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?

 

 

Advertisements

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.

School Funding heads for the long grass?

Efficiency saving all round are being used to camouflage the lack of significant extra cash for schools during a period of rising school rolls. The Secretary of State’s statement to parliament, made earlier this afternoon, https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/justine-greening-statement-to-parliament-on-school-funding has to be read very carefully to disentangle the rhetoric from the reality.

There will be a national funding formula, but not fully until post 2019-20 when a new spending round will be in place. Until then there will be the following;

  • Increase the basic amount that every pupil will attract in 2018-19 and 2019-20;
  • For the next two years, provide for up to 3% gains a year per pupil for underfunded schools, and a 0.5% a year per pupil cash increase for every school;
  • Continue to protect funding for pupils with additional needs, as we proposed in December.

So, 0.5% will be the basic increase per pupil; will it even cover inflation? What are underfunded schools? Will the increases be enough to offset the inevitable pay increase that will be necessary at some point to stop the loss of teachers from the profession and under-recruitment of new entrants into training? Why set a minimum of £4,800 for secondary school pupils, but no minimum for primary schools? What will this mean for small rural primary schools, are they to be abandoned to their fate?

In their manifesto the Conservatives said no school would lose out as had been proposed in the national funding formula, but it is not clear if the final decision on that point is now being handed to local School Forums and whether this manifesto pledge is being honoured in terms of the primary sector other than through the 0.5% per pupil increase and the up to 3% for under-funded schools? Since there might have been an expectation of a cost of living increase anyway has the 0.5% replaced the cost of living increase? Is it 0.5% per year or across the two years? Some winner now don’t look like seeing the gains that they had expected.

However, primary schools are to receive more cash through their PE and sports premium funding. This may be good news for unemployed PE teachers in some parts of the country, but not for secondary schools that might want to have employed them as maths or science teachers.

The Secretary of State made clear that the £1.3 billion additional investment in core schools funding which she announced today will be funded in full from efficiencies and savings She said,  ‘I have identified from within my Department’s existing budget, rather than higher taxes or more debt’. By making savings and efficiencies, the Secretary of State said that she is ‘maximising the proportion of my Department’s budget which is allocated directly to frontline head teachers – who can then use their professional expertise to ensure that it is spent where it will have the greatest possible impact.’

At TeachVac www.teachvac.co.uk we are happy to help by promoting the free national job board that costs schools nothing to place adverts for teachers. We will even extend it to handle support staff for a relatively small further investment.

A wise Secretary of State would have established a joint commission with the teacher associations to work on these central efficiency gains and in doing so help to neutralise the inevitable complaints from those who projects are being cut, especially if they include spending on professional development. Will, I wonder, the £10 million tender to recruit overseas teachers still go ahead and what will happen to the campaigns to encourage new entrants into teaching?

Finally, I am interested to read that one group of consultants will be retained; those to trawl over the budgets of schools in deficit.

Abolish tuition fees?

When I wrote back in April about the iniquity of the hike in repayments rates on student fee debt to 6.1% hardly anyone noticed https://johnohowson.wordpress.com/2017/04/12/debt-hike-for-teachers/ That’s the price you pay for being ahead of the game. Then came Labour’s abolish fees pledge during the general election and there is now a growing groundswell on the issue, further fuelled by the fall in applicant numbers reported by UCAS this week.

So far, few have tried to put the debate in even the wider education funding agenda, let along government funding policy as a whole. As I argued in my earlier piece, cutting student fees might mean losing or postponing some other project either in education or society more widely unless the funds can be generated from an increase in taxation somewhere else. There might also be the unintended, or I assume unintended, consequence of reducing further social mobility if the abolition of fees and their replacement with direct payment for university places by the government led to a cap on places. Those that could afford to pay for extra tuition might scoop the bulk of available places, leaving others less well-off to claim only any reserved places under government mandated schemes or unfashionable subjects in unpopular universities.

Earlier in the century there were schemes to help young people save for expenses like tuition fees so that they would not be the burden they now are seen to be. I am not sure what happened to them? It is interesting that the insurance market also never saw saving for tuition fees as a necessary product, presumably because parents with young children were seen as not having the level of disposable income to fund such schemes in advance. As I said in April, at the present time it would be more cost effective for families to increase their mortgages than to incur student debt in terms of current repayment levels.

The risk is that in the present political climate judgements will be made on votes to be won rather than sound economic or social policy. But, then fees were increased to £9,000 probably without much thought for either issue and certainly no rationale as to why a classroom subject would cost that sum to deliver. Anyway, the concern must be that a Conservative strategist sees abolishing fees as spiking Labour’s guns with young voters and so worth doing ahead of sorting out the mess with funding social care or even the NHS.

Although there are many worthy articles written about the rationality of government financing, in the end it comes down to plain old horse trading and what works politically. With the number of eighteen year olds set to fall, part-time students numbers already having been decimated and no EU students to pay for, the government could well explore a deal with universities of fees paid for home students, but higher full-cost fees for overseas and non-government funded students. The government could also rebalance the subject offering so as to demonstrate to Conservative voters that they have wiped out subject that shouldn’t be degrees and moved them into the new apprenticeship sector. That might play well with those that think there are too many students wasting three years at university. So, whether fees survive looks increasingly like a political decision based on electoral strategy and the date of the next general election.

 

Celebrating school music services

Last evening I attended the Oxfordshire Music Service annual end of year concert. The setting was the lovely one of Dorchester Abbey, although the pews do seem rather harder than a few years ago. Music has played a large part in the post-war education scene. This is despite successive governments from the 1980s onwards often seeing it as a dispensable extra activity. The fact that this was the 75th year the Oxfordshire Music Service has been in operation and it is now working at arm’s length from the local authority is a tribute to all who care about what this type of service can bring to the life of our young people.

Earlier in the afternoon I had been reading the latest briefing note on school funding from the Education Policy Institute. David Laws, the former Schools Minister and sometime Lib Dem MP makes no secret that he doesn’t believe in local democratically elected councils having a role in education funding. The briefing note laments that there was no legislative proposal in the Queen’s Speech to allow a ‘hard’ national funding formula. However, the EPI note suggests that the DfE could still significantly reduce the role of local authorities by the use of secondary legislation.

Now, regular readers will knows that both as a councillor and philosophically I believe locally democratically elected councils have an important role to play in education. I am not opposed to a national funding formula, but it throws up interesting issues if implemented as a ’hard’ national formula. An academy in the North West is to close as it is uneconomic and in deficit. The Multi Academy Trust will hand the lease back to the council that owns the freehold. All well and good, but the school was built by a PFI deal and those payments will presumably continue whether it operates as a school or not. Who should bear the cost, the local council taxpayers or the government? At present, it will be the local taxpayers, probably without any ability to recoup the costs, just as they cannot for additional transport costs that could result from a school closure. Would the government keep activities such as school music services going or be content to just leave them to market forces? I wonder.

The lack of a rational plan for the governance of our schools have been a worrying feature of the past thirty years, ever since central government really started the process of nationalising the schools with the Conservative Grant Maintained Schools.  Sadly, no government has had the courage to do what David Laws would like and fully remove all education from democratically elected councils. Such an outcome would at least have the merit of clear-cut solution.

You really cannot have a system with responsibility but no power. This fact is highlighted by the plight of children taken into care who have no right to a school place if moved to another area for their safety. I am delighted that all Oxfordshire MPs from the three Parties have signed a letter to the Minister highlighting this issue. Our most vulnerable children deserve better than to be not only be taken from their homes but also have their education disrupted, sometimes for months on end.