Transfer at 14; good idea, badly executed?

Schools Week has been running a story about the failure of many UTCs and Studio Schools to attract pupils for September. Their latest news is that Plymouth UTC will now not take any pupils at 14 this coming September http://schoolsweek.co.uk/troubled-utc-plymouth-pauses-recruitment-at-14/ Here in Oxfordshire the news on that front is better, with two of the three UTC/Studio schools fully subscribed. Indeed, the Didcot UTC has made 120 offer for 120 places equal to its Planned Admission Number and the Studio School in Bicester exceeded its PAN of 50 with 53 offers to the 60 applicants. Now, whether or not they all turn up is another matter, and we won’t know until parents have considered issues such as how much it will cost to transport their child to the school.

The Space Studio School in Banbury follows the trend identified by Schools Week, with 16 offer for the 75 places available. But, located as it is in the grounds of the town’s largest academy it has always seemed to me to be a bit of an oddity.

Despite these good recruitment numbers, there remain for the schools in Oxfordshire the same issues rehearsed before in this column. Existing Oxfordshire secondary schools will lose the funding of 173 pupils if all those offered places move to the Didcot and Bicester schools. That’s the best part of £700,000 in one year. Over four years it would amount to not far short of £3 million pounds after allowing for inflation. Put this drain on income on top of the 8% the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggested might be the cuts to school budgets over the rest of this decade and you have the potential for financial problems at other schools.

To make the most of a system, you need a degree of planning or unlimited funds. We don’t have either at present and we don’t seem to have a government that understands that in times of austerity you need to make the most of the resources that you do have available.

The issue in Oxfordshire is, what will be the consequences for schools losing pupils at 14 and 16, whereas elsewhere the consequence is the opposite. What happens to the schools that don’t attract enough pupils to pay their bills? The silence from the Regional Schools Commissioners and the National Commissioner on the need for a rational approach is of concern. These civil servants must not be high priced rubber stamps approving new academies without understanding the consequences.

In the end, it will be the much maligned local authorities that will have to sort out ant mess. It may be no surprise that the Plymouth UTC operates in a selective school system. In such a system, few pupils will leave a selective school at 14 making it even harder to recruit from the remaining schools with the pupils that didn’t take or pass the selection process.

It is probably time to look at how the transfer of pupils at 14 is going to work in the longer-term: leaving it to the market isn’t really an option.

Funding formula to go?

There are reports that the National Funding formula is to be abandoned. I received this from the Lib Dem press office just a few moments ago.

The Liberal Democrats have responded to reports that the Conservatives are to bow to massive backbench pressure and abandon their proposed shake-up of school funding.
Liberal Democrat Education spokesperson John Pugh said:
Finally, the Conservatives have been forced to re-think their deeply flawed funding formula, which would see savage cuts to schools in most areas of the country. Their proposals were utterly cynical, taking from some areas to give to others, rather than committing to give all schools the additional funding they need.”

I am surprised to hear this even being discussed during purdah as it amounts to a change of policy already under consultation.

Locally, if it proves to be true and not just electioneering, I am both glad for the rural primary schools, 100 of them in Oxfordshire, where the cash for the school was going to be cut (see earlier posts), but sad that Oxfordshire and the other F40 authorities will have to wait longer for a fairer distribution of funds to schools.

However, I am not surprised at the possibility of an announcement. Trying to reform school funding in the middle of the largest increase in pupil numbers in almost half a century was always going to lead to electoral disaster. One wonders why the Tories backbenchers waited until the day before the local elections to put on the pressure as any announcement has surely come too late to influence the voters in the shire counties voting tomorrow.

Then there is the issue of where the Conservatives now stand on funding schools? Unless they can come up with something better than just a U-turn on their formula they will still be leaving school looking at a funding shortfall over the life of the next parliament. Reciting the mantra of strong leadership on school funding just looks silly in the circumstances.

Finally, it doesn’t look like good government to change your mind in their way. There will certainly need to be some clarification of the government’s position. And, what next, a change of mind over selective schools?

 

Debt hike for teachers

PGCE students to pay 6.1% interest on loans from the day that their courses starts. That’s not what you want to hear, but what the government has announced as likely from September if there isn’t a loud and sustained public outcry starting at the teacher association conferences this Easter. If the same rate of interest also applies to those on the school-based fee routes as well as undergraduates training to be a teacher then BREXIT is seriously bad news for trainee teachers. The reason is the hike in inflation to 3.1% last month, an increase partly fuelled by the post referendum slump in Sterling as a currency. Add to the inflation increase the 3% fee on top that the government charges plus the fact that interest starts accumulating as soon as the loan is taken out and we are talking serious money and an annual rate of 6.1%.

Career changers would almost certainlybe better off raising an extra mortgage on their house than paying these rates and younger intending teachers not eligible for bursaries should probably consult their parents to see whether they will do the same. Those starting work as teachers in September may find that their take home pay is below what it would have been in earlier years due to the rise in interest rates.

Whether intending teachers wanting to work in state funded schools should be expected to pay for their training is a moot point. Readers of this blog will know I don’t believe any trainee teachers should pay for the privilege of training to be a teacher. Few others, except would-be journalists and possibly fashion models pay for their training; until recently nurses also benefited from a scheme created by Frank Dobson when Blair’s Labour government first introduced tuition fees. The scheme for graduate trainee teachers, introduced in the early 2000s, was expensive, but fair to all trainees. The present situation is confusing, and at these rates of interest and a public sector annual pay rise of probably just one per cent, potentially off-putting to trainees in many subjects. Whether it deters the best or just those most likely to find other work, I leave others to judge.

One solution would be to employ all graduate trainees as part of a national trainee pool that also provided for their pension contributions and with an agreement to pay-off their undergraduate students loans at the rate of 25% of the outstanding interest and principle from the end of year two of teaching. They would be employed form the central pool by schools, so that the schools didn’t have the extra cost of writing off the loans for new teachers. This should be a central cost if loans are to continue. By involving the State directly in the employment of teachers it would allow the DfE to understand directly what was happening with both recruitment and retention. It would also make the DfE responsible for the consequences of mistakes with the Teacher Supply Model. Some PE and maths trainees won’t find jobs in teaching this year, but will still be faced by the increase in interest rates on their loans.

For maths trainees, with bursaries, the pain will be slight: for PE teachers this is punishment for choosing the wrong subject to train in as a teacher.

 

 

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.