Bad deal for rural students

The fact that student living in London are provided with free travel to school or college by Transport for London has always been great for them, but I felt unfair on those living in the rest of the country. Free travel is also a great help to the family budget. This benefit to London sort of mirrors the complaints of the f40 group about how schools are funded across England.

The announcement by the Secretary of State for Transport on the 2nd January 2019 of a new railcard for 16 and 17 year olds just adds insult to injury for many young people living in rural areas. The new railcard isn’t an initiative from the rail industry. The department of Transport press release is very clear that the 26-30 year olds railcard is an industry initiative backed by the government, but that the card for 16 and 17 year olds is a government initiative and, therefore, can be seen as a political move.

Indeed, the press notice points out that the new card for 16 and 17 year olds includes half price for peak and season tickets, something not generally available on other railcards.

To rub salt in the wounds, the press notice goes on to announce that the ‘railcard could cut the cost of travel by hundreds of pounds a year for young people and their parents [sic], making it cheaper to get to school, college and work’. All very well if you live near a railway line.

At Oxfordshire’s Cabinet meeting on Tuesday, I asked a question about how the card would affect those not living near a railway line? For many, once the card comes into operation and the £30 purchase fee has been discounted, rail travel will be half the price of a similar bus journey, even assuming there is a bus after the rounds of cuts to such services.

The withdrawal of the Education Maintenance Allowance for 16-18 year olds in England by the Coalition and the refusal to change the rules on home to school transport after the raising of the learning leaving age, was an unfair allocation of resources that penalised students not able to walk or cycle to school or college.

Doing something for those that have a handy railway, but ignoring everyone else in rural areas, is an own goal for the government that may well feature in campaigning for the district council elections this May in the worst affected areas.

In Oxfordshire the 16-17 year olds in Wantage could well be paying twice the price of their college buddies that live in Didcot in order to attend classes, because the County has never progressed the re-opening of Grove Station that has been an aspiration for more than 20 years.

Similarly, those 16 and 17 year old student living in Charlbury will benefit if travelling to college in Oxford, but those living in Chipping Norton or Burford won’t when travelling to Witney.

Time for a rethink Mr Grayling.

 

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How to build a new school

WHAT a mess the process of creating a new secondary school for pupils in Oxford has become.

Way back when government know what it was doing and how to conduct itself properly, the creation of new schools for an expanding population was a partnership between the relevant local authority and the government department in London.

Then came Labour’s academy programme and then Michael Gove’s desire to promote so-called ‘free schools’.

Especially in respect of the latter, local authorities became side-lined once they had identified a need or even if they had not done so, if a promoter want to create a ’free school’ in a particular area. The same was also true for UTCs (university technical colleges) and studio schools.

Oxfordshire’s identification of the need for new secondary school in Oxford in their Pupil Place Plan in 2015 attracted the interest of Toby Young, the promoter of a free school in West London.

As a result, a second proposal for a free school was launched by what is now the River Learning Trust – a multi-academy trust based in Oxfordshire.

This trust was successful in being granted permission to operate the new ‘free school’ in September 2015.

Local authorities can oversee the development of new academies and Oxfordshire has successfully done so for several new schools, including the new secondary school in Didcot, which opened on time.

However, the development of free schools is the responsibility of the Education and Skills Funding Agency.

In July 2016, I asked a question at the county council about the possible site for the new school and was told: “The sponsor’s and EFA’s current preferred location for The Swan School remains The Harlow Centre.”

The cabinet member who answered did not know when the school might open and how it would be linked to the annual school admissions.

Fast-forward two years until 2018, and at county council in March 2018 I was told in answer to another question that ‘the completion for the Swan School may not be ready until 2021’ and a planning application should be submitted by the end of May.

I was told that in summer 2019 Meadowbrook College, on the proposed Swan School site, should start to be demolished and its new build would complete by September 2020.

In early 2021 the Swan School should be complete but until then the school will probably be in temporary accommodation for two years, the answer added.

