The place of people and technology in learning

Last August I wrote a post called ‘Back to the future’ where I discussed a story then doing the rounds about a possible apprenticeship route into teaching. (blog post 22nd August 2016) In the post I discussed Physics as a subject where recruitment challenges might require a new look at how we recruit and train teachers. If you need a higher point score to study for a physics degree than say for a degree in another subject that then allows for entry into a teacher preparation programme, are we artificially curtailing the possible supply of new physics teachers?

This week the think tank Reform has published a study about the future shape of employment in the public sector up to say 2030. http://www.reform.uk/publication/work-in-progress/ Following on from the publication, the Head of Education at Reform tweeted on a twitter account I used last year during the Police & Crime Commissioner elections asking what the institute of Physics (IoP) response was to the apprenticeship route. Teachvac www.teachvac.co.uk (the free recruitment site) was copied in on the tweet, so it eventually reached me.

The answer, Louis, is that I don’t know what the IoP thought, as they didn’t comment to me. As Louis then noted in a later tweet, there is a site for apprenticeships in schools, but such apprenticeships currently only cover support roles. The article in a recent Schools Week about the a speech by the Secretary of State http://schoolsweek.co.uk/greening-promises-qts-wont-be-scrapped-and-7-key-findings-from-her-college-of-teaching-conference-speech/ suggests that any move to create non-graduate teachers won’t find much support. That doesn’t make the apprenticeship idea a non-starter, but calls for an innovative approach. The issue is partly about the minimum level of knowledge, both academic and practical, you need before you can work in a secondary school classroom and how this has changed over the past fifty years.

As the Reform report mentioned teaching and Teach First, there is more of a debate to be had about teaching. I expect Reform will come back to this issue. In one sense the debate is, as elsewhere in the public sector, and as Reform acknowledge, around the issue of teachers and technology. Reform’s thesis seems to be some work will be replaced by technology and jobs will change their skill levels so the number of workers can be reduced. Seen through the other end of the telescope, the views is of fewer, but more skilled workers each being more productive.  My example is the horde of market porters that have been replaced these days by the software engineers writing the code used in the automated warehouse: far fewer, but far more skilled and locatable anywhere in the world, as a recent BBC story about India showed.

With a largely highly skilled workforce in teaching, the issue at one level is, can the government afford to pay for such numbers of teachers as the 3-18 engagement with education demands? As we approach the 150th anniversary of the Liberal government’s requirement for universal state schooling available to all parents that didn’t provide any other form of education for their children there is a real need to debate both the shape and staffing of the schools during the next 50 years.

This was a point I made in my recent talk to the Merchant Taylor’s Company Education seminar (see blog post January 2017) Think tanks can provide a place to discuss new ideas and stimulate debate as can blogs. Is this a debate worth starting about the relative place of people and technology in the learning landscape?

 

 

Making money from schools

Why would anyone want to take the risk of running a ‘for profit’ school when there are so many easier way to make money out of state education? At one time, companies and foundations from the USA and Sweden were going to revolutionise schooling in England, while making a profit at the same time. Seems it didn’t happen quite that way. The academies that both the Erudition Schools Trust and the Learning Schools Trust opened have all been re-brokered away from the groups that originally founded them and now both of the groups are seemingly no more.

Another education experiment originally from the age of new Labour capitalism has bitten the dust. But, that doesn’t mean you cannot make money from schools. Books, furniture, resources, services such as accountancy, human relations, payroll and legal services, as well as construction and the maintenance of school buildings and facilities can all be offered at a profit. Then, as regular readers know, there is the recruitment industry that thrives on helping schools find staff.

Many years ago, in 1999 to be precise, the then Education Select Committee started an inquiry into ‘The role of private companies in the management and supply of state education services’. I don’t think it was ever completed.  I noted in my written submission that J S Mill had taken the view  in his essay  entitled On Liberty that the role of the state was to ensure the education of its citizens and not necessarily to operate the schools. The question was, and still is, how can The State achieve its end of educating its citizens without paying more of taxpayers’ money than is necessary?

The National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee are there to see that where possible public funds are used judiciously. I would say wisely, but I am not sure that is always the case. Mill, was convinced that the State should not necessarily run the service of education. But are politicians and these days, educationalists, any better at obtaining value for money if the service is run by others: sometimes not.

