Vision and not just rhetoric needed

As you might expect, Angela Rayner’s speech to the Labour Party Conference was strong on rhetoric, but short on real substance.

Take the following extract:

Our National Education Service will not only reverse the cuts but tackle the inefficiency of the Tories’ school system and take power from corporations and hand it to communities.

Might there be just the hint of an ambiguity there? What will be national and what will be returned to communities?

A promise of a national supply agency to extend the Conservative’s National Vacancy Service that is already competing with the market.

For local authorities, … we will allow them to build schools, create new places and take back control of admissions from academy trusts. But, nothing there about funds for local inspection and advice services and local coordination of teacher training places to ensure sufficient supply. Presumably, that will remain a national function not delegated to local authorities.

Then there is a bit of a muddle

So we’ll allow academies to return to local authority control. We’ll end the scandal of individuals and companies profiting from schools they are involved in, stopping fat cat pay for bosses and restoring fair pay for staff.

And we will use our time in government to bring all publicly funded schools back into the mainstream public sector, with a common rulebook and under local democratic control.

Will Labour create a fully locally governed system of schooling and at what level of government? Why create new cooperative schools, except that it sounds good, when a reshaping of the system with just two classes of state funded schools; maintained and voluntary. The latter being able to form groups of schools, along the model of diocesan schools. What happens to control of post-16 further education. Will colleges remain under national control or be integrated into a more local framework?

Missing was anything about the future of selective schools. Will Labour plan to reform them if it came to power?

Curiously, given the fact that Labour want to offer seats on the board to workers, there was no pledge to ensure staff could sit on governing bodies and no suggestion of how local policy development would need to involve governors, teachers and voluntary school operators. Is the old Education Committee model the way forward, or does Labour have any fresh ideas for local governance of education? Not yet clear, at least from this speech. Presumably, a work in progress?

Where does Labour stand on the curriculum, on testing and on inspection? Or aren’t these important enough matters to highlight in a speech aimed at applause rather than a blueprint for the future.

Missing also was any reference to how education will need to help young people face a world that will be very different from that of today. I know how important structures are, but I want an Education Secretary that can deal with those issues in a paragraph at the start of a speech and then provide a vision for the future that is more than a return to a ‘national service locally administered’ that is what yesterday’s speech seemed to promise.

(For readers that don’t know, it is right that I declare an interest as a Liberal Democrat Councillor on Oxfordshire County Council with the spokesperson role for education.)

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Schools for the future?

In the first segment of the BBC’s Today programme this morning, sometime in the run up to the seven o’clock news, I heard a representative from a Free School in the North West saying that control over the money was one reason the school had been established. Regular readers of this blog will probably know what comes next. True, if you are a standalone academy of free school or a local authority maintained school you have total control over your funds, but not if you are a school in a group of academies. There your Trustees can shift money between schools with impunity: so much for the free to control your finances.

Last Tuesday, at Oxfordshire’s Cabinet meeting, I raised this issue with the Cabinet member in the Conservative led administration whose portfolio includes schools. I asked for a commitment to fight for cash allocated to Oxfordshire schools to be spent at that school and not, when the school is part of a group of academies that cross the county boundary, used to secure the education of children in another part of the country. After all, Oxfordshire is a member of the F40 group of local authorities that see themselves as under-funded. It would be grossly unfair to transfer cash from an Oxfordshire school to another school in a better funded area. The minutes have yet to be published, but I expect them to show she wasn’t happy with this possibility.

Of course, under the Common Funding Formula, all schools should be funded at a similar basic level, but the principle of devolved budgets remains. Over the past two decades, once a budget was handed to a school it was sacrosanct and could not be touched by anyone else. Now, that principle has been broken for some schools, why should it apply to any?

The answer to this question is important, especially as the Labour Party continues its journey away from competition as a panacea of all evils in education and back towards the possible municipal control of schooling model.

Both my own Party, the Liberal Democrats and Labour have the courage to see that reforms started under Ed Balls and enthusiastically taken up by Michael Gove haven’t produced the solution that they wanted. Improvements in outcomes there have been, but the system is now too weighted against the disadvantaged in society. If your child is taken into care and moved away, there is a high risk that their education will be severely damaged. The growth in home education starting at the end of Key Stage 3 isn’t always a good sign and pupil place planning during a period of rising school rolls has been a nightmare in many areas and cost the country money wasted on travel costs that were not really necessary.

There really isn’t the need for a new form of cooperative school proposed by the Labour Party this week. Updating the voluntary school sector rules for the twenty first century would be quicker and simpler to achieve as a way forward.

