Primary schools want children

Last week the DfE published the outcomes for admissions to primary and secondary schools for the school year starting in the autumn of 2018. As might be expected at this stage of the cycle of overall pupil numbers, where primary pupil numbers are falling and secondary numbers are increasing, more pupils gained a place at once of their preferred schools in the primary sector and fewer were successful in the secondary sector than in the previous year.

These trends are likely to continue until the government either starts culling places from the primary sector as a matter of policy or allows the National Funding Formula to achieve the same end by forcing the closure of schools unable to balance their books.

As academies don’t need to stick to national pay norms and returners to the profession don’t need to be paid the salary they earned when they left, we might see some battles over the morality of teachers either being asked to take pay cuts or doing so voluntarily to keep a local school open. Whether we ever return to the sponsorship of local schools, as happened in the 1980s, when a women’s magazine helped out a small Oxfordshire primary schools, is something to watch out for over the next few years.

Percentage of entrants successful with one of their preferred schools

Entry Year Secondary Sector Primary Sector
2010/11 96.6 NA
2011/12 97.2 NA
2012/13 97.6 NA
2013/14 97.8 NA
2014/15 96.8 96.4
2015/16 96.4 96.5
2016/17 96.5 96.9
2017/18 96.1 97.7
2018/19 95.5 98.1

Source https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/secondary-and-primary-school-application-and-offers-2018

Anyway, this year there are also the usual regional differences, with parents in rural areas more likely to receive a school they have selected and parents in many parts of London the least likely to be successful. The distribution of secondary schools across much of London predates the current administrative boundaries, especially in the former LCC/GLC/ILEA area that used to lie across the more central areas of the Capital. This historical distribution of school sites affects some parts of the capital more than others and closures and housing redevelopments have also left the location of secondary schools not always ideally linked to the wishes of parents, whatever successive governments have said about wanting to support parental choice.

Even though the majority of schools are now achieving higher standards than a generation ago, there are still areas with either clusters of schools or individual schools that parents try to avoid. In most cases not all parents can do so, and these are often the parents that don’t receive any of their expressed preferences and can end up at the very school that they are trying to avoid. In many cases, they will then appeal the outcome of the admissions procedure.

With more secondary school places still needed, the importance of good pupil place planning at a local level cannot be over-stated. The DfE now seems to have recognised that fact, but has yet to create a single coordinating body and remove the Education and Skills Funding Agency from the data to day operation of opening new free schools.

 

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Missing the point

For the past year I have been drawing attention to the fact that children taken into care during the school year and then placed away from home may well have to change schools at short notice and mid-year. In many cases, schools asked to admit these young people recognise that the Admissions Code provides for priority for looked after children during the admissions round. However, in some cases, schools take an entirely opposite approach to in-year requests for a place and do everything to stall an admission.

Yesterday in parliament, my MP asked a question about this issue:Layla Moran (Oxford West and Abingdon) (LD)​

Looked-after children in Oxfordshire could have to wait for up to six months to get into the secondary school that they need to, primarily because local authorities do not have the directive powers over academies that they do over maintained schools. What is the Minister doing to ensure that the most vulnerable children do not miss a day of school?

Here is the Minister’s response
Nadhim Zahawi

Those most disadvantaged children, to whom the hon. Lady referred, are actually given priority during the admissions process.

https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2018-05-14/debates/28B7B87C-B33B-4B69-B2D5-16AF519F3309/OralAnswersToQuestions

The exchange shows how it is necessary to be very precise when wording parliamentary questions, as indeed journalists tell me that it does when wording Freedom of Information requests. The Minister is technically correct, but that answer seems to apply more to the normal admission round for the start of the school year than to casual admissions in-year, as happens when a child is taken into care.

The DfE does need to address this issue. I would ask readers to check what is happening in their locality. Are there children in care being tutored away from schools because a school place cannot be found? How closely is the local authority monitoring this issue and what are the large children’s charities doing about the matter?

It is tough being taken into care and, as the admissions code recognises, we should be ensuring priority in the education of these young people at any time of the year. This includes continuity of provision.

I recognise that there are some areas of the country where there are large numbers of such children being placed and so of these are areas in selective systems further reducing the option of schools that can be approached. Should we offer more boarding school places for such children rather than trying to find foster families or is that too much like returning to institutional care – they is still the issue of how to handle school holidays in those cases.

Being taken into care presents a big risk to the education of a young person. At least trying to ensure that they can be found a school place quickly and that schools recognise the need to transition these newcomers into school life effectively and with sympathy is the least we should ask of a civilised society. Please do not allow these children to be forgotten.

 

Another slice of fudge?

