Celebrating school music services

Last evening I attended the Oxfordshire Music Service annual end of year concert. The setting was the lovely one of Dorchester Abbey, although the pews do seem rather harder than a few years ago. Music has played a large part in the post-war education scene. This is despite successive governments from the 1980s onwards often seeing it as a dispensable extra activity. The fact that this was the 75th year the Oxfordshire Music Service has been in operation and it is now working at arm’s length from the local authority is a tribute to all who care about what this type of service can bring to the life of our young people.

Earlier in the afternoon I had been reading the latest briefing note on school funding from the Education Policy Institute. David Laws, the former Schools Minister and sometime Lib Dem MP makes no secret that he doesn’t believe in local democratically elected councils having a role in education funding. The briefing note laments that there was no legislative proposal in the Queen’s Speech to allow a ‘hard’ national funding formula. However, the EPI note suggests that the DfE could still significantly reduce the role of local authorities by the use of secondary legislation.

Now, regular readers will knows that both as a councillor and philosophically I believe locally democratically elected councils have an important role to play in education. I am not opposed to a national funding formula, but it throws up interesting issues if implemented as a ’hard’ national formula. An academy in the North West is to close as it is uneconomic and in deficit. The Multi Academy Trust will hand the lease back to the council that owns the freehold. All well and good, but the school was built by a PFI deal and those payments will presumably continue whether it operates as a school or not. Who should bear the cost, the local council taxpayers or the government? At present, it will be the local taxpayers, probably without any ability to recoup the costs, just as they cannot for additional transport costs that could result from a school closure. Would the government keep activities such as school music services going or be content to just leave them to market forces? I wonder.

The lack of a rational plan for the governance of our schools have been a worrying feature of the past thirty years, ever since central government really started the process of nationalising the schools with the Conservative Grant Maintained Schools.  Sadly, no government has had the courage to do what David Laws would like and fully remove all education from democratically elected councils. Such an outcome would at least have the merit of clear-cut solution.

You really cannot have a system with responsibility but no power. This fact is highlighted by the plight of children taken into care who have no right to a school place if moved to another area for their safety. I am delighted that all Oxfordshire MPs from the three Parties have signed a letter to the Minister highlighting this issue. Our most vulnerable children deserve better than to be not only be taken from their homes but also have their education disrupted, sometimes for months on end.

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.

 

 

 

Witney’s voters can decide the fate of grammar schools

The Education Policy Institute, of which David Laws is the Executive director, have lent their expertise to the debate about grammar schools with a new report about grammar schools and social mobility.  http://epi.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Grammar-schools-and-social-mobility_.pdf

The EPI Report’s executive summary starts with the following:

International evidence (PISA 2012) shows that academic selection in school systems is associated negatively with equity; and students in highly stratified systems tend to be less motivated than those in less stratified systems. This international evidence suggests that schools which select students on academic performance tend to show better school average performance, even accounting for the socio-economic status and demographic background of students and schools, on average, across OECD countries. However, a school system’s performance overall is not better if it has a greater proportion of academically selective schools. And in systems with more academic selection, the impact of socio-economic status on student performance is greater.

The Report backs up what you have already read on this blog since the government started down the road of turning the education clock back to sometime in the late nineteenth Century. Hopefully, the consultation period between now and December will provide the government with time for reflection.

The good voters of Witney can help that process by trouncing the Conservative candidate in the by-election, making it clear, as the Oxfordshire’s county councillors did when discussing the issue last week that they don’t want a return to a selective secondary school system.

Nick Gibb, the junior DfE Minister, as might be expected, when speaking recently at the Academy Ambassador’s Trust event extolled the growth of selective schools saying; ‘Your trust may consider establishing a new selective free school or you may look to expand using the routes that are already available.’ He didn’t say what happens to the other children educated by the Trust. He also ignored the importance of vocational qualifications whilst lauding the EBacc.

