Schools for the future?

In the first segment of the BBC’s Today programme this morning, sometime in the run up to the seven o’clock news, I heard a representative from a Free School in the North West saying that control over the money was one reason the school had been established. Regular readers of this blog will probably know what comes next. True, if you are a standalone academy of free school or a local authority maintained school you have total control over your funds, but not if you are a school in a group of academies. There your Trustees can shift money between schools with impunity: so much for the free to control your finances.

Last Tuesday, at Oxfordshire’s Cabinet meeting, I raised this issue with the Cabinet member in the Conservative led administration whose portfolio includes schools. I asked for a commitment to fight for cash allocated to Oxfordshire schools to be spent at that school and not, when the school is part of a group of academies that cross the county boundary, used to secure the education of children in another part of the country. After all, Oxfordshire is a member of the F40 group of local authorities that see themselves as under-funded. It would be grossly unfair to transfer cash from an Oxfordshire school to another school in a better funded area. The minutes have yet to be published, but I expect them to show she wasn’t happy with this possibility.

Of course, under the Common Funding Formula, all schools should be funded at a similar basic level, but the principle of devolved budgets remains. Over the past two decades, once a budget was handed to a school it was sacrosanct and could not be touched by anyone else. Now, that principle has been broken for some schools, why should it apply to any?

The answer to this question is important, especially as the Labour Party continues its journey away from competition as a panacea of all evils in education and back towards the possible municipal control of schooling model.

Both my own Party, the Liberal Democrats and Labour have the courage to see that reforms started under Ed Balls and enthusiastically taken up by Michael Gove haven’t produced the solution that they wanted. Improvements in outcomes there have been, but the system is now too weighted against the disadvantaged in society. If your child is taken into care and moved away, there is a high risk that their education will be severely damaged. The growth in home education starting at the end of Key Stage 3 isn’t always a good sign and pupil place planning during a period of rising school rolls has been a nightmare in many areas and cost the country money wasted on travel costs that were not really necessary.

There really isn’t the need for a new form of cooperative school proposed by the Labour Party this week. Updating the voluntary school sector rules for the twenty first century would be quicker and simpler to achieve as a way forward.

Good schools for all remains the aim: can it be achieved without a degree of overall local control and planning for the future?

 

Advertisements

More National Schools

It seems as if the government has decided that the next wave of free schools are going to be created in the worst-performing areas of England, particularly the North East. Officials are apparently to establish the next wave of about 35 new schools in the bottom third of lowest-performing areas, according to the BBC. Since this is a part of England where pupil rolls are generally either static or not rising as much as elsewhere, such a move will have a disproportionate effect on the budgets of other schools now that there is a common funding formula. I am sure that the DfE will take this factor into account in their planning.

In the past few weeks there have been a number of parliamentary questions about both free schools and academies. The government revealed that between 2013/14 and 2017/18 eight free schools had closed and another will close in the summer of 2018. Interestingly, one of the early closures, The Durham Free School, was located in the North East, where the government is now looking to create their new wave of such schools.

Alongside the closed free schools, there are 14 academy sponsors that to use the DfE jargon are ‘paused’. According to the Minister in an answer to a parliamentary question, an academy sponsor is paused if any or all of the following conditions exist:

  • significant concerns with educational impact;
  • serious financial concerns, for example where the Education and Skills Funding Agency has issued a financial notice to improve due to financial non-compliance, breaches of funding agreements; and/or
  • serious concerns about the leadership or governance of the sponsor, which may include due diligence and counter extremism issues.

Academy sponsors remain on pause unless and until the concerns that led to them being paused have been resolved. Just because a sponsor is not on pause does not mean it is automatically allowed to take on more schools. A rigorous process is followed for all sponsorship decisions.                                                                              Answer to PQ 146287

Even though a sponsor has to meet one, two or all of these tests, it seems likely that the outcome may be at the discretion of the Regional School Commissioner. In my view there should be a clear national policy on how these tests are applied, including for faith schools and their diocesan sponsors.

The government has also released the details of the number of academies that have been re-brokered since 2013-14. (Note not 2013/14) In total, 332 academies have moved Trusts during the period 2013/14 to 2016/17, with some more no doubt since then. As the number of academies has increased, and many schools either became academies or at  least started the process of doing so during the period when Mr Gove was Secretary of State, so the number moving Trusts has increased, from just 15 schools in 2013-14 to 165 in 2016-17. The PQ didn’t state the cost of the exercise and how many other schools might be stranded in limbo awaiting a new sponsor.