So, by March 2018, it was already known that the school would be two years late and have to open in temporary accommodation.

At county council in July, I asked more questions about progress, including if we had absolute assurance that the Education and Skills Funding Agency would not pull the Swan School given the delay in receiving planning permission.

The cabinet member undertook to ask the agency for an answer.

We can assume that the trust still wish to go ahead with the scheme, as there is still a need for a new school. With the appointment of a headteacher, this must still be the intention.

However, it seems increasingly unlikely that it will open in 2021, and temporary accommodation will need to be found if the first round of pupil is to arrive in 2019.

It is assumed that planning permission will be required for any temporary buildings needed from September 2019.

In July 2018, I asked at county council whether, in view of the very large number of children from within the EU that are within city primary schools, who would be transferring into the secondary sector in the next few years’, the school might not be built as a result of Brexit.

I have not received an answer to that question.

The city council’s East Area Planning Committee turned down the planning application for the school at their meeting in September – a decision that was called in and will be reconsidered today.

The county council’s cabinet will discuss the Swan School in an exempt session tomorrow.

The whole saga from start to the current uncertain situation shows the lack of coherence in our present education system.

Under the former rules, it seems certain that the county council, having identified the need for a secondary school, would have designed and built it in time for a 2019 opening, possibly even 2018.

Even had the school been designated an academy, this might have been achieved.

The creation of the school as a ‘free school’ has created delay and allowed concerns about the site to create the present high degree of uncertainty.

The situation for parents in the city of Oxford is now complicated with respect to admissions to secondary school for 2019.

Parents in Oxfordshire have been short-changed by this shambolic process and county council taxpayers stand to lose out for up to three years if the temporary accommodation requires pupils to be offered free transport to school.

Should the new school not be built, the ongoing cost to council taxpayers in additional transport costs could be considerable, depending upon how many of the 1,260 pupils would be eligible for free transport.

In the present financial climate, this cost could probably only be met by cutting other council services.

Were Oxford part of a unitary council structure, then school place planning would have been a function of the council deciding the planning application.

Under the two-tier system currently in operation across Oxfordshire, the city council is the planning authority, but the county council has the responsibility for pupil place planning and the number of schools.

However, the county has lost control over the building of these new schools.

This article first appeared in the Oxford Mail on 15th October 2018. As many readers know, I am an Oxfordshire County Councillor and the Lib Dem spokesperson on education on the county.

The responsibility of us all

The following item was reported in several newspapers earlier this week, including The Daily Telegraph https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/04/11/child-stabbings-rise-63pc-amid-disturbing-trend-younger-knife/

NHS data shows a 63% increase over five years in the number of children aged 16 and under who have been treated for stab wounds in England. The largest increase (85%) between 2011/12 and 2016/17 was among 15-year-olds. The overall rise in the number of stabbings across England during the same period was 14%.

Now there may not be a correlation, but 15-year olds, and 15-year old young men in particular, have the highest rate of exclusions from our schools. After falling for many years, exclusions are also on the rise across much of England.

As those that know my life history will understand these two sets of statistics and particularly the one about knife crime have an especial resonance with me, as it was a teenager that stabbed me over 40 years ago in a rare act of serious and unprovoked violence that just happened to take place in a classroom in front of a group of children. As a result, knife crime has always been of special concern to me. I do view the recent upturn as a worrying trend.

Oxfordshire’s Cabinet will be discussing the County’s Education Scrutiny Committee report on exclusions in the county at their meeting next Tuesday. You can read the report in the Cabinet papers for 17th April 2018 at www.oxfordshire.gov.uk at item 6. I always hope that young people engaged fully in education will be less likely to commit these acts of knife crime.

I am also sure that cutbacks in both the Youth Service budget and that of the Youth Offending Teams across the county, along with revisions to Probation, probably haven’t helped in the prevention of such crimes. As ever, cutbacks have consequences further down the line when the money is being well spent.

