More wasted cash?

The DfE has today updated the list of academies (SATs and MATs, but possibly not MACs) where there has been a change in overall responsibility, either from a standalone academy (SAT) into a multi-academy Trust (MAT) or between MATs. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/academy-transfers-and-funding-england-financial-year-2018-to-2019

These changes are generally not cost free. They can take place for a variety of reasons including, ‘due to intervention’, usually after an inadequate rating by Ofsted; ‘initiated by the Trust’ and as a result of the fact that the Trust ‘sponsor closed’. The last of these reasons seems to have incurred costs of around £3 million in the 14 months from January 2018 to February 2019. The DfE can offset such costs against any balances held within the Trust, but that cash cannot then be spent on educating the pupils.

Now it has to be recognised that in the past costs were incurred in dealing with failing local authorities. Hackney in the early years of the Labour government was one example, and I think that Bradford was another. Indeed Commissioners are still sent into Children’s Services rated as ‘inadequate’. However, the ability of trustees to effectively close their Trust brings a new dimension to this issue. I suppose that some of these Trusts might have, so to speak, fallen on their sword before they were the subject of intervention by the Regional School Commissioner’s Office.

Nevertheless, the fact that trustee can voluntarily decide to abandon one or all of their schools at a cost to the system does raise questions about the best use of scarce resources, an issue highlighted in the previous post on this blog.

There also doesn’t seem to be any requirement on trustees to think of others when making decisions to close a SAT or a MAT. There are times of year when such actions might be allowed, but others where it should be banned. I recall a few years ago a MAT announcing the closure of a school a couple of weeks before the notification of places for the following September was to be relayed to parents. The local authority had to re-run the whole exercise for that area, with a waste of time and money. Those costs would presumably not be included in the figures provided by the DfE, and I suspect the local authority were not reimbursed for the time an effort of their officers in ensuring every pupil had a place at secondary school that September.

The DfE might also like to publish a list of ‘orphan’ schools, declared ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted and requiring conversion to academy status but finding it a challenge to secure a MAT willing to embrace them.

I don’t know whether the Select Committee in their Inquiry into school funding looked into this sort of cost to the system, if not, then they might like to put such a study on their list for the future.

As I have written in previous blogs, there are some areas, such as pupil numbers increases, where costs cannot be avoided. There are other areas where reducing waste should be a real priority for the system. This looks like an example of the latter.

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How to manage schooling in England?

The Confederation of School Trusts, led by their able chief Executive, Leora Cruddas, don’t often rate a mention on this blog.  However, their latest attempt to cut through the Gordian knot left by Michael Gove’s half completed reform of the school system in England does at least offer an opportunity for those interested in the matter to once again state their views and why they hold them?

As an elected Councillor, Deputy Chair of an Education Scrutiny Committee, and a long-time supporter of a school system with local democratic involvement, unlike the NHS where most decisions are driven either from Whitehall or by professionals, I might be thought to be miles apart from CST’s view: we shall see.

The CST introduction to their latest survey focuses on five key areas for their White Paper:

  • One system – as opposed to the current “expensive and confusing” two-tier system, one of standalone schools maintained by local authorities and one of legally autonomous schools, many operating as part of a group or school trust
  • Teacher professionalism – the CST is proposing to establish a body of knowledge which supports initial teacher education, induction and post-qualifying professional development
  • Curriculum – the CST proposes that school trusts have clearly articulated education philosophies and harness the best evidence on curriculum design and implementation so that every pupil is able to access an ambitious curriculum
  • Funding – the CST is today launching an online tool to help schools and school trusts strategically plan, and is also publishing a paper highlighting where strategic additional investment is needed
  • Accountability – the CST believes there should be a single regulator and, separately, an independent inspectorate, each with clearly understand authority, decision-making powers, legitimacy and accountability

On the first bullet point, I would add that in my view is really 3 systems, with standalone academies and free schools being different to MAT/MACs.

Can Academies and Free schools be like the voluntary school sector of the past and MAT/MACs act like diocese in relation to local authorities?

How many organisations do we need? There are 150+ local authorities of varying sizes: how many do we need at that tier, 200, 250? Certainly not the wasteful and expensive arrangements that currently exist across the country. The fact that the government has had to clamp down on top salaries in MATs, this at a time when schools are strapped for cash, makes the point more eloquently that any diatribe about CEOs pay packets.

