‘Freedom is more than a word’

Congratulations to Leora Cruddas on her appointment as the new Chief Executive of FASNA, Freedom and Autonomy for Schools – National Association. Leora has joined FASNA from ASCL, another of the alphabet soup of initials that is the fate of any policy area in the modern age. Leora was very supportive of TeachVac this time last year and I was grateful for her kind words. I wish her well in her new appointment.

I will watch the development of FASNA with interest. Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a view about local accountability of schools, especially primary schools and the feedback that active local politicians can bring to the education scene. This can be lost with remote Regional Commissioners and Chief Executives of MATs that don’t understand the importance of customer care and working for the better education of the local community

However, I am encouraged that Freedom is linked to Autonomy in the title of the organisation. Freedom to innovate can be a good think; freedom to ignore the place of local schools in society isn’t, as my campaign for places for looked after children demonstrates. Freedom over admissions must not be used to discriminate against certain groups in society: especially the most vulnerable. Public money is to be used for public benefit, not for some, but for all, however uncomfortable a challenge that may sometimes be.

The issue is raised today in terms of whether a school can refuse to accept a pupil on roll into the next year group because of inadequate performance or likely poor performance in the future. In the old days, it was clear that a pupil could only be taken off roll in certain limited circumstances. I think this was regardless of whether or not they were over the school leaving age. The issue was the roll not the leaving age. I am sure that there is case law on this point. I assume that a school could refuse to enter a pupil in a public examination if it felt that they wouldn’t achieve the grade a school wants, but again, the issue is who is the school working for? Does it have a duty to pupils on roll to educate them to the best of its ability unless it formally excludes them and can it exclude for academic reasons associated with a minimum standard of performance?

With its connections to the Church of England, the relevant diocese ought to take an interest in this school’s approach to selection. How free should a state funded school be to decide this sort of policy? No doubt these are able pupils, they passed the entry exam to the school, so the standard is relative and they would be welcome elsewhere, but why should their education be interrupted in this way?

Where are the boundaries of freedom. I don’t agree with C S Lewis, the Christian apologist who wrote in 1944 the following that seems very close to the position being taken by the school trying to exclude its own pupils.

A truly democratic education—one which will preserve democracy—must be, in its own field, ruthlessly aristocratic, shamelessly “high-brow.” In drawing up its curriculum it should always have chiefly in view the interests of the boy who wants to know and who can know … It must, in a certain sense subordinate the interests of the many to those of the few, and it must subordinate the school to the university. Only thus can it be a nursery of those first-class intellects without which neither a democracy nor any other State can thrive.  C. S. Lewis, “Notes on the Way,” Time and Tide 25 (29 April 1944), 369–70. Lewis’ own title for this essay was “Democratic Education.” From https://tifwe.org/resource/c-s-lewis-and-the-meaning-of-freedom/ by Steven Gillen

 

 

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System autonomy or a system for the future?

Hard on the publication of the report from the social Mobility Commission, headlined in the previous post, comes a report from the Centre for Education Economics, the re-named CMRE or Centre for Market Reform in Education. This is a body that avowedly believes in market solutions to improving education. Their report is entitled ‘Optimising Autonomy; a blueprint [sic] for reform. http://www.cfee.org.uk/sites/default/files/Optimising%20autonomy%20-%20Web%20.pdf?utm_source=CMRE+News+and+Events&utm_campaign=15cd691116-The+Centre+for+Education+Economics&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_9bd023bfaa-15cd691116-92109333

Now, generally I find the former CMRE view often too market orientated for my taste, but this new report by James Croft bears reading as it makes some interesting observations. I remain un-reformed in my view that if the democratic process has a place in education at a national level then it also has at a more local level. This report does at least recognise some role for local authorities, but it might be better if they were to have worked through case studies of what can actually happen. How much might bussing in rural areas cost to achieve greater parental choice and is it worth the expenditure. A key question surely for a centre concerned with economics one would have imagined.

I also conclude that if competition was such a good idea then large retail chains would not impose the discipline that they do on their stores. I think, more important, as I have said at two different conferences this week, is the issue of technological change and our approach to education. The ‘free marketers’ have become too obsessed with the ‘wrong’ question of parental choice and have missed the issue of how education should respond to a changing environment and what the consequences are for the system as a whole.

