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.


-U- turn on a Friday afternoon

I prepared this post before the announcement of the government’s –U- turn on forced academisation. We still need to see the small print of any Bill to know how far the government has really made concessions. As a result, I thought it worth posting my thoughts.

Now that the Police & Crime Commissioner elections are over it can be back to normal again for this blog. The big debate over the past few weeks has been about forced academisation. Much of the debate so far has failed to address in depth any of the three main points behand the argument about changing the structure of schools: the place of democracy in education; how important is geography in the organisation of our schools and does the primary sector need a middle-tier to ensure the survival of small schools?

None of these issues are new. Indeed, the last one has been around ever since the 1988 Education Reform Act revealed the depth of the Thatcher government’s mistrust of local authorities. However, the first one is the most important. Do we want our public services increasingly managed from Whitehall with no local democratic involvement? As I have pointed out before that is what has become the lot of our National Health Service. There is a case for education to go the same way; a national funding formula backed by a National Curriculum and testing regime and a uniform arrangement of school types that does away with anomalies such as randomly scattered selective schools or 14-18 UTCs and Studio Schools could create such a system.  But, allowing free schools to spring up anywhere without fitting into this pattern suggests either a degree of anarchic thinking or a lack of understanding about the delivery of effective and efficient public services. The same arguments can be made for random collections of schools being formed into academy chains. How important is the need to have community involvement in schooling and if it is important is this aim weakened by chains with no link to the community where they operate a school?

I think everyone that wants to retain small primary schools, whether in rural areas or urban settings, recognises that they need support and help that larger schools could provide for themselves. This raises the issue of how such support should be arranged and paid for? If we knew the outcome of the government’s thinking on the National Funding Formula then this issue might be easier to resolve. A formula weighted towards pupil-based funding that did away with a lump sum for each school would probably spell the death of small schools and make the argument unnecessary. However, if the pressure on a Conservative government is to design a formula that allows small schools to survive, then it has to address the question of their organisation and support. Many years ago, pyramids were suggested with clusters of primary schools linked to their local secondary school or their nearest secondary school of the same faith in the case of church schools and those of the other faiths. This would argue that geography is important but harks back the part 3 Authorities of the 1944 Education Act that operated within the larger counties. Do we wish to go back to the pre-Taylor Committee Report of 1976 position with one governing body for all schools in an area? Does such a system produce rotten boroughs or community cohesion? My guess is that it depends upon how the system is regulated by the next tier upwards?

Any system is also only as good as the people operating it. The government needs to take a long hard look at the size of the leadership cadre, both professional and political and ask what the cost of increasing the size of the pool will be. I have watched leadership salaries increase in response to the economics of supply and demand and to ignore this basic principle of economics and to create say 500 new multi-academy trusts without working out how they could be funded doesn’t strike me as good government. To return to the Police & Crime Commissioner elections for a minute, it would be poor government that were to impose cuts on police forces to fund the academisation of all our schools.


Austerity Tory style

In 2011 I discovered that the Key stage 1 results in Oxford City were the worst in the country. I drew this fact to the attention of the press and they alerted the County Council that had oversight for schools across Oxfordshire. In turn the district council, Oxford City, became involved because the schools were all located in their area. There were also two diocese, one Church of England and one Roman Catholic with oversight of some of the schools. That was a total of four bodies concerned with putting together a plan to improve the success of education in the City of Oxford: I am pleased to report that there has been an improvement.

Now fast forward to the present time. If the same circumstances arose, how many bodies would need to be contacted? There are 9 primary academies and one free school in the city at presenti addition to the remaining community and voluntary schools. The academies and the free school are managed by 6 different trusts, including one where a notice to deal with a budget deficit was issued earlier this year. The headquarters of that trust isn’t located in Oxfordshire.

So, were there to be the same need for a concerted effort across the City of Oxford there would now be the original bodies plus six more to deal with. If the diocese manage their MAT schools with the same teams as their voluntary schools that would reduce the number to four new MATs, but one would also need to add in the Regional School Commissioner that didn’t exist in 2011 and probably the Education Funding agency as well, as the funding body, so that takes us back to six more organisations for the 10 primary schools not managed through Oxfordshire County Council.

How many more MATs would there be if all primary schools became academies. The new schools being built in the county are now manged by other MATs, mostly with no geographical links to the county, but just selected from bodies that were on the DfE list of sponsors.

I am not convinced that a MAT managing a random geographical spread of primary schools is the best answer to secure high standards. In the 1980s all Oxfordshire primary schools were grouped into partnerships for some of the very reasons Ministers cite for their conversion into academies.  Before schools gained financial independence, the local authority regularly held meetings with groups of primary heads. After budgets were devolved it was up to the head to decide whether to attend or not. I wonder how many MATs hold meetings of their head teachers, and whether they are regarded as compulsory with regard to attendance.