The DfE’s lack of understanding about system-wide planning, for which presumably Mr Gibb has responsibility, is alarming in this time of growing pupil numbers across much of the country. The lack of co-ordination between the Free School programme and the remaining place planning function retained by local authorities is unhelpful, to put it at its mildest. Local authorities will be blamed when there are not enough school places for parents to obtain their first choice of school. In the end this will mean councillors losing their seats as parents express their annoyance through the ballot box. No doubt if this happens to any significant degree in the county council elections next May there will be repercussions for Mrs May and her education team at the DfE.

However, should the voters of Witney decide to send the Conservatives a message next month, they can do worse than wrap it in a bottle marked education and schools. The north of the constituency was especially upset about the changes to free home to school transport and the restrictions on choice of school they imposed, so those parents will have found Mr Gibb’s mention of parental choice ironic. Perhaps the DfE still isn’t aware that parents outside London don’t enjoy the same free home to school travel TfL them offers in London.

Not a transport of delight

As a teenager 50 years ago I used to listen to the BBC’s Round Britain Quiz and puzzle over the cryptic questions set for the teams. So I thought that I would set one of my own for this blog. What links together the representation of Downton Abbey, the RAF, and a school established over 600 years ago? And how might the Prime Minster have needed to keep an eye on the outcome?

Anyone who sat through the Oxfordshire County Council’s cabinet meeting yesterday afternoon will have had no difficulty answering the question set above. But, for everyone else, I have added an explanation at the end of this piece.

Home to school transport has always proved a contentious issue in time of government spending cuts, as the rules, although seemingly simple, are often challenging to enforce fairly. Basically, the principle established many years ago is that children under eight don’t have any access to free transport if the distance to school is less than two miles unless the route is unsafe. For those between the ages of 8 and 16 the distance increases to three miles by a safe route. Changes to existing policy can have significant implications for those who live in rural counties such as Oxfordshire. Since the passing of the 1980 Education Act the issue of parental choice, and the ‘duty’ of authorities to do their best to meet parental preferences, has caused significant issues as it has made the status of ‘catchment areas’ or ‘designated schools’ much less rigid in meaning. Additionally, local authorities are still charged to do nothing that is ‘prejudicial to the efficient use of resources’.

After the county elections this May, Oxfordshire County Council embarked on a consultation to change their present travel arrangements. The consequence of that process came to a head at the cabinet meeting yesterday where the decision was taken to start the whole process again in the autumn after the level of opposition from schools, parents, and the community proved overwhelming. The actual reason given was that the DfE, who had placed new ‘guidance’ on their web site in March – and thus triggered the local review and consultation, had announced a –U- turn and dumped the March guidance and returned to the status quo ante by restoring the 2007 guidance. Interestingly, nobody challenged whether the 2007 guidance affected the consultation in any way, but I suspect that there was great relief among the ruling Conservative and Independent Alliance Group or CIA that currently governs Oxfordshire.

Much of the challenge to the consultation is centred on a small number of schools, many within the Prime Minister’s own constituency, where one secondary school was in favour and another against the changes. There are certainly anomalies that have grown up over the years across the county, and it will be interesting to see whether the new consultation goes back to first principles or tries to bury the problem.

Looming in the background is the issue of how the County deals with free schools, academies, studio schools and UTCs. I am reminded that the 2007 Guidance said:

The Secretary of State expects that local authorities may wish to exercise this discretionary power to ensure that pupils whose parents had expressed a preference for a vocational education at a 14-19 vocational academy were not denied the opportunity to do so by the lack of, or the cost of transport arrangements to such a school. Local authorities should use this power to facilitate attendance at a vocational academy where the school’s catchment area included all, or part of the local authority’s area. Where such pupils were from low income backgrounds, then such arrangements should be free of charge.

This part of the guidance has implications for the cost of transport to the new UTC in Didcot and the Studio School in Banbury, and may cause other schools to ponder whether it might affect their post 14 numbers if free transport was offered.

Perhaps, with the raising of the statutory learning age to 18, it is time for central government to review the whole set of principles behind home to school transport in an age of parental and even student choice. What worked in the uncomplicated state school system of the Nineteenth Century may not be appropriate for the Twenty First. Perhaps, travelling costs could be free for all, as in London, or be added to tax credits of Child Benefit? There is certainly, time for a wider debate than just what happens in Oxfordshire.