Before 1870, England assumed that parents that wanted education would seek it out and pay for it. With the advent of greater suffrage and votes for all came the thinking about educating the electorate and a necessity for State intervention; something many other countries had already embarked upon. Parents often now choose to rectify the deficiencies of the State system through paying for private tutoring and home schooling is on the increase.

I think a centre dedicated to education economics might well look beyond the issue of for profit or not in schools and widen the debate into ‘for profit’ activities in education and how we achieve the aims of social mobility discussed in the previous post. Especially, what part will changes in technology play in the future shape of learning for our citizens and their families?

The general election was a good example of backward thinking, with the debate largely about selective education. Why should the State pay for this form of education over any other. Again, an interesting question for economists to discuss. I suspect the return on State investment is much greater with non-selective education across all government services. But such a calculation is notoriously difficult to undertake effectively.

I am interested to know where Labour stand in the debate on the politics and economics of schooling. As a left-winger for most of his career, does Mr Corbyn want to see a return to full State control and is that local or national. After all, Labour nationalised the NHS in the 1940s, so presumably is comfortable in keeping schools out of local democratic control?

 

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.

 

Making money from schools

Why would anyone want to take the risk of running a ‘for profit’ school when there are so many easier way to make money out of state education? At one time, companies and foundations from the USA and Sweden were going to revolutionise schooling in England, while making a profit at the same time. Seems it didn’t happen quite that way. The academies that both the Erudition Schools Trust and the Learning Schools Trust opened have all been re-brokered away from the groups that originally founded them and now both of the groups are seemingly no more.

Another education experiment originally from the age of new Labour capitalism has bitten the dust. But, that doesn’t mean you cannot make money from schools. Books, furniture, resources, services such as accountancy, human relations, payroll and legal services, as well as construction and the maintenance of school buildings and facilities can all be offered at a profit. Then, as regular readers know, there is the recruitment industry that thrives on helping schools find staff.

Many years ago, in 1999 to be precise, the then Education Select Committee started an inquiry into ‘The role of private companies in the management and supply of state education services’. I don’t think it was ever completed.  I noted in my written submission that J S Mill had taken the view  in his essay  entitled On Liberty that the role of the state was to ensure the education of its citizens and not necessarily to operate the schools. The question was, and still is, how can The State achieve its end of educating its citizens without paying more of taxpayers’ money than is necessary?

The National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee are there to see that where possible public funds are used judiciously. I would say wisely, but I am not sure that is always the case. Mill, was convinced that the State should not necessarily run the service of education. But are politicians and these days, educationalists, any better at obtaining value for money if the service is run by others: sometimes not.

In 1999, I pointed out that the CEO of an education company with a turnover of £48 million earned £122,000 whereas a Chief Education Officer, remember them, of an authority with an education budget of more than £150 million didn’t even earn a six figure salary.  Presumably, the difference was the price to be paid for risk. You can find the same differentials today between CEOs of MATs and chief officers in local authorities, but with, in my opinion, less justification.

Some of us do try to challenge the orthodoxy, by taking the disruptive approach allowed by new technology. TeachVac www.teachvac.co.uk is one such attempt. Like Twitter, Facebook and many other on-line service sit is free to users and makes its money in other ways. In the case of TeachVac, analysing the growing amount of data and using it to provide additional paid services.

With growing concerns about school funding it is time to develop mechanisms for driving down private sector charges to schools. The government’s recent initiative in IT procurement is a good example of what can be achieved.

Is there a headship crisis?

According to a story in The Times today, one in ten schools is losing its head teacher each year. Reading the headlines of the story, outside the pay wall, there are examples of schools advertising up to seven times to find a replacement and of schools without a permanent head for three years. Local authorities, still seemingly worth talking to about schools, even by this Tory supporting newspaper, tell of high turnover of heads and head teachers of small schools being enticed away to larger schools by promises of more money. All this makes for a crisis.

