More National Schools

It seems as if the government has decided that the next wave of free schools are going to be created in the worst-performing areas of England, particularly the North East. Officials are apparently to establish the next wave of about 35 new schools in the bottom third of lowest-performing areas, according to the BBC. Since this is a part of England where pupil rolls are generally either static or not rising as much as elsewhere, such a move will have a disproportionate effect on the budgets of other schools now that there is a common funding formula. I am sure that the DfE will take this factor into account in their planning.

In the past few weeks there have been a number of parliamentary questions about both free schools and academies. The government revealed that between 2013/14 and 2017/18 eight free schools had closed and another will close in the summer of 2018. Interestingly, one of the early closures, The Durham Free School, was located in the North East, where the government is now looking to create their new wave of such schools.

Alongside the closed free schools, there are 14 academy sponsors that to use the DfE jargon are ‘paused’. According to the Minister in an answer to a parliamentary question, an academy sponsor is paused if any or all of the following conditions exist:

  • significant concerns with educational impact;
  • serious financial concerns, for example where the Education and Skills Funding Agency has issued a financial notice to improve due to financial non-compliance, breaches of funding agreements; and/or
  • serious concerns about the leadership or governance of the sponsor, which may include due diligence and counter extremism issues.

Academy sponsors remain on pause unless and until the concerns that led to them being paused have been resolved. Just because a sponsor is not on pause does not mean it is automatically allowed to take on more schools. A rigorous process is followed for all sponsorship decisions.                                                                              Answer to PQ 146287

Even though a sponsor has to meet one, two or all of these tests, it seems likely that the outcome may be at the discretion of the Regional School Commissioner. In my view there should be a clear national policy on how these tests are applied, including for faith schools and their diocesan sponsors.

The government has also released the details of the number of academies that have been re-brokered since 2013-14. (Note not 2013/14) In total, 332 academies have moved Trusts during the period 2013/14 to 2016/17, with some more no doubt since then. As the number of academies has increased, and many schools either became academies or at  least started the process of doing so during the period when Mr Gove was Secretary of State, so the number moving Trusts has increased, from just 15 schools in 2013-14 to 165 in 2016-17. The PQ didn’t state the cost of the exercise and how many other schools might be stranded in limbo awaiting a new sponsor.

The governance arrangements for schools across England is now a mess. Schools that stay with a local authority know that they might have a new group of politicians in charge after an election, but in most cases the same group of officers will be in place; although the disruption to schools in Northamptonshire following the collapse of the County Council reminds us what is possible. However, schools joining a MAT can suddenly find their central services provided miles away from a group of staff they have no connections to and that may not understand their concerns. Such schools have no way out and no appeal mechanism against being moved or even traded between Trusts.

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Headteacher Boards: Value for money?

Last week, the Minister, Nick Gibb, was asked by Labour’s Angela Rayer about the cost of Headteacher Boards. There are the Boards set up to help the DFE over the issues relating to academies, by providing support to their Regional School Commissioner. The Board has a mixture of elected and appointed members. The Minister’s answer, reproduced below, is illuminating.

The compensation paid to elected, co-opted and appointed members of the eight English Headteacher Boards (HTBs) was £472,530 for 2017/18. For 2018/19 that cost is expected to be approximately £450,000. The Department has not yet profiled the budget for years beyond 2018/19. The schools/trusts of each HTB member are paid £500 per day when head teachers attend HTB meetings, plus in some cases, £250 for half-day reading/prep time. If HTB members are not serving head teachers, this money is paid directly to them.

Written Answer: 142872 15th May 2018

On top of this there are the secretariat costs associated with serving the purpose of the Boards. At present, Readers can find the minutes of decisions from these Boards and other information about their roles at https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/schools-commissioners-group/about including the register of interests of both commissioners and board members. The government has announced that there will be greater transparency

On the day following the written answer quoted above, another Minister, Nadhim Zahawi provided more information about the government’s thinking on these Headteacher Boards.