In this case, changes in the nature of the curriculum probably may also have played a part since practical subjects have also too often been replaced with additional classroom time that can make life more challenging for many teachers working with pupils that don’t appreciate their efforts.

I believe there needs to be a concerted effort on the part of all responsible to once again recognise the need for behaviour management and to do everything to research and investigate the causes of exclusions in their school. Generally, persistent disruptive behaviour is given as the reasons for the largest number of exclusions. Working out how to reduce these exclusions should help allow resources to then be focused on dealing with other reasons why pupils are excluded.

It doesn’t matter whether schools are maintained, voluntary added, academies or free schools, they all have a responsibility to tackle this problem of school children carrying and using knives. Teaching Schools, National Leaders of Education and of Governance and those responsible for both training new entrants into the profession as well as designing continuing professional development will also need to ensure that they continue to make behaviour management strategies a high priority.

 

The Pay of Academy Staff

In the same week that I asked a question of Oxfordshire’s Cabinet Member for Education about the number of employees with salaries over £150,000 in Multi-Academy Trusts operating in Oxfordshire, the Public Accounts Committee has commented on the same issue in a report published today. https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmpubacc/760/76002.htm

The Cabinet member was unable to answer my question as, not surprisingly, the county doesn’t collate the information. However, in my supplementary question, I identified five MATs, all with HQs outside the county, where there was on officer listed in their 2017 accounts as being paid in excess of £150,000. In due course, my list will appear on the county council website and I will publish the link here.

In the Public Accounts Committee Report, issued today, it is clear that the government wrote to all stand-alone academies where in their accounts up to August 2016 there was an officer paid more than £150,000 to ask for an explanation by the 15th December 2017. I haven’t seen an FOI request for the responses. The original letter from the ESFA of 4th December only went to 29 single academy trusts (i.e. academy trusts with only one school in the trust) where the ESFA could identify from the accounts that the trust was paying at least one person over £150,000 and was to ask why such large sums of money had been paid.

In February this year, the Minister wrote to all Chairs of academy trusts in England saying:

 ‘I believe that not all boards are being rigorous enough on this issue. CEO and senior pay should reflect the improvements they make to schools’ performance and how efficiently they run their trusts. I would not expect the pay of a CEO or other non-teaching staff to increase faster than the pay award for teachers. I intend to continue to challenge this area of governance. My view is that we should see a reduction in CEO pay where the educational performance of the schools in the trust declines over several years.’ DfE letter 21st February 2018 reference 35 in the PAC Report.

There has been a history of neglect over senior staff salaries dating back to the Labour government and the emergence of the Executive Head or Principal position soon after the start of the century. Such a grade was never formally recognised in the pay and conditions agreements, and once Mr Gove freed up pay for academies, with no government restraints in place, it was open season for those that wanted to see pay rise to closer to what could be earned in the commercial sector. Buying former DfE officials was also always going to be expensive, but was no doubt one of the justifications used. Using public money to pay related parties is often even less acceptable, as the PAC note in their Report.

We heard of related party transactions where the rules were not properly followed, or where there were doubts about the propriety of the transactions. For example, Wakefield City Academies Trust purchased IT services worth £316,000 from a company owned by the Chief Executive of the Trust, and paid a further £123,000 for clerking services provided by a company owned by the Chief Executive’s daughter. We similarly heard that the founder of Bradford Academy, who was a former teacher, was ordered to repay £35,000 after being sentenced to prison for defrauding the school. The founder and other former members of staff at Kings Science Academy paid £69,000 of Government grants into their own bank accounts. There have also been problems with related party transactions at the Bright Tribe Academy Trust, which resulted in schools being removed from the Trust.

Academy trusts are required to demonstrate to the satisfaction of their own auditors that related parties have not made a profit from the relationship (i.e. that transactions are at cost or below). We were concerned that determining whether a service has been delivered at cost is dependent on information from the supplier, who may have a vested interest in manipulating or inflating this information and is in a position to do so. We questioned whether there were incentives for trustees to take advantage of the system, due to the weaknesses in the system of oversight. The Department, noting our dissatisfaction with the current processes, committed to reflect on the adequacy of the current arrangements. Following our evidence session, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the School System wrote to all Chairs of academy trusts to remind them of the need to scrutinise any related party transactions, and to ensure that a full and proper procurement process is following and the trust is able to demonstrate that the services have been provided at cost.