In 1999, I pointed out that the CEO of an education company with a turnover of £48 million earned £122,000 whereas a Chief Education Officer, remember them, of an authority with an education budget of more than £150 million didn’t even earn a six figure salary.  Presumably, the difference was the price to be paid for risk. You can find the same differentials today between CEOs of MATs and chief officers in local authorities, but with, in my opinion, less justification.

Some of us do try to challenge the orthodoxy, by taking the disruptive approach allowed by new technology. TeachVac www.teachvac.co.uk is one such attempt. Like Twitter, Facebook and many other on-line service sit is free to users and makes its money in other ways. In the case of TeachVac, analysing the growing amount of data and using it to provide additional paid services.

With growing concerns about school funding it is time to develop mechanisms for driving down private sector charges to schools. The government’s recent initiative in IT procurement is a good example of what can be achieved.

High Needs Block

Alongside the consultation on the national funding formula for mainstream schools there is a similar consultation for what is known as the ‘High needs’ group of pupils. This consultation has received far less notice than the mainstream NFF consultation, but is arguably as important for pupils with some of the most challenging of needs.

At the heart of the consultation is the central dilemma facing education in England. Who makes the decisions? The new formula proposes placing a great deal of responsibility with local authorities, as at present. That’s fine, but it ignores the fact that free schools can be established where local authorities might not want them and existing schools can become academies and thus alter their governance structure in relation to the local authority.

The ‘high need’ special education sector has always been a complex area to understand. There are some that think the current proposals out for consultation show that even the government doesn’t fully understand the issues. For example, the government doesn’t seem to have a policy for the use of the often highly expensive independent sector for placements of children where there is a shortage of space or expertise in the state-funded sector. This can be a real burden on some authorities. However, the consultation, in as far as it addresses the issue, seems to opt for the status quo. It might have been helpful to have tried to work out nationally how this expenditure could be reduced without damaging the education of the young people.

The formula has also to grapple with the issue of providing enough places, even if not always filled, and how far to use a methodology where funding follows the pupils, as with pupil unit funding in the mainstream school formula. I am not sure the proposed methodology is going to work as effectively as it might be required to do so. I am concerned that it mustn’t persuade some mainstream academies to ditch existing special provision units leaving the local authority to figure out how to provide a high quality education for these children plus a possible increase in the local transport bill. Local authorities should be able to challenge, if not veto, changes in existing provision not part of a planned and agreed local arrangement, especially where the MAT has its headquarters outside of the authority’s area.

I am worried about the inclusion of IDACI as one of the formula factors. Taken together the total of formula factors seem slanted to special needs caused or exacerbated by deprivation. I understand the concept, but for an authority such as Oxfordshire with limited pockets of urban and rural deprivation, many of our children with high needs don’t live in areas where this factor will be a key determinant. However, those children still need the funding necessary for their education. A review of SEN transport, especially in rural areas and complex non-residential cases, might have raised some issues about planning.

Overall, this looks like a redistribution of the current funding envelope rather than a formula based upon an understanding of the complex needs of this group of young people. It is also a work in progress since the funding of hospital schools isn’t included. I hope when it is a full understanding of the needs of young people with both physical and mental health issues and their relationship with the hospital service is included.

If you haven’t yet looked at this consultation, please do so.

Apprenticeship Levy

In the bizarre world that is education under the present Tory government, stand-alone academies with a payroll of less than £3 million are exempt from paying the new Apprenticeship Levy; all schools in any MAT with a payroll of over £3 million across the MAT will pay the levy, even if they are a small primary school; voluntary aided schools are probably exempt as the local authority is the de facto but not de jure employer so long as the school payroll is below £3 million, but all maintained schools will pay the levy regardless of the size of their payroll because the local authority is the employer, even though in these days of delegated budgets it has no control over spending by the schools.

This is a shambles that does a great discredit to the governance of education. If this is currently the position, it should be rectified forthwith. Either it is a tax on all schools or it isn’t. My position is that the government already takes out of education a sum needed to fund the training of new teachers and it should pray that cash in aid to the Treasury in order to have all state-funded schools exempt from the Levy. I don’t mind if the larger private fee-paying schools contribute since they often employ teachers whose training has been paid for initially by the State, but paid back by individuals through the tuition fee repayment schemes in operation since the late 19990s.

