Another Oxford issue

Earlier this week the eyes of the country were on Oxford because of the story about issues with cancer treatments at the Churchill Hospital, the regional oncology centre. Locally, the Oxford Mail, the City’s daily newspaper, had at front page lead with concerns around one of the secondary schools in the city, St Gregory the Great.

Regular readers of this blog will recall a post about ‘a tale of two schools’ from last autumn. St Gregory the Great is a an all-through school under the auspices of a Roman Catholic Multi Academy Company, called the Dominic Barberi MAC. This is a group of Roman Catholic academies in Oxfordshire, of which St Gregory is the only secondary school. It might be described as the classic pyramid model of a MAT.

St Gregory the Great came into being when Oxfordshire remodelled the previous three tier system in the city into a conventional two-tier system in the late 1990s. A ecumenical upper school, St Augustine, was replaced, after heavy lobbying of the then School Organisation Committee by the Roman Catholic Church, with a Roman Catholic secondary school; St Gregory the Great.

For the first decade, the school lived an untroubled life, serving both Roman Catholics pupils and local children whose parents were willing to send them to the school. Problems started with the move towards academisation. The need for more primary provision in that part of Oxford meant a decision to create an all-through school with a new primary department. This resulted in a financial disaster when the school overestimated the funds it would receive from changing its age range. At the same time, absence rates in the secondary school were on the increase, and during a period of falling rolls, the school was not the top choice of schools within Oxford for many parents.

Eventually, in 2016, the government’s Funding Agency put the school in special measures and required a plan to eradicate the deficit. The head teacher was replaced. Eighteen months later the school was declared inadequate by Ofsted. Since then further problems have emerged. Many are of a longstanding nature.

In June 2014, I received the following response to a question at Oxfordshire’s Cabinet about attendance cross the county.

Supplementary:  Responding to a question on whether the Cabinet member would make representations to the school commissioner and Ofsted as to the very high non-attendance at St. Gregory the great school, Councillor Tilley replied that the School Improvement officer had been sent into the school to try and establish the underlying cause of the high absence rate.  She had further requested that an analysis of poor attendance be undertaken on a class by class and year by year basis. This has been successful in improving attendance in the past.  Should this not improve attendance, she would then consider contacting Ofsted?

Attendance fell in 2016-17 (Trust Annual Accounts, page 23) and remains a key issue for the school.

I want to see this school succeed, because it is needed for the pupils of East Oxford, whether Roman Catholics, pupils of other faiths or those of no faith.

However, it isn’t clear that the present system of governance is working. Who has the lead responsibility of turning around academies that are failing?

The regional School Commissioner – no obvious action on his part or interest from the Headteacher Board; the EFSC – since putting the school in special measures it hasn’t cured the ills of the Trust, just cut the deficit at the school and possibly imperilled the education of many pupils as a result?  Indeed the Trust accounts for 2017 point to procurement issues; lack of supporting receipts on credit card expenditure and a lack of timely bank reconciliations and insufficient evidence of review. (Trust Annual Accounts, page 32)

Ofsted – a second school in the Trust has now been declared inadequate, but Ofsted is powerless to act against the Trust as a whole. The Roman Catholic Church – the Church needs to prove it is concerned for the welfare and education of all pupils and is not trying to create a school only for Roman Catholic pupils with no concerns for the other pupils in the area leaving someone else to pick up the pieces. The recent removal of the head and deputy of the school over the Christmas holidays needs to be justified and an explanation as to the experience and expertise of their replacements to deal with the problems facing the school needs to be made clear.

The DfE has issued a statement to the media today saying that they are taking action, but it isn’t clear what they are doing or how they are operating, other than presumably some behind closed door discussions with the Academy Company and presumably the Diocese of Birmingham.

At the heart of this mess is the governance structure for academies and the ability of a Trust to act appropriately for the good of all. After all, only 37% of pupils and 30% of staff at St Gregory the Great are declared Roman Catholics according to the Trust annual accounts (page 21).

I declare an interest as a councillor in Oxfordshire, but one only has to look at the fortunes of the two secondary schools declared inadequate in 2017 by Ofsted for the issues to become glaringly apparent.

