Good news for Didcot

Well done to the Oxfordshire UTC. The 14-19 school received a ‘Good’ rating from Ofsted this week, after its first ever inspection. In the same week the UTC in Derby was placed in special measures.

You can read the Ofsted report on the Oxfordshire UTC at  https://reports.ofsted.gov.uk/inspection-reports/find-inspection-report/provider/ELS/141111 Schools week had some interesting statistics on UTCs recently. https://schoolsweek.co.uk/derby-manufacturing-utc-placed-in-special-measures/ Apparently, according to the report by Schools Week

almost a quarter of the 33 UTCs inspected so far have received Ofsted’s bottom grade.

Sixty-one per cent of all UTCs inspected have been rated less than ‘good’.  Six, all grade three or four, have since closed.

 Of the remaining 27 that are still open, 14 are rated either ‘requires improvement’ or ‘inadequate’.

Most UTCs have struggled since they were established in 2010, mainly because of problems attracting enough pupils to stay financially viable. Eight have so far closed.

 In January, Schools Week revealed that almost every UTC missed its recruitment targets last year, leaving them with combined debts of over £11 million.”

The UTC in Didcot is clearly bucking the trend for UTCs as a whole and I am grateful to the person that emailed me last night after the Ofsted Report had appeared to draw it to my attention. However, I still have anxieties over its long-term future if it cannot fill all the places it has on offer.

What Ofsted have revealed is that although the Oxfordshire UTC is still a work in progress it has strong leadership and a clear vision of what it is seeking to achieve.  The school and its staff are also aware that a proportion of their pupils come to them at fourteen with a less than successful record of achievement in the school system. Unlike some 14-18 schools they are not only aware of this but also set out to change the relationship with these pupils and the education system. That’s a tough job, but like Meadowbrook, the alternative provision in Oxfordshire, where Ofsted also commented on the work with teenagers that have reacted against schooling, the Oxfordshire UTC is also winning the hearts and minds of these young people. As Ofsted commented in their summary:

Pupils, including some who had previously struggled to engage with education, are inspired by the UTC’s ethos.

The Inspector went on to add that:

Since the UTC opened, some pupils have arrived in Year 10 having had negative experiences of schooling. Staff quickly get to know the pupils well, and support and reassure any experiencing stress or anxiety. Pupils gain a sense of community, security and pride during their time at UTC Oxfordshire. This equips them with great confidence and maturity.

Inspection report: UTC Oxfordshire, 22–23 May 2018

Schools cannot succeed without strong and purposeful leadership and the Oxfordshire UTC certainly has a leader creating a successful school backed by a strong team and supportive sponsors.

My more general anxiety is how the next generation of leaders for the school system will be developed? Some MATs will ensure that they create leadership pathways, but how will the stand alone academies and the remaining maintained schools ensure a leadership pipeline that is sufficient to meet the needs of all schools. This question is especially pertinent at a time when the need for career pathways for teachers that doesn’t involve whole school leadership is once again being discussed.

There are other reasons why I have concerns about 14-18 schools, but in this case I am delighted to offer my congratulations to the Oxfordshire UTC.

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Absence rates

The moveable feast that is Easter might have caused the end to the downward trend of pupil absences during the first two terms of last year. In 2017 Easter was a couple of weeks later than in 2016. A date in April, when the weather is better, might well have caused part of the upward movement in unauthorised absences, due to family holidays. No doubt going a week before Easter would be cheaper for families and might be worth the risk of a fine across the whole cost to the family. The uncertainty earlier in the year, before the Supreme Court ruled in the Isle of Wight case might also have persuaded some families to take an autumn break during term time.

Nevertheless, it is worth wondering whether the downward trend that started in the mid-2000s might well be levelling off. The increase in secondary pupil rolls over the next few years could well contribute to an upward trend, especially if schools struggle to keep all these extra pupils in lessons. No doubt, better recording of absences and missing episodes during the school day, will also contribute to the overall figures.

