Does local democratic control matter in education?

How far has the education map of England become a picture of two nations growing apart? There are many different ways in which you can consider that question. One is to look at the governance structure of state funded schools. How many are still maintained schools of the various types largely linked to the 1944 Education Act and how many are now the product of the Ball/Gove academy revolution? Among selective schools the answer is that almost all are academies; only 23 remain as maintained schools and 10 of these are in Kent. At the other end of the spectrum, London is the only region where free schools, UTCs and studio schools comprise more than 10% of the total of secondary schools and even there it is still only 11%. This is despite the fact that London has probably seem the greatest demand for new secondary school places since 2010. In the North East and East Midlands areas, just four per cent of secondary schools fall into the category of these new types of nationally administered schools free from local democratic oversight.

However, academies are a group have become the dominant governance form for secondary schools, accounting for almost two out of three secondary schools in England. Nevertheless, the percentage is still lower in the north of England and, perhaps more surprisingly, in London and especially Inner London, where 81 of the 185 secondary schools are still local authority maintained comprehensives than in the rest of England.

Of course, just counting schools is a somewhat imprecise measure, since schools do differ in size from small 11-16 schools to large 2,000+ 11-18 or all-through schools. The same is true in the primary sector, where there as some very large schools coping with recent pupil growth, but still many small schools in rural areas. The percentage of schools that are academies or free schools differs from the secondary sector in some regions.

GO REGION PRIMARY ACADEMIES/FREE SCHOOLS ALL PRIMARY % ACADEMIES/FREE SCHOOLS
SW 632 1870 34%
EM 454 1635 28%
YH 466 1785 26%
WM 437 1776 25%
EE 485 1993 24%
L 363 1816 20%
SE 507 2598 20%
NE 155 861 18%
NW 249 2452 10%
ALL SCHOOLS 3748 16786 22%
 

 

     

However, there are fewer primary academies across much of the north of England and in London. The preponderance of Conservative controlled county councils in the south West many account for the relatively high percentage of primary academies in that regional, although it is still only around one in three primary schools, much lower than the percentage in the secondary sector.

As a Lib Dem politician, I wonder whether it is worth testing a campaign in the South West along the lines of ‘return our schools to community democratic oversight’. The membership has never seemingly taken to academies and control from Westminster in the manner that Lib Dem spokespeople and Ministers seem to have done. I am not sure where the present spokesperson stands on this issue?

Such a campaign might also highlight that there is no way back for schools entering MATs. The government may remove them to another MAT and MATs may voluntarily give up or even close a school, but neither the community not the local governors can seemingly force the trustees, those with the real power in a MAT, do so. Like much of the NHS, this is a denial of local democratic involvement in a key public service.

There is, however, one gain from the academy programme, the 140 academies that are selective schools can have their status changed to non-selective schools much more easily than when they were still maintained schools.

 

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More evidence of funding pressures on schools

At the start of the holiday season the DfE has issued a raft of both data in the form of a statistical bulletin and other publications. The most interesting concerns academies in general and specifically examples where threats of termination or other action against specific academies have been made public, possibly in some cases for the first time.

In terms of the income and expenditure of academies not in multi-academy trusts, but operating as single academies published as part of this information, it is only worth looking at the data in the round because of the changing nature of the sector as more schools, especially in the primary sector transfer from maintained to academy status and other move form single academy status to become part of a multi-academy trust.

One figure stands out in the data for the year 2015/16. This is fact that across all classes of academy expenditure exceeded income for the first time: a sign of the growing cost pressures on schools.

Sector                   Income/                               Media expenditure         Number of schools                                       Expenditure                       Per pupil

Primary                 I                                                 £4,791                                 787

E                                                £4,824

Secondary            I                                                 £5,714                                 984

E                                                £5,968

Special                   I                                               £22,321                   77

E                                              £22,409

All Through          I                                                 £6,104                                   56

E                                                £6,285

Source: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/633153/SFR32_2017_Main_Text.pdf  SFR 32/2017

Now, even allowing for the fact that schools in Multi-Academy Trusts are excluded from the table, because of the issue of handling their central overheads: those costs previous governments always vilified local authorities for charging – there are enough schools to illustrate the cost pressures facing the sector that will almost certainly only have only worsened in the 2016/17 financial year now ending.

A more detailed look at the median income and expenditure for this group of single academy trusts between 2014/15 and 2015/16 reveals a slight fall in grant income per pupil even before the effects of inflation are taken into account. Primary schools seem to have been able to offset this fall by increasing self-generated income.

