The government probably won’t do much about education

Such is the position the government finds itself in that education was relegated to little more than a paragraph in today’s Queen’s Speech. As might be expected, the government, through Her Majesty, said;

My Government will continue to work to ensure that every child has the opportunity to attend a good school and that all schools are fairly funded. My Ministers will work to ensure people have the skills they need for the high-skilled, high-wage jobs of the future, including through a major reform of technical education.”

In the briefing there is little more by way of amplification. Does a good school mean a selective school where pupils already attend such schools and pupil numbers are on the increase or does it mean no expansion of selective schools? On funding, does it mean that the manifesto amplification that no school will lose money under the new funding formula holds good or will the formula be implemented as consulted upon?

Just saying, “we will deliver on our manifesto commitment to make funding fairer” isn’t really helpful.

The primary schools that sent letters home to parents today would certainly like to know where they stand. As would employees that can see the need for pay rises above 1% in the very near future.

It was interesting that the average cash balance for maintained schools in Oxfordshire dropped from £77,895 in March 2016 to £75,419 in March 2017. I don’t have data for academies and there are too few secondary schools to make the figures at all meaningful. I suspect that this is the first decline in average balances for quite a long time and even so hides the loss of a number of posts, with more to go this September.

The briefing note also explains that “we will continue to convert failing maintained schools into academies so that they can benefit from the support of a strong sponsor, and we are focused on building capacity across the system to enable this, including through growing new multi academy trusts.” In Oxfordshire, we still have a primary school that has waited for more than a year for a sponsor after having been inadequate, so here is some way to go with this promise.

The longest section is reserved for technical education. This oft overlooked sector does need serious attention and there is an interesting note about the introduction of Institute of Technology. Where will they fit in the landscape of UTCs, studio Schools and FE colleges?

Of course, not all developments in education will need legislation. My aim to ensure all looked after children can receive a school place within two weeks of being taken into care should be possible within existing legislation. I already have interest from Conservative and Lib Dem MPs in Oxfordshire and I hope they will be joined by the county’s Labour MP as this isn’t a party political issue, but rather a case of rectifying an unintended wrong created with the development of academies and free schools.

From TeachVac’s http://www.teachvac.co.uk point of view, the lack of any mention of a vacancy portal was interesting. As a way of saving schools money it might have featured in the paragraph on saving money and government tools.

Of course, if the vote next week were to be lost, who knows what will happen then?

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.

Strikes in Kent?

Who would have though staff in grammar schools would consider strike action? After events in Lincolnshire earlier this year, it is now apparently the turn of grammar schools in Kent to discover that teachers can talk of strike action. According to the Kentnews.co.uk website http://www.kentnews.co.uk/news/strike_plans_at_three_grammar_schools_including_cranbrook_school_1_4543745 as many as three grammar schools in the county have staff considering industrial action. There seem to be two distinct issues; academy status and sixth form funding. The first issue is one all schools face, and it is difficult to see how staff at any one school can do anything more than delay the inevitable if the government still really wants a school system comprised entirely of academies. I suppose they could resign on-mass and take their skills elsewhere, perhaps into a free school working closely with the County Council.

The issue of sixth form funding is an important one for grammar schools, as it is for any school with a large sixth form. If the whole of Year 11 already transfer to the sixth form then there is little opportunity to increase the size of the sixth form except by attracting pupils from other schools, possibly to their detriment. At present, although pupil numbers are rising rapidly among the younger age groups, numbers are still falling among the oldest age groups in schools putting pressure on income from this age group.

Smaller numbers, plus a savage cut in the unit of funding, doesn’t make for a happy environment. School leaders have had to remove uneconomic subjects and increase group sizes with the resulting larger workloads in marking for teachers. And ‘A’ level marking has never been just a matter of ticking boxes. Thus, even where there is a teacher shortage nationally, there are tales of redundancies as a result of the pressure on the unit of funding alongside the increase in National Insurance and pension contributions.

Grammar schools generally don’t have many pupils with either an SEN background of eligible for free school meals. They might want to ponder whether working with local primary schools could help attract more pupils with these backgrounds that also bring more cash than other pupils. Perhaps a ‘fostering for grammar’ campaign in Kent might help more children in care enter selective schools. In Kent, there is also the un-accompanied young asylum seekers group of young people. In my experience many that take this perilous route are keen to achieve. Grammar Schools might want to see whether a first steps course for such individuals could pay dividends.

Essentially, in this market-driven world of education, being business minded can help overcome government policies that adversely affect a school. The alternative is just to implement the cuts and face the consequences.

Of course, in the past, collaboration between schools helped save minority subjects and allowed a broader curriculum to be available. When I was a sixth former, more years ago than I care to recall, the local girls’ school didn’t offer Chemistry at ‘A’ level and those that wanted to study it came to our school. Such collaboration needs a system working for the benefits of all, not the satisfaction of some.

 

W(h)ither UTCs?

