More or less local democracy in our school system: who cares?

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) at Westminster has published a short and interesting Report into ‘Converting Schools to Academies’. https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmpubacc/697/69702.htm

There is little to disagree with in the Report. The process has been expensive and has caused problems with the remaining statutory duties of local authorities. The Committee cited pupil place planning as an issue, but could have included SEND issues and the education of children taken into care. They could have also realised that Free Schools and the dalliance with the 14-18 sector that brought us UTCs and Studio Schools also contributed to the problems with pupil place planning.

Oxfordshire is one of the few, (perhaps the only?) local authority to require a regional school commissioner to appear before its Education Scrutiny Committee each year to give an account of progress of academies within his remit. The answers to the Scrutiny Committee’s questions have revealed a weak and probably largely ineffectual system for improving school performance among academies. The PAC were right to comment on the need for better links with the Education and Skills Funding Council and the RSCs.

Of interest to Oxfordshire was the PACs comments about small rural schools and academies. Oxfordshire has a large number of small rural primary schools that are much loved by the county. The PAC said

Small rural schools, particularly primary schools, can face particular difficulties in finding suitable sponsors. Low pupil numbers may make rural schools financially unviable and their geographical isolation can make it more difficult for multi-academy trusts to provide support. The Department told us that, since 2010, 1,379 rural primary schools had registered an interest in becoming an academy. Of those, 984 had gone on to apply to become an academy, including 262 that were small rural primary schools.

 The PAC asked what, particularly for small rural schools, the barriers were to becoming academies and how the barriers could be addressed. The Department told us that, in principle, the opportunity presented by a joining multi-academy trust should be greater for a smaller school than a larger one, because there was the potential to achieve more economies of scale.

One wonders why, if the point on economies of scale is true, it is secondary schools that have rushed to become academies while these small primary schools have held back, even in many diocese where they already had links outside of the local authority. It may be that under the 2010 Act many original converters became stand-alone academies and only now are they joining together into multi academy trusts.

This means that there are now three separate governance systems for our schools, often running alongside each other; maintained schools, mostly primary schools; standalone academies, mostly secondary schools and Trusts that can be either primary, secondary or a mixture of both with a smattering of all-through schools as well.

These separate systems are expensive to operate and can cause problems as the PAC Report demonstrated. The DfE will, at some point, have to think how to re-join the parts into a whole. For me, one key question with be the place of local democratic accountability in the system. Do we want an NHS style school system with little local accountability or one more akin to what there was between 1944 and the early 2000s, with a significant role for a democratically elected local body aligned to the rest of local government? Regular readers of this blog will know where I stand.

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How to run a National School

Recently Lord Agnew, the PUS for the School System wrote to firms that audit academies and their Trusts/Committees. Now a letter from a Minister carries with it both political and administrative weight when compared to one from a civil servant writing on behalf of their political masters. Lord Agnew’s letter can be found at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/letter-from-lord-theodore-agnew-to-academy-trust-auditors

In the letter, , in the words of the DfE website, Lord Agnew ‘shares across the audit sector several key points that will help boards govern more effectively and make best use of the freedoms they have.’

So what are the key points in the letter? General Annual Grant (GAG) pooling is the first point specified.

Lord Agnew reminds the auditors that ‘The opportunity to pool GAG is particularly valuable, in particular to simplify the provision of support to weaker schools in a MAT until they can grow their pupil numbers. It is worth remembering that a MAT is a single financial entity.

This isn’t a power generally available to local authorities in relation to maintained schools and typifies the different power arrangements between schools in MAT/MACs and those schools still in the maintained sector. Interestingly, he doesn’t ask the auditors for a time limit on taking money away from some schools to support others. Auditors might like to consider whether this cross-subsidy between schools should really be open-ended or in need for regular justification, since Regional School Commissioners seem to differ in their approach to such weak schools. Auditors can provide helpful national guidance by acting in concert on this point.

By the time Lord Agnew has reached Auditors’ management letters, he is telling audit firms that, ‘We would like to see the recommendations made by auditors being implemented in a timely manner with scrutiny at board level to ensure that this is the case.’ Now whether or not he sees it as a duty on the auditors to see that the contents of these letters are addressed is an interesting question. Of course, if the issue is really serious, then the auditors should quality the accounts. However, this is something auditors are generally reluctant to do, even though the DfE itself isn’t unfamiliar with the process in terms of its own accounts and their relationship with the academy sector.

Lord Agnew also hope his letter will open up debate between the auditors and their clients. His list of Operational Challenges is interesting. These include,

  1. Are your clients using a standard employment contract for all teaching staff so that they can be cross deployed to different schools?
  2. Are they using the same exam boards in all their schools to enable cross school marking and also to optimise the point above?
  3. Do they have a central electronic purchase order system to ensure strong controls on expenditure?
  4. Do they have a central bank account that simplifies bank reconciliations and ensures that there is constant, easy visibility of the cash position?
  5. Are they benchmarking their supply costs and if over a number of years the level is constant have they considered employing permanent staff to fill some of this requirement thereby improving the quality and removing agency charges?
  6. Are they accessing the Department’s procurement arrangements if they are providing better value than they can achieve on their own?

