A tale of two schools

Earlier this year Ofsted rated two secondary schools in the same county as inadequate. Their inspection reports are on the Ofsted website. One school was a community school; the other an academy. What happened next?

As a community school, the local authority was required to undertake an exercise about the future of the school, including the option of closing it. Whatever the outcome, the school would become an academy. As this happened just after the county council elections in May, the new Cabinet Member swung into action, working closely with officers to assist the school with its own recovery plan. There was a rapid change of head teacher and a general tightening up of standards and procedures. At the same time, a search was instigated for a nearby-by school that could partner the school as an academy in a multi-academy trust. With goodwill all round, the school looks set on a good future with the local community and parents backing its continued existence. Whether making the school an academy is helpful only time will tell.

The other secondary school is a faith school that is already an academy. It sits in a multi-academy trust with a number of primary schools of the same faith. Eighteen months ago it was placed into financial special measures as a result of misunderstanding about how much money it would receive ahead of changing to an all-through school and starting a primary department. The rules are different for existing school changing age range than for the creation of a new school. The school has had a high number of permanent exclusions, despite being a faith school, and appears to top the list of schools with the largest number of permanent exclusion in the county over a three-year period. Recently it has logged some of the worst GSCE Mathematics results in the provisional totals for 2017 outcomes that appeared in the local press. The school also has a very high percentage of days lost through persistent absenteeism, sufficiently high to place it well into the upper echelons of the national table for such outcomes. The head teacher has, of course changed. As an academy, it is up to the Regional School Commissioner and his Board to decide what to do with the school. The RSC has guidance from https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/640916/SCC_guidance.pdf the DfE’s document on guidance on schools causing concern. Chapter 2 deals with academies causing concern. Between May and July there was no record of the relevant Head Teacher Board discussing any performance issues at any school in the region in the minutes of meetings and they also don’t seem to be note Ofsted decisions about academies rated as inadequate at any of their meetings.  They may be reported to sub-boards, but those minutes appear not to be public documents. The RSC has the power to take drastic action, including re-brokering the academy and in extremis effecting its closure. There was no requirement for a public consultation about the future of the school.

So, here we have the two governance systems dealing with the same problem:  a secondary school deemed inadequate. In one case, what happens next takes place in the full glare of publicity; in the other case, behind closed doors, where it is difficult to see if anything happens? It would be interesting to see how many parents have chosen to withdraw their offspring from each school since the Ofsted judgement?

How transparent should these issues be? In the world of local government, schools can less easily hide: in the case of academies, the new system of governance seems far too slanted towards secrecy and a lack of public accountability, let alone public consultation.

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The eye of the recruitment storm?

The National Governance Association (NGA) published its latest survey last Friday https://www.nga.org.uk/News/NGA-News/Key-findings-of-NGA-TES-annual-school-governance-s.aspx Carried out in association with the TES, it not surprisingly reveals governors worried about funding pressures and thus supports the view taken by this blog over the past twelve months.

The DfE has now published the individual school by school potential outcomes of the Mark 2 National Funding Formula. I have had a quick look at the Oxfordshire schools and the change in the method of calculation has produced some improvements, in that no school is now forecast to be facing a reduction in funding.

However, the bulk of the primary schools seemingly only face a per pupil increase of around 1%. This is not enough to fend off rising costs and will be a real problem when the pay rise eventually kicks in if it isn’t fully funded. With all the promises Labour is making at their conference, it is difficult to see how they can fund a public sector pay rise with additional cash. A Conservative government might not find it much easier either unless they can identify some new sources of funding.

Funding pressures two to three years out means that the future for small schools is still in doubt under NFF Mark 2 and the two main churches with schools across the country may face a real challenge if the present distribution of primary schools is no longer sustainable.

I was interested to see that the governors questioned thought this year had been easier in terms of recruitment, but not by much. In view of the better recruitment in 2016 to teacher preparation courses and the record numbers on School Direct and Teach First courses such a finding probably wasn’t a great surprise.  2018 may not be as easy a recruitment if the predictions already aired by this blog are accurate in terms of trainee numbers, unless the squeeze on funding really does mean schools reducing their staffing levels as some governors questioned suggested will be the outcome.