Congratulations to the civil servant that worked out it was possible to circumvent the cap on faith-based admissions placed upon new free schools by reviving the concept of voluntary schools, where there has never been any such cap on admissions. The proposals are contained in the government’s response to the 2016 Schools that Work for Everyone Consultation. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/706243/Schools_that_work_for_everyone-Government_consultation_response.pdf

The determining paragraph is on page 14:

To enable the creation of these places, we will be establishing a capital scheme to support the creation of new voluntary aided schools for faith and other providers. Schools created through this scheme will have the same freedoms as existing voluntary aided schools, including over their admissions which will enable them to select up to 100% of pupils on the basis of faith. There has never been a general route for any faith group to receive 100% state funding for a school with 100% faith-based admissions. In line with this, and our longstanding approach to funding of voluntary aided schools, the Department for Education expects those groups establishing voluntary aided schools to contribute 10% of the capital costs relating to their schools. Local authorities will play a key role in supporting and approving any new voluntary aided school, to ensure it fits well with our integration and community cohesion objectives. They will be well placed to consider how new proposals will meet demand from, and potential impact on, the local community. The Department for Education will develop the details of this scheme over the coming months and will set out the arrangements by which proposer groups can apply for capital funding later this year.

It is interesting that new voluntary aided schools don’t seem to be restricted to faith providers. However, anyone contemplating such schools is going to have to raise 10% of the capital costs, so best to start with a small school and then expand it later if successful. These schools will, presumably, have to be built under the ‘presumption’ route, as otherwise they would need to be free schools and hence capped as to faith limits.

This may well provoke some interesting discussions where a small local authority such as a London borough or a unitary council needs a single new primary school. How is the evidence of demand going to be assessed? It may well be challenging to believe the data from parish priests and diocese. I well recall the demand for a Catholic secondary school when Oxfordshire replaced its three tier system with primary and secondary schools and the Catholic diocese wanted to break up the existing Ecumenical Upper School and establish a wholly Catholic secondary school. They sent a procession of parish priests along to explain the demand for such a school. They got their way, but the school now has less than 40% of its pupils as Catholics.

There is a strong case for granting voluntary aided status for a set period of time. If the school roll falls below the 50% of pupil numbers of the free school threshold for the faith at the end of a set time period then, unless it can regain that threshold within a set period, the school should revert to being a community school.

The challenge, of course remains that discussed by the Wesleyan Methodists before the 1902 Education Act was passed. Are teachers that are Methodists called to be teachers of children or of Methodists? Faith groups demanding voluntary aided schools need to have an answer to that question.

 

 

A fudge with no teeth

Today’s political announcements about the shape of new school places in England might mark a turning point. Conversely, it might just be a neat solution to two problems that needed a resolution. First on grammar schools, and the £50 million funding for the expansion of places. Let me state at the outset that I am opposed to selective education, especially at age eleven. I believe that the Liberal Democrats should campaign to remove these schools even though the Lib Dems run councils in Sutton and now Kingston upon Thames in London that have such schools within the council boundaries.

The BBC has an interesting chart showing what has happened to the size of grammar schools between 2009-10 and 2015-16. Of the 20 such schools shown, all have expanded. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-44067719 Whether this means that the remaining 140 or so grammar schools haven’t changed their intakes isn’t mentioned. As I have remarked before, the government faced a dilemma. With pupil numbers rising sharply in many of the areas in the Home Counties and outer London where a disproportionate percentage of grammar schools are to be found, doing nothing would effectively decrease the percentage of pupils in these areas able to attend a selective school. Such a policy risked creating the worst of all worlds; not pleasing those that want the abolition of grammar schools, but also upsetting parents who would find it difficult to secure a place for their offspring in an increasingly competitive application process. Today’s announcement will, the Secretary of State no doubt hopes, placate the latter while doing no more than enrage the former, but without lasting political damage, and be seen as the best compromise on offer.

Liberal Democrat Education Spokesperson Layla Moran has said in a press statement: “Grammar schools are the wrong answer to the wrong question. This money should be spent on local schools so that every young person across the country can get the education they need to prepare for the future.” But has stopped short of calling for the removal of these schools. Perhaps this is because such a policy is already implicit in the Lib Dems approach to education. I summed much of that approach as I see it in a recent chapter in a book by the Social Liberal Forum that I co-authored with Helen Flynn. A review of the book can be seen at https://www.libdemvoice.org/a-21st-century-liberal-approach-to-education-57473.html albeit written by a committed Liberal Democrat.

How the government will enforce the rules on selection, offered as a sop to opponents of selective schools and a fig leaf to make the policy more attractive overall, is an interesting question. I assume it is to be just a fig leaf. After all, will any new rules apply to applications for all the places at the schools that take the money or only to applicants for the additional places funded through the new cash for the extra places? This would potentially create two admission rounds: one for existing places and the other for the new Hinds’ places. The latter might perhaps only be open to pupils from certain primary schools with, say, a history of not sending any pupils or only very small numbers to the selective school sector. Alternatively, the rules might stipulate only pupils on Free School Meals in the year they apply for a place. One might envisage some other such permutations. All would need monitoring, plus a clear set of sanctions, especially where the selective schools are not co-educational schools, but the primary schools in the area are co-educational.

The other announcement today, about faith schools, is potentially more momentous and deserves a blog post of its own.

 

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 http://schoolsweek.co.uk/troubled-utc-plymouth-pauses-recruitment-at-14/ 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. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/secondary-and-primary-school-applications-and-offers-2016

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.