A fudge with no teeth

Today’s political announcements about the shape of new school places in England might mark a turning point. Conversely, it might just be a neat solution to two problems that needed a resolution. First on grammar schools, and the £50 million funding for the expansion of places. Let me state at the outset that I am opposed to selective education, especially at age eleven. I believe that the Liberal Democrats should campaign to remove these schools even though the Lib Dems run councils in Sutton and now Kingston upon Thames in London that have such schools within the council boundaries.

The BBC has an interesting chart showing what has happened to the size of grammar schools between 2009-10 and 2015-16. Of the 20 such schools shown, all have expanded. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-44067719 Whether this means that the remaining 140 or so grammar schools haven’t changed their intakes isn’t mentioned. As I have remarked before, the government faced a dilemma. With pupil numbers rising sharply in many of the areas in the Home Counties and outer London where a disproportionate percentage of grammar schools are to be found, doing nothing would effectively decrease the percentage of pupils in these areas able to attend a selective school. Such a policy risked creating the worst of all worlds; not pleasing those that want the abolition of grammar schools, but also upsetting parents who would find it difficult to secure a place for their offspring in an increasingly competitive application process. Today’s announcement will, the Secretary of State no doubt hopes, placate the latter while doing no more than enrage the former, but without lasting political damage, and be seen as the best compromise on offer.

Liberal Democrat Education Spokesperson Layla Moran has said in a press statement: “Grammar schools are the wrong answer to the wrong question. This money should be spent on local schools so that every young person across the country can get the education they need to prepare for the future.” But has stopped short of calling for the removal of these schools. Perhaps this is because such a policy is already implicit in the Lib Dems approach to education. I summed much of that approach as I see it in a recent chapter in a book by the Social Liberal Forum that I co-authored with Helen Flynn. A review of the book can be seen at https://www.libdemvoice.org/a-21st-century-liberal-approach-to-education-57473.html albeit written by a committed Liberal Democrat.

How the government will enforce the rules on selection, offered as a sop to opponents of selective schools and a fig leaf to make the policy more attractive overall, is an interesting question. I assume it is to be just a fig leaf. After all, will any new rules apply to applications for all the places at the schools that take the money or only to applicants for the additional places funded through the new cash for the extra places? This would potentially create two admission rounds: one for existing places and the other for the new Hinds’ places. The latter might perhaps only be open to pupils from certain primary schools with, say, a history of not sending any pupils or only very small numbers to the selective school sector. Alternatively, the rules might stipulate only pupils on Free School Meals in the year they apply for a place. One might envisage some other such permutations. All would need monitoring, plus a clear set of sanctions, especially where the selective schools are not co-educational schools, but the primary schools in the area are co-educational.

The other announcement today, about faith schools, is potentially more momentous and deserves a blog post of its own.

 

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The government probably won’t do much about education

Such is the position the government finds itself in that education was relegated to little more than a paragraph in today’s Queen’s Speech. As might be expected, the government, through Her Majesty, said;

My Government will continue to work to ensure that every child has the opportunity to attend a good school and that all schools are fairly funded. My Ministers will work to ensure people have the skills they need for the high-skilled, high-wage jobs of the future, including through a major reform of technical education.”

In the briefing there is little more by way of amplification. Does a good school mean a selective school where pupils already attend such schools and pupil numbers are on the increase or does it mean no expansion of selective schools? On funding, does it mean that the manifesto amplification that no school will lose money under the new funding formula holds good or will the formula be implemented as consulted upon?

Just saying, “we will deliver on our manifesto commitment to make funding fairer” isn’t really helpful.

The primary schools that sent letters home to parents today would certainly like to know where they stand. As would employees that can see the need for pay rises above 1% in the very near future.

It was interesting that the average cash balance for maintained schools in Oxfordshire dropped from £77,895 in March 2016 to £75,419 in March 2017. I don’t have data for academies and there are too few secondary schools to make the figures at all meaningful. I suspect that this is the first decline in average balances for quite a long time and even so hides the loss of a number of posts, with more to go this September.

The briefing note also explains that “we will continue to convert failing maintained schools into academies so that they can benefit from the support of a strong sponsor, and we are focused on building capacity across the system to enable this, including through growing new multi academy trusts.” In Oxfordshire, we still have a primary school that has waited for more than a year for a sponsor after having been inadequate, so here is some way to go with this promise.