Towards the end of next month the DfE expects to reveal the Teacher Supply Model data that will underpin the allocations to 2018 preparation courses and hence numbers likely to be available to fill teaching positions in September 2019 and January 2020. By that year, the increase in secondary school rolls should really be underway, so the funding debate will really be starting to make a difference.

Should school-based training numbers reduce, as may happen this year, then more schools will be recruiting in the open market. That at least would be good news for those providing recruitment services, unless the DfE has stepped in by then with its own service. Taking recruitment away from the private sector clearly fits in with labour’s narrative, but seems less easy to sell to Conservatives stepped in the tradition of the free market.

Either way, the price of recruitment should be on the way down: good news for hard pressed schools and another win for modern technology.

 

Does local democratic control matter in education?

How far has the education map of England become a picture of two nations growing apart? There are many different ways in which you can consider that question. One is to look at the governance structure of state funded schools. How many are still maintained schools of the various types largely linked to the 1944 Education Act and how many are now the product of the Ball/Gove academy revolution? Among selective schools the answer is that almost all are academies; only 23 remain as maintained schools and 10 of these are in Kent. At the other end of the spectrum, London is the only region where free schools, UTCs and studio schools comprise more than 10% of the total of secondary schools and even there it is still only 11%. This is despite the fact that London has probably seem the greatest demand for new secondary school places since 2010. In the North East and East Midlands areas, just four per cent of secondary schools fall into the category of these new types of nationally administered schools free from local democratic oversight.

However, academies are a group have become the dominant governance form for secondary schools, accounting for almost two out of three secondary schools in England. Nevertheless, the percentage is still lower in the north of England and, perhaps more surprisingly, in London and especially Inner London, where 81 of the 185 secondary schools are still local authority maintained comprehensives than in the rest of England.

Of course, just counting schools is a somewhat imprecise measure, since schools do differ in size from small 11-16 schools to large 2,000+ 11-18 or all-through schools. The same is true in the primary sector, where there as some very large schools coping with recent pupil growth, but still many small schools in rural areas. The percentage of schools that are academies or free schools differs from the secondary sector in some regions.

GO REGION PRIMARY ACADEMIES/FREE SCHOOLS ALL PRIMARY % ACADEMIES/FREE SCHOOLS
SW 632 1870 34%
EM 454 1635 28%
YH 466 1785 26%
WM 437 1776 25%
EE 485 1993 24%
L 363 1816 20%
SE 507 2598 20%
NE 155 861 18%
NW 249 2452 10%
ALL SCHOOLS 3748 16786 22%
 

 

     

However, there are fewer primary academies across much of the north of England and in London. The preponderance of Conservative controlled county councils in the south West many account for the relatively high percentage of primary academies in that regional, although it is still only around one in three primary schools, much lower than the percentage in the secondary sector.

As a Lib Dem politician, I wonder whether it is worth testing a campaign in the South West along the lines of ‘return our schools to community democratic oversight’. The membership has never seemingly taken to academies and control from Westminster in the manner that Lib Dem spokespeople and Ministers seem to have done. I am not sure where the present spokesperson stands on this issue?

Such a campaign might also highlight that there is no way back for schools entering MATs. The government may remove them to another MAT and MATs may voluntarily give up or even close a school, but neither the community not the local governors can seemingly force the trustees, those with the real power in a MAT, do so. Like much of the NHS, this is a denial of local democratic involvement in a key public service.

There is, however, one gain from the academy programme, the 140 academies that are selective schools can have their status changed to non-selective schools much more easily than when they were still maintained schools.

 

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.

