Not a rural idyll?

Once Again the DfE has categorised four primary schools within London boroughs as meeting their definition of a rural school. Two are in Enfield and the other two, an infant and junior school with the same name, are in Hillingdon.

I am sure the residents of Theobalds Park Road in Enfield will be delighted to know that they live in a ‘rural village’ according to the DfE. Their school was founded in 1858 as a National School, but it is moot point whether it is really a village school or a small school in in a relatively isolated locality on the fringe of London. On the other hand, Forty Hill Primary School, the other rural school in Enfield is genuinely in an area of isolated dwellings with little in the immediate vicinity other than the church and a few houses. Realistically, these four schools are a statistical anomaly on the fringes of our capital city.

Nationally, the DfE lists 3,806 rural primary schools in this year’s database. This list doesn’t include any rural academies as it only lists local authority schools but, it still contains 1,553 community schools; 2,079 voluntary schools, both aided and controlled, and 174 foundation schools. I don’t see why a full list of state-funded rural primary schools, including academies should not be published by the DfE..

North Yorkshire has the largest number of designated rural primary schools, with just over 200 such schools. Cumbria is second with 168; Devon and Lancashire are in joint third place with 157 each. Overall, 92 of the local authorities in England have at least one designated rural primary school within their boundaries.

648 of these primary schools are designated as in isolated hamlets or hamlets and sparse dwellings whereas 1,786 are located in or around rural villages, with a further 1,310 in a rural town or on its fringe. The remaining schools are close enough to rural towns to be regarded as in a sparse setting near the town.

These schools represent both the history of education in England and the country’s complex geography. Whether all will survive the new National Funding Formula is a moot point. Many are small, often one form entry or less schools. Although they all will probably receive more cash under the new settlement it is unlikely that the increase will be enough to meet the ever growing expenditure pressures faced by schools, especially when the pay cap is finally removed.

If these schools are going to be expected to meet pay pressures from a national funding settlement then many may find themselves unable to make ends meet. Such a situation is not one where it is easy to recruit a new head teachers, so it may be alright while the present incumbent remains in post, but finding a successor could be more of a challenge.

We know relatively little about how difficult this type of school finds it to recruit classroom teachers. Are there still a cadre of teacher willing to work in such schools? I suspect that the answer is in the affirmative for the school that is rural, but not isolated, as are many in the south of England, but not as much the case where such schools are really isolated. There was a story recently from Scotland of a school in the Highlands that has had to close because both teachers were leaving at Christmas and no replacements could be found for January.

I do hope that these schools survive, but they won’t without some serious campaigning. With the present weak state of the government there has never been a better time to put pressure on MPs with such schools in their constituency.

 

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Figures back heads views on funding pressures

Most commentators will be focusing on the primary performance data published today. I am sure that is not why the DfE also chose to publish the annual update on maintained school finances for 2016-17 today. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/la-and-school-expenditure-2016-to-2017-financial-year

Although this is time series data, comparisons from year to year are handicapped by the conversion of schools to academy status and their removal from these tables. Nevertheless, at the national level, some pointers do become clear, especially as the funding between academies and maintained schools is now roughly the same for most of their government funded revenue income. They do, of course have different accounting years, and this can affect issues such as spend on salaries and the payment of increments.

If the average percentage of revenue income held as balances by maintained schools  is considered, this has now started reducing after a long period when the percentage was on the increase in both the primary and secondary sectors.

Maintained  Schools:

Total revenue balance as a % of total revenue income

Primary Secondary
2009-10 5.9% 3.2%
2010-11 6.6% 3.9%
2011-12 7.9% 5.6%
2012-13 7.9% 6.2%
2013-14 7.9% 6.4%
2014-15 8.2% 5.0%
2015-16 8.4% 4.6%
2016-17 7.4% 3.0%

This is the first year that the primary sector has recorded a decline in balances as a percentage of revenue income. In the secondary sector, the decline started in 2014-15 and there has now been three years of declining revenue balances overall.

For schools with a deficit, overall the aggregate position is also deteriorating:

Primary Secondary
2009-10 (3.5)% (4.0)%
2010-11 (3.6)% (4.8)%
2011-12 (3.7)% (5.7)%
2012-13 (3.1)% (5.2)%
2013-14 (2.9)% (5.8)%
2014-15 (3.3)% (7.3)%
2015-16 (3.0)% (7.7)%
2016-17 (3.5)% (8.4)%

Again, the position is worse in the secondary sector. This may be partly due to the remaining secondary schools that haven’t converted to academy status being more likely to be in deficit. Of the remaining maintained secondary schools included in the data for 2016-17, 26% had a deficit budget compared with just 7% of primary schools. This may also reflect the fact that rolls have been rising across the primary sector but falling until this year across the secondary sector.

