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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Funding dilemma

There is an interesting story on the BBC web site today about a school with 300 holes in its roof. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-44456241 Now this is not a crumbling Victorian pile that ought to be knocked, down but a modern building recently re-built – with shiny design features and a landscaped setting. Unfortunately there appears to be a substantial issue with the roof.

Under the regime initiated by Labour and continued by the Coalition and the recent Conservative governments, education budgets have been devolved to schools and increasingly taken away from democratically elected local authorities. The professional association that represents most secondary head teachers, the ASCL, has supported school-led financing for ever and a day.

The Common Funding Formula now being introduced is a direct result of this line of thinking. I well recall when head teachers couldn’t even authorise the change of a light bulb without an order number from their local authority and that was obviously as crazy in education as it has been elsewhere in the public sector where I have encountered such rigid rules controlling expenditure. There has to be a degree of trust of those in authority at all levels. Heads know this when allowing heads of department latitude in how the spend money on their subject or age group.

The problem comes, as with the school in the BBC story, when there are special needs in terms of problems facing a school. I wrote about this issue in terms of UTCs with extra equipment needs because they specialised in high cost areas such as engineering or manufacturing. A common formula doesn’t take this aspect into account.

The stark dilemma is either a common formula that hurts those on the extreme of spending demands or a formula plus add-ons decided by someone either nationally or locally. The government has solved the dilemma in Multi-Academy Chains by suggesting, in Lord Agnew’s recent letter, a return to the status quo ante whereby money can be vired between schools at the behest of the MAT governing group.

So, the solution for this school may be to join a MAT rather than remain as a single academy or a sin this case a Voluntary Aided school that presumably had to pay for part of the rebuilding cost?. The problem for these schools is that no self-respecting MAT would want a school with such horrendous building problems that affects their budget. This can leave such schools in limbo until someone somewhere finds the cash to solve the problem.

More than century ago, Sidney Webb considered the issue of school funding in a chapter in one of his books. He discussed the issue of a non-specific grant versus the totally hypothecated funding stream of the time: his preference was for the former rather than the latter.

This debate comes on top of the wider debate about the funding of schools and the need for more cash. It is disingenuous of anyone to try and mix up the two problems. The former will remain even if there is more cash overall, unless the system of distribution is altered.

Of course the system can also make economics, as I have demonstrated by backing TeachVac, the free vacancy web site for schools and teachers. www.teachvac.co.uk So far TeachVac seems to be doing much better than the DfE site in the North East, but that’s a story for another day.

How to run a National School

Recently Lord Agnew, the PUS for the School System wrote to firms that audit academies and their Trusts/Committees. Now a letter from a Minister carries with it both political and administrative weight when compared to one from a civil servant writing on behalf of their political masters. Lord Agnew’s letter can be found at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/letter-from-lord-theodore-agnew-to-academy-trust-auditors

In the letter, , in the words of the DfE website, Lord Agnew ‘shares across the audit sector several key points that will help boards govern more effectively and make best use of the freedoms they have.’

So what are the key points in the letter? General Annual Grant (GAG) pooling is the first point specified.

Lord Agnew reminds the auditors that ‘The opportunity to pool GAG is particularly valuable, in particular to simplify the provision of support to weaker schools in a MAT until they can grow their pupil numbers. It is worth remembering that a MAT is a single financial entity.

This isn’t a power generally available to local authorities in relation to maintained schools and typifies the different power arrangements between schools in MAT/MACs and those schools still in the maintained sector. Interestingly, he doesn’t ask the auditors for a time limit on taking money away from some schools to support others. Auditors might like to consider whether this cross-subsidy between schools should really be open-ended or in need for regular justification, since Regional School Commissioners seem to differ in their approach to such weak schools. Auditors can provide helpful national guidance by acting in concert on this point.

By the time Lord Agnew has reached Auditors’ management letters, he is telling audit firms that, ‘We would like to see the recommendations made by auditors being implemented in a timely manner with scrutiny at board level to ensure that this is the case.’ Now whether or not he sees it as a duty on the auditors to see that the contents of these letters are addressed is an interesting question. Of course, if the issue is really serious, then the auditors should quality the accounts. However, this is something auditors are generally reluctant to do, even though the DfE itself isn’t unfamiliar with the process in terms of its own accounts and their relationship with the academy sector.

Lord Agnew also hope his letter will open up debate between the auditors and their clients. His list of Operational Challenges is interesting. These include,

  1. Are your clients using a standard employment contract for all teaching staff so that they can be cross deployed to different schools?
  2. Are they using the same exam boards in all their schools to enable cross school marking and also to optimise the point above?
  3. Do they have a central electronic purchase order system to ensure strong controls on expenditure?
  4. Do they have a central bank account that simplifies bank reconciliations and ensures that there is constant, easy visibility of the cash position?
  5. Are they benchmarking their supply costs and if over a number of years the level is constant have they considered employing permanent staff to fill some of this requirement thereby improving the quality and removing agency charges?
  6. Are they accessing the Department’s procurement arrangements if they are providing better value than they can achieve on their own?