The longest section is reserved for technical education. This oft overlooked sector does need serious attention and there is an interesting note about the introduction of Institute of Technology. Where will they fit in the landscape of UTCs, studio Schools and FE colleges?

Of course, not all developments in education will need legislation. My aim to ensure all looked after children can receive a school place within two weeks of being taken into care should be possible within existing legislation. I already have interest from Conservative and Lib Dem MPs in Oxfordshire and I hope they will be joined by the county’s Labour MP as this isn’t a party political issue, but rather a case of rectifying an unintended wrong created with the development of academies and free schools.

From TeachVac’s http://www.teachvac.co.uk point of view, the lack of any mention of a vacancy portal was interesting. As a way of saving schools money it might have featured in the paragraph on saving money and government tools.

Of course, if the vote next week were to be lost, who knows what will happen then?

Who would have thought it?

Education has suffered some high profile losses in the general election. Not only has Neil Carmichael, the chair of the Education Select Committee in the last parliament lost his  Gloucestershire seat, but Flick Drummond, another Tory MP with an interest in education, also lost her Portsmouth South seat to a surprise Labour victory. Edward Timpson, the Tory MP with a strong interest in the Children’s Services part of the DfE brief also lost his Cheshire seat to a Labour education activist.

Sarah Olney, given the education brief for the Lib Dems after John Pugh retired from parliament, also narrowly lost the Richmond Park seat she had so recently won in the by-election.  Sir Ed Davey once held the education brief for the Lib Dems, but he may be earmarked for another role this time around. Layla Moran, the new Oxford & Abingdon MP might be a possible Lib Dem spokesperson, but she has little or no experience of the State school system except in relation to the examination system.

Now that the Conservatives have returned as the largest Party at Westminster, to be once again called Conservatives and Unionists after their success in Scotland and with the need to rely upon the Northern Irish DUP for a working majority at Westminster, where does that leave the manifesto? Much, I suspect, will depend upon the make-up of the ministerial team and their preferences and support for different policies.

I have already written about how TeachVac www.teachvac.co.uk can cheaply and quickly fulfil the idea of a national vacancy portal and almost certainly at a much lower cost than anyone else can offer. That would be a quick win on savings to offset possible issues of further pay restraint. I suspect that industrial action over pay won’t be far off if the government sticks to the one per cent limit on pay rises.

Although, I suspect, the DUP may favour selective schools, I find it difficult to see the spread of new selective schools really taking hold in such a finely balanced parliament. After all, some Tories were not greatly in favour of axing successful comprehensive schools in their constituencies and can be expected to remain sceptical of the idea that has been so strongly associated with the Prime Minister.

Even more urgent, and top of the new Secretary of State’s agenda, may be sorting out the effect of the -U- turn on funding announced during the election campaign. Is the National Funding Formula dead in the water or will money be found to compensate the losers and still allow the formula to go ahead as planned? This will require some fast footwork between the DfE and The Treasury and it might be that the present arrangements will continue for another year, much to the displeasure of the F40 Group.

Personally, I would like to see the role of the local authority strengthened and a cap on the pay of Chief Executives and other senior staff in MATs in line with the pay of local government officers carrying out similar functions. But, that might be a bit too radical.

We are in a new era, whether it last a full five year parliamentary term looks very doubtful at present, but the Conservative won’t be keen to offer Labour a second chance anytime soon, unless they are forced to by circumstances.

 

Grammar Schools: a cunning plot?

We all know the DfE has been told to save money. After the bountiful years under Labour and the coalition governments has come the harsh Tory winter of austerity. However, surely nobody thought of grammar schools as a government economy drive? But, if the Conservatives do succeed in helping the disadvantaged and the just missing groups in society (hang on a minute isn’t there no such thing as society in a Tory world?) find a place a grammar school, then either grammar schools take a bigger share of the pupil population or some pupils has to be displaced.