The average spend on teaching staff increased in the primary sector by £68 per pupil and in the secondary sector by £58 per pupil over the two years 2015-16 and 2016-17. In the same period, the primary sector reduced running costs by £30 per pupil and secondary sector by £25 per pupil.

Schools overall increased non-government revenue income by £25 per pupil in the primary sector and £13 in the secondary sector in this period. Some of this is just income taken in to cover the costs of trips, meals and other expenses, but it also includes parental contributions and donations.

Overall, the figures show that the squeeze on income is now really beginning to affect schools, especially in the secondary sector. These figures back up the complaints of secondary head teachers about their funding levels. With general inflation now over three per cent and the  need to offer recruitment and retention payments to counteract below inflation pay increases, the next few years are going to be challenging times for maintained schools, and almost certainly for academies as well.

Schools can no longer rely on dipping into their saving for a rainy day: that day has now arrived and the cash is being used up.

 

 

 

Another aspect of the funding problem

What happens if a large secondary school at the centre of a multi-academy trust comprising a mix of both primary schools and a secondary school goes bust, perhaps because the original founders made some unwise decisions and there was then a drop in applications from local parents to send their children to the secondary school, aware that teachers were leaving the schools and concerned that standards might slip as a result? Or because there was an outflow of EU nationals from the area now Article 50 has been triggered.

Does the failure of the secondary school bring down all the primary schools in the MAT as well or can they survive on their own. At what point should the trustees decide to cut a financially unviable school adrift and will the Education Funding Agency allow them to do so if there are other assets in the MAT that might keep the school going for longer?

I am sure that there are civil servants in Coventry thinking about these types of scenario and perhaps role-playing them with Regional School Commissioners. How far have they progressed in their thinking should the MAT has a faith base and all the schools within it belong to the same faith or Christian denomination?

Sitting in the wings is the local authority, with whom the ultimate authority for providing every pupil with a school place still resides. What happens if the school that has just become financially unviable is in a rural area and the places at other schools require a large increase in the school transport bill? Who picks up the tab?

Obviously, the ideal solution is for the school buildings to open under a new administration, but will the government allow that to happen if it means writing off the debts of a school. To do so might encourage other schools to run up large deficit budgets, secure in the knowledge that the government will bail them out. One answer might be for the government to replace the trustees. But at what point? As soon as a deficit budget position is reached? When the deficit going forward looks as if it will reach a pre-determined percentage of current turnover after taking any falling rolls and thus falling income into account? If the financially unviable school is a faith school, can a new faith school replace it? To do so might well save on transport costs, but a replacement school that wasn’t faith-based might allow for transport savings. Of course, much will depend upon who has the ownership of the buildings?

With the demise of several UTCs and studio schools, plus a small number of other academies, these scenarios are no longer in the realm of the unthinkable. But, does there need to be a level playing field with some clear and open guidelines that don’t encourage schools to create deficits on their revenue spending.

At present, there is the ‘financial notice to improve’ from the EFA, but, the issue is what happens when the school or MAT doesn’t do so for reasons beyond its control? Time to re-read the Academies Financial handbook.

 

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.

 

 

School funding: Oxfordshire as a case study

A version of this article appear in the Oxford Times  newspaper of the 23rd March 2017

Why, when it has been generally acknowledged that state schools in Oxfordshire are poorly funded, has the government decided some Oxfordshire schools should lose even more of their income?  This was the conundrum facing those of us concerned about education in Oxfordshire just before Christmas when the government at Westminster announced the second stage of their consultation around a new fairer funding formula for schools.

Most of the secondary schools in the county stand to see an increase in their funding under the new proposals. That’s the good news, although it doesn’t extend to all the secondary schools in the county and the increase may not be enough to cope with the rising costs all schools face.

The really shocking news is the cuts to funding faced by the majority of the small rural primary schools across the county, especially those in the Chilterns, Cotswolds and across the downs. Although the cut is only a percentage point or two, it may be enough to create havoc with the budgets for these schools, especially as they too face general cost pressures through inflation and rising prices. Even the schools promised more cash, mainly schools in Oxford and the other towns across the county, won’t in many cases see all the extra money the government formula has assessed them as being entitled to receive. This is because the government has proposed a ceiling to the percentage increase any school can receive. A bit like saying, ‘we know we are paying you less than you deserve, but we cannot afford the full amount’.

