Can schools cause a housing crisis?

Are academies screwing up the housing market? In the 2016 Education White Paper, it was hinted that in-year admissions might be returned to local authority control as they manage the main admissions round. So far, nothing has happened.

With secondary school rolls now on the increase in many parts of the south of England, and likely to eventually increase across the whole country over the course of the next few years, many more schools are filling up in some of their younger age year groups. They are, therefore becoming more reluctant to offer places to in-year applicants.

I have been campaigning for some time about the effect this can have on children taken into care that are having to experience a long wait before a school is forced to take them in the end; this at a very vulnerable time in their lives when being deprived of social interaction school can offer is a real concern and needs urgent action.

Now, I am also being told of parents moving mid-year for employment reasons that are finding schools reluctant to offer a place to their child. Where most or all secondary schools are academies this leaves the parents in a weak position and their child or children possibly out of school for several months.

I have remarked before that it is a supreme irony that a parent talking a child on holiday for a fortnight can be fined, whereas one taking them across town to a new house can be excluded from schooling for much longer. Something isn’t right here, and the government needs to take action. Firstly, they should determine the size of the problem and what the effects of rising rolls are likely to be on the need for in-year places and spare capacity within the system.

Builders, developers and employers human resources departments need to understand the effects of current policy, since with social media being immediate in nature it could slow down the house market and make employees reluctant to switch jobs mid-school year if they believe schooling will be a problem for their children.

As an aside, many schools could do more for children they admit mid-year and might want to track how well they integrate into the school. Schools with large number of forces children are well aware of this problem and that was one reason the Service Children’s Premium was introduced.

The fact that academies are their own admissions authorities is probably at the heart of the problem. Perhaps head teacher boards could discuss the issue wearing their responsibility for the system and not as heads of individual schools or directors of MATs.

Pupils deserve an education and although inconvenient and sometimes unsettling to schools in-year movement will take place and needs to be handled in both a sensitive and timely manner. If a school has a place in a year group it is difficult to see why the decision isn’t Immediate, especially with the power of information technology.


Transfer at 14; good idea, badly executed?

Schools Week has been running a story about the failure of many UTCs and Studio Schools to attract pupils for September. Their latest news is that Plymouth UTC will now not take any pupils at 14 this coming September Here in Oxfordshire the news on that front is better, with two of the three UTC/Studio schools fully subscribed. Indeed, the Didcot UTC has made 120 offer for 120 places equal to its Planned Admission Number and the Studio School in Bicester exceeded its PAN of 50 with 53 offers to the 60 applicants. Now, whether or not they all turn up is another matter, and we won’t know until parents have considered issues such as how much it will cost to transport their child to the school.

The Space Studio School in Banbury follows the trend identified by Schools Week, with 16 offer for the 75 places available. But, located as it is in the grounds of the town’s largest academy it has always seemed to me to be a bit of an oddity.

Despite these good recruitment numbers, there remain for the schools in Oxfordshire the same issues rehearsed before in this column. Existing Oxfordshire secondary schools will lose the funding of 173 pupils if all those offered places move to the Didcot and Bicester schools. That’s the best part of £700,000 in one year. Over four years it would amount to not far short of £3 million pounds after allowing for inflation. Put this drain on income on top of the 8% the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggested might be the cuts to school budgets over the rest of this decade and you have the potential for financial problems at other schools.

To make the most of a system, you need a degree of planning or unlimited funds. We don’t have either at present and we don’t seem to have a government that understands that in times of austerity you need to make the most of the resources that you do have available.

The issue in Oxfordshire is, what will be the consequences for schools losing pupils at 14 and 16, whereas elsewhere the consequence is the opposite. What happens to the schools that don’t attract enough pupils to pay their bills? The silence from the Regional Schools Commissioners and the National Commissioner on the need for a rational approach is of concern. These civil servants must not be high priced rubber stamps approving new academies without understanding the consequences.