Between the early 1980s and 2012, I studies the labour market for head teachers on a regular basis. I stopped, partly because I didn’t’ think there was a crisis at that time and partly because I left my long-term database with my former employers. Since the establishment of TeachVac, I have gradually started to rebuild the data on leadership turnover and will report fully this time next year when there is sufficient comparative data.

A turnover of ten per cent isn’t, in historical terms, anything out of the ordinary, especially as some of the total will have been made up from head teachers required for new schools due to increasing pupil numbers and the 14-18 UTCs and studio schools as well as genuine ‘free schools’. Although there probably not as many of these as a previous Secretary of State might have wished.

For most of the early part of this century, re-advertisement rates for secondary heads were in the 20%+ range; for primary schools, the rate exceeded 30% in most years between 1997/98 and 2009/10, so re-advertisements are nothing new in the leadership market. Indeed, recruiters have made a tidy sum from encouraging schools to take ever larger and glossier advertisements on the basis of recruitment challenges. As regular readers know, TeachVac challenges this principle by offering a free service.

Any school seeking a new head teacher for September that advertises in January and runs a sensible recruitment round should have no problems recruiting unless it has one or more of the following characteristics:

It is a faith school,

It is located in London,

It is a small or very large school,

If a secondary school, it is single-sex or selective (or a secondary modern in a selective area).

Two or more factors and it needs to consider carefully how to recruit a new head teacher, especially if outside of the normal recruitment season from January to March where around 50% of vacancies are advertised each year.

Advertising outside the first quarter of the year, when fewer candidates are looking to move schools, is also often a waste of money, as is putting off candidates through the content of the advertisement or taking a long time over the process; candidates often apply for several posts and may be hired by another school if the process is too long.

Being a school in challenging circumstances has become more of a handicap as MATs and governing bodies seem to think the head teacher needs changing if there is a poor Ofsted report or a disappointing set of examination or test results. There are cases where a change of leadership is appropriate, but not, in my view, in every case.

Without a mandatory qualification for headship, it is difficult to know in details the size of the talent pool for future head teachers, something that should worry those responsible for the system at the EFA and NCTL, since a lack of supply will always drive up the price of a good or commodity and headship is no different to any other type of job in that respect.

At least some head teachers can look forward to recognition through the honours system, and I was delighted to see Professor John Furlong honoured in the latest list for his lifetime of work in teacher education. John, your OBE is a well-deserved mark of respect.

 

 

 

Bring back local democracy for schools

At the last county council meeting in Oxfordshire we discussed school organisation and the government’s proposals for making all schools academies. During the debate one Tory councillor said he didn’t believe in the need for trained teachers. As he is the Tory representative on the committee overseeing the Police & Crime Commissioner for Thames Valley I asked him bluntly whether I could enrol as a police officer without training and, if so, could I be issued with a firearm? Not surprisingly, he said the two jobs were different.

In the past I have asked journalists that question me on the need for teacher training whether I could become their editor without having been a journalist; most say that’s not how it works. Of course, it is the way it worked in the past as Lord Adonis will tell you if you ask what training he received before becoming the education reporter at the Financial Times.

With this background of establishment belief that anyone can be a teacher, and indeed run a school, I read this week’s Profile interview in Schools Week with interest. This is a regular series that I was proud to be part of when it first started and they were looking volunteers to interview. This week the interviewee was Toby Young, http://schoolsweek.co.uk/toby-young-free-school-chief-executive/ He was the man that helped start the free school movement and has more recently been paid £50,000 a year as CEO of the Trust, according to the last accounts of the MAT that now runs three schools in West London and is about to open a fourth (visit https://beta.companieshouse.gov.uk/company/07493696/filing-history and click on accounts for details).

According to Toby Young in his Schools Week interview he said;

“I was very critical of England’s public education system under the last Labour government, and I hadn’t grasped how difficult it is to do better, and to bring about system-wide improvement.

“The last government and this government have achieved a remarkable amount, and I do think the direction of travel is the right direction, but there is no question that it was arrogant of me to believe that just having high expectations and believing in the benefits of a knowledge-based education for all, that those things alone would be enough to create successful schools.”

