Stop wasting money

A new report commissioned, and part funded by the Local Government Association, has found that ‘middle tier’ oversight functions for academies cost some 44% more than for local authority maintained schools. The research was carried out by Sara Bubb Associates, and the team conducting the study involved some senior figures from the world of academia. The full report can be accessed from:

This study published shortly after the call for evidence by the Confederation of School Trusts (see earlier post) shows that the overall costs for middle tier functions within the academy system in 2016/17 was £167.05 per pupil compared to £115.71 for the local authority system. It is worth pointing out that the two do not share a common financial year, and that some of the disbanded local advisory and professional development functions may have been taken up by MATs. However, neither of these points would be likely to fully explain the difference between the two amounts.

By my calculations the figures in this report suggest that saving of some £300 million might be made if the ‘middle tier’ was rationalised and local authorities were charged with oversight of all schools; perhaps with regional boards to allow for the economies of scale that this report points out are missing from the current academy sector at present.

The authors of the report call for an urgent review of the middle tier system in the light of international best practice. It is generally acknowledged that England has some of the most centralised public services; schooling is no exception to that state of affairs. The authors also recommend an evaluation of the cost-effectiveness of the multi-academy trust model, and I would add of standalone academies as well. The authors also want to see greater efficiency, fairness and transparency in funding the oversight of England’s school system. The DfE has gone some way since the data used in this report on at least facing up to the high salaries that were being paid in some parts of the academy system, but have not yet tackled the underlying issues identified in this report.

The DfE has also undertaken some work to drive down costs for schools, emulating, for instance, TeachVac’s free national vacancy site with a version of their own. However, the have failed to take on board advice in the 2016 White Paper that might have clarified some of the ‘middle tier’ functions, such as in-year admissions once again becoming the responsibility of local authorities. That isn’t just a cost matter, but also one of fairness for pupils compelled to change school during the school-year. As I have pointed out in the past, children taken into care and moved away for their own safety from their previous home often find some schools reluctant to admit them, even if they have places available.

Perhaps any new regime at Sanctuary Buildings after the new Prime Minister enters into office will use this report as the basis for a fresh start. However, I am not holding my breath. In the meantime, reports such as this one that highlight the amount of money being spent unnecessarily are to be welcomed.




Middle tier in schooling needs democratic input

Shock horror: local councils are back in favour to play a part in education. After around 30 years when local education authorities have been increasingly both emasculated and marginalised in the running of education in their local areas the Schools’ Minister, David Laws, seems to be calling a halt to this sidelining of democratically elected local councils in a speech to the CentreForum think tank later this morning. According to the Local Government Information Unit press summary:

Minister plans to hand back power to councils

Proposals by schools minister David Laws would see councils given more powers to intervene in struggling academy schools, reversing the trend of increasing autonomy. The Liberal Democrat minister is expected to argue in a speech today that the system of school governance introduced by Michael Gove has abandoned schools that converted from local authority control to standalone academy status, leaving them without the resources or support they need to improve. Mr Laws wants responsibility for improvements to be passed from the DfE to a “middle tier” of local authorities and academy chains, backed by successful schools and head teachers. This middle tier would also potentially assist any schools in need of improvement, not just academies. More than 4,000 primary and secondary schools out of 19,000 mainstream schools in England are currently rated as “requires improvement” or “inadequate”. “I think in a good and realistic scenario, where we had an effective middle tier, we would have 2,000 fewer schools in the ‘lowest’ categories of requiring improvement or special measures,” Mr Laws will say.

Personally, I hope there is also something about both admissions and the creation of new schools. It is daft that academies with spare capacity can deny that space to local councils potentially forcing them to bus pupils elsewhere at public expense. Councils also need more control over who runs news schools and if they select a school or group approved by the DfE then Regional Commissioners should no longer have the power of veto unless there was something at fault with the selection process.

There is an earlier post on this blog outlining in details why I think these issues matter, especially for the primary school sector. Such schools are deeply rooted in their communities and breaking up that link with local authorities, which has generally worked well, has made no sense at all.

The real issue is whether there will be time to implement any of the changes suggested by David Laws before the election; or is it just an attempt to put some distance between the Lib Dems, a Party I represent as a county councillor in Oxfordshire, and the Tory Party ahead of the most interesting general election probably since 1906 and the rise of the Labour vote.

The design of a sensible middle tier is the key issue in education. Academy chains haven’t worked; Regional Commissioners have as much cache as Police and Crime Commissioners and are even less democratic, being appointed; and local authorities have been withering on the vine. I am off to listen to the speech in detail and will report back later about whether the substance was materially different from the press reports.

Today is also ITT census day, so hopefully a post on that topic this afternoon.

Did the PM see this one coming?

Ofsted put a secondary school in the Prime Minister’s constituency into special measures this week. This was the second secondary school in Oxfordshire to go into special measures in less than a year. Between the two schools they garnered a score of seven out of eight possible Grade 4s, with a clean sweep only being prevented by the Grade 2 in the pupil behaviour and safety category awarded to the latest school to enter special measures . The fact that the latest school to be put into special measures was graded ‘outstanding’ last time Ofsted came to call in 2010 must also be matter for some concern.

In the same week Tory MP Nick Boles said he wanted more freedom for head teachers to employ who they want, and not be told by the State who can teach, so presumably he would not agree with the ban imposed by Ofsted on both these schools employing newly qualified teachers. But that is a sideline to the big question of who is responsible for allowing these two schools in middle England to deteriorate to a point where they are judged inadequate? As I know from personal experience, the lack of a middle tier overseeing schools has proved a problem. Last year, a Report suggested the creation of Education Commissioners along the lines of the Police and Crime Commissioners elected last November across most of England. Rumours in the press now suggest that Michael Gove’s officials are considering going further with the idea of unelected officials to oversee the running, and presumably the improvement, of schools. Apparently, this would be a job for former head teachers. On the basis that each ‘controller’ was responsible for 100 schools, that might require around 200 new appointments, with no doubt nine seniors across the regions, and a chief ‘controller’ of schools.

For such a scheme to work, local authorities would need to lose their remaining powers over education, as it would be nonsensical to have two competing bodies trying to achieve the same end. As I have said in the past, such a move would effectively be the completion of the process of the nationalisation of schools started by Mrs Thatcher’s government with grant maintained schools that would bring schooling in line with health as a Westminster function. I don’t see why local councillors should have to wrestle with thorny issues such as paying for school transport and policing absence among pupils, as well as deciding how schools admit pupils, if they have no effective powers to manage the system to best effect when balancing education and costs.

Local authorities could, under such a national system, act more effectively in their role as parents, and challenge school ‘controllers when they felt that schools were not being successful. How ‘controllers’ would respond to challenges from either councils or parents if they were unelected appointees is an interesting question. But, it is not one that has ever seemed to bother the health service, or indeed further education in the twenty years since it was divested from local authority oversight. How much freedom would be allowed to the faith groups and others that now operate schools would be an interesting question that no doubt officials are considering at the present time.

For the Prime Minister, the issue is more parochial, will a school going into special measures cost more votes if it is a national school or will it be better if he can still blame the local authority for the shortcomings?