More or less local democracy in our school system: who cares?

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) at Westminster has published a short and interesting Report into ‘Converting Schools to Academies’. https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmpubacc/697/69702.htm

There is little to disagree with in the Report. The process has been expensive and has caused problems with the remaining statutory duties of local authorities. The Committee cited pupil place planning as an issue, but could have included SEND issues and the education of children taken into care. They could have also realised that Free Schools and the dalliance with the 14-18 sector that brought us UTCs and Studio Schools also contributed to the problems with pupil place planning.

Oxfordshire is one of the few, (perhaps the only?) local authority to require a regional school commissioner to appear before its Education Scrutiny Committee each year to give an account of progress of academies within his remit. The answers to the Scrutiny Committee’s questions have revealed a weak and probably largely ineffectual system for improving school performance among academies. The PAC were right to comment on the need for better links with the Education and Skills Funding Council and the RSCs.

Of interest to Oxfordshire was the PACs comments about small rural schools and academies. Oxfordshire has a large number of small rural primary schools that are much loved by the county. The PAC said

Small rural schools, particularly primary schools, can face particular difficulties in finding suitable sponsors. Low pupil numbers may make rural schools financially unviable and their geographical isolation can make it more difficult for multi-academy trusts to provide support. The Department told us that, since 2010, 1,379 rural primary schools had registered an interest in becoming an academy. Of those, 984 had gone on to apply to become an academy, including 262 that were small rural primary schools.

 The PAC asked what, particularly for small rural schools, the barriers were to becoming academies and how the barriers could be addressed. The Department told us that, in principle, the opportunity presented by a joining multi-academy trust should be greater for a smaller school than a larger one, because there was the potential to achieve more economies of scale.

One wonders why, if the point on economies of scale is true, it is secondary schools that have rushed to become academies while these small primary schools have held back, even in many diocese where they already had links outside of the local authority. It may be that under the 2010 Act many original converters became stand-alone academies and only now are they joining together into multi academy trusts.

This means that there are now three separate governance systems for our schools, often running alongside each other; maintained schools, mostly primary schools; standalone academies, mostly secondary schools and Trusts that can be either primary, secondary or a mixture of both with a smattering of all-through schools as well.

These separate systems are expensive to operate and can cause problems as the PAC Report demonstrated. The DfE will, at some point, have to think how to re-join the parts into a whole. For me, one key question with be the place of local democratic accountability in the system. Do we want an NHS style school system with little local accountability or one more akin to what there was between 1944 and the early 2000s, with a significant role for a democratically elected local body aligned to the rest of local government? Regular readers of this blog will know where I stand.

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Leadership matters

Is the fact that there are both good and less good local authorities and multi-academy chains (MATs) the main message from today’s new report of the Education Policy Institute? It is certainly likely to be one of the headlines when the report is being discussed. The Report is a follow-on from the one they published in 2015 and has the advantage of being by the same author. https://epi.org.uk/publications-and-research/performance-academy-local-authorities-2017/

However, for me, there are two other key issues raised by the report. The first, given it was generally known that there are good and less good local authorities and MATs, is, how important is democratic accountability in the governance of education?

Where poor performing local authorities are in areas where political control hasn’t altered for many years and there is often one dominant political party running the authority, how can challenge be created and maintained. Did we do better when there were Education Committees as opposed to Cabinet Government, with power sometimes residing in a single cabinet member, subject only to post-hoc scrutiny. Education Committees did have non-politicians in full membership in most authorities and this helped where they created an effective challenge, but it didn’t always work well. As I have mentioned in other posts, local authorities also have geography on their side and I do think that is important.

The EPI report might like next time to look at the outcomes for non-geographical MATs compared with those that have a stronger sense of place. EPI might also like to look at the effective size of governance units and whether there is any relationship between central costs and outcomes? But, commentators must be wary of dancing on the head of a pin. Where teacher supply is an issue, as it is in large parts of England at the present time, then schools that cannot recruit teachers will surely often suffer in terms of their outcomes.