This month the Education Funding Agency has issued financial notices to improve to two University Technical Colleges; Daventry and Buckinghamshire. Interestingly, both are cited in a recent House of Commons Library briefing paper on UTCs (No 07250 issued 15th March 2016) as having relatively low recruitment figures in their early years of operation. Indeed, Daventry, according to the local newspaper, is currently considering moving from its current 14-18 UTC model to become an 11-18 school, presumably to boost numbers and help with school places in the area.  Nationally, three of the first 41 UTCs have either closed or are in the process of doing so, as are also some of the other 14-18 Studio Schools. However, a further 20 UTCs are in the planning stage.

So, might UTCs be set to become the ‘De Lorean’ of the education world; a good idea, but not financially viable? Having visited the Didcot UTC recently, I can see the attraction of the concept as supported by Lord Baker. But, they do run into a number of challenges. Firstly, changing school at 14 isn’t a normal part of the school scene, so the UTCs have to persuade young people and their parents that the change is worthwhile. Secondly, the schools that they are departing from will lose cash for every pupil that transfers. After four years a school losing ten pupils a year could be £200,000 down on income, but still be trying to offer the same curriculum to its remaining pupils. Lose twenty pupils a year and the cash burn is even more concerning. Some schools might fight to keep their pupils or only be interested in losing those that cost more to educate than they generate in revenue.

As each UTC has its own brand, there isn’t even a coherent national offering and some UTCs may look more attractive to pupils with an interest in vocational courses rather than academic prowess. This raises the question as to whether or not these pupils could have been more cost effectively educated by the further education sector. Certainly, a school that gains a reputation for only educating part of the ability range is less likely to flourish, especially if that part is the less able group. UTCs are also probably not helped, especially in rural areas, by the fact that there is no support with transport costs unless the UTC is able to provide assistance. This isn’t an issue in London, where TfL provides free transport for all school pupils, but it is in the rest of the country where the cost of attending a UTC may run into several hundred pounds a year compared with staying put at the school you joined at eleven.

The government will need to work out how to make UTCs a success if they want the concept to flourish in the manner that Lord Baker intended. This will be a challenge while the government continues to believe in the market approach to education. Funding these schools differently to other schools would result in cries of ‘foul’ from the school losing pupils at 14, but as we have seen with Daventry and Buckinghamshire, the risk of not doing so is that the UTCs will struggle to maintain financial solvency, especially as they are operating in areas of the curriculum with above average teaching costs in both revenue and capital terms compared with say an arts based curriculum.  ln a school offering the full curriculum, expensive subjects can be balanced with less costly ones. Alternatively, if you are a free school, you can opt only for a cheap languages and arts subject curriculum and eschew the expensive science and technology areas, however useful they might be to the national economy.

Unless there is a real desire by government to make the UTC idea work for the 14-18 age group the concept seems potentially at risk of becoming like Lord Baker’s earlier foray into this area, City Technology Colleges, doomed to be little more than a sideshow in the educational fairground.

Responsible for NEETs

Despite a general view that local authorities should no longer be in charge of schools, governments are quite happy to burden them with extra responsibilities regarding young people. The announcement of a scorecard of the level of NEETs, the 16-18 year olds not taking advantage of the political desire to see all teenagers up to the age of eighteen in some form of work or training, places yet another duty on local authorities. So far, I haven’t heard of any extra funding to support initiatives to help reduce the size of the NEET group: perhaps government thinks the cash is already there.

While the scorecard may tell us where the NEETs are located, I doubt it will change much else. A much better approach would be to find out what works and help spread good practice around. Does shifting dis-affected fourteen year-olds into UTCs and Studio Schools reduce the NEET problem at sixteen or make it worse. Should we not be looking at the curriculum and recognising that NEETs don’t just become NEETs at sixteen, but realistically drop out much earlier from school. Perhaps the next Sutton Trust review of academy chains can look into their NEET scores and see whether, like local authorities, there is a range of outcomes?

An early area for focus by scrutiny committees across local authorities might be whether there are differential rates of drop out after one year post sixteen between schools and the further education sector locally? This might raise the issue of pastoral care between the two sectors and indeed, whether sixth form colleges operate to different standards than general further education colleges. It is sometimes said that the more open and relaxed attitude of the further education sector serve some young people better than remaining at school. Is this the case or is it just a matter of passing the buck?
Local authorities act as corporate parents for young people in care. How well do they do this in relation to the FE sector? Indeed, how well do FE colleges interact with parents in general? Do they provide the same level of feedback as schools on issues of progress and matters such as careers guidance and can this affect a young person’s chance of becoming a NEET?

The move to a society where learning continues to eighteen has been introduced piecemeal in England without clear sets of responsibilities. If the NEET scorecard sheds light on one part of the policy change to educate all to eighteen that may not be working as well as hoped such exposure will be helpful as a first step. But, it will not be sufficient.

