Class rules: not OK

The Social Mobility Commission is an advisory, non-departmental public body established under the Life Chances Act 2010. It has a duty to assess progress in improving social mobility in the United Kingdom and to promote social mobility in England. Today it has published a report which finds that nearly half of people (48 per cent) believe that where you end up in society today is mainly determined by your background and who your parents are. This compares to 32 per cent who believe everyone has a fair chance to get on regardless of their background.

The Social Mobility Barometer uncovers feelings of deep social pessimism among young people with half (51 per cent) of 18-24 year olds agreeing with this statement compared with 40 per cent of those aged 65 and over. The full report can be accessed at and is based upon data collected in March, well before the announcement of the general election, although during the period when campaigning in the shire counties for the county council elections was already underway in some parts of the country.

Although the report makes depressing reading in many aspects of its conclusions, there are some interesting and more optimistic observations on which those that believe in greater social mobility can use to build. It is clear that the country almost certainly did feel at the time the data was collected for this report that austerity had gone too far in hitting the poor. 49% thought that those ‘who are the least well off’ did not receive enough government support and this rose to 61% for ‘those just managing’, whereas 58% thought that ‘those who are the most well off’ received too much government support. I am sure that those sentiments played out in the voting patterns in the general election. What, because of my age, I call the 1945 effect. That was the election when the population was finally able to express an opinion on the 1930s decade of hardship and ignored the win in the war voted for Labour and social justice.

Anyway, back to the Social Mobility Commission’s report and a few other interesting nuggets. There are clear regional divides, with London and the South East being seen as the area of opportunity and the North East being seen as a part of the country where you may have to leave to seek opportunities elsewhere. Wales and Northern Ireland are also seen as ‘go from’ areas, something the DUP will no doubt be discussing with the Prime Minister in terms of the price for supporting her government.

The fact that 64% of respondents said that they had received a better education that their parents is encouraging and something we do need to preserve for the future. The supply and recruitment of teachers is absolutely key to achieving this goal. Respondents placed education as the future outcome where prospects were brightest over the next ten years with 40% expecting the next generation to receive a better education. There is a lot of trust being placed in us as educators by society.

It was also interesting to listen to the Oxford Dictionary representative on the radio this morning talking about the level of understanding of the use of language among primary school children. The fact that ‘Trump’ is their word of the year is also very reflective of how engaged young people generally are in what is going on around them.

Of most concern in the report is the fact that there is still general acceptance that educational opportunity is still shaped by background, with those from poor backgrounds having least opportunities and that the level of opportunity deteriorates between school and university.

I have written about the education divides locally in Oxfordshire in previous posts, this report reaffirms what we need to do. Recruit the best teachers and properly fund the schools in areas of least affluence and motive the parents to understand and support the benefits of education.

For government, spread the wealth from London and South East by opening up opportunities elsewhere or continue to see a southward shift in the population that could be accelerated after Brexit.




Low cost private schools: any appetite?

Some of you may have come across the magazine that exists for those interested in investing in education. From time to time its journalists ring me up to ask about issues relating to the private sector in education As a business operator, albeit with TeachVac ( using disruptive modern technology, I understand their need to assess opportunities and I happily share my thinking with them.

Recently, the magazine hosted a conference in London. Mostly, the topics discussed were in the higher education realm, an area of less direct interest to me at present than schools. However, there was a session about low cost private sectors schools and possible opportunities in England. Now that’s a topic of more direct interest to me, although they may not know that fact. Many years ago I undertook a piece of research for a client about the possible opportunities in the private school market for a low cost model at a time when school fees were rising sharply. My conclusion was that such a school might well struggle as it offered neither exclusivity nor the small classes that were both the trademarks of many private schools.

Has my judgement changed? Well, I haven’t done any in-depth analysis, so this is very much my first thoughts, but my hunch is that if anything the market is less propitious for new entrants than twenty years ago. With an expansion of selective state schools on the horizon, there may be opportunities in the primary sector, but less so in the secondary. Why pay for what you can achieve for nothing? Paying for tuition is also a cheaper option than paying for a school with some parts you won’t need.

Much could depend upon where the bar for entry to selective schools is set if the Conservative were to go down that path where they to be re-elected. Too selective and they will have little overall impact on existing comprehensive schools in most areas. Too low and we really have a return to the two-tier system of yesteryear. In that case, there might be an appetite in urban areas for fee-paying schools for those pupils that just missed out on a selective school, especially in a period of growth in pupil numbers. However, the existing fee-paying schools should be able to cope with that demand, especially if there were the transfer of some traditional entrants from these schools to the selective schools as parents feel they no longer have to shell out on school fees. You only have to look at what happens in areas with sixth form colleges with a high reputation and the distribution of fee-paying schools.