On the expenditure side, staffing costs generally increased, with expenditure of teaching staff increasing by around £70 per pupil across the 1,700 or so mainstream schools. Interestingly, supply teacher expenditure fell in these schools between 2014/15 and 2015/16, although not by a significant amount. The most noticeable reductions in expenditure were on back office costs; unidentified ‘other’ costs; non-ICT learning resources and energy costs. This distribution of reductions reflects that witnessed during the reduction in funding for schools early in the 1980s discussed in a previous post on this blog.

The concern must be that the longer funding per pupil comes under pressure the harder it will be for schools to maintain their upward direction of travel in expenditure on staff. It would not surprise me to see non-teaching staff costs either stagnate or even reduce when the figures for 2016/17 are published this time next year. Schools are likely to try to protect expenditure on teaching staff at all costs, but it is difficult to see how they can do so even after only one per cent pay increases to all staff without an injection of funds that at least matches the increase in the staffing costs of schools.

The next question to address, is whether schools in MATs spend more or less than single academy trust schools on the different categories of expenditure and specifically how their median expenditure of teaching staff per pupil compares with the median for single academy trusts? But, that’s for another post.

Support ‘Looked After’ young people’s education

In my post on 11th June, after the outcome of the general election was known, I suggested some issues that could still be addressed by a government without an overall majority. First among these was the issue of school places for young people taken into care and placed outside of the local authority. They have no guarantee of access to a new school within any given time frame at present. It seemed to me daft that a parent could be fined for taking a child out of school for two weeks to go on holiday but a local authority could wait six months for a school place to be provided for a young person taken into care. (Incidentally, the parent whose case went to the Supreme Court faces a new hearing in his local Magistrates’ Court today following the ruling from the highest court in the land.)

On Tuesday, I asked a question of the Oxfordshire Cabinet members for Education and Children’s Services about the extent of the problem of finding school places for ‘Looked After’ young people. The question and answer are reproduced below.

Question from Councillor Howson to Councillors Harrod and Hibbert Biles

“How many children taken into care over the past three school years and placed ‘out county’ have had to wait for more than two weeks to be taken onto the roll of a school in the area where they have been moved to and what is the longest period of time a child has waited for a place at a school in the area where they have been re-located to during this period?”

Answer: Over the past three years it has been exceptional for a ‘Looked After’ Child to be taken onto the roll of an out of county school in under two weeks. Indeed, of the nine cases of primary age pupils we’ve looked at, the quickest a pupil was placed was 12 days (there were two) and the slowest was 77 days. For the 22 secondary age pupils the picture is even worse, with 3 weeks the quickest placement and a couple taking fully 6 months to get some of our most vulnerable young people into a stable school setting.

he main reason for this completely unacceptable state of affairs is that the Council has no power to direct an academy to admit a ‘Looked After’ Child. The only way we can force an academy’s hand is to get a direction from the Educations & Skills Funding Agency and this, as you can see from the foregoing times, can be a very long winded bureaucratic process. The fact that it takes so long for academies to admit our ‘Looked After’ Children shows how doggedly our officers pursue the matter; I suspect that many other local authorities simply give up when they meet an intransigent academy that doesn’t want to take responsibility for educating their vulnerable young people.

I found the answer deeply depressing. However, the good news is that MPs from the three political parties representing Oxfordshire constituencies have agreed to work together to take the matter forward. Thank you to MPs, Victoria Prentice, Layla Moran and Anneliese Dodds, for agreeing to seek action to remedy this state of affairs.

If readers have data about the issue elsewhere in England, I would be delighted to hear from you, so pressure can be put on officials nationally to ensure a rapid change in the rules.

The government probably won’t do much about education

Such is the position the government finds itself in that education was relegated to little more than a paragraph in today’s Queen’s Speech. As might be expected, the government, through Her Majesty, said;

My Government will continue to work to ensure that every child has the opportunity to attend a good school and that all schools are fairly funded. My Ministers will work to ensure people have the skills they need for the high-skilled, high-wage jobs of the future, including through a major reform of technical education.”

In the briefing there is little more by way of amplification. Does a good school mean a selective school where pupils already attend such schools and pupil numbers are on the increase or does it mean no expansion of selective schools? On funding, does it mean that the manifesto amplification that no school will lose money under the new funding formula holds good or will the formula be implemented as consulted upon?