I saw a comment from a Minister to the effect that creating all primary schools as academies would drive up standards. If so, one wonders why the government has wasted parliamentary time on the recent Act of Parliament requiring coasting schools to convert to academy status.

A free recruitment web site may help schools save money, although as readers know one already exists in TeachVac, but I doubt it will offset the extra costs associated with operating a system where all schools are academies: not my idea of tackling austerity and raising school standards.



Education not a priority for voters?

The Conservative Party seems to have calculated that because education in general and schools in particular didn’t feature prominently in the 2015 general election campaign parents and voters generally were content with the direction of travel. This means Tory policy-makers think voters support the move towards a school system that deprived local authorities of most of their remaining functions regarding schools and required all schools, including all primary schools, to become academies.

The forthcoming local elections in May are an opportunity for many voters to prove the government spin doctors wrong. As this blog has asserted, primary schools should remain under local support and direction as part of a national system. Schools are an important part of their local community, indeed in many rural areas they are the only manifestation of the community other than a village hall. The pub, shop, church and all other services have disappeared. Many Tory councillors recognise this point. Indeed, I suspect than some even entered active politics in support of their local school.

Announcing the policy that all schools must become academies just before Easter and both the teacher conference season and local election campaigning was either an act of supreme self-confidence on the part of the prime minister – for he must have sanctioned the Chancellor telling the world about the policy in the budget – or a staggering lack of understanding of the feelings of voters for their local school and its place in the community. Why the Tories would want to offer opposition parties a campaign against wholesale nationalisation of schools is beyond my understanding.

So far, despite their important as operators of primary schools, the churches and other faith groups seem to have bene relatively silent on the announcement about academisation. Easter Sunday sermons would be a good time for the Archbishops to convey to the faithful whether they back the government or will support those that want local authorities to retain an interest in schooling.

The honourable way out might be for Mrs Morgan to announce that in the first stage all secondary schools will become academies and that the policy will then be reviewed in the light of how MATs are working before moving on to the primary sector if the policy has proved successful. After all, we live in an age of austerity, as the government keeps telling us, and creating academies for the sake of it uses money that could be better spent protecting children’s centres, rural bus subsidies, disability benefits or a host of other more useful projects.

The Perry Beeches warning letter from the Education Funding Agency published on Maundy Thursday will just add fuel to the fire of those that worry about how MATs operate. Of course there were schools that broke financial regulations under local control, and even heads that went to prison for mis-appropriating public or parents’ funds. But, it would be interesting to know whether the trend towards financial mis-management is more likely in MATs with no geographical basis than those where they work closely with local authorities?

Who runs our schools could become the key battle of the 2016 local elections. If it does, there is no guarantee that the Tory programme for all schools to become academies will meet with universal voter approval.


Keep Primary Schools Local

Now is the time for all those that believe primary schools are best kept under local democratic control to take action.

Please email or write to your MP asking them to defend the present position and to stop the government forcing all schools to become nationally controlled academies.

If you go to church this weekend, lobby your priest, vicar, minister or other faith leader, since the Churches, and to a much lesser extent other faiths, have a large interest in primary schools. Contact your local councillor and find out their views.

This is not a new campaign on my part to keep primary schools under local democratic control. Before the budget announcement I wrote on this blog about the BBC announcement foreshadowing the nationalisation of all schools that:

The interesting question is whether there is enough unity in the Conservative Party at Westminster to agree to ditch their chums in local government and fully nationalise the school system. Local government won’t enjoy being left with schools places, annual admissions and transport plus, presumably, special needs.

As I have pointed out in previous posts it is difficult to see how a fully academy structure built around MATs can save the government money to spend on the front-line. It is also an open question whether there is enough leadership capacity to staff such a system. I predicted this outcome way back in a post in February 2013https://johnohowson.wordpress.com/2013/02/ when I wrote that:

“a National School Service is quietly emerging, with Whitehall connecting directly to schools. Localism it may be, but not democratically elected localism. A national funding formula, administered by schools where the Secretary of State determines who will be able to be a governor, and whether or not new schools are needed, and who will operate them, seems more like a NHS model than a local school system.”

So, I welcome the support of a number of Tory local cabinet members from across the country for the view that local authorities should still to decide how local education works and retain a general oversight of education, rather than transferring such powers to Westminster; especially for primary schools.

I heard Melinda Tilley, the Tory cabinet member for Education in Oxfordshire, where I have been a Lib Dem county councillor since May 2103, calling the government’s move to academisation a ‘diktat’. This contrast sharply with the silence from Labour on the issue, but then it was Labour that invented the academy programme.

Primary schools are an essential part of local communities, some face immense challenges in serving those communities, and not all may achieve their best every year for a whole host of reasons. There will always be a need for a school improvement service, and primary schools have worked in partnerships for years before governments at Westminster decided a free for all market approach was better than cooperation. The fact that the market approach failed wasn’t the fault of local authorities; nationalisation isn’t the answer.