So, I think that I would be wary of thinking the future holds significant opportunities for the low-cost private school market. There might be some specific groups of parents still wanting to exit the state system but, while there is the chance of a free school paid for by the State, surely that would seem like a cheaper option for them.

Where I have always thought there might be a market is in the vocational skills area for the 14-18 age-group, especially if an institution is closely linked to the local job or apprenticeship markets. Even better, if you can persuade employers to subsidise the cost of the school in return for a fast track into the challenging sections of the labour market. The armed forces have historically understood this section of the market with their apprentice training colleges of yesteryear.

A school offering direct entry into the hospitality or travel industries, where the local further education college isn’t doing a good job, is one possibility. This section of the market also comes with less need for expensive building requirements associated with teaching the full range of curriculum subjects. So, find a niche that can be taught in traditional office type accommodation near a park or other outside space and in an urban area with good transport links and it might be worth creating a business plan; especially if the wages for lecturers can be low, but still better than when working as an experienced professional in the sector and you might have something worth taking further. But, there may well be some other opportunities in the education world for many investors.


There were two interesting stories this past week that in other circumstances might have gained more attention; the report into the future of work from PwC and the report to the DfE on behaviour in schools. However, along with the UCAS end of cycle report on ITT recruitment in 2015/16, the year of recruitment controls, they were overshadowed by the terrible events at Westminster.

The report on the future of work was good news for education and those that choose to educate future generations. However, I am not sure that I fully subscribe to the notion of a largely unchanged balance between people and capital in the form of technology in the learning process, but education, at least at the school level, will continue to be a people centred area of work. The understanding that further education has a key role to play post BREXIT is really good news but, after years of funding cuts, it will need to see a serious resource boost. No doubt the new Apprenticeship Ley will help, even as it sucks money out of schools in a merry-go-round of government money that does little for anyone, except the accountants.

The Bennett Report on behaviour says many sensible things, as I would expect from someone I once hired as a seminar presenter on the topic of managing behaviour. My own experience, many years ago, of teaching in a school where discipline needed firm management for learning to take place, is that creating order out of potential chaos is a prerequisite for any formal learning to take place. Informal learning takes place whatever the state of the environment, but it may not be what society wants and expects of its schools. I recall when Mike Tomlinson was sent into take control of a West Yorkshire school in the 1990s, he started by suspending a large number of pupils for a short time. Once control was regained, learning could restart effectively.

If we are moving away from the era of naked competition between schools, where it could be assumed at Westminster that schools with poor behaviour would be shunned by parents and eventually close, to a more realistic appraisal of the use of public assets, then investing in overcoming problems such a schools with challenging behaviour and lots of exclusions, as we now term suspensions, is a sensible way forward. How these funds are managed is still an interesting debate. How long before someone suggests funding local behaviour consultants? Could we start to see the re-birth of advisory and support services for local schools? Of course, MATs can provide these services, but many are too small and lack geographical coherence to tackle the issues in any one locality. Someone needs to coordinate the advice from good quality research with the training and development for teachers at all levels from classroom to the head’s study and the governor’s meeting.

This is a far more important issue that grammar schools. If the Prime Minister wanted to create a real and lasting legacy for herself in education, she would recognise the need to create a school system where all can learn together at all ages in an environment that meets the need of a post BREXIT world, where technology is changing the life chances of future generations.


More on the financing of education

One of the joys of moving house is unearthing long lost papers. One such that came to light during my recent house move was a paper on the finance of education I wrote way back in 1981. I think it was in preparation for a talk to students at the then Chelmer Institute of Higher Education where many teachers for schools in Essex and the surrounding area were still being trained at that time.

Anyway, the significance of the paper today is not its purpose, but rather in its contents. At that time, the Thatcher government was wrestling with an economic crisis that everyone thought was dire. It is true that one of its consequences was the collapse of large parts of the manufacturing sector, especially in areas such as the West Midlands, where, for instance, glass making in Stourbridge was replaced by new activities such as shopping centres and the car industry went into a long period of decline that seriously affected the western side of the West Midlands.

Education wasn’t protected during the economic turmoil of that period and there was the added complication that school rolls were generally in a period of decline. As a result, school budgets came under severe pressure. Just as now, local government spending bore the brunt of public expenditure cuts and at that time schools was a locally provided service. A survey of 31 local education authorities, as they were then, conducted by ‘Education’ magazine during May 1981 revealed where the cuts in expenditure were being made.