The other concern raised by the EPI Report is that of the span of control faced by the DfE. EPI identified 237 bodies it rates for KS2 outcomes and 218 for KS4. Outwith these tables are the stand-alone academies and free schools that also need central oversight. Indeed, the fact that local authorities still make up two thirds of the listed bodies at KS4 make come as a surprise to many and shows how the ‘stand-alone’ schools are an issue EPI needs to address in the future.

The government also needs to work at deciding upon the model for governance of education that well allow the good to flourish, but also respond to decades of under-performance in some parts of the country. Recent decades have seen the repeated use of the stick to beat local communities for failure and spasmodic attempts, from Blair’s education Action Zones to the current Opportunity Areas programme, to recognise that carrots also have a part to play in improving performance.

Leadership matters and developing the next generation of system leaders ought to be high on the agenda of the government. Leadership is inextricably linked to values and the ability to put them into practice and EPI might also want to explore that most intangible of elements when they do their next study in a couple of years’ time.

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 about children in care and education

Here are the details of another recent question about the education of children in care. After some years of being overlooked, these vulnerable young people do seem to be once again receiving the attention that they deserve.

Emma Lewell-Buck MP recently asked the Secretary of State for Education, how many schools have refused to admit looked-after or previously looked after children and were subsequently directed by his Department to do so in the last three years.

Nick Gibb, the Minister at the DfE gave the following written answer:

The Department recognises that looked after children are amongst the most vulnerable in our society. That is why the School Admissions Code requires admission authorities of all schools to prioritise looked after children and previously looked after children in their admissions criteria. Local authorities (LAs) have the power to direct the admission authority for any maintained school in England to admit a child who it ‘looks after’, even if that school is full. Therefore, the Department does not hold information on individual applications to maintained schools made on behalf of the looked after child. The Department itself can direct a maintained school if required, but so far it has not had to. For academies, trusts and LAs work together at a local level to prioritise the admission of looked after children. As a last resort, a LA can request a direction for the academy to admit from the Secretary of State, via the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA). The ESFA has collected and recorded data on such direction requests since March 2017. Since then, there have been 28 requests. However, the ESFA have successfully worked with LAs and academies to ensure that a formal direction was only required in four cases.

I think it would have been helpful to make clear the difference between the normal September admission round and in-year admissions that I suspect most of these refusals are about. Now is surely the time to remedy the confusion of in-year admissions and return them to the same footing as the normal admissions rounds, administered for all publically funded schools by local authorities as suggested in the 2017 White Paper.

The EFSA does seem to be more alert to the issue than previously and I hope that those local authorities that parked this issue in the ‘too difficult to handle’ box will now, once again, take on these academies and free schools that treat corporate parents differently to any other parent making a request for in-year admission.

The government might also like to reflect how these children fare if placed in an area with selective secondary schools? I don’t like such schools as a matter of principle, but they do exist and undoubtedly some of the young people would have passed the selection test if they had been in the locality at the time the test was administered to their age cohort. How many children taken into care have been offered a place in a selective school?

With a large increase in the number of children taken into care in recent years, society really does need to ensure everything possible is done to help them through a difficult period in their lives, including providing the best quality education possible.

 

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.

At least everyone is now talking about teacher workload

DfE press officers were unusually busy yesterday, with several announcements made to coincide with the Secretary of State’s speech at the NAHT conference in Liverpool – not a professional association solely for primary leaders, as some seem to imagine, but for leaders in all schools.

One of the most important announcements was that of the formation of a Workload Advisory Group to be chaired by Professor Becky Allen, the director for new Centre for Education Improvement Science at UCL’s Institute of Education. The appearance of senior representatives from the teacher associations among the membership makes this look like a reformation of the former body that existed under the Labour government. Assuming it produces proposals that are accepted by the DfE, then this Group should help Ministers restore some morale to the teaching profession by signalling that they are taking workload concerns seriously.

Announcements about the treatment of so called ‘coasting’ schools and forced academisation may well sound, if not the death knell, then certainly a slowing of primary schools opting to become academies. Why give up relative independence under local authority administration for the uncertain future as part of an Academy Trust, where the unelected trustees can decide to pillage your reserves and move on your best teachers and there is nothing you can do about the situation. That’s not jumping from the frying pan into the fire, but taking the risk of walking out of your house and leaving the front door wide open.