My right hon. Friend, the Secretary of State said in his recent speech to the National Association of Head Teachers conference that he wants greater transparency about the workings of Regional Schools Commissioners (RSCs) and Head Teacher Boards (HTBs) that advise and challenge RSCs. The department will work with the sector over the coming months to develop proposals, for consultation in the Autumn, to support a clear and simple accountability system. This will build on the information already available regarding RSCs and their work, including academy transfers. We currently publish records of HTB meetings. In July 2017, we produced updated Terms of Reference for HTBs as part of the summer HTB elections. We publish conflicts of interest registers for HTB members and RSCs, as well as information on the roles and responsibilities of the RSCs and criteria for all relevant types of RSC decisions

Written Answer: [143140 16th May 2018

In Oxfordshire, where I am a county councillor, the Education Scrutiny Committee has held an annual meeting with the Regional School Commissioner for our area or a member of his staff if he could not attend. The Committee regards such meetings as part of their function in monitoring and understanding the policies behind the operation of academies of all types educating children in the county.

Personally, I have not always felt that there is enough transparency or urgency when academies face problems. Spending nearly half a million on a set of Boards that process information may provide some legitimacy for the process, but whether or not it is good value for money is another matter. Could the cash be better spent elsewhere?

 

At least everyone is now talking about teacher workload

DfE press officers were unusually busy yesterday, with several announcements made to coincide with the Secretary of State’s speech at the NAHT conference in Liverpool – not a professional association solely for primary leaders, as some seem to imagine, but for leaders in all schools.

One of the most important announcements was that of the formation of a Workload Advisory Group to be chaired by Professor Becky Allen, the director for new Centre for Education Improvement Science at UCL’s Institute of Education. The appearance of senior representatives from the teacher associations among the membership makes this look like a reformation of the former body that existed under the Labour government. Assuming it produces proposals that are accepted by the DfE, then this Group should help Ministers restore some morale to the teaching profession by signalling that they are taking workload concerns seriously.

Announcements about the treatment of so called ‘coasting’ schools and forced academisation may well sound, if not the death knell, then certainly a slowing of primary schools opting to become academies. Why give up relative independence under local authority administration for the uncertain future as part of an Academy Trust, where the unelected trustees can decide to pillage your reserves and move on your best teachers and there is nothing you can do about the situation. That’s not jumping from the frying pan into the fire, but taking the risk of walking out of your house and leaving the front door wide open.

Hopefully, the Secretary of State is starting to move towards resolving the twin track governance system that has emerged since Labour and the Conservatives jointly decided to have a fit of collective amnesia about the key importance of place in schooling and also demonstrated a complete lack of the need for any democratic oversight of local education systems. My Liberal Democrat colleagues that demonstrated no opposition to academisation during the coalition government are, in my view, almost as equally to blame as the members of the other two main political parties for not recognising the need for significant local democratic involvement in our school system.

The Secretary of State might now be asked to go further and adopt the 2016 White Paper view that in-year admissions for all schools should be coordinated by local authorities; a local politician with responsibility for schools should also once again have a voting position on schools forum rather than just an observer role, especially as the NAHT have pointed out the growing importance of the High Needs Block and SEND education where links between mainstream schools and the special school sector is a key local authority responsibility. http://www.naht.org.uk/news-and-opinion/news/funding-news/naht-analysis-of-high-needs-funding/

The idea of a sabbatical mentioned by the Secretary of State was discussed in an earlier post on this blog, but there was little else on teacher recruitment in his speech.

If you want to listen to my thoughts on the present state of teacher recruitment, then Bath Spa University have just published a podcast in their Staffroom series where I answer a series of questions. You can access the podcast at https://soundcloud.com/user-513936641/the-staff-room-episode-10-crisis-in-recruitment and my interview is followed by a discussion between leading staff at the university on the same topic.