International Study on school funding by OECD

The DfE has a new benchmark by which to assess the National Funding formula for Schools. The OECD has just published a thematic review of school funding ‘The Funding of School Education: Connecting Resources and Learning’. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264276147-en

This is an ambitious report into the issues relating to funding schools across just under 20 of the economies that make up the OECD block. In one sense the issues raised here aren’t new. Funding, and the relationship between funding and the aims of an education system, has always been a matter for debate. Indeed, ever since the governments first became involved in funding education, the key questions around how and to whom have never been far from the surface of political debate. At the most basic level, this is characterised by two of the issues discussed in the OECD report. How much funding is raised locally and where that isn’t sufficient how is it topped up, and secondly, how is the success of any funding model measured and what happens when schools fall short of successful outcomes? This includes the debate about what is meant by equality and equal opportunities. Providing every learner with the same opportunity is not the same as providing them with the same funding as something as simple as the payment of a London salary weighting in England clearly demonstrated well before the notion of Pupil and Service Children Premiums were ever considered. Finally, there is the issue of the governance, where those that raise the money often don’t actually spend it on education. This involves the quality and quantity of data necessary for this task to be effective without overwhelming the system.

The OECD Review notes that as school systems have become more complex and characterised by multi-level governance, a growing set of actors including different levels of the school administration, schools themselves and private providers are involved in school funding in many OECD countries.

The Review notes that :

While on average across OECD countries, central governments continue to provide the majority of financial resources for schools, the responsibility for spending these funds is shared among an increasingly wide range of actors. In many countries, the governance of school funding is characterised by increasing fiscal decentralisation, considerable responsibility of schools over budgetary matters and growing public funding of private school providers. These developments generate new opportunities and challenges for school funding policies and need to be accompanied by adequate institutional arrangements.

The OCED authors consider that to ‘support effective school funding and avoid adverse effects on equity in changing governance contexts, funding reforms should seek to: ensure that roles and responsibilities in decentralised funding systems are well aligned; provide the necessary conditions for effective budget management at the school level; and develop adequate regulatory frameworks for the public funding of private providers.’

It is disappointing that the home nations don’t form part of the review group of nations, although reference to issues and the literature arising from the Uk are to be found throughout the document, if the reader knows where to look., including  Dolton and Marcenaro-Gutierrez 2011 article in the journal Economic Policy, “If you pay peanuts do you get monkeys?

While this Review will be a mine of information to scholars researching the issue of funding, always recognising that some decisions are context bound and that, for instance, more rural economies may have different priorities than more urban and mixed economies, where the needs of the two groups compete with each other.

It is to be hoped that work will be undertaken to consider the differing actions of the four home nations with respect to funding against the issues raised in this review: the outcomes might be very illuminating.

 

 

 

Politicians rule: OK?

The recent Select Committee report on Multi Academy Trusts (MATs) raises two significant issues in my mind. https://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201617/cmselect/cmeduc/204/20402.htm

These issues are of

Community and,

Democratic control

They are rather neatly summed up by the Select Committee in their executive summary as follows:

We have outlined six characteristics which we believe trusts must possess in order to be successful. These include strong regional structures, robust financial controls, enhanced opportunities for career development and tangible accountability at all levels.

Some of the earliest trusts expanded too quickly over wide geographic regions and the performance of their schools suffered as a result. We are encouraged by the development of a MAT ‘growth check’ and urge the Government to use this to ensure that trusts are only allowed to take on more schools when they have the capacity to grow successfully.

…There is also more work to be done to ensure that MATs are accountable to the communities in which their schools are located. There must be more engagement with parents and clarity around the role of local governing boards.

In my view the Committee could have used this report to go further and to have started to make the case for accountability for schooling to be brought back through the local ballot box. This would have fitted in well with the National Audit Office’s recent report where they highlighted the lack of coherent pupil place planning and the lack of any one body having overall control of the process, although local authorities retained the obligation to ensure sufficient places were available for all pupils that wanted one. And, it was local authorities that sent out the offer letters to parents this week, even where they have no control over the admission arrangements.

After nearly half a century when rampant capitalism has held sway at Westminster, under governments of all political persuasions, and municipalisation gave way to mega deals brokered in Whitehall, is the tide finally turning?

I don’t think BREXIT has yet had the time to change the public consciousness about the role of parliament at Westminster and the possible effects on the delivery of local services. However, it is clear that Westminster will be a much busier place, if it does its job properly, once Article 50 has been triggered.