In the end, it will be the much maligned local authorities that will have to sort out ant mess. It may be no surprise that the Plymouth UTC operates in a selective school system. In such a system, few pupils will leave a selective school at 14 making it even harder to recruit from the remaining schools with the pupils that didn’t take or pass the selection process.

It is probably time to look at how the transfer of pupils at 14 is going to work in the longer-term: leaving it to the market isn’t really an option.

More to attend school of their choice

Purdah is turning out to be a curious state of affairs during the referendum campaign. Normally, during a general election, virtually everything in government stops. However, the DfE seem to be carrying on as normal in some ways but not in others during the current period of purdah. Yesterday, the statistical release on the admissions round for September 2016 was published.

There was the usual headlines about London parents being less successful than those elsewhere. However, to fully understand the London data, compared with the rest of England, you need both a sense of history and a knowledge of geography. The tightening of rules regarding free home to school transport by many shire counties over the past two years, as austerity has taken hold in local government, inevitably means more parents have no choice of school unless they are willing to pay for travel. Thus, many rural areas have more than 90% of parents receiving their first choice of school even at the secondary school level.

In London, where travel anywhere across the capital is free for travel to school regardless of parental income, parents can make a choice knowing that if unsuccessful they will still be offered a place in a school somewhere. Providing the figures by borough is even more unhelpful in London where the construction of secondary schools, was largely governed by the former LCC and it successor the ILEA often many decades ago. For various reasons, the outcome for the location of schools was not evenly spread around the then boroughs. Add in factors such as single-sex schools and faith schools and even single-sex faith schools and the distribution only makes sense at a greater level than that of the individual borough.

Nevertheless, some of the London problems may be the result the growth of 2.8% in the number of applications received this year to 548,006, compared to 533,310 in 2015. DfE officials said the increase was due to a “rise in births which began in the previous decade”: no surprise there, and London is likely to have seen a growth of more than 2.8% in applications.

The gap between the national average and outcomes for school places in London is much less at the primary school levels that at the secondary, level with Barking & Dagenham even doing better than the national average. This is despite I seem to recall dire warning some years ago of a shortage of school places in the borough.

Indeed, 84.1% of 11-year-olds across the country landed their first preference, compared with 84.2% in 2015 and 88.4% of children seeking primary school places were offered their first choice, up from 87.8% last year. This improvement suggests that the funds David Laws pledged for school building programmes, when he was the Minister, may be starting to have an effect even despite the growing school population. It may also reflect the work done by many local authorities to manage pupil place planning. This is a service that government doesn’t always seem to fully appreciate, especially when dumping a free school or UTC in an area where it is not helpful to effective place planning for all pupils.

Hopefully, the DfE now realises that overall planning at a national level just wouldn’t work and that effective local decision-making, especially for primary education must be retained and even encouraged.


Admissions cause some concerns

Now the website of the School Adjudicators isn’t high on my regular websites to visit. However, I recently paid it a visit to read the decision about admissions to Banbury Academy in Oxfordshire. The Adjudicator partially upheld the complains from another school in the town and the Conservative controlled county council in a detailed 23 page decision covering a whole range of admissions issues.

On my visit, I couldn’t help but notice that the Adjudicator had been a series of decisions through the summer. Indeed, since the end of July, the Adjudicator has upheld 13 complains and partially upheld a further nine, making 22 complaints upheld in full or part compared with 13 where complaints were not upheld. The majority of complaints not upheld were against admission arrangements in the primary sector. These were either for individual schools or in three cases arrangements made by local authorities. A complaint was upheld against one authority and partially upheld against another.
Academies were concerned in twelve of the complaints upheld either in full or in part and only in four cases were such complaints not upheld among the decisions reported upon since the end of July. There was a complaint against one ‘free’ school reported during this period, but it was not upheld.