If the schools are not exempted from the Levy, then they should make full use of benefits. Sadly, these are by employer, so a large county council with many maintained schools will pay a large sum in levy but receive little back through the pay-out arrangements.

School budgets face enough other pressures at the present time, including for many small primary schools the loss of part of their block grant under the new funding formula arrangements. In Oxfordshire, the loss per schools equates to several thousands of pounds and may make the difference between survival or closure for village schools with less than 150 pupils.

I don’t know whether it is this government’s intention to redraw the map of primary schooling in England, but it could be well on the way to doing so if the combined effect of budget cuts and cost pressures make such schools unable to breakeven financially.

As I have hinted before, one solution is to downgrade the leading professional in small schools from a head teacher to a head of site paid on a lower salary. The risk is that any savings are then spent on a salary for an executive head teachers paid more than value of the savings. Whether deputy head teachers and other experienced teachers would be willing to take on the role of site leader for less money than the current head teacher will, I suspect, depend upon the terms and conditions offered, especially in the smallest of schools. However, unless some savings can be made, I fear for the future of many primary schools. Hopefully, I am being alarmist, but removing the Apprenticeship Levy from all school budgets would be a start.

 

Economic matters

An American President once said ‘the economy, stupid.’ Often that seems to be the case. Indeed, the austerity facing public services in Britain at present can partly be put down to the management of the economy in the first decade of this century. If governments cannot or will not raise revenue from either wealth or income and discount land taxes, then, unless the economy is growing strongly, they will be unable to expand public services, should they even wish to do so. There is also the argument that the State should not provide services for the many, but just a basic lifeline for the few, but we won’t go there in this post.

All this matters to education, as we have seen with the relatively parsimonious new funding formula announced by the government in the run up to Christmas. With adult social care, the NHS and other services probably ahead of education in the minds of many voters, it was always going to be a challenge to secure more funds for schools: especially, when rising pupil numbers mean more is needed in any case just to stand still. Finding even more cash for enhanced services did seem a bit like ‘pie in the sky’ at the present time.

Nevertheless, it remains to be seen how parents react to news that their children’s school might be having its budget cut, even by no more than a couple of per cent.  With no elections in London in 2017, save for by-elections, the government can probably weather the storm of protest in the capital.

Of more interest is the situation in the countryside where many small rural schools look like being losers. Indeed, a quick survey of primary schools in the Henley constituency, Boris’s old stamping ground, revealed that 35 primary schools might be losers under the new formula, while just ten would gain funds. Now, I am sure that the good burghers of the Chilterns and adjacent clay lowlands can afford to support their local primary school through some backhanded giving. But, I am not sure that was what they expected as the outcome from the new formula.

The alternative is to see a redrawing of the map of primary education in rural areas, with fewer larger and more efficient units based around market towns. To achieve this outcome, more pupils would be required to travel longer distances to school. The cost of this happily falls, not on the government, but on local council tax payers. Conservative County Councillors defending their seats in May 2017 will no doubt hope that school funding and the survival of village primary schools doesn’t become an election issue, along with grammar schools. For a revolt by parents in the Shires would be bad news for a government with a small majority at Westminster.

Watch for signs that the consultation on the funding formula isn’t going to plan and that the timescale for introduction is amended. If not, following on from cuts to rural buses, mobile library service, road mending, grass cutting and a host of other services, might 2017 be another year where the political map is redrawn?

Scrooge or Santa: It depends upon where you live

My favourite line from the DfE’s consultation document on the new funding formula for schools is:

5,500 schools will benefit from the minus 3% per pupil funding floor protection.

I think that this is a line that the late, great, author George Orwell might have penned in either 1984 or Animal Farm. The real outcome of the government’s deliberations is definitely buried in the small print. An analysis of Oxfordshire primary schools shows an almost equal split between those schools likely to benefit and those that will be worse off. The division is stark between urban schools, especially those serving communities with high degrees of under-performance that will see more money, although some may be capped by the use of floor and ceiling mechanisms, and the small, usually rural schools that are almost universally losers. Of course, I welcome the extra cash for the schools that benefit.