The first of these is highly interesting in the sense of moving back to controlling the lives of teachers. When I joined Haringey, in 1971, my contract specified a school but added that the council had the right to move me to another school. With all school in a tight geographical area this wouldn’t have had much to concern me, even if was in use, which by then it wasn’t. With MATs/MACs spread across large areas, it might be helpful to understand whether this policy, advocated by the DfE, is having any effects on recruitment and retention of teachers both at classroom level and, more specifically, in terms of promotion to middle leadership if it mean a house move to a different area?

If these powers are to be enforced on academies, then presumably they are both important and useful for our school system. In that case, why aren’t local authorities allowed to create them for maintained schools and what is the future for stand-alone academies?

Perhaps Lord Agnew will write to Directors of Children’s Services explaining why these operational challenges don’t matter in the remaining maintained schools?

 

 

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.

‘intervene fast… take the serious action necessary’. Promises

Why has the Regional School Commissioner for North West London and the South Central Region not issued any warning notices to any school about poor performance since the end of 2016? The updated DfE list of such notice published earlier this week  https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/list-of-letters-to-academy-trusts-about-poor-performance reveals that the last notice issued was in December 2016 and that was to a school issued a pre-warning notice at the start of that year. Indeed, all the schools issued with notices in 2016/17 had previously received an earlier letter, meaning no new school in the region has been added to the list since early 2016.

Is the Office of the RSC not communicating to the DfE or has the RSC decided that the Secretary of State’s words in his speech to the NGA that ‘on those rare occasions when a school is failing – be in no doubt – we will intervene fast and we will take the serious action necessary’ doesn’t apply in the North West London and the South Central Region?

It cannot be that there are no Inadequate schools within the region, although there may not be many. The RSC appears also never to have issued any sort of notice to a school run by any of the faith groups in his region. This may explain why the school I highlighted in my previous blog post hasn’t received any overt indication of concern about performance, except from Ofsted when it declared it Inadequate in the spring of 2017 and received expressions of further concerns in the two follow-up s8 monitoring reports.

Is the RSC for the North West London and the South Central Region trying a new policy, at variance with the words of the Secretary of State, by seeking to improve schools beyond the glare of publicity? Interestingly, the figures for number of notices issued by the North West London and the South Central Region are also matched by some other regions that have also not published any notices in 2017/18, whereas the RSC for the South West has issued five of the 12 notices in 2017/18.

There are clearly Inadequate academies, as rated by Ofsted, in the regions where no notices have been published in 2017/18  as well as previously rated Inadequate schools where progress to return to an effective standard of education has been unsatisfactory. How are RSCs handling these schools now the notices seem to have fallen out of fashion? How will the Secretary of State’s promise to intervene fast be acted upon if the general public do not know what action is being taken by an RSC?

The Secretary of State has also promised more openness from Headteacher Boards and their minutes, so that is one possible way forward. Local politicians might also like to call RSCs before their Education Scrutiny Committee to given an account of how the RSC’s Office is raising standards in their local area among the academies and their Trusts. Oxfordshire’s Education Scrutiny Committee has been holding such meetings for the past three years with the RSC or their Office. Sadly, the ESFC have yet to agree to such a meeting despite two academies being in financial special measures for more than two years.

 

Tackling Academies and Trusts

Dear Secretary of State,

When addressing the NGA recently, you said;

On those rare occasions when a school is failing – be in no doubt – we will intervene fast and we will take the serious action necessary.

In relation to maintained schools you also said that ‘an Ofsted Inadequate judgement alone would lead to hard action to convert a Local Authority maintained school to an academy.’ However, you didn’t say what intervention would mean for an existing academy declared Inadequate by Ofsted?

Can you explain what action will be taken where the school declared Inadequate is already part of a multi-academy trust?

Where the school is also under financial special measures, one might expect some form of obvious action, such as a published notice of intent to close by the Regional School Commissioner. Where the school has well above average absence rates one might expect action to intervene fast, if you mean what you said.

Now, either your words were empty rhetoric in relation to academies or you really do want all schools to be good schools and will take steps to improve inadequate schools. Can you please reassure me that no school in Oxfordshire would be allowed to drift for more than a year after being declared an Inadequate Academy by Ofsted and with a recent monitoring inspection that concluded that ‘Leaders and managers are not taking effective action towards the removal of special measures.’

If this is not a case for the use of your policy of fast intervention, perhaps you can explain why it doesn’t meet your criteria.

You are also going to take action about the transparency of multi academy trusts and the pay of those that work in central offices administering the Trust. This can only be a good thing. In Oxfordshire several of the Trusts with headquarters outside the County pay their CEOs more than the £150,000 level you recently wrote to Trusts about, whereas according to their published accounts, none of the Trusts with its headquarters in Oxfordshire has come close to this limit.

Many primary schools are not now willing to join a Trust or even become an academy because once the decision has been made it is irrevocable. However, a Trust may either broker a school to another trust or in extreme circumstances give up the school altogether, but a school may not leave a Trust, even if the terms on which it agreed to join change dramatically. Such a risk doesn’t seem worth leaving the certainty of their present governance arrangements in the eyes of many governors, especially where the central charge may be little different to that offered for the purchase of traded services by their local authority.

Your speech did little to dispel the fog of uncertainty about how the system of schooling across England works for the benefit of all pupils. Please consider how all schools can work together and where there are many MATs in an area who has the ability to coordinate both their actions, those of academies not in Trusts and the remaining maintained schools whether they are voluntary or community in nature.

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.