The DfE continues to make it harder to pinpoint actual schools in the data, by no longer publishing their names in the tables: researchers have to use the URN or other identified to work out where schools are placed in the tables. Undoubtedly, 14-18 schools, such as studio Schools and UTCs often come out badly as they have the year groups where unauthorised absence is often at its highest.  It is worth looking at their trends over a period of two to three years to see if there has been any improvement.

Perhaps the most worrying fact in the DfE Statistical Bulletin https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/652689/SFR55_2017_text.pdf is that the percentage of enrolments in state-funded primary and state-funded secondary schools that were classified as persistent absentees in autumn/spring 2016/17 was 10.4 per cent. This is slightly higher than the equivalent figure of 10.3 per cent in autumn and spring 2015/16. Again, the upward movement might partly be down to the different Easter dates. Nevertheless, one in ten pupils classified as persistent absentees must be a concern even though the definition was changed a couple of years ago. In some schools, the figures is much higher. Interestingly, the schools with the greater percentage of unauthorised absence doesn’t seem to be an inner city school but one located in a large market town: the sort of town one might expect to have relatively low levels of such absence.

As the DfE Statistical Bulletin points out, Illness remains the most common reason for absence, accounting for 60.1 per cent of all absences. The percentage of possible sessions missed due to illness has remained the same since last year at 2.7 per cent. But, it was a relatively mild winter. Pupils in national curriculum year groups 10 and 11 had the highest overall absence rate at 5.8 per cent. This trend is repeated for persistent absence.

Pupils with a statement of special educational needs (SEN) or education healthcare plan (EHC) had an overall absence rate of 7.1 per cent compared to 4.2 per cent for those with no identified SEN. The percentage of pupils with a statement of SEN or an EHC plan that are persistent absentees is more than two times higher than the percentage for pupils with no identified SEN.

 

Time for a review of UTCs?

The news that yet more UTCs are struggling to survive comes after reports of the over-representation of these schools at the top of the absence tables, as noted in a post last week. The idea of 14-18 schools specialising in science and technology, together with the accompanying studio school concept for a wider range of subjects, has merits, as their champions such as Lord Baker have always pointed out.

Sadly, the idea of depositing a cuckoo in the next of 11-16 and 11-18 schools in any area is fraught with difficulties. No schools wants to lose pupils at fourteen, unless that is they cost the school more to educate than they bring in as funding. Hence the struggle some UTCs have faced to recruit anything like a balanced intake, or in some cases an intake that would be large enough to make them financially viable.

As I reported earlier in the year, UTCs face extra running costs because they are delivering high cost subjects to largely examination age groups of pupils, but on a funding model that doesn’t take that fact into account. With the emergence of the now well documented problems across the sector, it is surely time for a review to decide whether to support the concept of a break at fourteen or engineer the existing schools back into the mainstream system to help cope with the rising secondary rolls over the next few years. Keeping open under-used schools while extra places are needed in the same locality is a waste of public money.

In many ways the 14-18 experiment is a good example of a market at work. Any new start-up venture has to compete with existing suppliers and often finds it a challenge unless they have the edge on design, price or technology. In this case, often despite spending lots of money on advertising, the 14-18 sector hasn’t caught the imagination of parents. Outside London, the fact that parents that didn’t face any travel costs to send their children to school would have to pay if their teenagers moved to a UTC might well have been a deterrent that the government could have found a way around: possibly by encouraging the UTCs to fund buses from key local centres.

If the UTCs are struggling to create a brand, then it seems likely that the studio school movement has even less definition and will only attract pupils where there is a strong local resolve to make such a school work. Nevertheless, there is merit in offering a fresh start at fourteen for some pupils, but the concept does need more thought. The involvement of the further education sector needs to be considered as part of any review, since colleges can offer an alternative structure for those seeking a curriculum post-14 that the average school cannot provide. Now FE is back under the wing of the DfE it should be easier to organise a coherent 14-18 offering.