Pupil place planning and in-year admissions are key tasks needed in a properly managed system. Someone needs to guarantee children taken into care for their own safety and moved away from the parental home can secure a new school place quickly, and also ensure in-year admissions for pupils whose parents move home are not left for long periods of time without a school place, especially if they have special needs and an EHCP.

Perhaps a national fund to help ensure rapid transfers for pupils with an EHC plan or needing SEN support might help. Local Authorities could draw on the fund without it affecting their High Needs block funding.

The CST also needs to reflect how school transport is to be managed in any changed system.

On teacher professionalism, will the CST support my view on the need for QTS to be defined more closely than anyone with QTS can teach anything to any pupil in any type of school?

If you are interested in the governance of our school system as it approaches its 150th anniversary year, do please visit https://cstuk.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/Future-shape-white-paper-call-for-evidence-June-2019.pdf and complete the CST survey.

 

 

Muddled governance doesn’t help teacher development and retention

The publication of the Education Policy Institute’s (EPI) study on teachers   https://epi.org.uk/publications-and-research/teacher-recruitment-progression-and-retention-in-multi-academy-trusts/ – based mostly around those in MATs – has coincided with the OECD’s TALIS report. I am not sure whether that is coincidence or a deliberate decision by David Laws and his team? Either way, there is some interesting information and some disturbing issues in the EPI document.

EPI divide the world into two, local authorities and MATs. The MAT group is then further sub-divided and, I assume, includes stand-alone academies? Both groups are considered by primary and secondary phase.

Given that academies were created to bring the free market into education, the notion of a governance system that requires such schools and groups to collaborate for the good of all is an interesting development.

At present, there are three parallel governance system with little overlap, maintained schools; stand-alone academies and MATs. This can produce either diverse policies in a local area or no policy at all. Indeed, it is significant that EPI avoided discussing the special school sector; as do so many commentators and think tanks. Planning for that system is shambolic at present and our most vulnerable learners are losing out, as the BBC revealed earlier today. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-48663873 Local Authorities need to either be allowed to plan places properly for this sector or the DfE should take over the responsibility. The lack of geographical proximity may be one of the reasons for this MAT highlighted by the BBC is having problems in the SEN sector https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-berkshire-48691736

As the period that EPI reviewed was one when many schools transferred to academy status, the findings on turnover and promotion might not be the same once the system has settled down. However, the ages of appointment to senior leadership don’t look very different to the longitudinal study of leadership appointments I conducted for the NAHT during the first decade of this century. These figures are still bad news for late entrants to teaching seeking a career beyond middle leadership.

On the issue of central recruitment by MATs, TeachVac has seen evidence of a return to individual school recruitment sites; presumably candidates don’t identify with MATs as a source of vacancies and, apart from TeachVac, many recruitment sites might not pick up these vacancies if candidates aren’t looking for them.

EPI ducks the central question of geography in its recommendations, focusing instead on what MATs might do, perfectly sensible as suggestions go, but not addressing the key issue. If there is a shortage of cash for education, why are we wasting it creating lots of min-school system without democratic accountability: has nothing be learnt from the NHS that has operated on such a model for all the time it has been in existence.

Even more than the NHS schools, and especially primary schools, are rooted in their communities. As Oxfordshire’s Education Scrutiny Committee members discussed with the RSC officials earlier this week the issue of who takes the lead if rural primary schools are financially nonviable. If the consequence of school closures is higher transport bills, paid for by council tax payers, can a policy that keeps the schools open for less overall cost be agreed between local authorities, MATs, diocese and the DfE. If not, not only is government inefficient, but also lacking in coherent strategic planning.

Interesting data from ofsted

The Regional Director of ofsted spent just over an hour answering questions at a meeting earlier this week of Oxfordshire’s Education Scrutiny Committee. Sadly, neither the press nor any members of the public turned up to hear this interesting and informative exchange of views.

One of the questions posed by the Committee was about schools ranked ‘outstanding’ on previous criteria and whether the judgement will remain when the new Framework, currently out to consultation, comes into force. There doesn’t seem to be a mechanism to reset the dial when there is a major change in the inspection framework.

