How to manage schooling in England?

The Confederation of School Trusts, led by their able chief Executive, Leora Cruddas, don’t often rate a mention on this blog.  However, their latest attempt to cut through the Gordian knot left by Michael Gove’s half completed reform of the school system in England does at least offer an opportunity for those interested in the matter to once again state their views and why they hold them?

As an elected Councillor, Deputy Chair of an Education Scrutiny Committee, and a long-time supporter of a school system with local democratic involvement, unlike the NHS where most decisions are driven either from Whitehall or by professionals, I might be thought to be miles apart from CST’s view: we shall see.

The CST introduction to their latest survey focuses on five key areas for their White Paper:

  • One system – as opposed to the current “expensive and confusing” two-tier system, one of standalone schools maintained by local authorities and one of legally autonomous schools, many operating as part of a group or school trust
  • Teacher professionalism – the CST is proposing to establish a body of knowledge which supports initial teacher education, induction and post-qualifying professional development
  • Curriculum – the CST proposes that school trusts have clearly articulated education philosophies and harness the best evidence on curriculum design and implementation so that every pupil is able to access an ambitious curriculum
  • Funding – the CST is today launching an online tool to help schools and school trusts strategically plan, and is also publishing a paper highlighting where strategic additional investment is needed
  • Accountability – the CST believes there should be a single regulator and, separately, an independent inspectorate, each with clearly understand authority, decision-making powers, legitimacy and accountability

On the first bullet point, I would add that in my view is really 3 systems, with standalone academies and free schools being different to MAT/MACs.

Can Academies and Free schools be like the voluntary school sector of the past and MAT/MACs act like diocese in relation to local authorities?

How many organisations do we need? There are 150+ local authorities of varying sizes: how many do we need at that tier, 200, 250? Certainly not the wasteful and expensive arrangements that currently exist across the country. The fact that the government has had to clamp down on top salaries in MATs, this at a time when schools are strapped for cash, makes the point more eloquently that any diatribe about CEOs pay packets.

Pupil place planning and in-year admissions are key tasks needed in a properly managed system. Someone needs to guarantee children taken into care for their own safety and moved away from the parental home can secure a new school place quickly, and also ensure in-year admissions for pupils whose parents move home are not left for long periods of time without a school place, especially if they have special needs and an EHCP.

Perhaps a national fund to help ensure rapid transfers for pupils with an EHC plan or needing SEN support might help. Local Authorities could draw on the fund without it affecting their High Needs block funding.

The CST also needs to reflect how school transport is to be managed in any changed system.

On teacher professionalism, will the CST support my view on the need for QTS to be defined more closely than anyone with QTS can teach anything to any pupil in any type of school?

If you are interested in the governance of our school system as it approaches its 150th anniversary year, do please visit https://cstuk.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/Future-shape-white-paper-call-for-evidence-June-2019.pdf and complete the CST survey.

 

 

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Off-rolling and the state of education governance

Earlier this month The Education Policy Institute published a report into unexplained pupil exits from schools https://epi.org.uk/publications-and-research/unexplained-pupil-exits/ Their paper raised the question about whether this was a growing problem? A good survey of the background to the issue, and how it has gained prominence, can be found in a House of Commons briefing paper at https://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/CBP-8444#fullreport first published last December. For those with access to the Local Government Information Unit publications, John Fowler has also written a helpful policy briefing on the subject.

The House of Commons paper starts with a helpful explanation of the issue and why it is important.

What is ‘off-rolling’ and why are concerns being raised?

There are many reasons that children may be removed from the school roll. For example, children may legitimately be excluded from schools, move to another school that is more suitable for them, or simply move home. Parents also have the right to educate their child at home if they wish. Recent years, however, have seen concerns being raised that children are leaving school rolls in rising numbers, in particular as they approach GCSE level, because of pressures within the school system. It has been suggested that increased ‘off-rolling’ is taking place because of the impact of pupils who are likely to perform relatively poorly in their examinations on school performance measures, and because schools may be struggling to support children who need high levels of support, for example pupils with special educational needs. Off-rolling of this kind might involve children being excluded for reasons that are not legitimate, or parents being encouraged to home educate a child where they would not otherwise have chosen to do so. Excluding children from school for non-disciplinary reasons is unlawful. Children who are off-rolled may move to another school, into alternative provision, or into home education.

