A tale of two schools

Earlier this year Ofsted rated two secondary schools in the same county as inadequate. Their inspection reports are on the Ofsted website. One school was a community school; the other an academy. What happened next?

As a community school, the local authority was required to undertake an exercise about the future of the school, including the option of closing it. Whatever the outcome, the school would become an academy. As this happened just after the county council elections in May, the new Cabinet Member swung into action, working closely with officers to assist the school with its own recovery plan. There was a rapid change of head teacher and a general tightening up of standards and procedures. At the same time, a search was instigated for a nearby-by school that could partner the school as an academy in a multi-academy trust. With goodwill all round, the school looks set on a good future with the local community and parents backing its continued existence. Whether making the school an academy is helpful only time will tell.

The other secondary school is a faith school that is already an academy. It sits in a multi-academy trust with a number of primary schools of the same faith. Eighteen months ago it was placed into financial special measures as a result of misunderstanding about how much money it would receive ahead of changing to an all-through school and starting a primary department. The rules are different for existing school changing age range than for the creation of a new school. The school has had a high number of permanent exclusions, despite being a faith school, and appears to top the list of schools with the largest number of permanent exclusion in the county over a three-year period. Recently it has logged some of the worst GSCE Mathematics results in the provisional totals for 2017 outcomes that appeared in the local press. The school also has a very high percentage of days lost through persistent absenteeism, sufficiently high to place it well into the upper echelons of the national table for such outcomes. The head teacher has, of course changed. As an academy, it is up to the Regional School Commissioner and his Board to decide what to do with the school. The RSC has guidance from https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/640916/SCC_guidance.pdf the DfE’s document on guidance on schools causing concern. Chapter 2 deals with academies causing concern. Between May and July there was no record of the relevant Head Teacher Board discussing any performance issues at any school in the region in the minutes of meetings and they also don’t seem to be note Ofsted decisions about academies rated as inadequate at any of their meetings.  They may be reported to sub-boards, but those minutes appear not to be public documents. The RSC has the power to take drastic action, including re-brokering the academy and in extremis effecting its closure. There was no requirement for a public consultation about the future of the school.

So, here we have the two governance systems dealing with the same problem:  a secondary school deemed inadequate. In one case, what happens next takes place in the full glare of publicity; in the other case, behind closed doors, where it is difficult to see if anything happens? It would be interesting to see how many parents have chosen to withdraw their offspring from each school since the Ofsted judgement?

How transparent should these issues be? In the world of local government, schools can less easily hide: in the case of academies, the new system of governance seems far too slanted towards secrecy and a lack of public accountability, let alone public consultation.

Advertisements

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.

GO REGION PRIMARY ACADEMIES/FREE SCHOOLS ALL PRIMARY % ACADEMIES/FREE SCHOOLS
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.

 

Do schools employ teachers with QTS?

What can the School Workforce Census tell us about who is teaching in our schools? At the level of the individual school record there is some valuable data that can be mined by researchers looking to answer specific questions such as those in the newly published NfER study research into staffing and the role of MATs. https://www.nfer.ac.uk/about-nfer/media-and-events/being-part-of-multi-academy-trusts-may-help-schools-in-challenging-areas-to-recruit-and-retain-teachers/

Of course, such a study doesn’t discuss the important policy issue of whether schooling should be like the NHS and governed centrally or as they used to be, under local democratic control: parents could eject their local councillor if the schools wasn’t properly funded or performed badly. They are unlikely to eject an MP on the same grounds.

Anyway, the School workforce Census public tables contains a wealth of interesting material. Take the issue of secondary schools employing Qualified Teachers. Excluding trainees and schools such as Farringdon Academy in Oxfordshire, where there appear to be nil returns, most secondary schools employ teachers with QTS.

GOR % of schools  with less than 90% of teachers with  QTS
North East 6%
North West 7%
Yorkshire & Humber 11%
South West 11%
West Midlands 12%
East Midlands 14%
South East 21%
East England 23%
Inner London 24%
Outer London 25%
Oxfordshire 21%

Source DfE School Workforce Census 2016

What do we know of the schools with less than 90% of teachers with QTS.? Many are specific types of school. UTCs and Studio Schools for 14-18 year olds abound in the lists across the country. Then there are specific schools such as the Steiner Schools where teaching and learning outcomes follow a specific pattern, but there are limited teacher preparation courses leading to QTS. There are also schools with a specific religious character of which Jewish and Roman Catholic schools appear most frequently in the list of schools with less than 90% of teachers with QTS.

Schools also differ in their age profiles. There are over 120 secondary schools where more than a third of the teaching staff are over the age of 50 despite the general trend towards a younger teaching force across the system as a whole. These older teachers are less likely to be found in London schools than in some other parts of England.

Male teachers are also becoming rarer in secondary schools, with none of Oxfordshire’s 11-18 secondary schools reporting a gender balance: all have a majority of female teachers, albeit only a small majority in a few cases.  There is no doubt still something of a general imbalance at the Leadership level.