However, any review might need to start by asking the question; at what age do we want specialisation to start? For if we want everyone to follow the same curriculum until sixteen, the need for separate schools after fourteen for some pupils is difficult to justify.

W(h)ither UTCs?

This month the Education Funding Agency has issued financial notices to improve to two University Technical Colleges; Daventry and Buckinghamshire. Interestingly, both are cited in a recent House of Commons Library briefing paper on UTCs (No 07250 issued 15th March 2016) as having relatively low recruitment figures in their early years of operation. Indeed, Daventry, according to the local newspaper, is currently considering moving from its current 14-18 UTC model to become an 11-18 school, presumably to boost numbers and help with school places in the area.  Nationally, three of the first 41 UTCs have either closed or are in the process of doing so, as are also some of the other 14-18 Studio Schools. However, a further 20 UTCs are in the planning stage.

So, might UTCs be set to become the ‘De Lorean’ of the education world; a good idea, but not financially viable? Having visited the Didcot UTC recently, I can see the attraction of the concept as supported by Lord Baker. But, they do run into a number of challenges. Firstly, changing school at 14 isn’t a normal part of the school scene, so the UTCs have to persuade young people and their parents that the change is worthwhile. Secondly, the schools that they are departing from will lose cash for every pupil that transfers. After four years a school losing ten pupils a year could be £200,000 down on income, but still be trying to offer the same curriculum to its remaining pupils. Lose twenty pupils a year and the cash burn is even more concerning. Some schools might fight to keep their pupils or only be interested in losing those that cost more to educate than they generate in revenue.

As each UTC has its own brand, there isn’t even a coherent national offering and some UTCs may look more attractive to pupils with an interest in vocational courses rather than academic prowess. This raises the question as to whether or not these pupils could have been more cost effectively educated by the further education sector. Certainly, a school that gains a reputation for only educating part of the ability range is less likely to flourish, especially if that part is the less able group. UTCs are also probably not helped, especially in rural areas, by the fact that there is no support with transport costs unless the UTC is able to provide assistance. This isn’t an issue in London, where TfL provides free transport for all school pupils, but it is in the rest of the country where the cost of attending a UTC may run into several hundred pounds a year compared with staying put at the school you joined at eleven.

The government will need to work out how to make UTCs a success if they want the concept to flourish in the manner that Lord Baker intended. This will be a challenge while the government continues to believe in the market approach to education. Funding these schools differently to other schools would result in cries of ‘foul’ from the school losing pupils at 14, but as we have seen with Daventry and Buckinghamshire, the risk of not doing so is that the UTCs will struggle to maintain financial solvency, especially as they are operating in areas of the curriculum with above average teaching costs in both revenue and capital terms compared with say an arts based curriculum.  ln a school offering the full curriculum, expensive subjects can be balanced with less costly ones. Alternatively, if you are a free school, you can opt only for a cheap languages and arts subject curriculum and eschew the expensive science and technology areas, however useful they might be to the national economy.

Unless there is a real desire by government to make the UTC idea work for the 14-18 age group the concept seems potentially at risk of becoming like Lord Baker’s earlier foray into this area, City Technology Colleges, doomed to be little more than a sideshow in the educational fairground.

Another market failure

Two studio schools for 14-18 year olds in the midlands are to close because of a failure to recruit enough students. This is how the message was announced by the trust responsible for the schools.

The Midland Academies Trust is to change the learning provision for students at its studio schools in Hinckley and Nuneaton.  Students will now be given the opportunity to continue their studies at other schools within the Trust supported by North Warwickshire and Hinckley College.  They will continue with the specialist CREATE Framework, supported by personal coaches and enjoy work experience arrangements aligned with the key features of the studio school model.

The decision comes as increasing financial pressures due to low pupil recruitment make the economic viability of small schools hugely challenging. The studio schools cater for 300 students each (600 in total) but there are currently a total of 157 pupils on roll across both schools. Year 10 and Year 12 students will be given the opportunity to continue their studies at either The George Eliot School or The William Bradford Academy from January 2016.  Current staff will continue to work with them and they will continue with their work placements and relationships with employers.