In the present muddled state of education governance, local authorities may no longer operate schools, but they retain residual responsibilities, not least where schooling intersects with child safety concerns. Thus, as John Fowler points out, the DfE is reviewing its statutory guidance on Children Missing Education and the requirement in the Education (Pupil Registration) Regulations 2006, as amended in 2016, in order to publish a review by 30 September 2019 of regulation 5. This is the regulation that covers the contents of the admission register, along with regulation 8 that deals with deletions from the admission register, and regulation 12 that covers information to be provided to the local authority.

In Oxfordshire, all but one of our secondary schools are now academies. What sanctions does the local authority have if schools do not comply with the requirement to notify an exit from school by a pupil, especially by a pupil at the start of Year Eleven where they still would not count towards a school’s results the following summer? A rule that has no sanctions attached is a rule that can be broken with impunity.

In an earlier post on this blog about youth justice I suggested that ‘any secondary school with more than 8% of its current annual revenue grant held in reserves and also with an above average figure for permanent exclusions across years 10 and 11 and any off-rolling of pupils in those years for pupils with SEND should have 50% of the excess of their reserves above the 8% level removed by the government and reallocated to the local Youth Offending Team.’ (March 11th 2019 post headed youth Justice)

If it is more cost effective for schools to remove challenging pupils than to retain them on roll, then there is little incentive, especially when funds are tight, to keep to either the letter or the spirit of the law. At the next Cabinet meeting in Oxfordshire I will be probing this matter further through a tabled question.

 

Accountability and asbestos

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of the House of Commons has just published a report into Academy accounts and performance, with a final paragraph about asbestos reporting by schools tacked on the end for some reason. https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmpubacc/1597/159702.htm proving that Brexit is not quite the only game in town at Westminster this week.

The PAC don’t think that accounts for academies are clear enough and provide enough information at the school level for parents and others from the local community interested in the spending of individual schools. Personally, I have found academy trust accounts more forthcoming than financial information about individual maintained schools. However, there are clearly Multi-Academy Trusts where information has not been forthcoming in the views of the PAC.

We can all cite issues of questionable behaviour by the leaders of some Trusts. The DfE spent a lot of time and effort last year trying to deal with the high salaries some CEOs of Mats were paying themselves, with some degree of success.  However, it wasn’t as if everything was fine and dandy before. Head teachers had been known to fiddle the books and use the school credit cards for unacceptable purposes: a few even end up being prosecuted and doing time in prison.

The PAC has set out a list of demands that the DfE must comply with by the end of March, although I expect that deadline will be extended should there be a general election before to date to exit the EU.

Personally, as I have explained in previous post, entitled ‘Does local democratic control matter in education?’ written in August 2017 that someone has viewed earlier today ,I would rather democratic control was exercised where the school is located by democratically elected local authorities and not from London. I suppose, however, if you believe in the Regional School Commissioner role, and I don’t, then they might be the office best placed in the DfE hierarchy to oversee financial transparency of academies.

I am disappointed that the PAC didn’t mention the behaviour of some academies and MATs in respect of in-year admissions and especially the way they deal with children taken into care requiring a school transfer. That is another subject this blog has championed and will continue to so.

Finally, the difficulty in making schools report about asbestos and the importance of this matter is a real concern. The PAC reported that:

The Department originally asked schools to respond to its survey by 31 May 2018. However, due to the poor response rate, it extended the deadline to 25 June 2018 and again to 27 July 2018. Despite this, only 77% of schools responded to the survey. The Department said that it was disappointed with the response rate. We asked the Department what action it had taken with the 23% of schools that had still not provided the information requested. The Department said that it had re-opened the survey and extended the deadline for the third time, to 15 February 2019, to allow the remaining schools to respond. It also told us that those schools that still failed to respond would be picked up in its school condition survey. However, this survey will not be completed until autumn 2019.

Paragraph 30 PAC Report

This really does reveal why we need a governance structure for schools in England that is both accountable and able to act effectively on important issues of whatever description.

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.)

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.