Reading the decisions shows just what a minefield school admissions have become. They are set to become even worse if the rule about siblings is changed by the government to give them priority over children living near to a school. I recall a case of a popular village school where families would move in a rent a property, secure a place for their first child and then move to a cheaper location to buy a house secure in the knowledge they would be able to send other children to the school. The case was drawn to my attention when a five-year old living opposite the school gates had to be transported by taxi to another school as there was no place available at the local school. Now, the Conservative view seems to be that these schools can just expand. However, unless the rules on funding are changed, primary schools will be faced with either larger classes or cutting expenditure elsewhere to fund the places for siblings. The third alternative is for the local authority to find an alternative school and, if necessary, pay the transport costs to taxi young children around to satisfy the needs of other parents.

However, there are a group of parents that aren’t catered for in the present handling of the parental choice rules. These are families where one parent, and especially the mother, is not fully fit and has limited mobility for whatever reason. There is often no way in the admissions arrangements to handle such a situation because appeal panels aren’t not allowed discretion. In some other circumstances the use of the word ‘normally’ would provide room for manoeuvre, as it also would in handling sibling requests where parents don’t live as close to the school as other pupils unable to access the school. Providing panels gave reasons that could be tested this might help deal with some of the anomalies in the present system, as happens with transport appeals.

This problem is that when the number of pupils is on the increase not everyone will be satisfied with the outcome, whatever system is adopted.

Data points to overall trainee shortage

Figures released by UCAS earlier today suggest that for the second year in succession the government may not hit the targets it set last autumn for the number of trainee teachers it thinks necessary to meet the requirements of schools in 2015. Although we won’t know the final figures until the DfE’s definitive ITT census is published, probably in November, the estimates based upon these figures, even though they come from the first year of the new unified application system, can act as some form of guide. If the final numbers are radically different there will need to be an inquiry into how the discrepancy arose. Hopefully, this won’t be necessary.

There are three measures against which the data can be referenced. They are , the 2013 ITT census  -are we recruiting more this year than last; the estimate of need from the Teacher Supply Model as used to influence the 2014 allocations; the 2014 allocations themselves.

The good news is that among secondary subjects, languages, design and technology, computer science, business studies, biology and art all look to be doing better than last year from these figures in terms of offers made to potential trainees. However, only languages, computer science and chemistry are on track to beat their Teacher Supply Model number. Finally, it seems unlikely that any of the key subjects measured by UCAS will meet their original number allocated for 2014.

The bad news is that physics, music, mathematics, geography, English and religious education may have recruited fewer trainees than last year.

There are key differences between the different routes in turning applicants into trainees with School Direct having a lower applicant to offer ratio than either higher education or SCITTs. The School Direct salaried route had especially low offer to applicant ratios with 13% of applications turning into offers in the secondary phase and 15% in the primary sector compared with 19% for higher education secondary and 22% for higher education primary.

This year it may be touch and go whether enough primary trainees have been recruited. Much may depend upon the numbers that actually start courses, especially among the undergraduates where exam results can affect how candidates view teaching as a possible degree course. The fact that around 60 courses have been in Clearing may not bode well; but we will need to await the ITT census for a final discussion of the outcome.

As in previous years, the period up to February yielded the largest number of offers, with little sign of a late surge after finals. With the news about the rise in graduate employment in 2013 announced earlier today this is perhaps not surprising as the graduate job market may have been even stronger in 2014 than it as last summer. The government’s appreciation of this is reflected in their bursary announcement that will be discussed later in another post.

With School Direct undoubtedly focussing on quality more than quantity and with rising pupil numbers over the next decade the government faces a challenge in managing the supply of adequate numbers of entrants to the profession.

Why all schools must be good

For some parents this Easter will be a time for celebration as the results of ‘destiny day’ – the day when children starting formal schooling were told which school they will be attending in September – is celebrated. For other parents, whose children have been assigned their second or third choice of school; or in some cases none of those they asked for, the mood will be no doubt be more downbeat. I can sympathise. As I have mentioned before, in 1952 my brother and I failed to secure places at the first choice school identified by our parents, a small one form entry Church of England primary school, and instead went to a four form entry infant school that was admittedly nearer to where we lived.