I had anticipated the new formula was likely to bring problems, so tabled a motion at the November meeting of the county council to allow all councillors to discuss the matter. Sadly, the meeting ran over time and my motion wasn’t reached. Hopefully, it will be debated in March*, although that is just a day before the consultation ends. There has been no other opportunity for councillors to discuss the funding proposals. Parents and governors of schools should respond to the government’s proposals

I support the retention of small local primary schools where children can walk or cycle to school and the school can be a focal point for the community. It seems this model isn’t fashionable at Westminster, where larger more remote schools serving several neighbourhoods seem to be what is wanted. I know that retaining small local schools looks like an expensive option, but there are also benefits to family and community life by educating young children in their localities.

Were the local authority still the key policy maker for education, I am sure there would be a local initiative to the preserve the present distribution of schools by driving down costs. In a recent piece in this paper, the head teacher of Oxford Spires Academy specifically complained of the cost of recruitment advertising. Three years ago, I helped a group found a new free job board for schools that uses the disruptive power of new technology to drive down recruitment costs for schools. TeachVac www.teachvac.co.uk now matches jobs and teachers throughout the country for free at no cost to teachers or schools. We need innovative thinking outside the box of this sort in all areas to help sustain our schools in the face of government policies that threaten their very existence.

Across the county, all schools, whether academies or not could collaborate to purchase goods and services needed, whether regularly or only once a year.  This common procurement idea is much easier when academy trusts are headquartered locally. It becomes more difficult when their central administration has no loyalty to Oxfordshire. May be that’s why local academy chains have been more restrained in their executive pay than some trusts with a more limited local affiliation.

Cllr John Howson is the Lib Dem spokesperson on education on Oxfordshire County Council and a founding director of TeachVac http://www.teachvac.co.uk. He is a visiting professor at Oxford Brookes University. 

*The motion was debated and passed without the need for a formal vote. Councillors from all Parties expressing assent.

Funding takes centre stage

The launch of a report by the Education Policy Institute about the new government funding formula seems the have unleashed a renewed interest in the proposals, at least the proposals for schools, if not for the SEND High Needs block. https://epi.org.uk/report/national-funding-formula/ Even the, soon to be Osborne edited, Evening Standard had an editorial about the funding of schools in yesterday’s edition.

The issue about school funding breaks down into two quite separate parts. Firstly, is the formula an improvement on what has gone before and secondly, is there enough money for schools and education in general. The answer to the latter is a resounding NO from almost everyone.  Hamstrung as it is by the-U- turn on increase in tax on the self-employed the government could have found a fig leaf to offer schools, such as abolishing the apprenticeship levy as the education budget already pays for teacher trainees; they could be re-badged as apprentices and it would at least help reduce taxation on schools facing NI and pension increases this year. The government also look guilty of breaking another manifesto promise. The 2015 General Election Conservative Party manifesto said:

“Under a future Conservative Government, the amount of money following your child into school will be protected. As the number of pupils increases, so will the amount of money in our schools. On current pupil number forecasts, there will be a real-terms increase in the schools budget in the next Parliament.” (Bold added by me)

On the first question about the new formula, the answer you receive will depend upon who you ask. Most of London loses and is unhappy, many urban areas outside London see gains, but these are capped and the picture in the rural areas is confusing: some win, others such as Oxfordshire have many schools that are losers. Thus, few feel really satisfied, especially when looking at the overall financial situation for their school over the remainder of this parliament

Part of the problem might be that civil servants don’t seem to have fully road tested the formula. Did Ministers allow them to? But, can we afford to close small secondary schools in the Yorkshire Dales; in Shropshire and no doubt in some other rural counties? The notion of rural seems different when decided at Westminster than when viewed from a county hall. In this lies the dilemma: in a national service, how much local discretion do you allow? Apart from rural schools, separate infant and junior schools will largely become a thing of the past under this new formula, as will small faith schools, many in urban areas on restricted sites that don’t allow them to expand. Is this what the government wants? Are large schools regardless of distance from a pupil’s home what is needed for efficiency in a time of austerity?

Why is the proposed formula slanted towards secondary schools when the Pupil Premium is primarily aimed at primary and early years’ pupils? What is the point of such a weighting for deprivation being different between the two funding streams? The period between now and the close of the consultation and what happens afterwards will be an interesting time.

 

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. https://www.ifs.org.uk/publications/8937

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.