Productivity gain or worsening working conditions?

Ahead of the ASCL Conference in Birmingham this weekend, there is a report in the press today about rising class sizes in secondary schools.

An analysis by teaching unions has suggested 62% of secondary schools have had to expand class sizes between 2014/15 and 2016/17. The study, conducted by the NEU, NAHT and ASCL – as well as non-teaching unions Unison, GMB and Unite – showed that of 150 local authorities, 83% saw a rise in average class sizes across their secondary schools, while 14% have seen a fall and 3% saw no change.

This report should come as no surprise to anyone connected with education. Indeed, I would predict that class sizes will continue to increase in size over the next few years as the secondary school population expands from its low point reached in 2014 and budgets also come under pressure.

However, there is an argument to be had about the usefulness of class sizes as a measure. They can be affected by factors such as the degree of non-contact time allowed to staff; policy over options at GCSE and for post-16 courses as well as space considerations.

An alternative measure is the Pupil Teacher Ratio. Even here there are now problems: how do you define a teacher. Do you only include those with QTS and exclude Teach First and School Direct trainees, as well as any other unqualified teachers or cover supervisors?

Anyway, I have included the changes in PTRs across different types of secondary schools since the School Workforce Census was introduced. The result confirms the findings from the unions and could have been researched without the need to waste valuable time in hard-pressed local authorities. As an added bonus, these are DfE approved numbers, so the government cannot quibble about them.

Changes in Pupil Teacher Ratios in secondary schools
2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016
All State funded Secondary schools 14.9 14.9 15 15 15.3 15.6
Converter academies 15.2 15.8
Sponsored academies 13.6 15.3
All academies 14.8 15.6
UTCs/Studio Schools 12.9 13.8
Free Schools 12.6 15.3
LA maintained 15 14.9 14.8 14.9 15.1 15.4

The big change has come since 2015 and probably reflects the loss of extra funding academies received in the early days of the Gove period at the DfE. The effect the loss of that extra cash has had on the funding of these schools is now obvious: sadly, once becoming an academy there is normally no way back. For that reason, heads gathering in Birmingham might want to examine the value for money of back offices at MATs.Source DfE SFR 25/2017 Table 17a

After all, it was the heads that complained for decades about the dead hand of local authority expenditure. Having been released from the frying pan of Local Authority spending patterns they must not fall straight into the fire of MATs with high relative overheads.

There are many other issues that secondary heads will need to consider at their conference. Perhaps one of the most pressing is finding the teachers to fill these classes that now have more pupils in them. It may be a productivity gain, but it does impose a greater workload on teachers and may the class size and PTR changes partly explain the growing loss of teachers with 3-5 years’ experience previously discussed on this blog.

In passing, the head teachers might also want to reflect upon the changing nature of the teacher vacancy market that helps provide the teachers. With the TES group reporting a loss of 2016-17 and the DfE working on a new vacancy platform, how teachers are recruited could become an important area for discussion over the next few years.

As one of the instigators of TeachVac, the free platform for vacancies, I am, of course, not an idle by-stander in this debate.


Top slice maintained schools?

There are growing reasons to be concerned about how the two systems of school governance; maintained and academy are working. A brief look at the accounts of any multi-academy trust with more than a couple of schools will show a figure for central costs. Assuming that the MAT has no other income, the funding for these costs will normally have had to come from the schools within the MAT. Should the remaining maintained schools, not yet academies, be top-sliced in a similar manner by local authorities rather than just offered the chance to buy back services on a traded basis?

This issue has once again surfaced because in a report published this week, Ofsted said of Newham Council in London, following an Ofsted a visit to a primary school that wasn’t a normal inspection visit:

‘The local authority has provided some support to the school in managing the manipulative and sometimes abusive correspondence and comments made by email and across social media. However, considering the position the school found itself in, and the fact that some correspondence appears to have been coordinated, the local authority’s approach has been perfunctory at best, stopping short of supporting the school in its policy position. Instead, the local authority has positioned itself as a moderator to manage relationships between the school, councillors and community groups. The expected level of emotional care and public support for school staff from the local authority has been too limited and, as a result, ineffective.’