The governance arrangements for schools across England is now a mess. Schools that stay with a local authority know that they might have a new group of politicians in charge after an election, but in most cases the same group of officers will be in place; although the disruption to schools in Northamptonshire following the collapse of the County Council reminds us what is possible. However, schools joining a MAT can suddenly find their central services provided miles away from a group of staff they have no connections to and that may not understand their concerns. Such schools have no way out and no appeal mechanism against being moved or even traded between Trusts.

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.

 

 

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.

Off with the head

I assume the call for parents to be able to remove heads issued by the New Schools Network in its evidence to the Select Committee inquiry into Regional School Commissioners is either a bit of headline grabbing or an attempt to legislate for what many active parents already do.

Indeed, when schools were responsible to local authorities there were parent and local authority governors that could and did act as a conduit for dissatisfaction among the parent and staff bodies if a school was under-performing. What the New Teacher Network seems to fail to understand, if I read the press reports correctly, is that it is the management of the school and not necessarily the head that may need to be changed when a school is failing. That’s why governments sack governing bodies in failing schools. Did they also consider the issue highlighted in the Bill presently before parliament of what to do with a ‘coasting’ academy or free school? The assumption that only the remaining community or voluntary schools ‘coast’, and academies and free school don’t, seems either naïve or politically motivated.

Now I have no objection to a single system of schools. I would prefer them to have local democratic oversight, but frankly, in a time of austerity, it is a waste of money to create two systems in parallel.

By the way, middle class parents that are anxious about whether their children’s schools are under-performing do take action and have done so for years. I know of two schools in the past year where groups of parents have put pressure on the governors and the head because they were worried about standards falling.

However, they, along with the New Schools Network, do have to consider that the post of head teacher must be attractive enough to encourage the next generation of teachers to want to take on the role. Indeed, the New Schools Network might do well to consider whether offering support to prevent problems becoming more serious is usually better than changing the leadership team. The decline in advisory services to schools into a traded option bought by schools may fit the market agenda but it makes early intervention before problems increase beyond the point of no return more challenging. Would a free school advisory board agree to support a head that indicated the need to spend money on staff development over a project that they favoured?

The current risk is that many schools will find improving performance more challenging if the recruitment and retention of teachers becomes yet more of a challenge into 2016.

There is also the pressure to prevent schools seeming to under-perform by parents paying for private tuition. I heard of one, I hope extreme case, where the parents of a pupil entering the sixth form with an A at GCSE were told to look for a private tutor by other parents in order for the child to be able to keep up with the A level pace. This was because, the lessons were pitched on the basis that parents would be doing so and anyone that didn’t would find themselves outpaced. Now, I hope that is a rare example, but it does demonstrate what a parent driven system can create. Is that the aim of the New Schools Network?

Tory muddle over new schools?

Free Schools Good: UTCs bad. Is that the latest message about schools coming from the Tory Party?  If so, where does that leave studio schools, converter academies and regular sponsored academies. Frankly, I haven’t got a clue.

Readers will recall that UTCs are 14-18 schools created by this government along the lines of the City Technology Colleges championed by Kenneth Baker when he was Education Secretary. Not surprisingly, he is in favour of the UTCs as well. One might have expected that the Tory Party having invented these schools would be in favour of more of them in the next parliament, but no, in January, as this blog reported in a post on the 6th January, the Tory Party attacked Labour’s costings for 100 new UTCs during the life of the next parliament. At that time it didn’t offer any suggestion that extra schools would be needed to cope with increased pupil numbers. Depending upon your view of how large schools should be come, new schools may or may not be necessary to deal with the growth in pupil numbers.

If we do need new schools, are 14-18 schools now off the Tory agenda or only going to be present if there is local demand and hang the problems that might be caused for existing schools. It is one thing to protect the education budget from cuts, but surely that doesn’t mean wasting money on creating schools where they are not needed.

The Tory Party is no doubt relying on the Policy Exchange review of Free Schools published today to support the case for more of these schools. The evidence in the report is debatable to say the least and might support more than one conclusion as a Policy Exchange spokesperson agreed on the Today programme this morning when debating with Rebecca Allen of the FFT’s new datalab research centre. I guess if you take out the religious free schools, such as those opened by members of the Jewish community, the data on performance by free schools might be even more questionable.  With a drive to raise standards in all schools, the fact that some high performing schools near free schools apparently saw their performance decline is worth unpacking as in most situations those tested didn’t have the option of the choice between a free school or their current school when deciding on school choice.

Probably the most distressing aspect of the announcement today is that in a time of austerity the Tory party still seems to want to favour the few over the many. Spending all available funding on raising standards for all rather than wasting time and energy on the few parents that want their own form of education will surely do more to help England plc in the future.

Anyway, as Policy Exchange have shown, more and more free schools are being opened by academy chains and other established groups rather than by parent or teacher groups. Why not rebadge them as voluntary schools, for that is what many of them increasingly are, but under a new guise.