That’s where the Tories cunning plot comes in. Who better to displace from grammar schools than those that can afford to pay for private education. Each one of these children driven from the state system saves £35-50,000 from the education budget over their lifetime of secondary schooling. Assume 500 grammar schools with 10 children displaced from each: that’s over £25 million saved in the first year alone. Be brave and displace half of grammar school present intakes into the private sector and the saving over the school life of a cohort runs to about a billion pounds after allowing for inflation in a fully selective system. That would certainly help the Treasury fund the growth in pupil numbers that is about to hit the secondary sector. There might also be a fall in primary pupils in state schools as well, as parents sought grammar crammers to help fight for the remaining open access places in selective schools

A fanciful notion? Well we will see what the Secretary of State has to offer displaced parents under her new proposals or whether she will increase the percentage of the year group going to selective schools. Either way, what the Secretary of State says about the rest of the pupils in our schools and their education will be just as important as what she says about grammar schools.

Even at the height of the drive for the three tier system in the 1950s the Conservatives had to issue a little recalled White Paper; Education for all; a new drive, ahead of the 1958 general election, to reassure parents of children attending secondary modern schools or still being educated in the remaining all-through elementary schools. Well, thanks to Labour, all-through schools are flavour of the month again: although not with me.  But, those parents that don’t win places at grammar schools for their children, many of whom vote Conservative, will need reassurance just as much as those the Secretary of State is trying to offer a grammar school place to in her speech.

In Oxfordshire, a well-educated primary population could more than fill traditional grammar school places and still leave many parents disappointed. In such areas it is difficult to see what the benefits of grammar schools are for the majority of the population.

In the 21st century, the Secretary of State has a responsibility to achieve a good school for every child. Putting the clock back is no way to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Forster’s Education Act in 2020.

Don’t the Tories care?

Rumours about what might be in the budget regarding education are rife across the media today. We know of more money for T levels in further education but, more grammar school places are also being touted as a likely outcome.

One particularly pernicious suggestion that I have heard mention is that the Chancellor will announce that the rules on home to school transport will be altered. At present, outside the TfL area in London, where transport is free, most pupils only receive free transport if their nearest school with a place is over two miles for children up to eight and three miles for children over eight and up to sixteen. There are exceptions where the route is unsafe and for children whose parents are on certain benefits. The latter normally have a wider range of schools to select from where free travel is available.

The rumour suggests that this provision will be extended to allow all pupils free travel to a selective school up to fifteen miles away from their home. Now, one would have assumed that was the case anyway in selective authorities, but at least one such authority tried to create a ‘nearest school’ policy regardless of whether it was a grammar or a secondary modern, condemning some parents to pay to take up places at grammar schools. Preventing this anomaly seems sensible. Less sensible is applying the rule to any child within say 15 miles offered a place and forcing non-selective local authorities to pay for the transport cost even if it means a taxi at £5,000 per place per year.

More sensible would be for the Chancellor to take a look at the transport rules for post-16 pupils. There is no statutory requirement to provide free transport for this age group despite the raising of the learning leaving age to eighteen. The cost is most keenly felt by parents in Tory controlled rural areas, many of which are fully non-selective. Here there is often little choice except between a single secondary school and a distant further education college offering very different ranges of courses. In some areas, with sixth form or tertiary colleges, there is no choice if a child wants to remain in education. For pupils with special needs the distance can be even greater to attend specialist provision.

In my view, if the Chancellor is trying to do more than clear up the anomaly created by some Tory authorities trying to save money, he should support free transport for all 16-19 pupils on the same basis as for pupils from 8-16 ahead of favouring younger children attending selective schools.

Of course, he could go further and offer the same deal to all pupils across the country as pupils receive in London, free transport to all children regardless of distance travelled within the TfL area, but that would really cause chaos, even if it boosted parental choice. Not much chance of that then.

 

A tale of Two Counties

My attention has been drawn to a publication called: A Tale of Two Counties: Reflections on Secondary Education 50 Years after Circular 10/65. Written by Nuala Burgess from Kings College London for the group Comprehensive Future and published on the 25 January 2017 it is downloadable free from http://comprehensivefuture.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/2017-

As one reviewer wrote, this publication is written in an easy to follow style by Kings College researcher Nuala Burgess. It looks at secondary education in two English counties that in socio-economic terms are similar, but in educational terms are poles apart. Both Buckinghamshire and Hampshire have been Conservative controlled since God was a boy. Yet the approach of these two Tory councils is completely different.