The answer to the question set above. Bampton features as the village in the TV series Downton Abbey. Many families from the RAF at Brize Norton send their children to secondary school in either Carterton or Burford. The secondary school in Burford traces its history back many centuries. All these towns are in the Prime minister’s Witney constituency. And the school bus from Bampton effectively goes past Carterton Secondary School on its way to Burford School. The former is an 11-16 school; the latter an 11-18 school. One or other might be affected depending on whether Oxfordshire changes the rules or not.

Wasting money in a time of austerity is unforgivable

In September 2010 I seconded a motion about Free Schools and Academies at the Lib Dem Conference in Liverpool. Peter Downes from Cambridgeshire drafted the motion and proposed it to Conference where it was accepted after a lively debate. I have reproduced part of my speech winding up the motion because the Public Accounts Committee have today published a report on the managing of the expansion of the academies programme that makes sobering reading and reflects some of my concerns in 2010.

http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201213/cmselect/cmpubacc/787/78704.htm

I have also included some of the PAC’s remarks after the quotes from my speech.

This motion was carefully crafted to recognise that being in coalition should not require us to abandon our basic principles: 

As Lib Dems we believe in

  • good local schools for all, that are
  • supported and coordinated by democratically elected local bodies; and a
  • a system based upon fairness, that protects the most vulnerable.

What we don’t believe in is an expensive and wasteful free-for-all.

Many of you in this hall joined the Lib Dems because of our education campaigns,

‘a penny on income tax’,

better early years education,

and a Pupil Premium championed as long ago as 2001.

Education has always been important to Liberal Democrats.

As you know, the Coalition’s programme for government is based upon, Freedom, Fairness and Responsibility- that’s what it said in the Coalition Agreement. 

If you pass this motion, you send a message to the government that Lib Dem activists understand the challenge of government, but are not prepared to abandon all our principles. 

We believe that government, an especially a coalition government, is for the many, and not just the few; for the future, as well as the present, and founded upon real principles. 

But Lib Dems know it is to work with schools, to inspire staff and pupils, to demand high standards in return for investment in teaching and learning, to have an appropriate curriculum, and to manage provision locally, not from Whitehall, and above all not to waste money we cannot afford pandering to the demands of the few whilst ignoring the needs of the many.

I don’t care who runs schools, but I do care that those who do so recognise that public money is for the good of all, not the benefit of the few.

Extracts from the PAC Report published 23rd April 2013.

10.  Despite some improvements, academies’ governance is still not sufficiently transparent for parents to scrutinise how their child’s school is spending its money, and for communities to hold their local school to account. There are gaps in the availability of key information such as academy funding agreements and governing body minutes, with less than 20% of academies surveyed by the National Audit Office publishing this information on their websites.

21.  When schools become academies, responsibility for their academic and financial performance passes from the local authority to the Department and the EFA respectively. However, local authorities retain some overall statutory responsibilities for young people in their area. The Department suggested that, in addition to these specific responsibilities, it would expect local authorities to retain some detailed knowledge of all educational provision in their area, including academies. At the same time, the Department and other witnesses suggested that academy trusts, particularly multi-academy chains, should also play a key performance-monitoring and intervention role in between academies and the Department and EFA.

22.  We heard conflicting views about whether inconsistency or uncertainty in the roles of these various players had created an accountability gap.  We are not convinced it is clear who is accountable for performance monitoring and intervention in academies, nor how the Department can know whether the system is operating consistently, effectively and with minimum bureaucracy across different localities and academy structures. We expressed concern that interventions in failing academies may be delayed if roles and responsibilities are not clear, or if central oversight is too distant to identify school-level problems before young people’s futures are put at risk.

