Too little: too late?

First it was Boris; then Mrs May and finally some of the other leadership contenders. What were they talking about? Not Brexit, although of course all the contenders for the Conservative Party leadership have been trying themselves up in knots of various tightness on that issue, but rather funding for schools.

Reading the runes of what was being outlined, it seems cuts to tuition fees might be some way down the track. If funding for schools and further education is back on the Tory Party agenda, it is difficult to see how the Treasury would be willing to spend more on higher education funding in the immediate future, especially once other Ministers put out their begging bowls. Sure, funding for International Development might be cut to below the level currently agreed to make some savings. This might be justified by citing Donald Trump and the USA level of aid. There might also be some cash to allow higher spending because of better tax revenues, but the police and Ministry of Justice have a real claim on extra cash to fight the rise in certain types of crime, including knife crime and the NHS can always do with more cash.

How much of the suggested increase in funding for education is real, and how much merely determined by the fact that pupil numbers will continue to increase over the next few years, is difficult to determine from the level of the pronouncements made so far, except for Boris’s statement on secondary schools. Not recognising the needs of further education and 16-18 funding might make Boris’s statement about £5,000 per pupil in the secondary sector look like vote catching idea, rather than a serious analysis of where the Tory Party’s current school funding policy has made a mistake. At least in the TV debate, FE, apprenticeships, and skills did receive a mention and, unless I missed, it selective education didn’t.

Any talk about increasing education funding by Conservative may be a case of too little and too late. The warning signs have been there for some time, and the fact that school funding didn’t play much of a part in either of the last two general elections was a bit of a surprise, although the effects on the ground were less obvious than the reductions in school reserves and the consequences of changes to come that are obvious to those that manage budgets, but were not then visible to parents.

For me the funding priorities are: 16-18 funding; early years and children’s centres; SEND funding and protecting rural schools facing falling rolls as the birth rate declines and the housing market stalls. There are other priorities, including metal health, although some cash has been allocated for this, and teacher preparation and career development. All staff will need competitive pay increases if the wider labour market remains as it currently is, but that will be true for the whole of the public sector and might reduce the amount specifically available for education; hence my earlier comment about the challenge in trying to reduce tuition fees.

Unless there is an emergency budget, any changes are not likely to reach schools before April or September 2021 at the earliest.

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Review of Post 18 Education and Funding

The Augar Report was published this morning. When generating a set of principles, this Review manages to be both potentially regressive and progressive at the same time, but for different groups in society.

The better news is mainly on the further education side, and the recognition of the importance of part-time study for some in society. However, even here, the Commission established by Sir Vince cable might have some better proposals for lifelong learning.

On higher education, the mixture of funding changes, wider government interference in planning through extending the range of subjects where government grant will be available, and general tinkering with the system seems likely to please almost nobody. If grant is available for Group 3 subjects, but not Group 4, and universities can only charge £7,500, how will the subjects in Group 4 fare? Will universities cross-subsidise, increase teaching groups, and reduce contact hours or just eliminate these subjects from their offer as uneconomic. I suspect much will depend upon the relative cost to income ratio at present.

As a means of boosting some STEM subjects, these proposals could provide incentives, but assumes there is a pool of potential undergraduates wanting to study these subjects, but not able to secure a place under the present system. One unintended consequence could be a glut of biological scientists, possibly with environmental approaches in their degrees, but no more physical scientists or engineers.

On apprenticeship, I was disappointed that Augar didn’t look at the funding pressure the levy places on small primary schools forced to pay the Levy by a quirk of fate. By suggesting eliminating permission for funding second qualifications, Augar would prevent these schools funding senior staff development through the Levy, as some are now starting to do under present arrangements. This is an area that the DfE needs to take notice of, as councils start repaying unpaid Levy back to The Treasury, including the cash collected from their primary schools.

The part of the report receiving the most attention is that concerning higher education tuition fees and repayments. A cap on total repayments is a good idea, but for public sector workers, subject to pay review bodies, the notion of paying postgraduate training fees is still a burden that Augar didn’t address.