Good schools for all remains the aim: can it be achieved without a degree of overall local control and planning for the future?

 

The importance of place in education governance

Is it time to reinvent LEAs? The Local Education Authority, democratically elected and supported, when there were also Education Committees responsible for the LEA, by persons of experience in education and representatives of teachers and any diocese with voluntary schools in the locality had a great advantage over today’s muddled arrangements for education. This was a geographical sense of place.

Should we return to a place based system of education with a degree of local democratic control and oversight? Reading the news about an academy head paid £270,000 leaving at short notice; about an academy trust with a £1.5 million deficit and a school turned around despite rather than because of the Trust it was a part of at the time, I do wonder whether the dislike of local authorities that was a feature of both main political parties for so many years has actually managed to produce a system that is worse than before: costly, undemocratic and in many cases lacking in a public service ethos.

The idea of Regional School Commissioners and head teacher boards hasn’t worked. Neither, now the money distribution is controlled to a large extent in Whitehall has the idea of the Schools Forum, bereft as they are of any really political accountability and link to policy making.

Would we have a funding crisis if local politicians were more involved in policy-making for the schools in their local area? I don’t know, but in some parts of the country we now have a generation of local politicians with little or no engagement with the local schools service and its development.

One has to ask the question about developing local resilience in terms of pupil places, teacher supply and a coherence for career development and effective professional development. Do competing and overlapping MATs willing to swop schools or just give up if the going gets tough present an education system that is resilient to local needs? Does it matter if there is no local democratic accountability? After all, who cares about the future?

Support for my concerns has come in a new report by academies at LSE and a lawyer from the Matrix Chambers. http://www.lse.ac.uk/News/Latest-news-from-LSE/2018/06-June-2018/Academisation-of-state-education-has-reduced-freedom-and-autonomy-for-schools published this week.

They conclude that despite some benefits of academies, there is on the other hand, ‘the lack of transparency in the way academies are run. In contrast to maintained schools, where decisions are taken by governors appointed through an open process, academies are run by ‘trustees’, whose opaque appointments are not subject to openness rules which apply across other areas of public life.’

The authors recommend that:

To address fragmentation within the education system, the authors recommend statutory intervention. Restoring a local democratic role where academies operate under legal contracts with the local authority, rather than the Secretary of State, would help strengthen schools’ relationships with their stakeholders. The authors also recommend a new legal framework enabling academies to revert to become schools maintained by the local authority, as opposed to central government.

I am not sure that I could have put it better.

 

 

 

More National Schools

It seems as if the government has decided that the next wave of free schools are going to be created in the worst-performing areas of England, particularly the North East. Officials are apparently to establish the next wave of about 35 new schools in the bottom third of lowest-performing areas, according to the BBC. Since this is a part of England where pupil rolls are generally either static or not rising as much as elsewhere, such a move will have a disproportionate effect on the budgets of other schools now that there is a common funding formula. I am sure that the DfE will take this factor into account in their planning.

In the past few weeks there have been a number of parliamentary questions about both free schools and academies. The government revealed that between 2013/14 and 2017/18 eight free schools had closed and another will close in the summer of 2018. Interestingly, one of the early closures, The Durham Free School, was located in the North East, where the government is now looking to create their new wave of such schools.

Alongside the closed free schools, there are 14 academy sponsors that to use the DfE jargon are ‘paused’. According to the Minister in an answer to a parliamentary question, an academy sponsor is paused if any or all of the following conditions exist:

  • significant concerns with educational impact;
  • serious financial concerns, for example where the Education and Skills Funding Agency has issued a financial notice to improve due to financial non-compliance, breaches of funding agreements; and/or
  • serious concerns about the leadership or governance of the sponsor, which may include due diligence and counter extremism issues.

Academy sponsors remain on pause unless and until the concerns that led to them being paused have been resolved. Just because a sponsor is not on pause does not mean it is automatically allowed to take on more schools. A rigorous process is followed for all sponsorship decisions.                                                                              Answer to PQ 146287

Even though a sponsor has to meet one, two or all of these tests, it seems likely that the outcome may be at the discretion of the Regional School Commissioner. In my view there should be a clear national policy on how these tests are applied, including for faith schools and their diocesan sponsors.

The government has also released the details of the number of academies that have been re-brokered since 2013-14. (Note not 2013/14) In total, 332 academies have moved Trusts during the period 2013/14 to 2016/17, with some more no doubt since then. As the number of academies has increased, and many schools either became academies or at  least started the process of doing so during the period when Mr Gove was Secretary of State, so the number moving Trusts has increased, from just 15 schools in 2013-14 to 165 in 2016-17. The PQ didn’t state the cost of the exercise and how many other schools might be stranded in limbo awaiting a new sponsor.