Expenditure item London Met Districts Shire Counties  
7 LEAs 8 LEAs 16 LEAs Total
Meals & Milk 3 1 12 16
Central Admin 1 2 8 11
Non-teaching staff 2 0 5 7
transport 2 2 1 5
Buildings & Playing fields 1 2 2 5
Capitation 2 1 1 4
Pupil Teacher Ratios 0 1 2 3

The first point to notice is how much the funding of schools has changed over the past 35 years. The second point is that teaching staff, as measured by worsening the Pupil Teacher Ratio (PTR) was only recorded by three LEAs out of the 31 surveyed as an option for cuts. Of course, some LEAs might have made cuts in previous years, and those authorities with elections in 1981 might have tried to protect the more obvious front-line aspects of education that parents would notice, such as increases in class sizes. But, despite falling rolls teaching staff as measured through the PTR was largely being protected in these LEAs.

However, I think the table may provide some pointers about what is likely to happen over the next few years to those schools whose budgets come under pressure. Of course, in the present world of devolved budgets, it won’t be councillors in the 152 local authorities worried about re-election taking the decisions on budgets these days, but heads and governors and the CEOs of MATs.

Nevertheless, I would be surprised if protecting teaching posts wasn’t still in a similar position in any table constructed in 2017. However, it might not be seen as quite as well protected as in the 1980s, since schools may be more prepared to cut optional subjects, especially at 16-19 than LEAs were in the 1980s.

It will be instructive to see how far MATs are prepared to trim back on central administration costs; surely an area for efficiency saving as LEAs identified in 1981. Do we need an index of central costs to school-based spending as was commonplace in the period when local authorities were being pilloried for retaining too much of the funding for schools.

Might we also see a return to hypothecated funding in areas such a professional development and IT spending as we have with the provision of free lunches to infant age pupils and funding for aspects of deprivation through the Pupil Premium and extra funding for children in care. This may be the only way to ensure any degree of uniformity of provision across a devolved funding system. Whether we should is another issue for another day.



Crisis in primary headship?

Last December this blog asked a question about whether there was a crisis in finding leaders for primary schools in England? As a result of new data collected by TeachVac, the free to use job board for teacher and school leader recruitment, we are able to make a first attempt at answering that question.

TeachVac recorded 359 vacancies for head teachers during January 2017, of these 336 were in the primary sector, with 23 advertisements seeking a head teacher for a secondary school. Of the total, some 89 schools had placed a second advert more than 21 days after the original advert and up to the 6th March 2017. That’s a second advertisement rate of 25%. It is possible that the percentage will increase further as schools try to complete their recruitment process and interview the short-listed candidates.

The recorded distribution of schools advertising across the country was:

East Midlands 22
East of England 47
London 37
North East 17
North West 56
South East 84
South West 41
West Midlands 31
Yorkshire & the Humber 24

One school advertised twice in January on the 3rd and 31st

Among the 89 schools that had placed a second advertisement by the 6th March, over half were in either London or the two regions surrounding the capital. In contrast, very few schools in the north have yet re-advertised a headship.

As has been common when I studied trends in the labour market for senior staff in schools for almost 30 years, between 1983 and 2011, church schools, feature prominently in the list of schools that have re-advertised a head teacher vacancy. There are also a disproportionate number of infant and junior schools, as I suggested might be the case in the December blog. Any factor that makes a school different for the average school increase the risk of the need for a re-advertisement.

TeachVac has a growing amount of data on the schools advertising, in many case including the salary on offer where stated and the background to the school. This allows cross-checking on Ofsted inspections; free school meal percentages and pupil outcomes.

Politicians rule: OK?

The recent Select Committee report on Multi Academy Trusts (MATs) raises two significant issues in my mind.

These issues are of

Community and,

Democratic control

They are rather neatly summed up by the Select Committee in their executive summary as follows:

We have outlined six characteristics which we believe trusts must possess in order to be successful. These include strong regional structures, robust financial controls, enhanced opportunities for career development and tangible accountability at all levels.

Some of the earliest trusts expanded too quickly over wide geographic regions and the performance of their schools suffered as a result. We are encouraged by the development of a MAT ‘growth check’ and urge the Government to use this to ensure that trusts are only allowed to take on more schools when they have the capacity to grow successfully.

…There is also more work to be done to ensure that MATs are accountable to the communities in which their schools are located. There must be more engagement with parents and clarity around the role of local governing boards.

In my view the Committee could have used this report to go further and to have started to make the case for accountability for schooling to be brought back through the local ballot box. This would have fitted in well with the National Audit Office’s recent report where they highlighted the lack of coherent pupil place planning and the lack of any one body having overall control of the process, although local authorities retained the obligation to ensure sufficient places were available for all pupils that wanted one. And, it was local authorities that sent out the offer letters to parents this week, even where they have no control over the admission arrangements.