 

The Pay of Academy Staff

In the same week that I asked a question of Oxfordshire’s Cabinet Member for Education about the number of employees with salaries over £150,000 in Multi-Academy Trusts operating in Oxfordshire, the Public Accounts Committee has commented on the same issue in a report published today. https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmpubacc/760/76002.htm

The Cabinet member was unable to answer my question as, not surprisingly, the county doesn’t collate the information. However, in my supplementary question, I identified five MATs, all with HQs outside the county, where there was on officer listed in their 2017 accounts as being paid in excess of £150,000. In due course, my list will appear on the county council website and I will publish the link here.

In the Public Accounts Committee Report, issued today, it is clear that the government wrote to all stand-alone academies where in their accounts up to August 2016 there was an officer paid more than £150,000 to ask for an explanation by the 15th December 2017. I haven’t seen an FOI request for the responses. The original letter from the ESFA of 4th December only went to 29 single academy trusts (i.e. academy trusts with only one school in the trust) where the ESFA could identify from the accounts that the trust was paying at least one person over £150,000 and was to ask why such large sums of money had been paid.

In February this year, the Minister wrote to all Chairs of academy trusts in England saying:

 ‘I believe that not all boards are being rigorous enough on this issue. CEO and senior pay should reflect the improvements they make to schools’ performance and how efficiently they run their trusts. I would not expect the pay of a CEO or other non-teaching staff to increase faster than the pay award for teachers. I intend to continue to challenge this area of governance. My view is that we should see a reduction in CEO pay where the educational performance of the schools in the trust declines over several years.’ DfE letter 21st February 2018 reference 35 in the PAC Report.

There has been a history of neglect over senior staff salaries dating back to the Labour government and the emergence of the Executive Head or Principal position soon after the start of the century. Such a grade was never formally recognised in the pay and conditions agreements, and once Mr Gove freed up pay for academies, with no government restraints in place, it was open season for those that wanted to see pay rise to closer to what could be earned in the commercial sector. Buying former DfE officials was also always going to be expensive, but was no doubt one of the justifications used. Using public money to pay related parties is often even less acceptable, as the PAC note in their Report.

We heard of related party transactions where the rules were not properly followed, or where there were doubts about the propriety of the transactions. For example, Wakefield City Academies Trust purchased IT services worth £316,000 from a company owned by the Chief Executive of the Trust, and paid a further £123,000 for clerking services provided by a company owned by the Chief Executive’s daughter. We similarly heard that the founder of Bradford Academy, who was a former teacher, was ordered to repay £35,000 after being sentenced to prison for defrauding the school. The founder and other former members of staff at Kings Science Academy paid £69,000 of Government grants into their own bank accounts. There have also been problems with related party transactions at the Bright Tribe Academy Trust, which resulted in schools being removed from the Trust.

Academy trusts are required to demonstrate to the satisfaction of their own auditors that related parties have not made a profit from the relationship (i.e. that transactions are at cost or below). We were concerned that determining whether a service has been delivered at cost is dependent on information from the supplier, who may have a vested interest in manipulating or inflating this information and is in a position to do so. We questioned whether there were incentives for trustees to take advantage of the system, due to the weaknesses in the system of oversight. The Department, noting our dissatisfaction with the current processes, committed to reflect on the adequacy of the current arrangements. Following our evidence session, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the School System wrote to all Chairs of academy trusts to remind them of the need to scrutinise any related party transactions, and to ensure that a full and proper procurement process is following and the trust is able to demonstrate that the services have been provided at cost.

Paragraphs 10 and 11 of the PAC Report: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmpubacc/760/76002.htm

Should local authorities be required either to provide audit services for all academies or at least to review the accounts of those academies with responsibility for schools within their locality? The LGA could apportion responsibility for MATs that cross boundaries in order to ensure that all are looked at by at least one authority that could then report to the appropriate local scrutiny committee.

Public money, especially in a time of austerity, should be spent in the most effective way. TeachVac has cost the government nothing, but demonstrate how a low cost recruitment site works for the benefit of all. The notion of ‘public service’ and not ‘profit from public funds’ must once again be to the fore.

 

 

 

 

Productivity gain or worsening working conditions?