Just saying, “we will deliver on our manifesto commitment to make funding fairer” isn’t really helpful.

The primary schools that sent letters home to parents today would certainly like to know where they stand. As would employees that can see the need for pay rises above 1% in the very near future.

It was interesting that the average cash balance for maintained schools in Oxfordshire dropped from £77,895 in March 2016 to £75,419 in March 2017. I don’t have data for academies and there are too few secondary schools to make the figures at all meaningful. I suspect that this is the first decline in average balances for quite a long time and even so hides the loss of a number of posts, with more to go this September.

The briefing note also explains that “we will continue to convert failing maintained schools into academies so that they can benefit from the support of a strong sponsor, and we are focused on building capacity across the system to enable this, including through growing new multi academy trusts.” In Oxfordshire, we still have a primary school that has waited for more than a year for a sponsor after having been inadequate, so here is some way to go with this promise.

The longest section is reserved for technical education. This oft overlooked sector does need serious attention and there is an interesting note about the introduction of Institute of Technology. Where will they fit in the landscape of UTCs, studio Schools and FE colleges?

Of course, not all developments in education will need legislation. My aim to ensure all looked after children can receive a school place within two weeks of being taken into care should be possible within existing legislation. I already have interest from Conservative and Lib Dem MPs in Oxfordshire and I hope they will be joined by the county’s Labour MP as this isn’t a party political issue, but rather a case of rectifying an unintended wrong created with the development of academies and free schools.

From TeachVac’s http://www.teachvac.co.uk point of view, the lack of any mention of a vacancy portal was interesting. As a way of saving schools money it might have featured in the paragraph on saving money and government tools.

Of course, if the vote next week were to be lost, who knows what will happen then?

A tale of Two Counties

My attention has been drawn to a publication called: A Tale of Two Counties: Reflections on Secondary Education 50 Years after Circular 10/65. Written by Nuala Burgess from Kings College London for the group Comprehensive Future and published on the 25 January 2017 it is downloadable free from http://comprehensivefuture.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/2017-

As one reviewer wrote, this publication is written in an easy to follow style by Kings College researcher Nuala Burgess. It looks at secondary education in two English counties that in socio-economic terms are similar, but in educational terms are poles apart. Both Buckinghamshire and Hampshire have been Conservative controlled since God was a boy. Yet the approach of these two Tory councils is completely different.

As we know Bucks has retained selective schools and has an entry test for its grammar schools, whereas Hants chose a non-selective system mostly based upon 11-16 comprehensives that grew out of the secondary modern schools, with its selective schools mostly becoming sixth form colleges; at that time part of the school system.

It doesn’t pay to be poor in Bucks, where few children on free school meals make it into the county’s 13 grammar schools. Presumably, Conservative in Bucks either think poor children at thick or are prepared to avoid asking the question ‘why do those pupils entering grammar schools largely come from better off families’. Might it be something to do with the private tutor industry that thrives in and around the edges of the county?

In Hampshire, Tory councillors are more likely to be concerned about the education of all pupils. This fact is reflected in the different approaches to converting schools to academy status in the two counties.

In many ways, this is a reflection of the on-going debate about whether schooling is a local or a national service? In Hampshire, even though the County no longer has responsibility for school budgets per se, the County does seem to feel a responsibility for the education of the young people within its boundaries. I wonder whether that is also the view in Bucks, or at least to the same extent. Judging by their recent attempt to change the home to school transport policy, I feel councillors have a different and more hands-off approach.

Since those that attend the county’s non-selective schools are likely to remain in Bucks after leaving education and will mostly enter the local labour market, it might be thought that in investment terms ensuring the best education of these pupils would be beneficial to the future prosperity of the county. After all, the grammar school pupils mostly go to university and can then end up working anywhere.

Perhaps some of lack of productivity as a nation can be put down to Tory councils such as Buckinghamshire not doing enough to ensure an education system that develops the skills and abilities of all pupils regardless of their background. For a government that wants to improve the national productivity levels to embark on a return to selective education seems odd to say the least.

 

Does democracy matter?

The evidence published today by the DfE on achievements by some schools within some academy groups https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/multi-academy-trust-performance-measures-2015-to-2016 is of course interesting, even with the caveats surrounding it.

However, as academies move from novelty innovation to mainstream feature of our school system there are substantial questions to be asked about their impact on the education scene across England. The most fundamental question, and one that both the two main political parties have always avoided, is whether or not local democratic involvement in education is helpful or a waste of time and money? Regular readers of this blog will know where I stand: firmly in the localism court.