The first of these is highly interesting in the sense of moving back to controlling the lives of teachers. When I joined Haringey, in 1971, my contract specified a school but added that the council had the right to move me to another school. With all school in a tight geographical area this wouldn’t have had much to concern me, even if was in use, which by then it wasn’t. With MATs/MACs spread across large areas, it might be helpful to understand whether this policy, advocated by the DfE, is having any effects on recruitment and retention of teachers both at classroom level and, more specifically, in terms of promotion to middle leadership if it mean a house move to a different area?

If these powers are to be enforced on academies, then presumably they are both important and useful for our school system. In that case, why aren’t local authorities allowed to create them for maintained schools and what is the future for stand-alone academies?

Perhaps Lord Agnew will write to Directors of Children’s Services explaining why these operational challenges don’t matter in the remaining maintained schools?

 

 

‘intervene fast… take the serious action necessary’. Promises

Why has the Regional School Commissioner for North West London and the South Central Region not issued any warning notices to any school about poor performance since the end of 2016? The updated DfE list of such notice published earlier this week  https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/list-of-letters-to-academy-trusts-about-poor-performance reveals that the last notice issued was in December 2016 and that was to a school issued a pre-warning notice at the start of that year. Indeed, all the schools issued with notices in 2016/17 had previously received an earlier letter, meaning no new school in the region has been added to the list since early 2016.

Is the Office of the RSC not communicating to the DfE or has the RSC decided that the Secretary of State’s words in his speech to the NGA that ‘on those rare occasions when a school is failing – be in no doubt – we will intervene fast and we will take the serious action necessary’ doesn’t apply in the North West London and the South Central Region?

It cannot be that there are no Inadequate schools within the region, although there may not be many. The RSC appears also never to have issued any sort of notice to a school run by any of the faith groups in his region. This may explain why the school I highlighted in my previous blog post hasn’t received any overt indication of concern about performance, except from Ofsted when it declared it Inadequate in the spring of 2017 and received expressions of further concerns in the two follow-up s8 monitoring reports.

Is the RSC for the North West London and the South Central Region trying a new policy, at variance with the words of the Secretary of State, by seeking to improve schools beyond the glare of publicity? Interestingly, the figures for number of notices issued by the North West London and the South Central Region are also matched by some other regions that have also not published any notices in 2017/18, whereas the RSC for the South West has issued five of the 12 notices in 2017/18.

There are clearly Inadequate academies, as rated by Ofsted, in the regions where no notices have been published in 2017/18  as well as previously rated Inadequate schools where progress to return to an effective standard of education has been unsatisfactory. How are RSCs handling these schools now the notices seem to have fallen out of fashion? How will the Secretary of State’s promise to intervene fast be acted upon if the general public do not know what action is being taken by an RSC?

The Secretary of State has also promised more openness from Headteacher Boards and their minutes, so that is one possible way forward. Local politicians might also like to call RSCs before their Education Scrutiny Committee to given an account of how the RSC’s Office is raising standards in their local area among the academies and their Trusts. Oxfordshire’s Education Scrutiny Committee has been holding such meetings for the past three years with the RSC or their Office. Sadly, the ESFC have yet to agree to such a meeting despite two academies being in financial special measures for more than two years.

 

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.

 

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.

Oasis close an academy in Kent

Hextable Academy in Swanley is to close because of falling rolls. Just when you thought schools needed to expand the Oasis Academy chain has decided to close Hextable Academy in Swanley. The 11-18 school has just fewer than 500 students according to government figures, but could accommodate 1,000 pupils. Those parents and their offspring waiting to hear about 2015 admissions in a fortnight’s time will be especially annoyed, as will the pupils kept at the school to complete their examination courses if teachers decide to quit ahead of the closure. Having worked in a college during a period of run-down prior to closure I know from first experience how little fun such a situation can be for both staff and students. The Academy Trust has at least apparently offered to pay for the new uniform of pupil relocated to another school.

Questions will need to be asked about the future of the site. It would be short-sighted to lose the school from education use if pupil numbers will increase over the next few years. Indeed, one wonders whether it might have been possible to save the school by turning it into a 5-18 all-through school by adding a primary department.

Kent County Council, the local authority, is in something of a difficult situation. They retain the legal responsibility for ensuring an education for all children but have no control over admission numbers in academies and could not have vetoed the decision to shut this school. I hope they will send Oasis a bill for all the extra work required of officers in placing the pupils requiring a new school because of the closure. It would be unfair to expect the council taxpayers of the county to foot the bill either for finding new schools or for any extra travel costs resulting from pupils having to change schools.

Hopefully, the academy chain discussed this closure with both the Education Funding Agency and their Regional Commissioner and explored whether it was worth keeping the school open with additional grant funding until pupil numbers increased again.

This episode, along with the Cuckoo Hall Academy Trust revelations chronicled in a previous post confirm my belief that the next government must sort out governance arrangements once and for all so that there is an overall body responsible for place planning and the effective use of resources across the school estate. I would like it to be the role of local authorities, but it doesn’t have to be if the government at Westminster decides otherwise. But, the present muddle cannot be allowed to last. Unstitching the grant payment for pupils that transfer to secondary schools that are not academies and operate on a different financial year will be just one more headache for officers to deal with.

One thing the DfE and EFA along with the regional commissioners must now do is set a timetable for academies and free school to notify the authorities each year if they are considering closure because of lack of numbers, or indeed for any other foreseeable reason.