Hopefully, the Secretary of State is starting to move towards resolving the twin track governance system that has emerged since Labour and the Conservatives jointly decided to have a fit of collective amnesia about the key importance of place in schooling and also demonstrated a complete lack of the need for any democratic oversight of local education systems. My Liberal Democrat colleagues that demonstrated no opposition to academisation during the coalition government are, in my view, almost as equally to blame as the members of the other two main political parties for not recognising the need for significant local democratic involvement in our school system.

The Secretary of State might now be asked to go further and adopt the 2016 White Paper view that in-year admissions for all schools should be coordinated by local authorities; a local politician with responsibility for schools should also once again have a voting position on schools forum rather than just an observer role, especially as the NAHT have pointed out the growing importance of the High Needs Block and SEND education where links between mainstream schools and the special school sector is a key local authority responsibility. http://www.naht.org.uk/news-and-opinion/news/funding-news/naht-analysis-of-high-needs-funding/

The idea of a sabbatical mentioned by the Secretary of State was discussed in an earlier post on this blog, but there was little else on teacher recruitment in his speech.

If you want to listen to my thoughts on the present state of teacher recruitment, then Bath Spa University have just published a podcast in their Staffroom series where I answer a series of questions. You can access the podcast at https://soundcloud.com/user-513936641/the-staff-room-episode-10-crisis-in-recruitment and my interview is followed by a discussion between leading staff at the university on the same topic.

 

Update on Leadership trends in the primary sector

Some primary schools are still finding it difficult to recruit a new head teacher. Around half of the 151 local authority areas in England have at least one primary school that has had to pace a second advert so far this year in their quest for a new head. In total more than 170 primary schools across England have not been successful at the first attempt, when looking for a new head teacher.

As some schools are still working through the recruitment process for the first time, following an advertisement placed in April, the number of schools affected is likely to increase beyond the current number as the end of term approaches. Some 25 schools have had to place more than one re-advertisements in their quest for a new head teacher. London schools seem to be faring better than those in parts of the North West when it comes to making an appointment after the first advertisement.

As expected, some faith schools and schools with special circumstances: small school; infant or junior schools and those with other issues feature among the school with more than one advertisement.

The data for this blog comes from TeachVac, the no cost to schools and applicants National Vacancy Listing Service for teaching posts in schools anywhere in England that is already demonstrating what the DfE is spending cash on trying to provide. See for yourself at www.teachvac.co.uk  but you will have to register as TeachVac is a closed system. Such a system prevents commercial organisations cherry picking vacancies and offering candidates to schools for a fee. (TeachVac published a full report on the primary leadership sector in 2017 in January 2018.)

Time was, when appointing a deputy head teachers in the primary sector wasn’t regarded as a problem. Are candidates now being more circumspect when it comes to applying for deputy head teacher vacancies? Certainly, so far in 2018, a third of local authorities have at least one school that has had to re-advertise a deputy head teacher vacancy. The same parts of the county where headship are not easy to fill also applies to deputy head vacancies. This is an especially worrying aspect, since the deputy of today is the head teacher of tomorrow.

Assistant head teacher vacancies are still relatively rare in the primary sector, so it is of concern that 37 local authority areas have recorded at least one vacancy that has been re-advertised so far in 2018. London boroughs that have fared well at the other levels of leadership, seem to be struggling rather more at this level of appointment.

Is this data useful? What should be done with it if it is useful? The DfE have cited data as one of their reasons for creating their own vacancy service, but it will be 2019 at the earliest and possibly not until 2020 that they will have full access to this type of essential management data.

If there is a valid concern about filling leadership positions in the primary sector at all grades then, at least for academies, the government needs to understand what is happening and arrange for strategies to overcome any problem. That’s what strategic leadership of the academy programme is all about. As Labour backed academies in last week’s funding debate, they should work with the government to ensure all academies can appoint a new head teacher when they first advertise. The government should also recognise the role of local authorities in helping with finding new school leaders for the maintained school sector.