As readers will know, I would require the government to either pay the fees of all trainee graduate teachers or offer all teachers full debt repayment for a period of service in public sector schools. Until then, I think the Pay Review bodies should comment on the effects of their recommendations on the teacher’s loan repayments under each of the different schemes in operation that year along with any proposed changes.

Aguar has a table suggesting that a modern language trainee teacher with a four year degree and a one-year training fee might amass some £117,000 of debt at the start of their career.

Finally, it would have been helpful for Augar to also have suggested better careers advice for pupils in schools to help them make informed choices

As a closing note, I hope this review, if implemented, doesn’t spell the end for philosophy, sociology and classical studies in our universities.

 

Funding thoughts

In an ofsted report published this week I found the following paragraph

Only a very small proportion of pupils benefit from routinely good teaching. Senior leaders’ attempts to improve the quality of teaching have been hampered by the school’s difficult financial situation. Most significantly, this means that too many pupils are being taught by non-specialist subject teachers.

Now, I am not sure why non-specialist can cost less than specialists, and ofsted don’t elaborate further.

According to today’s Yorkshire Post the Head of Education at North Yorkshire County Council, has urged the Government to “wake up to the plight of rural communities, and to the costs of delivering education in sparse rural areas.”
https://www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/news/education/financial-danger-mounting-for-yorkshire-dales-secondary-schools-amid-primary-clo

He also added that “We have real worries about small rural secondary schools. We aren’t, at the moment, looking at any closures, but we are seriously concerned about their financial position. There are no alternatives for these areas. We cannot afford for these schools to close because of the sheer distances pupils would have to travel.”

No doubt North Yorkshire will be responding to the government’s consultation on post-16 bursary funding and rural travel costs, highlighted in my previous post on Friday.

Both these reports highlight the shortcomings of an entirely pupil driven funding system, with little room for local flexibility. The F40 Group of local authorities remain concerned about how the funding system for schools is working.

Tomorrow, at 4pm the NEU and partners campaigning for fairer school funding will present a letter to the Department for Education at Sanctuary Buildings. The letter was signed by 1,115 councillors from authorities across the country.

Hopefully, funding will be one of the issues Layla Moran’s independent commission on education will consider. It does now seem that driving the school bus from Westminster may have unintended financial consequences for some parts of the country that traditionally elect Conservative Party MPs and councillors.

Closing rural schools was made more difficult during the time of the Blair government, so local authorities, academies and MATs with rural schools are between a rock and a hard place. For instance, heating costs may be higher than in city schools that especially in London can benefit from the heat island created by large urban areas.

But, the real issue is still, how we fund schools where costs may be very different, and in rural areas pupil numbers may just not be sufficient to ensure that funds are sufficient to cover outgoings. At least, schools don’t have to meet the travel costs as that cost still falls upon the local authority and the council tax payers.

Realistically, local authorities may need to be able to vire some cash between schools in the same way that MATs are allowed to do.

But, if the overall amount is insufficient to fund quality education, then the system needs to be looked at again. For a start, schools with historic deficits that are impeding good teaching might have them written off for the benefit of the present school population.

 

Congratulations to the Education Select Committee

Alongside the unfolding shambles that is Brexit much of the work of parliament at Westminster goes on almost as normal. Next week the All Party Parliamentary Group on the Teaching Profession s its spring meeting, and I have provided them with an update on teacher recruitment along the lines of yesterday’s post on this blog.

However, of more significant to the work of parliament was the meeting yesterday of the Education Select Committee. Details at https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/education-committee/news-parliament-2017/send-evidence-17-193/ The minutes haven’t been published yet, but will be well worth reading when the do appear.

When I first started following the work of Select Committees in the 1980s, and then submitting written evidence, and in 1996 being called for the first time to provide oral evidence, these Committees met in rooms at Westminster. They mostly just questioned experts in the field they were discussing. There was no TV channel or live streaming, and I recall astonishing a clerk by requesting that a graph accompanying my evidence needed to be reproduced in colour in the minutes if it was to be understood by readers. Incidentally, guidelines in many organisations for reproducing graphs and charts in both colour and monochrome are still often very lax, making some documents very difficult to understand.