 “As someone coming into education from the outside, the bits you see of other schools are only the tip of the iceberg. You’re not aware of everything that is going on beneath the surface. You think, ‘well, I could do better than that’, as you are pointing to the tip of the iceberg, without realising how much more there is to it.”

He sighs. “If I could rewind six years, and know then what I know now, I would have been much less critical of other schools, local authorities, and England’s public education system in general.”

At this point I might rest my case for a return to local democratic control after the Thatcher/Blair assault on local government’s role in education. Sure, there were bad local authorities and taking control of them for a period has been a good idea, but throwing the baby out with the bath water was plain daft.

If Toby Young had seen free schools as a new type of voluntary school for the 21st century then much of the grief of the past few years might have been avoided and the government wouldn’t have been faced with having to make Friday’s –U- turn.

However, the job is only half done. We still need a governance system for schools that is credible, reliable and is geared to improving outcomes for all young people at every stage of the education process. Personally, I believe that should involve democratically elected local representatives in mutli-service authorities responsible to a single government department at Westminster.

A first step would be to identify how many system leaders we need and where we are going to find them? We also need to train them in a first-class education leadership academy led by professionals but supported by those with a wide range of skills. Something like the concept I mentioned in a recent post. Toby Young may have good ideas, but perhaps he has now discovered that good intentions are not enough.

Oh, and by the way, his MAT has been looking for a chief finance officer http://www.wlfsat.org/vacancies although the vacancy for a CEO has yet to appear on their web site.

Another market failure

Two studio schools for 14-18 year olds in the midlands are to close because of a failure to recruit enough students. This is how the message was announced by the trust responsible for the schools.

The Midland Academies Trust is to change the learning provision for students at its studio schools in Hinckley and Nuneaton.  Students will now be given the opportunity to continue their studies at other schools within the Trust supported by North Warwickshire and Hinckley College.  They will continue with the specialist CREATE Framework, supported by personal coaches and enjoy work experience arrangements aligned with the key features of the studio school model.

The decision comes as increasing financial pressures due to low pupil recruitment make the economic viability of small schools hugely challenging. The studio schools cater for 300 students each (600 in total) but there are currently a total of 157 pupils on roll across both schools. Year 10 and Year 12 students will be given the opportunity to continue their studies at either The George Eliot School or The William Bradford Academy from January 2016.  Current staff will continue to work with them and they will continue with their work placements and relationships with employers.

The Year 11 and Year 13 students will remain at the studio schools until the end of the academic year. – See more at: http://www.msc.leics.sch.uk/news?story=47#sthash.Ho3nB2FV.dpuf

At least the examination year pupils are to be catered for without the need to move school just over a term and a half before their examinations. Hopefully, they won’t experience any serious staff changes.

The Trust responsible for the two schools posted this announcement on the 1st December. As I pointed out when the UTC in the west midlands announced its closure in the spring, local authorities weren’t allowed to just shut down a school at short-notice.

Indeed, it is probably time that the EFA has talks with the government about a protocol on closure procedures, especially where it is due to financial viability. With the first stage of the admissions process now largely finished for 2016, a stress test, like that applied to the banks, should be administered by the EFA to all schools it funds and a list of those at risk published so that parents can decide whether moving their child at 14 is really a sensible idea.

In many ways I think the notion of a 14-18 sector is a good one and some of the schools are already flourishing with good recruitment, but many aren’t. After all, why would a school want to wave goodbye to four years of possible funding by encouraging students to change school at 14 unless by doing so their results improved.

Market failure, especially in new products, isn’t unusual. These schools do represent a new type of schooling that may need more marketing to parents. Whether we should be experimenting in an age of austerity where the government wants to take a billion pounds out of education procurement – presumably including spending on marketing – is an interesting question.

Could the same result have been achieved just by general further education colleges widening their offering to the 14-16 age-group? What are the real costs of each of these new UTCs and studio schools? As I have said elsewhere, each school needs a head teacher and other leadership staff. This puts pressure on the pool of leaders that isn’t an inexhaustible supply, making it more difficult for every school looking for a new leader.

However, the biggest question for debate is that of how far our education system should be organised on market principles?