Alongside the exit management process will be the return to a requirement that the sovereign parliament at Westminster must craft all our laws and not just fill in the gaps from European legislation. This will affect some parts of government more than others. Although education wasn’t as affected by the transfer of powers during our EU sojourn, as some areas of government, it is a moot point whether government will be able to meet the demands of operating a universal education service while still meeting the needs of all local communities.

Sure, some local authorities were poor at providing education, as some are with all services. Sometimes this comes down to money; other times to leadership and ambition. For instance, using the LAIT tool on the DfE web site, Oxfordshire comes 6th best on percentage of children still being breastfed at six weeks, but 125th on the percentage of pupils with free school meals achieving expected levels of phonics decoding. Public health is now a local government responsibility, whereas for academies and free schools there is little the local authority can do to change the phonics outcomes, regardless of whether you think the approach is the correct one.

So, what to do? A simple solution would be to rethink Schools Forums to include politicians as voting members in proportion to the political balance of the council. A 50:50 balance overall might be the first stage of change. Alongside this to also make clear the relationship between all schools and the local community. Could we see academies as a 21st century form of voluntary added school?

Local democracy may be imperfect, but in my experience communities do care about the local standard of education, even where many parents opt out of the state system. I would ensure a tighter regulation than in the past, so that Commissioners can be called in to run poorly performing authorities for a period. But if there is a patterns to these types of authority requiring commissioners; too small; too poorly funded; not attractive places to work, then central government does need learn the lessons and create reforms. What it doesn’t need to do is to privatise the service. In the modern world profit can take many forms and not just dividends, as the lucky shareholders of Snapchat discovered yesterday.

Post BREXIT we will need a successful education system even more than before if we are to pay our way and fund thriving services for future generations. Bring back education as ‘a local service nationally administered’.

 

Does democracy matter?

The evidence published today by the DfE on achievements by some schools within some academy groups https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/multi-academy-trust-performance-measures-2015-to-2016 is of course interesting, even with the caveats surrounding it.

However, as academies move from novelty innovation to mainstream feature of our school system there are substantial questions to be asked about their impact on the education scene across England. The most fundamental question, and one that both the two main political parties have always avoided, is whether or not local democratic involvement in education is helpful or a waste of time and money? Regular readers of this blog will know where I stand: firmly in the localism court.

Over the past year, since the publication of the White Paper in March, with its view of a fully academised system, to the recent announcement of a role for local authorities as envisaged in the funding of SEN (discussed in the previous post) there seems to have been some change of thinking. Should we consider Multi-Academy Trusts as playing a similar role to the diocese under the former system and academies as a new form of national school, but not very dissimilar to the existing voluntary aided sector.

The real question is whether there are to be two parallel but separate schools systems, one national one more local, but both funded nationally or should there be a recognition that some facets of schools are best handled locally for all schools. A move to reassure councils that in-year admissions were to return to them for all schools with associated funding might be a useful signal of the direction of travel. A second would be to require MATs to have a local authority representative as a trustee. A third might be to break up the role of director of Children’s Services back into a social work role and plus a separate education role. This would certainly help with creating career routes for professionals from both backgrounds.

Personally, I would also like to ensure there aren’t diseconomies of scale that can result when MATs are responsible for schools in many different geographical areas. The advantage of working with local authorities for the DfE is that Regional School Commissioners could be located within the Education Funding Agency and act as Territorial Principals used to do in the days when schooling was a partnership between central and local government. Local Education Scrutiny Committees could be widened to include more than just governor and faith group representatives to encompass the different interest groups, much as former Education Committees used to do before Cabinet government was invented.

What is clear is that the present muddle in the governance of schooling won’t help ensure the improvement of all schools to reach new high standards Britain will need to compete in a world where we have chosen to ‘go it alone’ and break with our continental neighbours. At least the return of FE & HE to the DfE means there is one department at Westminster with responsibility of the whole of education again. But, responsibility doesn’t mean taking operational control, nor does it mean a fully market-based system with no local democratic involvement.