Ahead of the ASCL Conference in Birmingham this weekend, there is a report in the press today about rising class sizes in secondary schools.

An analysis by teaching unions has suggested 62% of secondary schools have had to expand class sizes between 2014/15 and 2016/17. The study, conducted by the NEU, NAHT and ASCL – as well as non-teaching unions Unison, GMB and Unite – showed that of 150 local authorities, 83% saw a rise in average class sizes across their secondary schools, while 14% have seen a fall and 3% saw no change.

This report should come as no surprise to anyone connected with education. Indeed, I would predict that class sizes will continue to increase in size over the next few years as the secondary school population expands from its low point reached in 2014 and budgets also come under pressure.

However, there is an argument to be had about the usefulness of class sizes as a measure. They can be affected by factors such as the degree of non-contact time allowed to staff; policy over options at GCSE and for post-16 courses as well as space considerations.

An alternative measure is the Pupil Teacher Ratio. Even here there are now problems: how do you define a teacher. Do you only include those with QTS and exclude Teach First and School Direct trainees, as well as any other unqualified teachers or cover supervisors?

Anyway, I have included the changes in PTRs across different types of secondary schools since the School Workforce Census was introduced. The result confirms the findings from the unions and could have been researched without the need to waste valuable time in hard-pressed local authorities. As an added bonus, these are DfE approved numbers, so the government cannot quibble about them.

Changes in Pupil Teacher Ratios in secondary schools
2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016
All State funded Secondary schools 14.9 14.9 15 15 15.3 15.6
Converter academies 15.2 15.8
Sponsored academies 13.6 15.3
All academies 14.8 15.6
UTCs/Studio Schools 12.9 13.8
Free Schools 12.6 15.3
LA maintained 15 14.9 14.8 14.9 15.1 15.4

The big change has come since 2015 and probably reflects the loss of extra funding academies received in the early days of the Gove period at the DfE. The effect the loss of that extra cash has had on the funding of these schools is now obvious: sadly, once becoming an academy there is normally no way back. For that reason, heads gathering in Birmingham might want to examine the value for money of back offices at MATs.Source DfE SFR 25/2017 Table 17a

After all, it was the heads that complained for decades about the dead hand of local authority expenditure. Having been released from the frying pan of Local Authority spending patterns they must not fall straight into the fire of MATs with high relative overheads.

There are many other issues that secondary heads will need to consider at their conference. Perhaps one of the most pressing is finding the teachers to fill these classes that now have more pupils in them. It may be a productivity gain, but it does impose a greater workload on teachers and may the class size and PTR changes partly explain the growing loss of teachers with 3-5 years’ experience previously discussed on this blog.

In passing, the head teachers might also want to reflect upon the changing nature of the teacher vacancy market that helps provide the teachers. With the TES group reporting a loss of 2016-17 and the DfE working on a new vacancy platform, how teachers are recruited could become an important area for discussion over the next few years.

As one of the instigators of TeachVac, the free platform for vacancies, I am, of course, not an idle by-stander in this debate.

Schools’ Costs

At the beginning of February the DfE published a note to help the School Teachers’ Review Body (the STRB) and other interested parties understand about costs for schools in England at the national level over the period2018-19 to 2019-20. You can read the document at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/schools-costs-technical-note

Many school leaders and governing bodies will find the DfE’s analysis reads like something created in a parallel universe. Core funding over the two year period the DfE states is to increase at 3.1%, slightly ahead of government predictions of inflation at a predicted 2.9% over the same period. If these percentages turned out to be correct, then schools overall would find budgets under less pressure than expected. However, the DfE’s analysis doesn’t take into account any variations to local government pension schemes rates for employers, as they were not known at the time the technical note was put together. The analysis cannot also prejudge what the STRB will do about pay rates for teachers as a group. Will they hold the line or recognise the recruitment challenges schools in some parts of the country are facing and the system as a whole is facing in trying to entice graduates to train as teachers in some subjects.