Over the past year, since the publication of the White Paper in March, with its view of a fully academised system, to the recent announcement of a role for local authorities as envisaged in the funding of SEN (discussed in the previous post) there seems to have been some change of thinking. Should we consider Multi-Academy Trusts as playing a similar role to the diocese under the former system and academies as a new form of national school, but not very dissimilar to the existing voluntary aided sector.

The real question is whether there are to be two parallel but separate schools systems, one national one more local, but both funded nationally or should there be a recognition that some facets of schools are best handled locally for all schools. A move to reassure councils that in-year admissions were to return to them for all schools with associated funding might be a useful signal of the direction of travel. A second would be to require MATs to have a local authority representative as a trustee. A third might be to break up the role of director of Children’s Services back into a social work role and plus a separate education role. This would certainly help with creating career routes for professionals from both backgrounds.

Personally, I would also like to ensure there aren’t diseconomies of scale that can result when MATs are responsible for schools in many different geographical areas. The advantage of working with local authorities for the DfE is that Regional School Commissioners could be located within the Education Funding Agency and act as Territorial Principals used to do in the days when schooling was a partnership between central and local government. Local Education Scrutiny Committees could be widened to include more than just governor and faith group representatives to encompass the different interest groups, much as former Education Committees used to do before Cabinet government was invented.

What is clear is that the present muddle in the governance of schooling won’t help ensure the improvement of all schools to reach new high standards Britain will need to compete in a world where we have chosen to ‘go it alone’ and break with our continental neighbours. At least the return of FE & HE to the DfE means there is one department at Westminster with responsibility of the whole of education again. But, responsibility doesn’t mean taking operational control, nor does it mean a fully market-based system with no local democratic involvement.

Coasting schools

The Education and Adoption Act 2016 created a situation where a school could be considered a ‘coasting’ school. After a certain amount of huffing and puffing the DfE came up with criteria to decide what constituted a coasting school and those schools that were not covered by the definition. The definition excludes many of the smallest primary schools with fewer than 11 eligible pupils at age eleven. The rules are currently being approved by parliament through delegated legislation.

Based upon the results for 2014 and 2015 and the provisional results for 2016 at Key Stages 2 and 4 the DfE has identified 804 such schools, of which 479 met the definition in relation to Key Stage2 and 327 at Key Stage 4; there were two all-through schools that met the definitions at both key stages.

Of the 479 schools that have provisionally met the definition in relation to Key Stage 2, 106 were already academies and 373 were not. Of the latter, 269 were community schools; 26 foundation schools and 78 voluntary aided or controlled schools. In total 3.4% of non-academy schools and 4.3% of academies met the definition.

Of the 327 schools that provisionally met the definition at Key Stage 4, 176 were academies and 151 were not. Some nine per cent of academies were, by definition, coasting as were 13.5 of local authority schools, with 71 community schools and 58 foundation schools in the list along with 22 voluntary aided or controlled schools. Interestingly, of the 176 academies of various descriptions, 108 were sponsor led schools, making 19.5% or nearly one in five of these schools. Also in the list were one free school and four Studio Schools, but no UTC.

Among the Key Stage 2 schools, the Regional School Commissioner region with the highest percentage was the West Midlands, at 4.7%, whereas Lancashire and West Yorkshire had the lowest percentage at 2.7%. The national average was 3.5% of eligible schools.

There was a more marked difference in percentages in the key stage 4 list, with both the East Midlands and Humber and Lancashire and West Yorkshire regions having more than 16% of schools regarded as coasting, whereas only 5.0% of schools in the North East London and East of England region met the definition.

What happens to a coasting school is up to the local Regional School Commissioner, using guidance published in the spring at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/510080/schools-causing-concern-guidance.pdf

There is no automatic requirement for these schools to be converted into an academy if they are not already one or to move to a new trust if they are. The RSC will decide using the guidance if that is the approach to take. The DfE document issued today suggests that ‘only in a small minority of cases will RSCs direct a coasting maintained school to become a sponsored academy or move a coasting academy to a new trust.’ We shall see how RSC act once the list has been finally confirmed after the publication of the final 2016 results.

This is the first time this approach has been taken in public and no doubt the names of the schools will appear in the press over the next few weeks. Hopefully, the list will be much smaller next year.