Education is a fundamental Human Right

Last week there was a report from the Ombudsman (sic) about the management of the process of to the admission of a pupil to a school. This report was of especial interest to me as it involved Oxfordshire, where I am a county councillor.

Long-time readers of this blog will know of my concerns over the time required for some children taken into care to be offered a school place, despite their vulnerability. I have written about that issue several times, but probably most tellingly in April last year at https://johnohowson.wordpress.com/2018/04/17/educating-children-taken-into-care/

The fact that other children are also being affected is very disappointing, and disheartening when it is happening so close to home.

I firmly believe this is a basic right of children to be provided with education by the State, if asked to do so. To leave a child for 14 months, as in the case highlighted in the report from the Ombudsman, with either less than full-time education or no education at all is unacceptable.

We now fine parents for taking children on holiday in term time, so we cannot accept, even in these times of cuts to public services, a child facing long periods without education as a result of administrative issues.

Indeed, I am reminded that the first Protocol of Article 2 of the 1998 Human Rights Act reads as follows:

Right to education

No person shall be denied a right to an education. In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and to teaching, the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching is in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.

https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/en/human-rights-act/article-2-first-protocol-right-education

The fault is not entirely that of Oxfordshire, the power of academies to dictate their own in-year admissions and the failure of government to act quickly when asked to rule on the issue don’t help.

Indeed, the 2016 White Paper that suggested that in-year admissions be returned to local authority control would be a good start.

If Mr Williamson wanted an early win for parents, pending time for legislation, he could gain voluntary acceptance for academies and their Trusts to agree to work with local authorities on admissions and not to opt out of local arrangements.

However, all Oxfordshire’s children already have Oxfordshire County Council as their first line of defence when there are problems, as the Ombudsman pointed out at paragraph 60 of their Report:

Section 19 of the Education Act 1996 states councils have a duty to make arrangements to ensure the provision of suitable education at school or otherwise for each child of compulsory school age who for reasons of illness, exclusion or otherwise may not for any period receive suitable education unless arrangements are made for them. This duty is binding.

https://www.lgo.org.uk/information-centre/news/2019/jul/oxfordshire-teen-left-out-of-school-for-14-months-because-of-council-delay

Young people only have one chance of education alongside their peers, and we have to provide the resources to take care of challenging cases as much as for the majority of pupils that cause no issues for the State, and the schools it funds.

 

 

Stop wasting money

A new report commissioned, and part funded by the Local Government Association, has found that ‘middle tier’ oversight functions for academies cost some 44% more than for local authority maintained schools. The research was carried out by Sara Bubb Associates, and the team conducting the study involved some senior figures from the world of academia. The full report can be accessed from: http://sarabubb.com/middle-tier/4594671314

This study published shortly after the call for evidence by the Confederation of School Trusts (see earlier post) shows that the overall costs for middle tier functions within the academy system in 2016/17 was £167.05 per pupil compared to £115.71 for the local authority system. It is worth pointing out that the two do not share a common financial year, and that some of the disbanded local advisory and professional development functions may have been taken up by MATs. However, neither of these points would be likely to fully explain the difference between the two amounts.

By my calculations the figures in this report suggest that saving of some £300 million might be made if the ‘middle tier’ was rationalised and local authorities were charged with oversight of all schools; perhaps with regional boards to allow for the economies of scale that this report points out are missing from the current academy sector at present.

The authors of the report call for an urgent review of the middle tier system in the light of international best practice. It is generally acknowledged that England has some of the most centralised public services; schooling is no exception to that state of affairs. The authors also recommend an evaluation of the cost-effectiveness of the multi-academy trust model, and I would add of standalone academies as well. The authors also want to see greater efficiency, fairness and transparency in funding the oversight of England’s school system. The DfE has gone some way since the data used in this report on at least facing up to the high salaries that were being paid in some parts of the academy system, but have not yet tackled the underlying issues identified in this report.

The DfE has also undertaken some work to drive down costs for schools, emulating, for instance, TeachVac’s free national vacancy site with a version of their own. However, the have failed to take on board advice in the 2016 White Paper that might have clarified some of the ‘middle tier’ functions, such as in-year admissions once again becoming the responsibility of local authorities. That isn’t just a cost matter, but also one of fairness for pupils compelled to change school during the school-year. As I have pointed out in the past, children taken into care and moved away for their own safety from their previous home often find some schools reluctant to admit them, even if they have places available.

Perhaps any new regime at Sanctuary Buildings after the new Prime Minister enters into office will use this report as the basis for a fresh start. However, I am not holding my breath. In the meantime, reports such as this one that highlight the amount of money being spent unnecessarily are to be welcomed.

 

 

 

Interesting data from ofsted

The Regional Director of ofsted spent just over an hour answering questions at a meeting earlier this week of Oxfordshire’s Education Scrutiny Committee. Sadly, neither the press nor any members of the public turned up to hear this interesting and informative exchange of views.