In the secondary sector, around two thirds of Oxfordshire schools see gains, whereas the other third, again mostly the more rural schools, will see their income drop unless they can recruit more pupils to compensate for the reduced formula funding. As secondary schools are close to the bottom of the demographic cycle in many parts of the country the loss will be to some extent mitigated by opportunities to expand as pupil numbers increase. However, rural secondary schools, and popular schools already bursting at the seams won’t be able to increase pupil numbers. The same is likely to be the case for selective schools in some of the less well funded shire counties, where they are facing reductions in the examples presented by the DfE. As these schools often have little room for expansion, cuts to already poor funding levels won’t seem like a great Christmas present.

Overall, it looks as if the gains will largely be achieved by smoothing out the historical anomalies in authorities where the long-terml average has covered a wide range of different localities from those in the top decile of deprivation to those in the lowest decile. To achieve sufficient transfer of funds, there has also had to be internal transfers leading to the losses faced my many schools in the less well-funded authorities such as Oxfordshire. To some extent the use of floors will prevent the cuts affecting individual schools from being too great, but the use of ceilings may deprive some schools of the full amount indicated by the new Formula.

Of course, this isn’t a good time to be conducting this exercise. It would have been better for the Labour government to have undertaken the exercise a decade ago, when pupil numbers were in decline and funds were more generous. At that time all might have been winners and the government wouldn’t in some cases be looking like Ebenezer Scrooge..

Funding schools has always been a contentious issue, and this consultation may affect some Conservative County Council candidates next year if it looks as if a well-liked local school is losing funds and might even have to close. One can image the number of opposition candidates already looking out the ‘Save our Schools’ posters ready for the New Year.

A small tweak on the block grant might go a long way to protect many small primary schools where the expense of preserving them might be worth not having to pay the cost of providing transport to pupils required to relocate even before looking at the cost of building new school place sin the remaining hub schools in the market towns.

However, before the final step of either a local authority closing a school or a MAT throwing in the towel, there will be amalgamations and reductions in the number of head teachers, with one head probalby leading several schools in a cluster. That might work, but the NAO report earlier this week showed that it isn’t just the outcome of the funding formula that will determine the survival of lots of schools, it is also the many other cost pressures that they face. For a start, schools could be exempt from the apprenticeship Levy on the grounds that ITT costs already mean education is paying for the training of its professional workforce.

Jam: not today and probably not tomorrow for many

Today is an important day in the history of the financing of schools; possibly the most important since the 1988 Education Reform Act heralded the introduction of Local Management of Schools.  Already, there has been the National Audit Office report on ‘Financial sustainability of schools’. https://www.nao.org.uk/report/financial-sustainability-in-schools/

This Report makes the point that, The Department [DfE] can demonstrate using benchmarking that schools should be able to make the required savings in spending on workforce and procurement without affecting educational outcomes, but cannot be assured that these savings will be achieved in practice.

This is because, as everyone knows, the DfE doesn’t actually operate schools directly, although Regional School Commissioners come much closer to doing so that at any time in the recent history of schooling in England.

TeachVac, the free to use job matching site that could significantly reduce the spending by schools on recruitment advertising and also the cost of using agencies to recruit permanent staff that is a growing feature of the marketplace, is a case in point.

Despite being developed by experts in both teacher recruitment and software design it has been shunned by the DfE and also be teacher associations, some of whom acknowledge support from paid recruitment sites on their own web sites. One association has even refused TeachVac permission to take exhibition space at their annual conference in 2017 on the grounds that’ we have sufficient recruiters exhibiting already’!

With such a playing field it is no wonder that driving down costs in schools has been so difficult. Perhaps, now is the time for a sector-wide task force to examine methods of reducing costs to schools through better procurement. In olden times there were benchmark figures for expenditure issued by bodies such as the Association of Education Committees and other similar national bodies. Indeed, such statistics help me compile my article on ‘variations on local authority provision on education’ way back in 1981 at the start of my career.

With the publication later today of the second stage consultation on a National Funding formula it is interesting to look back at the progress made over the past 35 years and to note that differences in funding between schools and authorities was a big issue even then. When the cake isn’t large enough, it is not surprising to find those that want to eat it fighting over the size of their slice.

If floor and ceilings are included in the funding formula consultation, as expected, then as the NAO Report shows, there will be pain for all. Maybe the DfE hasn’t published the ITT allocations for 2017 as they reflect an acceptance of that pain through reduced funding for employment opportunities for teachers?

What is clear that even if life is marginally easier for some schools after the Funding Formula announcement, for many it will be bad news and a real need to pull together to make savings.