The DfE also helpfully comment in their technical note that their high level analysis indicates that if the 25% of schools spending the highest amounts on each category of non-staff expenditure were instead spending at the level of the rest, this would save these schools an aggregate £1 billion that could be spent on improving teaching.

As regular readers of this blog know, TeachVac www.teachvac.co.uk was conceived for this very same reason to offer a free recruitment platform for schools that would create savings from recruitment in order to support expenditure on teaching and learning.  We know that TeachVac is saving schools money now, just as the DfE’s own vacancy scheme will if it ever becomes an effective player in the recruitment market.

By 2019-20 the DfE sees academies as bearing the brunt of the cumulative net pressures as a result of the growth in pupil numbers and the fall in protection payments. The maintained sector will have to cope with the effects of local authorities retaining schools block funding for Education Support Grant (ESG) general rate duties over the three year period.

These figures act as a warning to the remaining maintained schools considering becoming academies. They need to consider the financial situation very carefully in the context of their own situation as well as these national figures to see whether they would be better or worse off.

The fact that the DfE has also apparently written to MATs and MACs where the chief officer earns more than £150,000 asking for a justification of the salary is also interesting. I heard one suggestion, not supported by the person making it, that these high salaries were the price the system paid for school leaders taking on the leadership of failing schools. A more insulting argument to the teachers and other staff working in these schools is difficult to envisage.

Might we perhaps be moving away from basic market economics and back to a negotiated national system of pay and conditions there are many that would welcome the better cost control such discipline would bring back into the system. However, the basic rules of supply and demand will always be difficult to ignore.

 

 

Not Full Circle?

In the early 1990s, I sat on Oxfordshire’s Education Committee. At that time, we were forced to outsource the county’s school meal service. The contract went to an offshoot of what was then CfBT,. After several changes of direction and contractor, the one constant was the need to outsource such services. With the coming of local management by schools, first grant maintained schools, then academies and finally all schools were allowed to do their own thing and decide either who to appoint or even to provide the meals service themselves. With the collapse of Carillion, the question is whether the wheel is now turning again and creating a climate for a politically controlled in-house delivery of services once again?  Of course, while schools retain the purchasing decisions, as the budget holder, there will never be a return to the previous system of a centrally imposed system.

In the early days of this blog, in 2014, I wrote about some of the issues facing councils and contractors, especially over the savings in staff costs -see https://johnohowson.wordpress.com/2014/07/28/private-or-public/ and I wonder whether another stage in the cycle of government contracting is starting to emerge. In the immediate post-war period of central planning, public bodies often ran most services. There was no profit element to consider, but cost controls were of variable quality. The Thatcher era saw a mass transfer of services to private companies, with an expectation that costs would fall. Maybe some did, but others didn’t and some benefitted from the proceeds of technological change that drove down costs, but didn’t create competition and didn’t always drive down prices.

However, when costs have been reduced, it is clear that the profit element in a contract is often paying for more than the risk involved in the enterprise, especially where it is services that are being provided. I recognised this when I set up TeachVac and the DfE presumably recognise it with their latest attempt to establish a vacancy service for schools and teachers. In education, the problem is that many of the budget holders, schools, are too small to gain purchasing power, except where they can purchase locally.

Can and should democratically elected local authorities play a part in providing services to schools? We shall see. There are clearly those on the right of politics that see State provided services as an anathema. Presumably, they are not happy with the DfE creating a publically operated vacancy service for teachers?  I have yet to see any opinion from them, but it is an interesting test of where they see the limits of state action?

Finally, back to the Carillion saga. Fortunately, Oxfordshire had been in the process of recovering the contracts for both construction and facilities management services outsourced in 2012 to Carillion. This is as a result of pressure from councillors of all political parties. From 2014, issues about school construction projects not meeting deadlines were regularly raised at political group briefings. Oxfordshire’s residents are fortunate that the County has no Party with a large majority and every incentive for opposition parties to hold the ruling group’s feet to the fire over the management of services. But, in education none of this solves the bigger governance issues around the two parallel systems of academies and maintained schools.