One of the questions posed by the Committee was about schools ranked ‘outstanding’ on previous criteria and whether the judgement will remain when the new Framework, currently out to consultation, comes into force. There doesn’t seem to be a mechanism to reset the dial when there is a major change in the inspection framework.

This question was thrown into sharp focus later this week by ofsted’s publication of inspection outcomes for the autumn term of 2018. This is available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/state-funded-schools-inspections-and-outcomes-as-at-31-december-2018

Of the 102 schools classified as ‘exempt’ under the 2011 legislation, that were subject to a full inspection, 12 schools (12%) remained outstanding, 50 (49%) declined to good, 35 (34%) declined to requires improvement and five (5%) declined to inadequate. The fact that four out ten of these schools declined to either ‘requires improvement’ or the category of ‘inadequate’, in five cases, must be of concern. A further 15 ‘outstanding’ schools had a short inspection and, thus, remained with the same outcome.

Ofsted also commented that the number of schools that had improved from ‘requires improvement’ had declined, compared with previous years. However, ofsted noted that ‘This may be a sign that the remaining schools have more entrenched problems and will be harder to turn around.’

Ofsted has also looked at schools in the government’s opportunity areas that have received extra cash outside of the normal funding arrangements. As might be expected, there was a 10% different between the percentage of schools rated as ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ in these areas and the national percentage of such schools. As ofsted observed, ‘The lower percentage of good and outstanding schools in opportunity areas is to be expected, as the areas were chosen on the basis of the problems they were experiencing.’

No doubt, at some point in the future, ofsted will comment on both the use of funding in these areas and the difference it makes to schools outside those areas, but facing similar or even more extreme challenges.

In the present complex structure of governance, the lack of local robust school improvement teams offering help to all schools, whether maintained, standalone academies, small or even large MATs means that ofsted can often only inspect after a school has begun to decline. Good local school improvement teams, funded across all schools, might well be able to prevent some declines from happening. MATs can make this happen as they can top slice their schools, but other schools cannot as easily do so.

When the country finally emerges from its Brexit travails, this is but one of many issues that will need to be addressed. One can but hope that such an outcome will be decided sooner rather than later.

CEOs pay: what’s happening?

A recent Chartered Institute of Personnel Development survey found that median pay for bosses of the UK’s biggest companies hit almost £4m last year – up from about £3.5m in 2016. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-45183881

That set me thinking about the work the DfE undertook earlier this year in relation to the pay of CEOs of Multi Academy Trusts and whether or not the findings had been published anywhere?

Readers will recall that Eileen Milner, the chief executive of the Education and Skills Funding Agency, wrote in February to the chairs of 87 MATs employing individuals earning more than £150,000, asking them to explain their rationale for doing so by early March and to justify paying these salaries.

The intervention comes two days after the Department for Education minister, Lord Agnew, said that no MAT boss should receive a larger pay increase than their teaching staff and that CEOs should have their pay cut if there is a downturn in the performance of their schools. It follows a similar letter sent in December 2016 to single-academy trusts paying leaders more than £150,000. Lord Agnew’s February letter can be accessed at https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/683075/Lord_Theodore_Agnew_letter_to_chairs_of_academy_trusts.pdf

Further letters appear to have been written to some MATs in April and July seeking more information. These can be found at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/letters-to-academy-trusts-about-levels-of-executive-pay 28 letters were sent in December 2017; 88 in February 2018 and a further 96 letters in either April or July 2018. With a final return date of 20th July, the EFSC should now have sufficient information to publish a report on the state of the most highly paid staff in the public education service.

There may be an issue relating to pensions should those not undertaking any teaching or direct site leadership of a school remain in the Teachers’ Pension Scheme. In the past, when becoming local authority staff most would have moved out of the TPS into the relevant LGPS for their authority. I don’t’ know how LGPS scheme managers and trustees, of which I am one for Oxfordshire’s scheme, would approach the arrival of such highly paid staff so near pensionable age, but the DfE does need to make clear the boundary for who can belong to the Teachers’ Pension Scheme even if they aren’t actually in a school?

The level of salaries paid to senior staff in the school system is clearly a matter that won’t go away. After all, perhaps 100 MATs paying more than most local authorities pay their Director of Children’s Services must be of concern in term of expenditure, especially once pension and other on-costs are added to the basic salary.

The problem really dates back to the Labour government and the development of Executive Headteacher roles without the government making it clear how such professionals should be paid. However, the seeds of that confusion date even further back into the early 1990s and the refusal to police the upper end of the Leadership Pay Scale for large schools facing recruitment difficulties. Failure to deal with a problem doesn’t always make it go away; sometimes it allows it to grow into a serious issue that is much harder to tackle as is now the case with the pay of CEOs of MATs.

