Can UTCs survive?

Schools Week, the respected education newspaper, is reporting Michael Gove as saying that the UTC programme has failed. This will be bad news for Lord Baker whose brainchild the idea was in the first place. UTCs were Lord Baker’s second attempt to kick-start a technology sector in schooling in England, after the limited success of his City Technology College programme initiated when he was Secretary of State for Education.

Mr Gove’s comment will come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog. A thriving technology sector is probably a good idea for schooling in England, but to create a new type of school for some, but not all, pupils at age 14 was asking for trouble. To compound the recruitment problems facing these new schools by using the market model of either compete and succeed or fail and die was to demonstrate why Tory market economics finds it hard to work in education.

Incidentally, closure is a feature of market economics, as even Waitrose has apparently found out recently, with the announcement of the closure of five of its branches.

So, where does technology education go from here? The easy answer is to let the existing UTCs and their companion Studio Schools limp on, with some making a go of it where there is local support and others failing to recruit sufficient students to be financially viable. A better answer, and one that should be welcomed by the clutch of former accountants currently running the DfE, would be to call in the receivers and see how the assets can be best used for Schools England. Will the current Secretary of State have the courage to take this radical approach? We will see.

With the raising of the learning leaving age to eighteen, the break at fourteen for some pupils was always going to look out of line with the idea of a common curriculum up to the age of sixteen, even with those pupils that would benefit from a fresh start at fourteen. My guess is that the promoters of UTCs and Studio Schools didn’t plan effectively for the type of pupils other schools would encourage to switch in an era where cash rules and pupils come with a price upon their heads.

If UTCs are going to be a short-term feature of our education scene, could the Secretary of State please now pay attention to the fate of Design and Technology in all our schools? Post BREXIT we will need those with the skills and interest in the whole gamut of design and technology to help create our future wealth. Sadly, the subject has been ignored by the DfE for too long and the limp approach to the D&T teacher shortage adopted in the recent Migration Advisory Committee report didn’t receive the rebuke it deserved from the business community.

We need a thriving design and technology sector in our schools, please will someone now come up with a credible plan to help us achieve that aim?



Pension Fund concerns

No, for once this isn’t about the Teachers’ Pension Fund, partly because there isn’t one: the government pays the difference between receipts paid into the scheme and the pensions payable to pensioners each year. There is an issue about why private schools are in the Scheme, but that may be for another post.

This post is about the report by UHY Hacker Young, the national accountancy group that was released earlier today. According to the authors, the Local Government Pension Scheme fund deficits around the country have increased between 75-100% on average over the last year, following Brexit-related market turbulence. This change affects all academies directly because nearly all non-teaching staff in schools are members of these schemes, unless they have chosen to opt out. As academies publish accounts each year, the scale of their deficit is easy to uncover

I raised concerns about growing deficits among academies in Oxfordshire earlier this year at a meeting of the county council, as they are the body that administers the scheme. Apparently, in 2013 the DfE gave some form of guarantee about under-writing the deficit. However, that seemingly has yet to be challenged, presumably because if an academy changes hands the deficit just passes to the new body running the school. I am not sure what has happened when a school closes completely as happened with at least one UTC in the West Midlands.

Of course, pension deficits are to some extent an a figure on a balance sheet of the type accountancy standards require, but most ordinary mortals pass over very quickly and nod sagely when it is explained to them at the meeting where the annual accounts are presented and discussed. However, with staff costs making up around 75% of the total costs of the average school, according to UHY Hacker Young, something will eventually have to be done to prevent these deficits overwhelming the education budget as a whole, so trustees might want to start asking questions when the accounts are presented to them later this term for sign-off.

As UHY Hacker Young explain:

“Pension deficits fluctuate each year according to market rates and other complex assumptions, however the trend over recent years, even before this latest increase, has been upwards. A deficit means the pension fund does not currently have sufficient assets to pay pensions that will fall due in the future to retired staff, so trustees are rightly questioning how the gap will be funded and where costs can be cut to plug the deficit.”

One option would be for the government to nationalise the fund rather than continue to allow a significant number of different local authority schemes to operate. This would, presumably, reduce the cost of administration, but some well-run schemes might see their returns reduce. However, schools would be secure in knowing that non-teaching staff were now being treated in the same manner as teachers. I assume if this somewhat drastic approach were to be chosen there would have to be a new Scheme, since taking away current assets from the market would be unthinkable.