As we know Bucks has retained selective schools and has an entry test for its grammar schools, whereas Hants chose a non-selective system mostly based upon 11-16 comprehensives that grew out of the secondary modern schools, with its selective schools mostly becoming sixth form colleges; at that time part of the school system.

It doesn’t pay to be poor in Bucks, where few children on free school meals make it into the county’s 13 grammar schools. Presumably, Conservative in Bucks either think poor children at thick or are prepared to avoid asking the question ‘why do those pupils entering grammar schools largely come from better off families’. Might it be something to do with the private tutor industry that thrives in and around the edges of the county?

In Hampshire, Tory councillors are more likely to be concerned about the education of all pupils. This fact is reflected in the different approaches to converting schools to academy status in the two counties.

In many ways, this is a reflection of the on-going debate about whether schooling is a local or a national service? In Hampshire, even though the County no longer has responsibility for school budgets per se, the County does seem to feel a responsibility for the education of the young people within its boundaries. I wonder whether that is also the view in Bucks, or at least to the same extent. Judging by their recent attempt to change the home to school transport policy, I feel councillors have a different and more hands-off approach.

Since those that attend the county’s non-selective schools are likely to remain in Bucks after leaving education and will mostly enter the local labour market, it might be thought that in investment terms ensuring the best education of these pupils would be beneficial to the future prosperity of the county. After all, the grammar school pupils mostly go to university and can then end up working anywhere.

Perhaps some of lack of productivity as a nation can be put down to Tory councils such as Buckinghamshire not doing enough to ensure an education system that develops the skills and abilities of all pupils regardless of their background. For a government that wants to improve the national productivity levels to embark on a return to selective education seems odd to say the least.

 

More south coast woes?

What is it about the south coast of England that seems to affect the learning of a disproportionate percentage of children? Today’s data from the DfE on coasting schools at Key Stage 2 contains a higher than expected number of south coast local authorities with a high than the national average percentage of their schools seen as coasting.  Five of the top ten local authorities in terms of percentage of coasting schools are on the south coast. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/national-curriculum-assessments-key-stage-2-2016-revised

Poole 24% – worst in England as a percentage of schools

Southampton 14% – 4th

Bournemouth 13% – equal 5th

Dorset 13% – equal 5th

Portsmouth 9% – equal 9th.

Of the three South East local authorities with no coasting schools at Key Stage2, only East Sussex is a coastal county. By contrast, 24 London boroughs are recorded as having no coasting schools at key Stage2. Whether these schools will be able to keep up this enviable record once the new National Funding Formula kicks in, only time will tell.

Not all coastal locations have large percentages of coasting schools, Torbay, The Wirral and Sefton are three with no such schools. Across all local authorities, the average is three per cent of schools that were recorded as coasting.

One interesting aspect of the distribution, especially in the light of the new Chief inspector’s remarks, in the Daily Telegraph three days ago, is the presence of authorities with grammar schools at both ends of the table. How do parents in the coasting schools in both Poole and Bournemouth feel about the effects on the chances of their offspring passing the selection examination for grammar school if the school could be doing better? In our more litigious society might the fact that a school is coasting at Key Stage 2 be a matter for litigation if a pupil just missed a place at a grammar school? We shall no doubt see in due course.

There are a couple of caveats in terms of the data. Small schools are excluded from the dataset, so some authorities may have fewer schools included than others. Secondly, authorities are of different sizes so the Poole result is due to just four schools, whereas there are 12 coasting schools in Dorset. Norfolk, another county with a lot of coastline has the most coasting schools of any authority, 20 in number.

What will happen to coasting schools? Originally, the intention was to turn them into academies, assuming they weren’t already a school of that type. However, Oxfordshire is still waiting for a sponsor to be found for one of the first group of coasting schools identified last year. It will be up to the Regional School Commissioner to decide the governance fate of these schools. I suspect those schools that are also below the ‘floor’ in outcome terms are most likely to see the swiftest intervention. What happens if they are already academies will be interesting. A change of MAT, seems on the cards in those circumstances. At least, it is now difficult to blame the local authority for these outcomes.