The governance arrangements for schools across England is now a mess. Schools that stay with a local authority know that they might have a new group of politicians in charge after an election, but in most cases the same group of officers will be in place; although the disruption to schools in Northamptonshire following the collapse of the County Council reminds us what is possible. However, schools joining a MAT can suddenly find their central services provided miles away from a group of staff they have no connections to and that may not understand their concerns. Such schools have no way out and no appeal mechanism against being moved or even traded between Trusts.

100 days and counting

Mr Hinds has now been in post as Secretary of State of Education just beyond the 100 day point, regarded as the first milestone for a politician by many commentators. During the same period in 2010 Michael Gove had already achieved the passing of the infamous 2010 Academies Act, despite having had to wait for the creation of the Coalition. However much many of us dislike its contents, and the subsequent effect on schooling in England, one must admire the political foresight of Mr Gove and his team of advisers.

As with all Mr Gove’s successors, there has been little sign of the same degree of ambition from the present incumbent of the office at Sanctuary Buildings. Now it is true that a minority government is in an even weaker position with regard to legislation than even a coalition. However, one of Michael Gove’s first acts at Defra this January was to attend both the Oxford Farming Conference and it alternative unofficial counterpart down the road. In doing so, he was making a clear political statement.

So, what has been achieved in the first 100 days by the Secretary of State for Education? Judging by Mr Hind’s speech to the ASCL Conference in March, it is more a matter of emphasis and a nudge here and there, than dealing with the big picture issues. A pause on changes in assessment and testing; more emphasis on reducing workload to calm down the teaching profession and a nod to the importance of technology. A sort of steady as you go regime.

So, what’s still in the Secretary of State’s in-tray? School funding hasn’t gone away as an issue, although it doesn’t seem to be playing very big in local elections across England. Parents haven’t yet seen the real effects of tightening budget. The fact that two of the three remaining maintained secondary schools in Oxfordshire had deficits of more than £1 million each at the end of 2017-18 financial years tells of pain yet to come. School Funding could be a big issue for Whitehall if teachers’ pay increases this year are more than was estimated by the Treasury in its school funding models.

Such an increase seems likely, since the Secretary of State hasn’t managed to tackle the issue of providing an adequate supply of teachers and stemming the outflow of those already in the profession. National teacher shortages are always seen as the responsibility of the government at Westminster, and 2018 is still not looking very healthy on the recruitment into training front. Failure to recruit trainees will impact in 2019 on the ability of schools to recruit new teachers and allows plenty of time for profession to mount any number of campaigns. The joint letter from a number of organisations sent to Mr Hinds earlier this week may be just the first in a veritable salvo of concern about this issue.

For me, the Secretary of State could make his name by regularising the parallel systems of governance between locally overseen maintained schools and nationally managed academies. Although not exactly the same situation, Mr Hinds may recognise, coming from a hospitality industry background that the 2003 Licensing Act did away with the dual system of liquor licences being issued by Magistrates’ Court and entertainment licences by local authorities. Our dual governance system for schools is a mess and, as I have said before, doesn’t help some of our most vulnerable young people such as children taken into care that need a place in a different school.

But then, a concern with social mobility also didn’t seem to feature large in Mr Hind’s first 100 days.

What are the aims behind a school funding formula?

Last week I attended a conference put on at the LGA’s conference centre in London by the f40 Group of authorities concerned about school funding, and how it is distributed. Despite its location close to Houses of Parliament, no representative from any London authority was listed in the delegate list. I suppose that’s not surprising in view of the relative distribution of funding across the different local authorities in England.

The historical differences between the funding of schooling across local areas in England goes way back into the history of State education and how it was funded. In an article I wrote in the Oxford Review of Education way back in 1982, I said that local government then managed eighty per cent of spending on education. Even then, recognition that monitoring of what was happening, as the education system developed from just a limited scheme of elementary schools into a more elaborate and widespread system, especially after the passing of the 1944 Education Act, was contained in an HMI publication of 1981 entitled Report of HMI on the effects of local authority expenditure policies on the Education Service in England.  (DES, March, 1982).

Over the next thirty-five years power flowed inexorably from local authorities towards central government. During this changeover period, school funding became more centralised, but also increasingly distributed directly to schools, without local government being able to do much more than try to influence what was happening.

Also, throughout the changeover period, there were calls for a recognition that the existing system was unfair and based upon factors that prevented some areas from funding education as they would have wanted. This was especially the case in the period between the 1944 Education Act and the late 1980s when local government funding, of which most education funding was a part, was not hypothecated and some authorities chose to divide up their spending in less generous ways in terms of funding schools than did others. However, the unfairness resulting from the local retention of business rates always meant some areas had to receive extra funding from central government once it was agreed that a minimum national level of funding was required to operate the school system.