As the new Secretary of State was educated in a Roman Catholic school, he needs to tell his officials to sort out the problems at St Gregory the Great and across the school group. Otherwise, Oxford will have two national disaster stories about public service failures at the same time: not a record to be proud of for any government.

 

 

 

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Figures back heads views on funding pressures

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

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

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

Maintained  Schools:

Total revenue balance as a % of total revenue income

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

More talk about money

There was an interesting slot on the BBC’s Today Programme just before 0800 this morning. The Presenter plus a head teacher of an Oxfordshire Secondary School and the education researcher from Policy Exchange, the right leaning think tank, exchanged words about the state of school funding. This sort of early morning interview ritual on that programme follows set lines, two interviewees with different perspectives on the same matter and an interviewer introducing the issue and setting a hare running. When verbal exchanges are either too intense or nothing happens, the interviewer will step in and act accordingly, otherwise the two interviewees trade words.

Not surprisingly, this morning, the head teacher was full of woe about the state of funding, especially in Oxfordshire and the researcher thought either everything should be rosy or if that wasn’t the case it was all the fault of schools for employing too many staff; paying them too much or not belonging to a multi-academy trust that could produce economies of scale for back office costs. I am sure this last point had many listeners chucking over their lessons plans or marking that excessive workloads force them to undertake, even at that early hour of a Saturday morning.

Frankly, the level of exchange was disappointing for those that probably know better, but live radio is, and especially on a show such as the Today Programme, where you need to make your point in headline terms if it is to have any impact, a challenging experience, as I know from the couple of times I have taken part in such discussions over the years. On this occasion the head teacher had the better of the exchanges in my view

As I reported in my last post, ‘Thin Gruel’, schools were never likely to do well out of the budget and the two protagonists skirted about the issue of what effect any rise in pay that was not properly funded would have on school budgets by next September and especially in 2019. The strongest point schools have in the funding debate: falling interest in teaching as a career and levels of exit from the profession that are not as low as they were a few years ago should have been centre stage. As it wasn’t the Policy Exchange researcher never really had to address the macroeconomic point about paying more to boost the supply of teachers and what might need to be cut to find the cash? The head was probably too polite to point out the £800 million going to support students in higher education might have been as well used in schools and early years. However, as I pointed out in the previous post, this cash was needed to deal with the political fight between Labour and the conservatives for the undergraduate vote.

What is needed now is some research looking forward at school budgets for the next three to four years and identifying how many schools will be in deficit budgets by then unless action is taken. The government should then be firmly asked for a list of where cuts should be made. The electorate will then decide and schools that followed the government’s advice will know where to send complaining parents.

 

Levy or a tax on small schools?

I wonder how the Apprenticeship Levy is working out in your part of England. Many primary schools have had to pay into the Levy because, as maintained schools, their local authority is the ‘de jure’ employer. Academies and voluntary schools, along with free schools, generally escape the Levy, unless part of a Multi Academy Trust with a pay bill of more than £3 million.

In Oxfordshire, the primary schools are likely to pay just short of half a million pounds over the course of the financial year into the Levy. With a Teaching Apprenticeship not up and running in time for this September that leaves either support or other staff apprenticeships or the possibility of using the cash to develop the existing teaching force through advanced apprenticeships as a way of accessing the Levy.

In my book, preparing primary teachers for a leadership position would have been a useful way to spend the Levy. Now, I am not clear whether it can only be spent in the school from where it has been collected or whether, as the ‘employer’, a local authority can aggregate the cash rather than see it not being used.

In former times, this would have been a task for an officer overseen by a director, perhaps after a discussion at a committee meeting. Contrast this with the cabinet system, where, if the Cabinet Member isn’t interested, it is difficult to see how policy is formed unless a particular officer is prepared to make an effort. In constrained financial times, such as local authorities now face that seems unlikely in many authorities: perhaps readers can tell me different in their experience.

There is a further problem thrown up by the cabinet system. When seeking information in public, do you ask a question of cabinet member for finance, as the department collecting the Levy; the cabinet member responsible for education activities, as covering the operational area or the cabinet member responsible for human resources as they should be informing other operating areas about the policy for handling the Levy? With only one question at a Cabinet Meeting, councillors, at least in Oxfordshire, cannot afford to make the wrong choice if they want to be able to ask a supplementary.