Now this school had faced a high pressure campaign around a particular set of issues. Should the local authority have had the funds to offer the school its full support as they would have done in the past? The alternative view presumably, is that schools, whether academies or not are now funded as if they were on their own and if they want that support they can buy it.

This question follows on neatly from the Ofsted monitoring report on St Gregory the Great School in Oxford mentioned here in the post on 19th January in which Ofsted criticised the multi-academy company for the manner they were handling the improvement of the school from its rating as inadequate. Clearly, the MAC can use central costs obtained from its schools to offer support. Indeed, the local Anglican MAT in Oxfordshire has appointed a primary adviser from central funds.

Should we treat the remaining maintained schools as if they were a local authority MAT or not bother with the issues of governance and support for these schools? In passing, there is a third group of converter standalone academies that raise another set of issues over the question of support.

With the common funding formula starting to be implemented from April, some schools may be top-sliced where their neighbour down the road isn’t yet receive the same level of funding. Indeed, why should schools hand over part of their declining income to cover central costs, if maintained schools aren’t required to do so?

How should local authorities react? They are even more strapped for cash than schools, having borne the brunt of government cuts over the past eight years: you only have to look at Northamptonshire’s financial situation to see the depth of the problems councils face.

Ofsted cannot expect more from local authorities without recognising that someone, either the school or the government will have to pay for that support. If MATs can top-slice, should local authorities also be allowed to do so?



Not Full Circle?

In the early 1990s, I sat on Oxfordshire’s Education Committee. At that time, we were forced to outsource the county’s school meal service. The contract went to an offshoot of what was then CfBT,. After several changes of direction and contractor, the one constant was the need to outsource such services. With the coming of local management by schools, first grant maintained schools, then academies and finally all schools were allowed to do their own thing and decide either who to appoint or even to provide the meals service themselves. With the collapse of Carillion, the question is whether the wheel is now turning again and creating a climate for a politically controlled in-house delivery of services once again?  Of course, while schools retain the purchasing decisions, as the budget holder, there will never be a return to the previous system of a centrally imposed system.

In the early days of this blog, in 2014, I wrote about some of the issues facing councils and contractors, especially over the savings in staff costs -see and I wonder whether another stage in the cycle of government contracting is starting to emerge. In the immediate post-war period of central planning, public bodies often ran most services. There was no profit element to consider, but cost controls were of variable quality. The Thatcher era saw a mass transfer of services to private companies, with an expectation that costs would fall. Maybe some did, but others didn’t and some benefitted from the proceeds of technological change that drove down costs, but didn’t create competition and didn’t always drive down prices.

However, when costs have been reduced, it is clear that the profit element in a contract is often paying for more than the risk involved in the enterprise, especially where it is services that are being provided. I recognised this when I set up TeachVac and the DfE presumably recognise it with their latest attempt to establish a vacancy service for schools and teachers. In education, the problem is that many of the budget holders, schools, are too small to gain purchasing power, except where they can purchase locally.

Can and should democratically elected local authorities play a part in providing services to schools? We shall see. There are clearly those on the right of politics that see State provided services as an anathema. Presumably, they are not happy with the DfE creating a publically operated vacancy service for teachers?  I have yet to see any opinion from them, but it is an interesting test of where they see the limits of state action?

Finally, back to the Carillion saga. Fortunately, Oxfordshire had been in the process of recovering the contracts for both construction and facilities management services outsourced in 2012 to Carillion. This is as a result of pressure from councillors of all political parties. From 2014, issues about school construction projects not meeting deadlines were regularly raised at political group briefings. Oxfordshire’s residents are fortunate that the County has no Party with a large majority and every incentive for opposition parties to hold the ruling group’s feet to the fire over the management of services. But, in education none of this solves the bigger governance issues around the two parallel systems of academies and maintained schools.


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.


Levy or a tax on small schools?

I wonder how the Apprenticeship Levy is working out in your part of England. Many primary schools have had to pay into the Levy because, as maintained schools, their local authority is the ‘de jure’ employer. Academies and voluntary schools, along with free schools, generally escape the Levy, unless part of a Multi Academy Trust with a pay bill of more than £3 million.

