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.

 

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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.

Bring back local democracy for schools

At the last county council meeting in Oxfordshire we discussed school organisation and the government’s proposals for making all schools academies. During the debate one Tory councillor said he didn’t believe in the need for trained teachers. As he is the Tory representative on the committee overseeing the Police & Crime Commissioner for Thames Valley I asked him bluntly whether I could enrol as a police officer without training and, if so, could I be issued with a firearm? Not surprisingly, he said the two jobs were different.

In the past I have asked journalists that question me on the need for teacher training whether I could become their editor without having been a journalist; most say that’s not how it works. Of course, it is the way it worked in the past as Lord Adonis will tell you if you ask what training he received before becoming the education reporter at the Financial Times.

With this background of establishment belief that anyone can be a teacher, and indeed run a school, I read this week’s Profile interview in Schools Week with interest. This is a regular series that I was proud to be part of when it first started and they were looking volunteers to interview. This week the interviewee was Toby Young, http://schoolsweek.co.uk/toby-young-free-school-chief-executive/ He was the man that helped start the free school movement and has more recently been paid £50,000 a year as CEO of the Trust, according to the last accounts of the MAT that now runs three schools in West London and is about to open a fourth (visit https://beta.companieshouse.gov.uk/company/07493696/filing-history and click on accounts for details).

According to Toby Young in his Schools Week interview he said;

“I was very critical of England’s public education system under the last Labour government, and I hadn’t grasped how difficult it is to do better, and to bring about system-wide improvement.

“The last government and this government have achieved a remarkable amount, and I do think the direction of travel is the right direction, but there is no question that it was arrogant of me to believe that just having high expectations and believing in the benefits of a knowledge-based education for all, that those things alone would be enough to create successful schools.”

 “As someone coming into education from the outside, the bits you see of other schools are only the tip of the iceberg. You’re not aware of everything that is going on beneath the surface. You think, ‘well, I could do better than that’, as you are pointing to the tip of the iceberg, without realising how much more there is to it.”

He sighs. “If I could rewind six years, and know then what I know now, I would have been much less critical of other schools, local authorities, and England’s public education system in general.”

At this point I might rest my case for a return to local democratic control after the Thatcher/Blair assault on local government’s role in education. Sure, there were bad local authorities and taking control of them for a period has been a good idea, but throwing the baby out with the bath water was plain daft.

If Toby Young had seen free schools as a new type of voluntary school for the 21st century then much of the grief of the past few years might have been avoided and the government wouldn’t have been faced with having to make Friday’s –U- turn.

However, the job is only half done. We still need a governance system for schools that is credible, reliable and is geared to improving outcomes for all young people at every stage of the education process. Personally, I believe that should involve democratically elected local representatives in mutli-service authorities responsible to a single government department at Westminster.

A first step would be to identify how many system leaders we need and where we are going to find them? We also need to train them in a first-class education leadership academy led by professionals but supported by those with a wide range of skills. Something like the concept I mentioned in a recent post. Toby Young may have good ideas, but perhaps he has now discovered that good intentions are not enough.

Oh, and by the way, his MAT has been looking for a chief finance officer http://www.wlfsat.org/vacancies although the vacancy for a CEO has yet to appear on their web site.

-U- turn on a Friday afternoon

I prepared this post before the announcement of the government’s –U- turn on forced academisation. We still need to see the small print of any Bill to know how far the government has really made concessions. As a result, I thought it worth posting my thoughts.

Now that the Police & Crime Commissioner elections are over it can be back to normal again for this blog. The big debate over the past few weeks has been about forced academisation. Much of the debate so far has failed to address in depth any of the three main points behand the argument about changing the structure of schools: the place of democracy in education; how important is geography in the organisation of our schools and does the primary sector need a middle-tier to ensure the survival of small schools?

None of these issues are new. Indeed, the last one has been around ever since the 1988 Education Reform Act revealed the depth of the Thatcher government’s mistrust of local authorities. However, the first one is the most important. Do we want our public services increasingly managed from Whitehall with no local democratic involvement? As I have pointed out before that is what has become the lot of our National Health Service. There is a case for education to go the same way; a national funding formula backed by a National Curriculum and testing regime and a uniform arrangement of school types that does away with anomalies such as randomly scattered selective schools or 14-18 UTCs and Studio Schools could create such a system.  But, allowing free schools to spring up anywhere without fitting into this pattern suggests either a degree of anarchic thinking or a lack of understanding about the delivery of effective and efficient public services. The same arguments can be made for random collections of schools being formed into academy chains. How important is the need to have community involvement in schooling and if it is important is this aim weakened by chains with no link to the community where they operate a school?

I think everyone that wants to retain small primary schools, whether in rural areas or urban settings, recognises that they need support and help that larger schools could provide for themselves. This raises the issue of how such support should be arranged and paid for? If we knew the outcome of the government’s thinking on the National Funding Formula then this issue might be easier to resolve. A formula weighted towards pupil-based funding that did away with a lump sum for each school would probably spell the death of small schools and make the argument unnecessary. However, if the pressure on a Conservative government is to design a formula that allows small schools to survive, then it has to address the question of their organisation and support. Many years ago, pyramids were suggested with clusters of primary schools linked to their local secondary school or their nearest secondary school of the same faith in the case of church schools and those of the other faiths. This would argue that geography is important but harks back the part 3 Authorities of the 1944 Education Act that operated within the larger counties. Do we wish to go back to the pre-Taylor Committee Report of 1976 position with one governing body for all schools in an area? Does such a system produce rotten boroughs or community cohesion? My guess is that it depends upon how the system is regulated by the next tier upwards?

Any system is also only as good as the people operating it. The government needs to take a long hard look at the size of the leadership cadre, both professional and political and ask what the cost of increasing the size of the pool will be. I have watched leadership salaries increase in response to the economics of supply and demand and to ignore this basic principle of economics and to create say 500 new multi-academy trusts without working out how they could be funded doesn’t strike me as good government. To return to the Police & Crime Commissioner elections for a minute, it would be poor government that were to impose cuts on police forces to fund the academisation of all our schools.