Nationally, I wonder whether the teacher associations have been as ‘on the ball’ about the consequences of the Levy as they could have been. The last thing I want to see is financially hard-pressed primary schools paying into a fund that isn’t then spent for their benefit. I still wonder why there wasn’t more of a fuss about taxing the smallest schools while letting off some of the larger schools. This doesn’t seem equitable to me, especially when funding is so tight. Added to all the other cost pressures on schools, this is another nail in the coffin for the small village primary schools. Is that something the present government wants to achieve: surely not?

 

 

School funding and outcomes

After the pomp and ceremony of Tuesday afternoon in Oxford, yesterday afternoon was devoted to attendance at a seminar arranged by the Centre for Education Economics around the topic of ‘school funding and outcomes’. The seminar was chaired by the Chief Executive of NfER and they also contributed one of the speakers. Other speakers included, an academic from the University of Surrey; a speaker from the Institute for Fiscal Studies and a civil servant from the National Audit office.

Data presented on the international evidence about funding and output used OECD data. This can be affected by the presence of so many different variables as to provide no clear signal, we need to know a lot more before any conclusions about direct causal relationship between funding levels and outcomes can be drawn. Teacher quality has featured as an important variable in some studies, especially in the USA, but even here it isn’t clear whether parental support and direct investment has been taken into account when looking at teacher outcomes.

The private spend by parents and the effects of such income on school outcomes needs further research and CfEE, the sponsors of the seminar, might like to look into how such influence might be researched. As long ago as 1986, I recorded a state school in Weybridge as including in its prospectus that ‘a donation of £14 requested from new pupils towards the school fund’. (Schools in London’s Commuterland). These days that same school now provides a list of support materials, including some that look like textbooks, parents may wish to provide for their offspring on arrival at the school. As an off-balance sheet expenditure it is difficult to measure the effects of such purchases on school outcomes, but the research community should try to do so.

Leaving aside the complexities of measuring teacher quality as a key variable in determining output levels, the seminar speakers and the audience, when asked to project forward how funding might change over time, were almost universally gloomy on the levels of school funding likely between now and the mid-2020s. Even beyond 2020, there is no clear picture, but rising pupil numbers and the prospect of a slowdown in the world economy at some point from present levels all seem to suggest continued funding challenges are likely, even if there isn’t any rebalancing of funds towards either or both of early years and further education.

The nightmare scenario of repaying student debt from existing government funding suggested by Labour must not be at the expense of other parts of the education system, including schools. Nevertheless, channelling funds to early years or technical education may require schools to make further economies unless new money can be found. This may, of course, reduce the teacher supply problem by creating fewer teaching posts, but if it increased the departure rate for existing teachers it could perversely make matters worse.

As the setter of policy for the school system, the DfE must take these issues into account. Whether it has done sufficiently we will hear some clues today when officials from the DfE appear in front of the Public Accounts Committee at Westminster.

 

More evidence of funding pressures

The government published data on planned local authority and school expenditure on Children’s Services in 2017-18 as Statistical First Release 48/2017 https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/planned-la-and-school-expenditure-2017-to-2018-financial-year

The data provides some further evidence of the pressure on both the education budget and the whole of Children’s Services with funding generally not keeping place with expenditure increases. The differences between academy and local authority financial years still pose problems for the DfE, although, after several years of qualified accounts, there has hopefully been some progress in the direction of transparency across geographical areas with different mixes of schools. Nevertheless in table 4 of the main tables there are a couple of dubious looking sets of data from two authorities.

With all the talk about growing mental health problems in school-age children, it is concerning to see the fall over the four year period shown in the statistics in spending both in total and per capita on the school psychological services. Planned spending is £12 per capita in 2017-18, down from £15 in 2014-15. I do hope that the difference has been picked up from public health or some other budget, but if not, this needs re-visiting.

Spending on SEN transport is, however, going in the opposite direction once the cost- of post-16 transport is taken into account. By contrast, as a result of changes in their policies by many local authorities, spending on general school transport is falling as the cost outside London is being transferred to parents through either expecting more to pay for transport or to change the schools their child attends from a catchment school to the nearest school.