In Oxfordshire, the primary schools are likely to pay just short of half a million pounds over the course of the financial year into the Levy. With a Teaching Apprenticeship not up and running in time for this September that leaves either support or other staff apprenticeships or the possibility of using the cash to develop the existing teaching force through advanced apprenticeships as a way of accessing the Levy.

In my book, preparing primary teachers for a leadership position would have been a useful way to spend the Levy. Now, I am not clear whether it can only be spent in the school from where it has been collected or whether, as the ‘employer’, a local authority can aggregate the cash rather than see it not being used.

In former times, this would have been a task for an officer overseen by a director, perhaps after a discussion at a committee meeting. Contrast this with the cabinet system, where, if the Cabinet Member isn’t interested, it is difficult to see how policy is formed unless a particular officer is prepared to make an effort. In constrained financial times, such as local authorities now face that seems unlikely in many authorities: perhaps readers can tell me different in their experience.

There is a further problem thrown up by the cabinet system. When seeking information in public, do you ask a question of cabinet member for finance, as the department collecting the Levy; the cabinet member responsible for education activities, as covering the operational area or the cabinet member responsible for human resources as they should be informing other operating areas about the policy for handling the Levy? With only one question at a Cabinet Meeting, councillors, at least in Oxfordshire, cannot afford to make the wrong choice if they want to be able to ask a supplementary.

Nationally, I wonder whether the teacher associations have been as ‘on the ball’ about the consequences of the Levy as they could have been. The last thing I want to see is financially hard-pressed primary schools paying into a fund that isn’t then spent for their benefit. I still wonder why there wasn’t more of a fuss about taxing the smallest schools while letting off some of the larger schools. This doesn’t seem equitable to me, especially when funding is so tight. Added to all the other cost pressures on schools, this is another nail in the coffin for the small village primary schools. Is that something the present government wants to achieve: surely not?




More evidence of funding pressures

The government published data on planned local authority and school expenditure on Children’s Services in 2017-18 as Statistical First Release 48/2017

The data provides some further evidence of the pressure on both the education budget and the whole of Children’s Services with funding generally not keeping place with expenditure increases. The differences between academy and local authority financial years still pose problems for the DfE, although, after several years of qualified accounts, there has hopefully been some progress in the direction of transparency across geographical areas with different mixes of schools. Nevertheless in table 4 of the main tables there are a couple of dubious looking sets of data from two authorities.

With all the talk about growing mental health problems in school-age children, it is concerning to see the fall over the four year period shown in the statistics in spending both in total and per capita on the school psychological services. Planned spending is £12 per capita in 2017-18, down from £15 in 2014-15. I do hope that the difference has been picked up from public health or some other budget, but if not, this needs re-visiting.

Spending on SEN transport is, however, going in the opposite direction once the cost- of post-16 transport is taken into account. By contrast, as a result of changes in their policies by many local authorities, spending on general school transport is falling as the cost outside London is being transferred to parents through either expecting more to pay for transport or to change the schools their child attends from a catchment school to the nearest school.

Funding for Sure Start Children’s Centres and early Years funding has been decimated, reducing from £78 per head in 2014-15 to an estimated £48 in 2017-18. This has resulted in many centres closing. The net effects of this closure programme will only be revealed in the next few years.

Other areas to see large per capita reduction over the four year period include school improvement services and regulatory duties. In both cases, time will tell whether this is either a sharpening of efficiency in local authorities that previously spent well above the median amount or a real deterioration in the quality of services across the country? It is certain that a better organised service without the twin track academy and maintained school systems running in parallel might provide the biggest opportunity for savings. However, to tackle the legacy of Mr Gove would take real political courage and probably a more settled House of Commons than currently exists.

The pressure created by the increase in the size of the looked after sector has resulted in a 10% increase in spending over the four years analysed. Sadly, the two areas not to share in this increase are spending on respite care and on education of looked after children. Surely, both are reductions to regret and to try to reverse as soon as possible.

Both substance misuse services and teenage pregnancy services have suffered significant cuts over the past four years; hopefully in some cases because of less demand for these services, but keeping funding might have produced even better results in the future.

On the day that a major credit rating agency downgraded the UK’s Sovereign Nation credit rating again, citing public finances as one reason, these DfE figures must raise questions about whether the poorest in society are being disproportionally affected by austerity and whether that is what we want as a Society.


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.

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.