After nearly half a century when rampant capitalism has held sway at Westminster, under governments of all political persuasions, and municipalisation gave way to mega deals brokered in Whitehall, is the tide finally turning?

I don’t think BREXIT has yet had the time to change the public consciousness about the role of parliament at Westminster and the possible effects on the delivery of local services. However, it is clear that Westminster will be a much busier place, if it does its job properly, once Article 50 has been triggered.

Alongside the exit management process will be the return to a requirement that the sovereign parliament at Westminster must craft all our laws and not just fill in the gaps from European legislation. This will affect some parts of government more than others. Although education wasn’t as affected by the transfer of powers during our EU sojourn, as some areas of government, it is a moot point whether government will be able to meet the demands of operating a universal education service while still meeting the needs of all local communities.

Sure, some local authorities were poor at providing education, as some are with all services. Sometimes this comes down to money; other times to leadership and ambition. For instance, using the LAIT tool on the DfE web site, Oxfordshire comes 6th best on percentage of children still being breastfed at six weeks, but 125th on the percentage of pupils with free school meals achieving expected levels of phonics decoding. Public health is now a local government responsibility, whereas for academies and free schools there is little the local authority can do to change the phonics outcomes, regardless of whether you think the approach is the correct one.

So, what to do? A simple solution would be to rethink Schools Forums to include politicians as voting members in proportion to the political balance of the council. A 50:50 balance overall might be the first stage of change. Alongside this to also make clear the relationship between all schools and the local community. Could we see academies as a 21st century form of voluntary added school?

Local democracy may be imperfect, but in my experience communities do care about the local standard of education, even where many parents opt out of the state system. I would ensure a tighter regulation than in the past, so that Commissioners can be called in to run poorly performing authorities for a period. But if there is a patterns to these types of authority requiring commissioners; too small; too poorly funded; not attractive places to work, then central government does need learn the lessons and create reforms. What it doesn’t need to do is to privatise the service. In the modern world profit can take many forms and not just dividends, as the lucky shareholders of Snapchat discovered yesterday.

Post BREXIT we will need a successful education system even more than before if we are to pay our way and fund thriving services for future generations. Bring back education as ‘a local service nationally administered’.


Funding: the good years and the bad

The well-respected Institute for Fiscal Studies has today published a longitudinal study into the changing levels of education finance.

However, although factually accurate, as local authorities do still ratify the funding formula, the following statement early on in the report might be regarded as potentially mis-leading:

At the moment, it is local authorities that are responsible for determining the level of funding for state-funded schools. Each local authority receives a grant from central government, which it then distributes to schools in its area using its own funding formula.

After all, it is the Schools Forum, assisted by officers that decides on the local formula. Politicians, those that comprise the local authority, realistically now have no say in the matter, unless they are governors and elected through that route to the Schools Forum.

However, what the IFS have reminded us, at least in respect of schools, is that the 1990s were a period of funding constraint that lasted until the Blair/Brown leadership team took the brakes off education funding after their first few years of government when they were endorsing the Tory spending plans they had inherited in 1997: subsequently there was a period of increased funding as the new century unfolded. This allowed the creation of PPA time in primary schools and the growth in support staff numbers as well as generous spending on IT and improvements in pupil teacher ratios.

As this period coincided with the demographic downturn in pupil numbers, schools were relatively well funded, although the long period of decline in 16-19 funding commenced. The coalition supported school funding after 2010, but everyone now agrees that the next few years are likely to see reductions in real terms in school funding that will only be partially masked by increases in pupil numbers and any new national formula.

Even with tight floors and ceiling, there will be winners and losers with the new formula. This is partly because the gaps between the decisions on funding go way back into education history and are frequently associated with the municipal attitude to education and the size of the local tax base. When business rates were collected and spent locally, areas with good levels of industry and commerce often had well-funded education systems. As manufacturing and other industries declined, so did local funding and eventually business rates were nationalised. Successive governments missed opportunities to reform the basis of school funding preferring just to transfer the budgets to schools and away from local authorities and their politicians.

So, what happens now? If there is to be a period of austerity associated with cuts to funding to schools it is imperative that the cash is used wisely. But one person’s saving can easily translate into another’s burden. Close rural primary schools and someone has to pay for the transport of the pupils to another school. The same is true if small sixth forms are axed as no longer affordable. In the commercial world it is clear who takes decisions over cutting branches of banks or supermarkets that don’t pay. Who now decides on where schools are located: parents through the admissions system; the EFA as the national funding agency; MAT; Regional School Commissioners, but not presumably local authorities?

Many of the issues fudged when funding was adequate cannot be ignored when cash is being squeezed out of the system.