In reading the PAC Report I wonder why such a waste of money was allowed to happen in a time of grave austerity. To take just one example, the DfE spent an extra £92 million on insurance premiums for academies, monies that should have been available to spend on educational outcomes. A simple national scheme administered from Sanctuary Buildings would surely have released most of that money to be spent where parliament intended, on education not on insurance premiums. Then there is the £350 million paid to academies and not recovered from local authorities, presumably over-funding schools in areas with more academies compared with the parts of the country where there are fewer academies. And, as the PAC remarked, ‘some of the budgets the Department drew upon to fund the expansion had been previously earmarked for other purposes – most notably £95 million originally intended for improving underperforming schools. There is a risk that the Department’s decision to solely use this money to create academies—many of which were already high-performing—may have been at the expense of weaker non-academy schools which could potentially have benefitted from it more. This is a particular risk in the primary sector.’

With local government being forced to cut important services, and other government departments having taken a heavy hit on their budgets, this cavalier approach to department spending at the DfE on a flagship programme is exactly the sought of concerns that were voiced in the Liverpool Conference motion. One might have expected better from Conservative majority partners in a coalition, and maybe it is time for the Secretary of State to take responsibility for his actions. At the very least he should explain what steps he is taking to prevent the waste continuing while he considers the overall funding formula for schools of all types.

More secondary schools or better secondary education?

According to the BBC, but not yet the DfE, the government are going to allow a further 13 studio schools for 14-18 year olds. These schools seem somewhat similar to University Technical Schools, another new form of school administered, along with academies and free schools, from Whitehall. These schools are in the tradition set by Kenneth Baker when he was Secretary of State for Education and established the City Technology Colleges, not all of which were in cities, nor were colleges rather than schools and had varying degrees of technology in the curriculum.

Also according to the BBC there is an interesting array of employers involved in the new studio schools, including charities such as the RSPCA. One does wonder why it needs a new type of school, with all its associated overheads including the salary of the leadership team, to solve what looks like local skill deficiencies in the labour market. Now that pupils can move to further education colleges from 14 onwards why cannot specific courses be developed there rather than creating yet more institutions, especially when numbers at the upper end of secondary schools are generally still falling.  It is worth recalling that in the famous Section 6 of the Thatcher Education Act that granted parental choice over schooling there was a ‘get out’ clause of not being ‘prejudicial to the efficient use of resources’. No such fetter appears to hamper the present government when it comes to setting up new schools.

However, Andrew Webb, the new President of the Association of Directors of Children Services believes that the debate about new forms of schooling is over, and everyone should just move on. Like so many others, his comments seem to focus mainly on the secondary sector whereas the future of the growing primary sector seems anything but clear.

One of the new Studio Schools announced today is to be a space studio in Banbury with the involvement of The National Space Centre, UK Space Agency and European Space Agency. This is a town where one of the current academies has just been consulting on altering its admission arrangements to introduce banding. Across the town there were 697 pupils in state schools at the end of Key Stage 4 in 2012 according to DfE figures. If the Studio School is to have an intake of, say, 100, giving a school of about 400; small by current standards for secondary schools, it will need to take almost 15% from each existing school or perhaps 10% if the catchment area is widened to include towns like Brackley, Bicester, Leamington Spa and Oxford where there are good travel links to Banbury. What the knock-on effect on the viability of science and technology courses at these schools will be is a moot point, but has not doubt has been considered somewhere before approval was given for the space studio to be announced.  And some pupils may choose instead to opt for the new University Technical School to be established elsewhere in Oxfordshire that was announced on the 28th March and will specialise in science research, engineering and computing. Its proposer is Oxford and Cherwell Valley College. The university sponsor is the University of Reading and according to the DfE its partners include BMW, IBM, Culham Science Centre, and Rutherford Appleton Laboratory.

There are those, not least in some of the teacher associations that are concerned about whether these new schools will encourage specialisation too early, and it is to be hoped that pupils who attend these schools will not have too narrow a focus too soon in their education. Will they also be drawn from across the ability spectrum or just from those regarded as in the top third of the ability range?

What is becoming clear is that the blueprint for the shape of schooling in England isn’t being widely discussed and tested in the cauldron of public debate. It hardly constitutes open government and if the new President of ADCS doesn’t care, who does?