The Year 11 and Year 13 students will remain at the studio schools until the end of the academic year. – See more at: http://www.msc.leics.sch.uk/news?story=47#sthash.Ho3nB2FV.dpuf

At least the examination year pupils are to be catered for without the need to move school just over a term and a half before their examinations. Hopefully, they won’t experience any serious staff changes.

The Trust responsible for the two schools posted this announcement on the 1st December. As I pointed out when the UTC in the west midlands announced its closure in the spring, local authorities weren’t allowed to just shut down a school at short-notice.

Indeed, it is probably time that the EFA has talks with the government about a protocol on closure procedures, especially where it is due to financial viability. With the first stage of the admissions process now largely finished for 2016, a stress test, like that applied to the banks, should be administered by the EFA to all schools it funds and a list of those at risk published so that parents can decide whether moving their child at 14 is really a sensible idea.

In many ways I think the notion of a 14-18 sector is a good one and some of the schools are already flourishing with good recruitment, but many aren’t. After all, why would a school want to wave goodbye to four years of possible funding by encouraging students to change school at 14 unless by doing so their results improved.

Market failure, especially in new products, isn’t unusual. These schools do represent a new type of schooling that may need more marketing to parents. Whether we should be experimenting in an age of austerity where the government wants to take a billion pounds out of education procurement – presumably including spending on marketing – is an interesting question.

Could the same result have been achieved just by general further education colleges widening their offering to the 14-16 age-group? What are the real costs of each of these new UTCs and studio schools? As I have said elsewhere, each school needs a head teacher and other leadership staff. This puts pressure on the pool of leaders that isn’t an inexhaustible supply, making it more difficult for every school looking for a new leader.

However, the biggest question for debate is that of how far our education system should be organised on market principles?

Some Studio Schools encounter student attendance challenge

Are the government’s new studio schools getting off to a difficult start? Recent DfE figures for pupil absence during the autumn term of 2012-13 do at the very least raise questions about what is happening. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/200820/Main_text_-_SFR17_2013.pdf

Five of the ten schools with the highest absence rates, across both primary and secondary sectors, were either studio schools or in one case a University Technical College. As all five of these schools had relatively small enrolments, the behaviour of just one or two reluctant transferees may have unduly affected the outcomes. Nevertheless, against a national rate of 5.2%, or 5.7% for the secondary sector as a whole, absence rates of more than 14% do seem a little on the high side.

Although the majority of the studio schools in the list were in manufacturing centres, with school systems that have faced considerable challenges over the years, it does seem odd that despite the variety of different specialism in these new studio schools so many have these high levels of pupil absence. It might have been though that a fresh start in a new school with a definite vocational slant to the curriculum, and often backed by well known employers, might have inspired pupils to attend regularly. On that basis, it is important to identify what, if anything is going wrong? Indeed, although two studio schools are ranked better than 4,000 in the list of all schools for overall absence rates, the other three schools with studio in their title are in the 600 worst performing school for absence rates.

By focussing on vocational trades, it may be that the early studio schools that a skewed distribution of ability and it will take time to enthuse the pupils about the value of their education after nearly a decade when school has not been the most welcoming of places for many of them. What really must not happen is that these schools become dumping grounds for the failures of the mainstream school system. The new schools coming on stream in 2013 and 2014, including the space studio school in Banbury, need to learn the lessons, not least about transfer to a new school at age 14, that these schools have had to encounter in their early stages of development. It would certainly not be acceptable to either turn a blind eye to high levels of absence in these new types of school or to accept it as a part of the deal for the future of education in England.

As the responsibility for these schools lies with Ministers in Westminster, so officials in the DfE, as would any competent local authority, must ask these schools for the preliminary figures for term two. If these so no improvement over term one of the academic year, action must be taken now. Not to do so will reveal to the education community that while it is acceptable  for central government to castigate local authorities for poor outcomes, government schools are able to produce even worse outcomes with impunity.