Issues such as concerns about the presentation of data will have been fully understood by those providing evidence to the Education Select Committee yesterday. In three groups, of either two or three, young people with special needs or disabilities provided evidence of their own experience of the education system to the MPs on the Committee. I think this is the first time that the Committee has actually heard at first hand from students with SEND of their experience of our education system.

Schools should not be just exam factories, but pupils with SEND should not lose out in achieving their full potential just because they face additional challenges.  Relegating these pupils to a separate room at lunchtime might be both convenient and help to ensure their safety, but it doesn’t help in making friendship with other pupils. Simple actions such as the wearing of a ‘high vis’ Gillet in the playground can warn other pupils to take care, and reduce the need for isolation and significantly increase opportunities to associate with other classmates.

All new schools should be built with doors and circulation spaces wide enough to take motorised wheelchairs, for even if there are no pupils when the school is being built, who is to say that there won’t be parents, staff, governors or even HMIs making use of such aids to their mobility? For the same reason, lifts must provide access to all upper floors where teaching takes place.

Funding for SEND, and the High Needs Block in general, needs more attention and I hope the Select Committee will consider that issue along with the part the NHS can play in early identification of those that need EHCPs rather than waiting for children to start their education. I hope that yesterday was the start of more conversation between Select Committees and those whose voices are often not heard enough.

FE: too often forgotten

This blog is as guilty as many in education of too often overlooking the further education sector. Despite its status of something of a poor relation to both higher education and the school sector, further education has an important part to play in developing the economic activity of our nation. One of my regrets about the Coalition government was that it allowed the further education sector to be excluded from the funding deal for schools. That deal may not have been perfect, but it has left schools, and especially those secondary schools without 16-18 provision, relatively much better off than the further education sector. The oft quoted number is that a lecturer in the FE sector earns around £7,000 less than a school teacher when teaching the same age group.

One has to ask, is it rational to be thinking of cutting fees for higher education without also considering the funding of further education, where a portion of higher education work also takes place. I suspect that a significant amount of the work on FE funding assumed that further education could subsidise expensive practical subjects from the assumed cheaper to deliver classroom based education. Such a view is both short-sighted and not, I suspect, based on much in the way of evidence. I guess that when general studies was taught to classes 100 or more day release students, such subsidies were possible: but mostly, I suspect, that was a long time ago.

Teaching English and Mathematics, both classroom based subjects, to those that failed to reach a satisfactory level at school cannot be done in large classes. It also cannot be done properly by those without sufficient knowledge and skills of teaching.  Practical subjects whether construction or hairdressing need both small groups and often expensive equipment. The Treasury doesn’t seem to realise this fact. Government also doesn’t seem to realise that students often have to travel significant distances to attend colleges offering subjects they are interested in learning.

We have already seen a couple of universities flirt with financial issues and there must be a risk as the number of 16-18 year olds reduces for the next couple of years that further education as a sector will experience the same sorts of serious financial problems.

Once the agony of the Brexit saga is finally resolved, one way or another, then British industry and commerce must step in to support the development of the further education sector as a means of creating talent for our wealth generating industries, whether old manufacturing skills or modern IT related skills or those that have yet to be fully understood around the applications of AI across the workplace.

Now is the time to review the economics of the whole 16-18 sector. Schools are able to support small sixth forms, especially where pupil numbers are growing at Key Stage 3. Colleges don’t have this luxury and it is a false economy to under-fund them when we need a more productive and skilled workforce at all levels. Those that don’t go to university are as important in our economy as those that do and much less of a burden on the public purse.  They deserve a better deal.

 

 

Revenue balances: a waste of money?

The issue of high salaries paid to top officers by some academy trusts, highlighted in the previous post, isn’t the only financial issue facing the sector.  Now that more of the 2017-18 account are appearing a Companies house, it is possible to see the extent of the revenue balances being held by many academies; together with the occasional deficit.

So far, in Oxfordshire, 20 of the 39 Trusts operating academies or free schools across the county have reported their accounts and had them published on the companies house web site. In aggregate, they reveal around £4.6 million of revenue reserves held by primary schools and £4.3 million held by secondary schools. However, the deficits across both sectors total £1.1 million, mostly from one secondary school that has been in financial special measures for a couple of years and is gradually reducing its deficit.