 

 

 

School transfer costs

Once you move from a placed base system for the governance of schools, to one where a market model is the preferred choice, it is probably inevitable that each year schools will move between Multi- Academy Trusts for a variety of different reasons. Today, the DfE has published a note on their statistic pages about the number of such moves and the financial implications. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/academy-transfers-and-funding-england-financial-year-2017-to-2018

In the five years between 2013-14 and 2017-18, some 628 academies moved between MATs or MACs or moved from being single entities into a multi-school trust. Even though the overall number of academies managed as national schools has been increasing year by year, the percentage of academies moving has also been increasing. In 2013-14 the percentage of academies moving between or into Trusts was 0.5% of the overall total. By 2017-18, schools moving or joining Trusts accounted for 3.3% of the overall total of academies. It would have been helpful if the term financial year had been defined in the document. It must be assumed that it refers to the DfE’s financial year and not that of academies: they are not the same, and that has caused issues with the DfE’s accounts in the past.

In the days before the academy programme it is difficult to think of any local authority school being moved to another authority’s control, although whole authorities were broken up for a variety of reasons. Northamptonshire will be the next authority to see its remaining maintained schools split between two new unitary councils, after the financial problems that beset the county council earlier this yar. The DfE might like to publish data on the costs of such restructuring alongside these costs in the academy sector, just for comparison.

2017-18 was the first year that the number of schools receiving grant funding on moving between Trusts fell; from 60 schools the previous year to 49 in 2017-18. However, the savings were proportionally not as significant, as the bill over the two years such cash payments may be spread was only £370,000 less. Hopefully, there will be a larger decline in such expenditure in 2018-19.

Over the five year period, the cost to the system has been some £22 million. The DfE note explains what has been covered by this grant funding.

As the DfE explains, an academy can change trust arrangements only on the agreement of the Regional Schools Commissioner (RSC) acting on behalf of the Secretary of State (prior to 2014 decisions were taken by the Secretary of State).  It may apply to do so voluntarily – for example, a single academy may apply because it wants to benefit from the greater capacity (eg school improvement) from being part of a multi-academy trust; or the transfer may be initiated by the RSC because of concerns about the performance of the academy or the trust responsible for it.  The latter scenario is sometimes referred to as re-brokerage and is similar to intervention in local authority maintained schools, which sees them transformed into sponsored academies. Of course, before academies the local authority either had to solve the problems with the school or opt to close or amalgamate it with another school.

The largest sum identified in 2017-18 was for an academy in Stockport, where the cost identified was in excess of half a million pounds. Think what that cash might have done if used in other ways.

 

Tackling Academies and Trusts

Dear Secretary of State,

When addressing the NGA recently, you said;

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.

In relation to maintained schools you also said that ‘an Ofsted Inadequate judgement alone would lead to hard action to convert a Local Authority maintained school to an academy.’ However, you didn’t say what intervention would mean for an existing academy declared Inadequate by Ofsted?

Can you explain what action will be taken where the school declared Inadequate is already part of a multi-academy trust?

Where the school is also under financial special measures, one might expect some form of obvious action, such as a published notice of intent to close by the Regional School Commissioner. Where the school has well above average absence rates one might expect action to intervene fast, if you mean what you said.

Now, either your words were empty rhetoric in relation to academies or you really do want all schools to be good schools and will take steps to improve inadequate schools. Can you please reassure me that no school in Oxfordshire would be allowed to drift for more than a year after being declared an Inadequate Academy by Ofsted and with a recent monitoring inspection that concluded that ‘Leaders and managers are not taking effective action towards the removal of special measures.’

If this is not a case for the use of your policy of fast intervention, perhaps you can explain why it doesn’t meet your criteria.

You are also going to take action about the transparency of multi academy trusts and the pay of those that work in central offices administering the Trust. This can only be a good thing. In Oxfordshire several of the Trusts with headquarters outside the County pay their CEOs more than the £150,000 level you recently wrote to Trusts about, whereas according to their published accounts, none of the Trusts with its headquarters in Oxfordshire has come close to this limit.

Many primary schools are not now willing to join a Trust or even become an academy because once the decision has been made it is irrevocable. However, a Trust may either broker a school to another trust or in extreme circumstances give up the school altogether, but a school may not leave a Trust, even if the terms on which it agreed to join change dramatically. Such a risk doesn’t seem worth leaving the certainty of their present governance arrangements in the eyes of many governors, especially where the central charge may be little different to that offered for the purchase of traded services by their local authority.

Your speech did little to dispel the fog of uncertainty about how the system of schooling across England works for the benefit of all pupils. Please consider how all schools can work together and where there are many MATs in an area who has the ability to coordinate both their actions, those of academies not in Trusts and the remaining maintained schools whether they are voluntary or community in nature.

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.