This question was thrown into sharp focus later this week by ofsted’s publication of inspection outcomes for the autumn term of 2018. This is available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/state-funded-schools-inspections-and-outcomes-as-at-31-december-2018

Of the 102 schools classified as ‘exempt’ under the 2011 legislation, that were subject to a full inspection, 12 schools (12%) remained outstanding, 50 (49%) declined to good, 35 (34%) declined to requires improvement and five (5%) declined to inadequate. The fact that four out ten of these schools declined to either ‘requires improvement’ or the category of ‘inadequate’, in five cases, must be of concern. A further 15 ‘outstanding’ schools had a short inspection and, thus, remained with the same outcome.

Ofsted also commented that the number of schools that had improved from ‘requires improvement’ had declined, compared with previous years. However, ofsted noted that ‘This may be a sign that the remaining schools have more entrenched problems and will be harder to turn around.’

Ofsted has also looked at schools in the government’s opportunity areas that have received extra cash outside of the normal funding arrangements. As might be expected, there was a 10% different between the percentage of schools rated as ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ in these areas and the national percentage of such schools. As ofsted observed, ‘The lower percentage of good and outstanding schools in opportunity areas is to be expected, as the areas were chosen on the basis of the problems they were experiencing.’

No doubt, at some point in the future, ofsted will comment on both the use of funding in these areas and the difference it makes to schools outside those areas, but facing similar or even more extreme challenges.

In the present complex structure of governance, the lack of local robust school improvement teams offering help to all schools, whether maintained, standalone academies, small or even large MATs means that ofsted can often only inspect after a school has begun to decline. Good local school improvement teams, funded across all schools, might well be able to prevent some declines from happening. MATs can make this happen as they can top slice their schools, but other schools cannot as easily do so.

When the country finally emerges from its Brexit travails, this is but one of many issues that will need to be addressed. One can but hope that such an outcome will be decided sooner rather than later.

Revenue balances: a waste of money?

The issue of high salaries paid to top officers by some academy trusts, highlighted in the previous post, isn’t the only financial issue facing the sector.  Now that more of the 2017-18 account are appearing a Companies house, it is possible to see the extent of the revenue balances being held by many academies; together with the occasional deficit.

So far, in Oxfordshire, 20 of the 39 Trusts operating academies or free schools across the county have reported their accounts and had them published on the companies house web site. In aggregate, they reveal around £4.6 million of revenue reserves held by primary schools and £4.3 million held by secondary schools. However, the deficits across both sectors total £1.1 million, mostly from one secondary school that has been in financial special measures for a couple of years and is gradually reducing its deficit.

One multi-academy trust, United Learning, operates six schools in Oxfordshire, but does not reveal revenue balances by school in their accounts. This MAT pools the money centrally for all their schools, and can then presumably use it where it can do the most good. Pooling also allows the total amount held in reserves to match the needs across the MAT in any one year and the amount can be set at a lower level than if the figure is chosen by each school. This was the approach taken in the past by local authorities, before schools gained control of their own budgets nearly 30 years ago.

A MAT operating say, 30 schools can decide that a reserve of five per cent overall might be appropriate to meet the contingencies and future needs in any one year of all schools in the MAT, whereas each school governing body might be more cautious and aim for 10% if setting a level on its own.

There is, however, a risk with pooling across geographical boundaries that schools in one area could be subsidising schools in another area. If parents discovered that a school in a MAT was taking this approach, they might choose not apply to that school, but to a school where the full funds were available for the education of their offspring.

This is an argument that balances are reducing because of the financial pressure that school currently face. There are certainly schools where revenue balances were lower in 2018 than in the 2017 accounts. But it is not yet a universal truth for all schools.

Could all schools in a local area be required to bank either with the local authority or an arm of central government? Such pooling would only work if these balances can be used rather than be treated as a deposit accounts. Pooling balances might also free cash being saved by schools for special projects at some point in the future for more immediate use, including cash being accumulated for capital projects. There seems little other justification for revenue balances of more than £1 million being held by some secondary schools other than future capital projects, especially while other school have insufficient funds.

Funding schools is a tricky business, but money should not be tied up in reserves when it can be released for improving teaching and learning.

Market forces or national pay scales?

The DfE has announced that the Academies Minister, Lord Agnew, has written to 28 chairs of trustees as part of the Government’s commitment to curb what it feels are ‘excessive’ salaries based on the size, standards, and financial health of trusts. The academies have been asked to provide more details on the pay of executives who earn more than £150,000 – and those earning £100,000 if two or more people in a school earn a six-figure salary. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/schools-minister-calls-on-academies-to-justify-excessive-pay

This issue of six figure salaries has concerned the government for some time now, and comments about their letters to Trusts have featured in previous posts on this blog during the past year, ever since the issue first surfaced as a matter of concern.