One multi-academy trust, United Learning, operates six schools in Oxfordshire, but does not reveal revenue balances by school in their accounts. This MAT pools the money centrally for all their schools, and can then presumably use it where it can do the most good. Pooling also allows the total amount held in reserves to match the needs across the MAT in any one year and the amount can be set at a lower level than if the figure is chosen by each school. This was the approach taken in the past by local authorities, before schools gained control of their own budgets nearly 30 years ago.

A MAT operating say, 30 schools can decide that a reserve of five per cent overall might be appropriate to meet the contingencies and future needs in any one year of all schools in the MAT, whereas each school governing body might be more cautious and aim for 10% if setting a level on its own.

There is, however, a risk with pooling across geographical boundaries that schools in one area could be subsidising schools in another area. If parents discovered that a school in a MAT was taking this approach, they might choose not apply to that school, but to a school where the full funds were available for the education of their offspring.

This is an argument that balances are reducing because of the financial pressure that school currently face. There are certainly schools where revenue balances were lower in 2018 than in the 2017 accounts. But it is not yet a universal truth for all schools.

Could all schools in a local area be required to bank either with the local authority or an arm of central government? Such pooling would only work if these balances can be used rather than be treated as a deposit accounts. Pooling balances might also free cash being saved by schools for special projects at some point in the future for more immediate use, including cash being accumulated for capital projects. There seems little other justification for revenue balances of more than £1 million being held by some secondary schools other than future capital projects, especially while other school have insufficient funds.

Funding schools is a tricky business, but money should not be tied up in reserves when it can be released for improving teaching and learning.

Market forces or national pay scales?

The DfE has announced that the Academies Minister, Lord Agnew, has written to 28 chairs of trustees as part of the Government’s commitment to curb what it feels are ‘excessive’ salaries based on the size, standards, and financial health of trusts. The academies have been asked to provide more details on the pay of executives who earn more than £150,000 – and those earning £100,000 if two or more people in a school earn a six-figure salary. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/schools-minister-calls-on-academies-to-justify-excessive-pay

This issue of six figure salaries has concerned the government for some time now, and comments about their letters to Trusts have featured in previous posts on this blog during the past year, ever since the issue first surfaced as a matter of concern.

Schools Week has publish a full list of the Trusts the DfE has written to at https://schoolsweek.co.uk/holland-park-school-warned-over-heads-260k-salary-as-minister-writes-to-28-trusts/

Interestingly, Holland Park School is one of the Trust to receive a letter. Their accounts lodged at Companies House, for the year to end August 2018, show the highest paid staff member receiving an emolument [sic] in the range of £260,000-£270,000 for the year.

Those with a long memory stretching back into the early 1990s will recall that as a large secondary school Holland Park always paid at the top end of the salary scale. But, how to justify around double the national rate for the job as identified by the School Teachers Review Body and the Teachers’ Pay and Conditions Document? Well, ever since a Secretary of State allowed academies to ignore both of those documents, the genii was out of the bottle. Indeed, Holland Park School had three staff earning more than £140,000 in 2017-18.

The school is judged ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted and is a Teaching School. The examination results are excellent, but does any of this justify paying such high salaries to senior staff? As a single school trust the head isn’t managing several schools, so there cannot be that argument for additional pay.

Is there an argument around market forces? Without such pay the school would not attract and keep a head teacher? Research into the turnover of senior staff in school using TeachVac data for 2017-18 suggest that only around 12% of secondary schools failed to appoint a head teacher when seeking to make an appointment. The figure is higher in the primary sector.

After more than 30 years of studying the labour market for senior staff in schools, I would suggest that rarely has there been a period when finding secondary head teachers that been easier than at present.  You can justify a recruitment allowance to help heads settle in a new area, but is a differential of around ten times the pay of a newly qualified teacher acceptable? The government clearly thinks not.

Should all public sector schools be brought back within a national pay framework and was it a mistake to allow schools to go their own way? Perhaps the real mistake lies with a refusal a decade or so ago to set rules for what was an Executive Head Teacher and how much they should be paid.