The issue of NEETs is as much a concern for rural areas as it is for our large towns and cities. Indeed, the job opportunities in many rural areas, especially for casual work, can be far less than in towns. It is just as easy for these teenagers to disappear off the official radar in a village as on a housing estate.
There may be fewer NEETs than a generation ago, but they remain an issue; scoring their numbers is a start, but not enough.

Return FE to the DfE?

Despite not having direct responsibility for the further education sector the DfE has published a statistical bulletin about progress by 16-18 year olds in all key settings. There is still much work to be undertaken to ensure that those young people that don’t achieve a satisfactory standard in English and maths by sixteen are able to do so by the time they reach eighteen and leave formal education.

The bulletin can be accessed at:https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/352498/SFR32_2014_Main_Text.pdf It makes dispiriting reading in some parts. Seemingly, there is much for the general further education sector to do to ensure it adds value to every young person studying in these colleges. 50% of those that did not achieve a A*-C grade were studying in an FE college between 16-19.

Sixth form colleges had the highest proportion of students achieving grades A* to C in English at 16-18 compared to other institution types. The majority of students at FE colleges achieveda lower level of learning than they did previously. This is likely to be due to the majority of their students being entered for and achieving English qualifications at entry level and level 1 when they have already achieved a GCSE at grades D to G. The picture in maths was broadly similar.

Would it help if the further education sector was controlled from the same department at Westminster as schools? In the past, the fact that further education only dealt with students above the school leaving age may have meant that placing it in a department such as BiS allowed for a greater focus on the vocational work. Now that the learning leaving age has been raised to eighteen it might make more sense for the DfE to be responsible directly for all learning up to the age of eighteen. Adult learning and lifelong learning could be the responsibility of a minister shared between the DfE and BiS.

At present, as this blog has noted, competition for teachers and lecturers between further education and schools has lead to different policies of bursaries, golden hellos and other means of attracting staff. This is not helpful to ensure the right supply of staff across the country. Allowing small school sixth forms is difficult to justify in cost effectiveness, especially when resources are tight, as they are at present. With one department in overall control there would be room for more coherent planning, if such a term isn’t regarded as one of abuse in the present climate.

A greater focus on the vocational offering post-16 might also help with the development of effective careers advice to younger pupils. However, with the internet and so many resources now on line it might well be that young people should be encouraged to do more research about careers themselves so that they can enter into a debate about what type of life they would like after education, especially in those parts of the country where employment is still not abundant, particularly for young people.

Planning on the back of an envelope

Education planning now seems to be in the hands of either a member of the House of Lords for the Tory Party or groups of parents for the Labour Party. I am not sure my own Lib DemS even understands the concept of planning, just as they also don’t sometimes seem to understand how markets operate.

Lord Baker’s idea of vocational colleges for the 14-18 sector chimes well with my 2002 Report on ‘No Child Left Behind’ for the then Lib Dem education spokesperson, now Lord Willis, where I was one of the early advocates for a 14-18 sector. The difference was that I wanted the sector as part of rational planning for the whole age-group, not just the abstracting of limited numbers of young people across the country to attend such colleges. How will it really work in rural areas unless someone pays for the transport costs? In London the Mayor has so much cash that he can provide free transport for secondary age students to travel to school anywhere in the Capital. Locally, in Oxfordshire, the ruling Conservative and Independent Coalition will probably struggle against budget cutbacks to maintain the present level of home to school transport provision in 2014.

If the Tories have abrogated planning to Lord Baker then Labour seems, according to the new Shadow Secretary of State, to be happy to pass the baton for the future of our school system to random groups of parents that presumably want private schools on the rates. I suppose that is one way of reducing the influence of the independent schools, but it will come with a hefty funding cost or will produce a lot of disappointed parents. But, perhaps Labour has noticed that relatively speaking apparently fewer new schools backed by parents and teachers are now being approved than in the first rounds of free school applications.

There has been a lot of thinking about schooling over the past decade by the many lobby groups and think tanks, as well as national anguish about the performance of our school system. So we are not short of ideas, what we are short of is proper planning. Why spend money on new schools when we have the FE sector that can now take pupils from 14. The FE sector needs attention anyway, and a real boost in both resources and status, along with an encouragement to raise outcomes in the way that many schools have achieved during past decade. There is also the danger that planning 14-18 without thinking about what goes before or comes afterwards for all young people is disruptive of Key Stage 3, and may require a huge expenditure on school buildings using cash that might better be used for other areas such as social housing projects.

Finally, I haven’t heard anyone mention the teachers that might be needed, and whether Lord Baker’s plans will be neutral in staffing terms? There are not enough highly qualified maths and science teachers to go around at present. If we increase demand, by teaching more science and technology, then the discipline of the market will be reflected in the price schools will have to pay. We are already at risk of not training enough mathematics, physics and computer science teachers, and it is important to know the effects of any shortfall on other schools if the vocational colleges are funded sufficiently well to take first pick of what teachers there are.

A new approach to 14-18 is definitely needed; whether more schools is the answer is open to debate. There might be better use of the resources. Bringing back 14-19 FE back into the DfE, and away from BiS might be a start.