Schools Week has publish a full list of the Trusts the DfE has written to at https://schoolsweek.co.uk/holland-park-school-warned-over-heads-260k-salary-as-minister-writes-to-28-trusts/

Interestingly, Holland Park School is one of the Trust to receive a letter. Their accounts lodged at Companies House, for the year to end August 2018, show the highest paid staff member receiving an emolument [sic] in the range of £260,000-£270,000 for the year.

Those with a long memory stretching back into the early 1990s will recall that as a large secondary school Holland Park always paid at the top end of the salary scale. But, how to justify around double the national rate for the job as identified by the School Teachers Review Body and the Teachers’ Pay and Conditions Document? Well, ever since a Secretary of State allowed academies to ignore both of those documents, the genii was out of the bottle. Indeed, Holland Park School had three staff earning more than £140,000 in 2017-18.

The school is judged ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted and is a Teaching School. The examination results are excellent, but does any of this justify paying such high salaries to senior staff? As a single school trust the head isn’t managing several schools, so there cannot be that argument for additional pay.

Is there an argument around market forces? Without such pay the school would not attract and keep a head teacher? Research into the turnover of senior staff in school using TeachVac data for 2017-18 suggest that only around 12% of secondary schools failed to appoint a head teacher when seeking to make an appointment. The figure is higher in the primary sector.

After more than 30 years of studying the labour market for senior staff in schools, I would suggest that rarely has there been a period when finding secondary head teachers that been easier than at present.  You can justify a recruitment allowance to help heads settle in a new area, but is a differential of around ten times the pay of a newly qualified teacher acceptable? The government clearly thinks not.

Should all public sector schools be brought back within a national pay framework and was it a mistake to allow schools to go their own way? Perhaps the real mistake lies with a refusal a decade or so ago to set rules for what was an Executive Head Teacher and how much they should be paid.

 

Accountability and asbestos

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of the House of Commons has just published a report into Academy accounts and performance, with a final paragraph about asbestos reporting by schools tacked on the end for some reason. https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmpubacc/1597/159702.htm proving that Brexit is not quite the only game in town at Westminster this week.

The PAC don’t think that accounts for academies are clear enough and provide enough information at the school level for parents and others from the local community interested in the spending of individual schools. Personally, I have found academy trust accounts more forthcoming than financial information about individual maintained schools. However, there are clearly Multi-Academy Trusts where information has not been forthcoming in the views of the PAC.

We can all cite issues of questionable behaviour by the leaders of some Trusts. The DfE spent a lot of time and effort last year trying to deal with the high salaries some CEOs of Mats were paying themselves, with some degree of success.  However, it wasn’t as if everything was fine and dandy before. Head teachers had been known to fiddle the books and use the school credit cards for unacceptable purposes: a few even end up being prosecuted and doing time in prison.

The PAC has set out a list of demands that the DfE must comply with by the end of March, although I expect that deadline will be extended should there be a general election before to date to exit the EU.

Personally, as I have explained in previous post, entitled ‘Does local democratic control matter in education?’ written in August 2017 that someone has viewed earlier today ,I would rather democratic control was exercised where the school is located by democratically elected local authorities and not from London. I suppose, however, if you believe in the Regional School Commissioner role, and I don’t, then they might be the office best placed in the DfE hierarchy to oversee financial transparency of academies.

I am disappointed that the PAC didn’t mention the behaviour of some academies and MATs in respect of in-year admissions and especially the way they deal with children taken into care requiring a school transfer. That is another subject this blog has championed and will continue to so.

Finally, the difficulty in making schools report about asbestos and the importance of this matter is a real concern. The PAC reported that:

The Department originally asked schools to respond to its survey by 31 May 2018. However, due to the poor response rate, it extended the deadline to 25 June 2018 and again to 27 July 2018. Despite this, only 77% of schools responded to the survey. The Department said that it was disappointed with the response rate. We asked the Department what action it had taken with the 23% of schools that had still not provided the information requested. The Department said that it had re-opened the survey and extended the deadline for the third time, to 15 February 2019, to allow the remaining schools to respond. It also told us that those schools that still failed to respond would be picked up in its school condition survey. However, this survey will not be completed until autumn 2019.

Paragraph 30 PAC Report

This really does reveal why we need a governance structure for schools in England that is both accountable and able to act effectively on important issues of whatever description.