The School Workforce Census also includes some data on vacancies, but with the collection date in November, when most schools are fully staffed, it isn’t anything like as interesting as the TeachVac site that collects vacancy data throughout the year. TeachVac also has extra data on science, design and technology, mathematics and IT vacancies that can be of use to those interested in information about that group of subjects. We can collect the same detailed information on other subjects and leadership posts as well.

 

 

 

 

Local authorities have a role to play in education

For several decades, successive Labour and tory governments lambasted local authorities for spending too much on central office costs and depriving schools of cash. There were even those in Mr Gove’s time in office that may have believed that all money not handed to schools was money wasted. Now I read in a new report from Ofsted on an Oxfordshire secondary school that:

‘Directors of the multi-academy company have failed to ensure that leaders had enough capacity during and since the subsequent restructuring to bring about necessary improvements at the school.’

Presumably they felt more money should have been spent on additional leadership capacity at the MAT because Ofsted went on to say

The principal of the school is now accountable for six primary schools in the MAT. In the autumn term, she provided interim leadership for one of the schools, following the departure of its headteacher, reducing leadership capacity at the secondary school further. Poor strategic leadership by the MAT has contributed to the decline in the overall effectiveness of the school.

This faces head-on the issue I have raised in this blog before. Can we afford these small MATs with expensive overheads when funding for schools is under pressure and salaries are being held down below inflation for all except those that it is still open to negotiate their own salary increases should they wish to.

Reading the Ofsted report on this secondary school in the MAT is like reading a review of the worst of the former inadequate local authorities. In this case, the worst of the diocesan behaviour also seems to have been present, since it the MAT is entirely comprised of church schools.

It must now be clear that MATs are no longer the guarantee of success that those who dreamed them up believed they would be. They can be costly drains on school resources with insufficient economies of scale and no democratic accountability.

Why did the parents at this school have to wait for Ofsted. In the past they could have lobbied their local councillor and no doubt kicked the councillor out if nothing had happened. I know that there were, and probably still are, ‘rotten boroughs’ where councillors are always certain of election if they belong to the right Party, but most in my experience do a good job for their residents even in those circumstances.

Can we afford to spend millions of pounds on ineffective MATs and some of the other new ideas of the past decade when funding for schools is under pressure? Readers will know of TeachVac, now probably offering more teacher vacancies on one site than any other job board or website, and for free. The success of TeachVac demonstrates what can be achieved in driving down costs to effectively fund teaching and learning. Diseconomies of scale have the opposite effect.

If local authorities retain the oversight of children’s safety, they should also retain the oversight of their education by the State within their local area and the next government should finally recognise that point. At present the system doesn’t work and, as this Ofsted report demonstrated, there are risks that it can even be harmful to children. Such a situation cannot be allowed to continue.

 

 

 

Another aspect of the funding problem

What happens if a large secondary school at the centre of a multi-academy trust comprising a mix of both primary schools and a secondary school goes bust, perhaps because the original founders made some unwise decisions and there was then a drop in applications from local parents to send their children to the secondary school, aware that teachers were leaving the schools and concerned that standards might slip as a result? Or because there was an outflow of EU nationals from the area now Article 50 has been triggered.

Does the failure of the secondary school bring down all the primary schools in the MAT as well or can they survive on their own. At what point should the trustees decide to cut a financially unviable school adrift and will the Education Funding Agency allow them to do so if there are other assets in the MAT that might keep the school going for longer?

I am sure that there are civil servants in Coventry thinking about these types of scenario and perhaps role-playing them with Regional School Commissioners. How far have they progressed in their thinking should the MAT has a faith base and all the schools within it belong to the same faith or Christian denomination?

Sitting in the wings is the local authority, with whom the ultimate authority for providing every pupil with a school place still resides. What happens if the school that has just become financially unviable is in a rural area and the places at other schools require a large increase in the school transport bill? Who picks up the tab?

Obviously, the ideal solution is for the school buildings to open under a new administration, but will the government allow that to happen if it means writing off the debts of a school. To do so might encourage other schools to run up large deficit budgets, secure in the knowledge that the government will bail them out. One answer might be for the government to replace the trustees. But at what point? As soon as a deficit budget position is reached? When the deficit going forward looks as if it will reach a pre-determined percentage of current turnover after taking any falling rolls and thus falling income into account? If the financially unviable school is a faith school, can a new faith school replace it? To do so might well save on transport costs, but a replacement school that wasn’t faith-based might allow for transport savings. Of course, much will depend upon who has the ownership of the buildings?

With the demise of several UTCs and studio schools, plus a small number of other academies, these scenarios are no longer in the realm of the unthinkable. But, does there need to be a level playing field with some clear and open guidelines that don’t encourage schools to create deficits on their revenue spending.