Funding for Sure Start Children’s Centres and early Years funding has been decimated, reducing from £78 per head in 2014-15 to an estimated £48 in 2017-18. This has resulted in many centres closing. The net effects of this closure programme will only be revealed in the next few years.

Other areas to see large per capita reduction over the four year period include school improvement services and regulatory duties. In both cases, time will tell whether this is either a sharpening of efficiency in local authorities that previously spent well above the median amount or a real deterioration in the quality of services across the country? It is certain that a better organised service without the twin track academy and maintained school systems running in parallel might provide the biggest opportunity for savings. However, to tackle the legacy of Mr Gove would take real political courage and probably a more settled House of Commons than currently exists.

The pressure created by the increase in the size of the looked after sector has resulted in a 10% increase in spending over the four years analysed. Sadly, the two areas not to share in this increase are spending on respite care and on education of looked after children. Surely, both are reductions to regret and to try to reverse as soon as possible.

Both substance misuse services and teenage pregnancy services have suffered significant cuts over the past four years; hopefully in some cases because of less demand for these services, but keeping funding might have produced even better results in the future.

On the day that a major credit rating agency downgraded the UK’s Sovereign Nation credit rating again, citing public finances as one reason, these DfE figures must raise questions about whether the poorest in society are being disproportionally affected by austerity and whether that is what we want as a Society.

More evidence of funding pressures on schools

At the start of the holiday season the DfE has issued a raft of both data in the form of a statistical bulletin and other publications. The most interesting concerns academies in general and specifically examples where threats of termination or other action against specific academies have been made public, possibly in some cases for the first time.

In terms of the income and expenditure of academies not in multi-academy trusts, but operating as single academies published as part of this information, it is only worth looking at the data in the round because of the changing nature of the sector as more schools, especially in the primary sector transfer from maintained to academy status and other move form single academy status to become part of a multi-academy trust.

One figure stands out in the data for the year 2015/16. This is fact that across all classes of academy expenditure exceeded income for the first time: a sign of the growing cost pressures on schools.

Sector                   Income/                               Media expenditure         Number of schools                                       Expenditure                       Per pupil

Primary                 I                                                 £4,791                                 787

E                                                £4,824

Secondary            I                                                 £5,714                                 984

E                                                £5,968

Special                   I                                               £22,321                   77

E                                              £22,409

All Through          I                                                 £6,104                                   56

E                                                £6,285

Source: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/633153/SFR32_2017_Main_Text.pdf  SFR 32/2017

Now, even allowing for the fact that schools in Multi-Academy Trusts are excluded from the table, because of the issue of handling their central overheads: those costs previous governments always vilified local authorities for charging – there are enough schools to illustrate the cost pressures facing the sector that will almost certainly only have only worsened in the 2016/17 financial year now ending.

A more detailed look at the median income and expenditure for this group of single academy trusts between 2014/15 and 2015/16 reveals a slight fall in grant income per pupil even before the effects of inflation are taken into account. Primary schools seem to have been able to offset this fall by increasing self-generated income.

On the expenditure side, staffing costs generally increased, with expenditure of teaching staff increasing by around £70 per pupil across the 1,700 or so mainstream schools. Interestingly, supply teacher expenditure fell in these schools between 2014/15 and 2015/16, although not by a significant amount. The most noticeable reductions in expenditure were on back office costs; unidentified ‘other’ costs; non-ICT learning resources and energy costs. This distribution of reductions reflects that witnessed during the reduction in funding for schools early in the 1980s discussed in a previous post on this blog.

The concern must be that the longer funding per pupil comes under pressure the harder it will be for schools to maintain their upward direction of travel in expenditure on staff. It would not surprise me to see non-teaching staff costs either stagnate or even reduce when the figures for 2016/17 are published this time next year. Schools are likely to try to protect expenditure on teaching staff at all costs, but it is difficult to see how they can do so even after only one per cent pay increases to all staff without an injection of funds that at least matches the increase in the staffing costs of schools.

The next question to address, is whether schools in MATs spend more or less than single academy trust schools on the different categories of expenditure and specifically how their median expenditure of teaching staff per pupil compares with the median for single academy trusts? But, that’s for another post.