Paragraphs 10 and 11 of the PAC Report: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmpubacc/760/76002.htm

Should local authorities be required either to provide audit services for all academies or at least to review the accounts of those academies with responsibility for schools within their locality? The LGA could apportion responsibility for MATs that cross boundaries in order to ensure that all are looked at by at least one authority that could then report to the appropriate local scrutiny committee.

Public money, especially in a time of austerity, should be spent in the most effective way. TeachVac has cost the government nothing, but demonstrate how a low cost recruitment site works for the benefit of all. The notion of ‘public service’ and not ‘profit from public funds’ must once again be to the fore.

 

 

 

 

Who is in charge of our schools?

A slightly amended version of this article appeared in the Oxford Times on 31st January 2013

Who is responsible for schools in Oxfordshire? This innocuous question reaches to the heart of the current debate about publicly funded schooling in England. Historically, there were three levels of responsibility: individual schools; local authorities, in our case Oxfordshire County Council; and the government at Westminster. Interestingly, this year, sees the 25th anniversary of the passing of the Education Reform Act. That legislation, by introducing local management of schools, started the process of delivering autonomy to individual schools while at the same time reserving power over the curriculum to the government at Westminster. During the following 25 years local authorities have steadily lost control of their local education service. New types of schools have been developed, ranging from Kenneth Baker’s City Technology Colleges through the grant maintained schools of the 1990s to the more recent sponsored academies of the Labour government, and finally the new converter academies, free schools and university technology colleges all managed from Westminster.

Of course, a range of different bodies running schools is not a new concept. The major churches have been a part of the education landscape since compulsory elementary education was introduced in 1870, and more recently these schools have been joined by those from other faiths. What needs to be resolved now is the chain of responsibility and accountability for publicly funded schools, and whether, as I believe they should, elected local authorities still have a central place in the organisation of schooling?

Since the funding for schools is now largely determined at Westminster, with little room for local political discretion, as is when and where new schools may open, councils have been left with responsibilities, but often no funds or powers to implement them.

The rhetoric from Whitehall has been that chains of academies are the way forward. Local authorities are nowadays pale shadows of such chains, without many of the powers conferred on these private sector chains by the Labour government that invented them. One solution is that councils become just a watch dog, with questions about school performance solved by Whitehall mandarins. This might work for the secondary sector, but with more than 18,000 primary schools across England the chain of command between each school and Whitehall is just too long. Last summer the RSA suggested unelected School Commissioners, along the lines of the Police & Crime Commissioners. That is a possible solution, but it takes away democratic control from a key publicly funded institution, and would create a system for schooling more akin to the NHS.

While the debate about who is responsible for our schools remains unresolved, the present system, especially for the primary sector, risks heading towards a complete collapse. Already, professional development services for schools, effective planning of school places, admission arrangements, and provision of services to children with special educational needs are either under threat or have been severely curtailed.

There is a ray of hope locally in the way that both the County and Oxford City responded when I revealed in November 2011 that KS1 results in the City were the worst for any district council in England. But, it shouldn’t have been up to me to start that debate.

I support local democratic responsibility for schools, directly so for the publically funded primary sector, regardless of who actually operates the schools, and as a watchdog for both the secondary and further education sectors where performance can be the key to the success of local communities. However, what really matters is that the government takes swift action to deal with the present lack of a viable control structure for our school system.

Professor John Howson is the director of dataforeducation.info and holds a visiting professorship at Oxford Brookes University and a visiting senior research fellowship at Oxford University’s Department of Education and has lived in Oxford for more than 30 years. He is a lifelong Liberal Democrat, and Vice President of the Liberal Democrat Education Association. These are his personal views