At present, there is the ‘financial notice to improve’ from the EFA, but, the issue is what happens when the school or MAT doesn’t do so for reasons beyond its control? Time to re-read the Academies Financial handbook.

 

Are small schools doomed?

The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) clearly worries that they will be. They have raised their concerns and the story was picked up by the BBC. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-37860682 although I couldn’t find any press release on the ASCL web site that prompted the BBC story. Perhaps it is part of a campaign by teacher associations about the funding of schools?

As regular readers of this blog know, I have expressed concerns before about the future of small schools, especially if the block grant that underpins their finances is removed, possibly as part of a funding formula based on an amount per pupil. Such a funding system, perhaps topped up by sum for deprivation in a similar manner to the present Pupil Premium, has a beguiling simplicity about it; easy to understand and easy to administer: job well done.

However, such a top-down approach does have other ramifications. The most obvious is that for as long as anyone living has been in teaching higher salaries have been paid to teachers in London and the surrounding area. This is a policy decision that could be ratified in a new formula through an area cost adjustment as Mr Gibb said during his recent visit to the Select Committee when he appeared to talk about teacher supply. So, if a policy to support London, but not other high cost areas is acceptable, what about rural schools? As I mentioned in a recent post, on the 3rd October, some shire counties have a large number of small schools in their villages. Northumberland has some of the most expensive. Oxfordshire has a third of its primary schools with fewer than 150 pupils and the removal of any block grant would undoubtedly mean their closure, as ASCL pointed out.

Does a Tory government that has already upset some of its supporters in the shires over re-introducing selection to secondary education now want to risk their wrath over shutting the bulk of the 5,000 or so rural primary schools, not to mention small schools in urban areas? As many of the latter are faith schools this might also upset both the Church of England and the Roman Catholic churches, especially if pupils were transferred to non-faith based schools.

Councils might also be upset if the cost of transporting pupils to the new larger and financially viable primary schools fell on their council tax payers. After all, as I have pointed out in the past, children in London receive free transport to schools anywhere in the capital within the TfL area; this despite London being classified as a high cost area in which to live.

There is a possible solution, return to local funding models where communities can decide whether to keep small school open. Of course, it won’t be decided democratically through the ballot box, since local authorities still are regarded as not being capable of this sort of decision, even when run by Tory councillors. But, a grouping of academies in a Multi-Academy Trust could take such a decision or they could assume government policy on school size was reflected in the funding formula and close schools that cannot pay their way.

If you believe in the need for small schools linked to their community, now is the time to say so. To await any consultation on a funding formula may be to wait too long.

 

 

Austerity Tory style

In 2011 I discovered that the Key stage 1 results in Oxford City were the worst in the country. I drew this fact to the attention of the press and they alerted the County Council that had oversight for schools across Oxfordshire. In turn the district council, Oxford City, became involved because the schools were all located in their area. There were also two diocese, one Church of England and one Roman Catholic with oversight of some of the schools. That was a total of four bodies concerned with putting together a plan to improve the success of education in the City of Oxford: I am pleased to report that there has been an improvement.

Now fast forward to the present time. If the same circumstances arose, how many bodies would need to be contacted? There are 9 primary academies and one free school in the city at presenti addition to the remaining community and voluntary schools. The academies and the free school are managed by 6 different trusts, including one where a notice to deal with a budget deficit was issued earlier this year. The headquarters of that trust isn’t located in Oxfordshire.

So, were there to be the same need for a concerted effort across the City of Oxford there would now be the original bodies plus six more to deal with. If the diocese manage their MAT schools with the same teams as their voluntary schools that would reduce the number to four new MATs, but one would also need to add in the Regional School Commissioner that didn’t exist in 2011 and probably the Education Funding agency as well, as the funding body, so that takes us back to six more organisations for the 10 primary schools not managed through Oxfordshire County Council.

How many more MATs would there be if all primary schools became academies. The new schools being built in the county are now manged by other MATs, mostly with no geographical links to the county, but just selected from bodies that were on the DfE list of sponsors.

I am not convinced that a MAT managing a random geographical spread of primary schools is the best answer to secure high standards. In the 1980s all Oxfordshire primary schools were grouped into partnerships for some of the very reasons Ministers cite for their conversion into academies.  Before schools gained financial independence, the local authority regularly held meetings with groups of primary heads. After budgets were devolved it was up to the head to decide whether to attend or not. I wonder how many MATs hold meetings of their head teachers, and whether they are regarded as compulsory with regard to attendance.

I saw a comment from a Minister to the effect that creating all primary schools as academies would drive up standards. If so, one wonders why the government has wasted parliamentary time on the recent Act of Parliament requiring coasting schools to convert to academy status.

A free recruitment web site may help schools save money, although as readers know one already exists in TeachVac, but I doubt it will offset the extra costs associated with operating a system where all schools are academies: not my idea of tackling austerity and raising school standards.