So, parents of children born in years when the population is growing in an area are always going to struggle to secure a place at the school of their choice, especially as it doesn’t make good sense to have too many places standing empty when they are not needed, even though a reservoir of places to cope with peaks in demand is sensible.

What may worry parents more these days is if the expansion of places to meet growing demand isn’t always in the best performing schools. Now I am aware that Ofsted judgements are moveable feasts; and school can and do improve, as well as in some cases perform less well over time. Also, some new schools haven’t even been inspected by Ofsted. However, the DfE has recently published a Basic Need Scorecard with interesting data about the distribution and cost of new places in each local authority.

Some 25 local authorities were coded red in the DfE dashboard as the percentage of new places in school deemed ‘good’ or better by Ofsted up to 2103 was seen as concerning. Many of the authorities in the code red group were small unitary of other urban authorities. Interestingly, only three were London boroughs where the most noise about this issue seems to be generated in the press. Only one authority, Westminster, was an inner London borough. By contrast, there were eight shire counties in the group, ranging from Shropshire to Essex, and from North Yorkshire to Wiltshire. I suspect that if we were able to find the individual schools in these counties where places been increased, even though Ofsted was less then complimentary about aspects of the school, we would find them concentrated in the market towns and larger settlements within the counties rather than in the more rural areas. Answering that question might make an interesting research study for someone to conduct.

When the report on the admissions process is compiled by the Adjudicator, it will be interesting to see whether any other authorities than Oxfordshire, where I am a county councillor, raise concerns about academies not being willing to cooperate over placing pupils even where they have spare capacity. It would be a real irony if choice, meant choice by school as to how many pupils to take, but also an outcome resulting in more cost to rural authorities in additional school transport expenditure because some schools weren’t willing to help accommodate the growing number of pupils.

Playing the school place lottery

In the 1970s, when I started teaching, the issue of banding was seen as contentious by many educationalists as it felt like social engineering. Nowadays, some academies, and other schools, have not only adopted the practice but have also, in some cases, gone further and turned admission into a straightforward lottery. In a few cases they have combined the two approaches and created lotteries for each group. For parents in those rural areas where there is in reality only one school their children can attend this must seem like some form of fantasy world.

When lotteries were first mooted local authorities still managed the admissions process for almost all schools. Now over half of secondary schools are their own admissions authorities. That probably doesn’t pose a problem at present as we are close to the bottom of the demographic cycle and pressure on secondary school places is not yet intense across mush of England. However, in five years time things will be different. Imagine a world where all secondary schools are their own admissions authorities, and use a banded lottery system. You are a parent of a child in the middle band – an average kind of Jo(e) – What happens if your first choice school is over-subscribed and you lose the lottery? Suppose the same is true of your second and third schools. No problem, the local authority must find you a school for Jo(e), and if it is more than the statutory walking distance they must pick up the travel bill as well under present arrangements.

So, the middle class parent that once might have bid up the price of houses in the catchment area of a local school they wanted their child to attend could now become a burden on the taxpayer as the taxi arrives every morning for the school-run to a distant school. Now that won’t happen in London because there is free travel across the Capital for secondary school pupils, so parents wouldn’t have to pay as they would elsewhere.

Indeed, the concern over the freedom schools have to impose financial burdens on local authorities through their admissions policies is no doubt behind the rapid move to a ‘nearest school’ transport policy by many local authorities. In Oxfordshire that has not gone down well with some parents whose school will be altered as a result of the new policy.

In the end the question for the Treasury may well be whether it is cheaper to let schools picks pupils on a basis or ‘fairness’ or for parents to exercise parental choice regardless of their child’s ability. What may not be acceptable will be each individual school creating a burden on local authorities through admissions policies that push up transport bills paid for from Council Tax just so that they can say they have a fair spread of pupils.