After the Education Reform Act, the idea of curriculum lead funding gathered pace, and calls were increasingly heard for a National Funding Formula for schools. Despite work conducted during both the period of the Labour government between 1997 and 2010, and the period of coalition government, it was only the post 2015 that the DfE and Ministers grasped the nettle and produced the outline of a policy for such a Formula: possibly some Ministers might have wished that they had left well alone. Nevertheless, by 2018, a National Formula existed and was being implemented.

Despite the explicit basis of a formula for schools designed around four basic building blocks: basic pupil funding via an age-weighted pupil unit and a minimum guarantee per pupil; additional needs criteria; a school element including a lump sum and finally an area cost adjustment, the outcomes don’t seem to satisfy many as the f40 conference discussions revealed. Indeed, under the new formula the rank order of high funded and low funded local authority areas remains not totally dissimilar to what was there before.

Perhaps my greatest anxiety arising from the new formula, and expressed by others at the conference, as well as having been expressed before in this blog, is that small rural primary schools have generally not been given sufficient funds to survive the next few years in their present form.

Now, if that is what the government want in order to rationalise spending and cut out waste, so be it. Whether the votes in rural areas will see it in the same way, is entirely another matter. But, it does highlight how values and funding are inextricably linked. At one time Mr Gove, when Secretary of State, wanted to do away with the sump sum completely for all schools: marking certain closure for small schools. The present formula retains a lump sum, but as Peter Downes in Cambridgeshire has worked out, not one especially supportive of small rural schools. The triple weighting of additional needs through a deprivation factor, English as an additional language and prior low attainment of pupils can more than balance out the sparsity and lump sum factors when overlain by the use of a geographical area cost adjustment.

As was once said by commentators of a former system for allocating education funding in the 1970s. ‘..has a deceptive appearance of simplicity. If it is a cost projection of existing policies then there is often disagreement about each element – cost, projection and existing policy all means.

Perhaps not much changes in government.

Moving forward without compromise

Is the climate changing about how the education system should be governed? I have been to three different events over the past week where there has been discussion about the different places of local authorities and the academy sector in taking our school system forward to new levels. Mostly, the academy debate has focused on Multi-Academy Trusts rather than single converter academies, but the issue affect all schools.

I think that there is growing recognition of the point made here previously that ‘place’ is important in the provision of high quality education, and especially schooling. There are three key areas to consider; planning the local system within a national framework; operating the system for the benefit of all and ensuring high quality provision for all by both monitoring outcomes and through the effective deployment of resources.

Sadly, the present arrangements seem to fall down on all of these three key areas needed for a fully functioning high quality education system. As a politician, albeit only a local opposition spokesperson, I am aware that politicians have ideas, but that these needed to be challenged. We need a return to the ‘Yes, Minister, but’ culture within our officer core, rather than a ‘Yes Minister’ outlook where everything a politician says is immediately policy.

Let me cite some examples. Oxfordshire has a good track record of building additional schools where there is new housing developments, but cannot control the process in the same way where the need is in an established built-up area. This is especially true where there is an accepted free school bid on the table from a local academy chain. As a result, I was told at the county council  meeting held yesterday that these new school buildings will probably be two years late. Extra cost and disruption to pupils, but who takes responsibility for this outcome?

In terms of operating the system, in-year admissions remains a minefield, as I have pointed out in relation to children taken into care. These are some of our most vulnerable youngster, but schools can stall on offering those pupils places. In some cases, schools can also encourage inappropriate home schooling in Years 10 and 11 instead of working across the locality to solve the underlying issues creating the original situations. Finally, the disbanding of local advisory services and SEND teams was an important mistake that teaching schools have not fully been able to rectify. CPD is not only about the needs of the system, but also the needs of individual teachers. Sometimes these needs are not in the interests of the schools where they are working. But, that shouldn’t mean that such needs are ignored.

Returning responsibility to local authorities with the power of central government to insert Commissioners when the authority clearly isn’t fulfilling its duties would be one model. It has the benefit of being based upon the concept of democratically elected bodies. Unelected Boards at a much finer grain than the present RSC regions is another, NHS style, approach. There may be other models based upon say, Growth Boards or any other justifiable set of boundaries that work.

What is needed is the will to take the best of recent reforms and dump the bits that don’t work. Whatever the choice, we need a service that is just that, a cadre of professionals working for the good of all and prepared to make hard choices.