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.

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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.

Time for action

Burnt out teachers in struggling schools where nobody has the long-term strategic responsibility for improvement. That’s what I take from the headlines about the Ofsted chief Amanda Spielman’s first annual report. Apparently, there are about 100 schools which have not reached “good” status in inspections since 2005.

None of this is news; none of it is unknown. Indeed, one might ask whether politicians of all Parties have created barriers to overcoming this situation. The two parallel systems of maintained schools and academies, created since Mr Gove’s revolution, have not led to a system of oversight that allows meaningful discussion on how to deal with the schools that need the most support.

Labour now plans a National Education Service, on the lines of the National Health Service, without explaining where any extra funding for improvement will come from. As readers of this blog know, the cost of just the minor changes the government are making to student funding is going to cost £800 million according to the Budget Red Book. That doesn’t leave much for schools and early years. The Conservatives having failed with a system to encourage teachers to work in challenging schools are now trying Opportunity Areas, a scheme seemingly not dis-similar to Labour’s Education Action Zones of the late 1990s.

Nowhere yet at Westminster does there seem to be a recognition of the need to re-energise local democracy into taking an interest in developing and improving education services. If you believe services such as schooling should be subject to democratic oversight, then that surely requires a coherent form of local government backed by Westminster retaining oversight for strategic matters and with the power to intervene should local government prove not up to the task. Central government will also have to bear the funding of schools, but must recognise that sending all the cash to schools is not the right way to either create economies of scale or aid schools that need help from time to time.

What the government at Westminster can do is end the era of schools competing with one another. All state funded schools are part of the same enterprise: the development of learning for all our children. We do need to work together for the common good and not just for the good of the school. If burnout is a real issue for those working in some schools then managed moves for teachers and periods away from the classroom may be necessary. This is challenging when schools in MATs are spread geographically long distances apart and downright impossible when maintained schools cannot fund such a system under the present rules.

Then there is the growing practice of putting secondary deputies into primary schools, either directly as heads or to work alongside heads. Dioceses can do this with their schools, as can MATs, but it is difficult to see how maintained schools can create effective systems without overall control. These are but two examples of why the present system won’t tackle the concerns of the Chief Inspector.

The time has come to end the present unworkable governance system in schools and return to a common framework with a single purpose: every school a good school.

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.

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.