes for an interesting story and tells us much about the nature of schooling in this country. Happily, most of those that lead our schools are more interested in teaching and learning and the pupils in their charge than worrying about the systems that support them. Unhappily, without a supportive middle tier this can lead to heads relying on those that don’t seem to have an understanding about driving down costs.

Now, it may well have been legitimate to say when we started nearly three years ago; we will wait and see if TeachVac succeeds. After all, nobody wants to sign up for a one-day wonder. But, Teachvac has now into its third recruitment round and hasn’t missed a day of providing matches when there have been new vacancies to match. You cannot do better than that for service.

With the demise of the National Teaching Service, before it even ventured beyond the pilot stage, and the Select Committee today endorsing the need for a national vacancy web site as a way forward, as I mentioned in my previous post, TeachVac is there for the sector to take-over. In another post, I will explain what is stopping that happening.