Illness still main reason for pupil absences

The DfE has just published the data about absence rates during the autumn term of 2018 and the spring term of 2019. Some of the figures are slightly better; others slightly worse than the previous year. As ever, illness accounts for the largest single number of absences. Even so, around a million pupils, or some 14% of enrolments seem to have avoided any absences during these two terms.

I guess that to some extent the severity of any flu outbreak will influence annual outcomes. As a result, inoculating all primary school pupils with the flu vaccine should reduce the absence rate this year. But, it measles breaks out again due to mis-placed concerns over vaccination, then that might push up absences in the primary sector.

There has been a continued rise in pupils taking unauthorised holidays in term-time. More than 600,000 pupils took at least one day off for this reason during these two terms, up by around 100,000 in just two years. This is despite the Supreme Court judgement in the Isle of Wight case that took a severe line about children missing school without agreement.

There are still too many medical or dental appointments during the school day, with nearly 2 million pupils losing at least one session for this reason.

The issue of persistent absentees isn’t going away, with more than one in ten pupils classified as a persistent absentee. That’s potentially three pupils in a primary class of 30 pupils. The percentage is higher in secondary schools than in the primary sector, and worst in Years 10 and 11, suggesting some pupils have stopped engaging at that point in their education. There is also a worrying spike in Year 1, where absence rates are the highest in the primary sector. Given that most children start some form of education before year 1 these days, this might be worth looking into as this is a really vital year for establishing basic knowledge foundations.

Pupils eligible for Free School meals and those with SEN are also likely to have higher absence rates. The latter group is understandable, as there are often reasons for the SEN classification that might affect absence.

Generally, absence rates in both the primary and secondary sectors increase in the regions that are further away from London. Both Inner and Outer London have the lowest absence rates and this may partly account for the performance of pupils in the capital’s schools. Both the North East and South West have the highest regional absence rates for these terms.

Perhaps not surprisingly, some of the local authorities with the highest levels of deprivation have some of the highest absence rates in the secondary sector. Why Cornwall has the highest primary rate in 2018-19 might be worth exploring further.

Of concern to me is that Oxfordshire is ranked around the 105th lowest local authority level for primary sector absences, but is ranked 20th for local authorities in the secondary sector. This is a big turnaround between children that attend primary schools, but whose attendance seems to fall away in the secondary sector.

Out of the shadows

Last evening I went to a truly wonderful concert at Blenheim Palace in Woodstock. Probably best known as the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill, the Blenheim estate has developed a range of different activities over the past few years including many musical events. Last night’s concert was not staged by some mega-star, in fact none of the musicians, singers and dancers were professionals at all.

In the splendid setting of the Palace’s library, the Oxfordshire County Music Service performed their Buddies at Blenheim concert. Last night’s concert brought a flavour of their show stopping performance delivered in the Royal Albert Hall last November as part of the Schools Prom season.

What make Buddies unique as a concert is the fact that the Buddies Ensemble and heart of the concert features a collaboration between pupils from the special schools across the county and pupils from a range of other schools.

Performing as one choir, the Buddy Ensemble sang three pieces, including one of their own composition. At the Royal Albert Hall there were nearly 600 young singers from Oxfordshire, last night the library could only accommodate some 50 or so to provide a taste of what the experience in London must have been for those lucky enough to witness it.

At the end of the evening the Buddy Ensemble joined many of the other young players, singers and dancers in a finale entitled ‘Love can build a bridge’. Not only was this sung, but it was also signed by the whole choir, and the chorus by the audience as well. A fitting end to a great evening.

Music has been an important part of the cultural life of our education system since at least the end of the Second World War. There have been times when it has been under threat; the early 1990s and during the recent period of austerity and the transfer of funding to schools from local government are just two such periods when it has faced great challenges. Oxfordshire has found a way to navigate these crises, and still flourish as a service under inspiring leadership, as the collaboration between pupils with SEND and others in the Buddy Ensemble so clearly demonstrated.

Apart from the wonderful and ground breaking work of the Buddy Ensemble, there was an excellent rendition of Corelli’s Concerto Grosso op 6 No 2 in F Major that was exactly suited to the setting of the library, especially for those of us fortunate enough to be placed directly in front of the musicians. The Oxfordshire Youth Flute Choir also provided a superb performance of the Overture to the Barber of Seville by Rossini, played on a range of different flutes. But it is invidious to select these examples from a night of wonderful music and ground-breaking originality that show cased the best of the youth of Britain.

On Friday evening, in another wonderful setting of Dorchester Abbey, there will be an end of term concert. But both before then and for long after the bringing of the pupils in our special schools out of the shadows and into the light must be the abiding memory of what education can achieve.


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.


A Tribute to three Liberal Democrats

December has not been a happy month for me as a Liberal Democrat. During the past four weeks I have seen the loss of three important members of the Party. All had an interest in education. This post is by way of thanks for their dedication and service.

Paddy Ashdown was Party Leader when the ‘penny on income tax for education’ policy was promulgated in the 1990s. The policy was to contrast with the then Conservative government’s reduction on spending on education that continued into the first two years of the Labour government under Blair and Brown. Paddy was an inspirational figure and came to help me become elected in 2013 to Oxfordshire County Council.

Honorary Alderman Jean Fooks was a City Councillor in Oxford for a quarter of a century and a County Councillor for sixteen years. A physics graduate from Oxford, when women physicists were even less common than they are today, Jean taught me all I know as a councillor about the concerns over children taken into care and their education. These young people suffer in many different ways, but the lack of concern on the part of some schools and those in national government for their education is a burden they really should not have to bear.

Education, is about learning, butt it must be set in the context of the child. If the Christmas story tells us anything it is not to judge a person by their circumstances. Most children are taken into care because of the failure on the part of others. We must not expect the system to compound that failure, especially when these children are moved into other areas. When, for reasons of economics, these children end up in areas where there are many of them located together in a small area, the State must consider what the implications for their education will be? Removed from their families, they must not be cast out of our education system because they are troublesome. Jean realised this, and through her work on Corporate Parenting and visiting the children’s homes on a regular basis, she set an example of leadership.

Gordon was, until the summer, the treasurer of the local Lib Dems. He was then diagnosed with the condition that sadly ended his life all too soon afterwards. Gordon, was also a volunteer with Children Heard and Seen, a small Oxfordshire charity that works with the children of those in prison. All too often children with a parent, usually a father, in prison have a high risk of a life of offending themselves in later life or even as adolescents, this is especially the case for many boys. CHaS has sought to recognise the needs of these children that often have nobody to turn to that understands their position. They can be bullied at school and have lost a vital role model. Mentors, and those such as Gordon, can show these children that they are worth talking time over and can help them to fulfil their potential.

All of these three have been inspirations to me in the steps that they were prepared to take to help others. As we enter 2019, the memory of all of them will remain with me as I continue to try to do my best for Oxfordshire and its residents.

University is not for you?

Why do more children that have been in care in London go on to higher education compared with those have been taken into care in the shire counties? Last week, the DfE published the latest data about such children and young people, for the year ending March 2018. I assume that this will cover higher education entry in the autumn of 2017.

Haringey, a London borough recorded 29 young people from care in higher education, whereas for Oxfordshire the number is shown as just three (Table LAT2a). So what might the reasons be? It could just simply be a lack of tracking of care leavers. Haringey had no information on 18 young people at that stage of their lives, whereas the number for Oxfordshire where their outcome was not known was 44, or a third of the group.

Another alternative is that children in Oxfordshire are taken into care at an older age than in Haringey and at a point where their education journey has already started on a downward spiral. The data doesn’t tell us this. No can it be determined the reasons why a child was taken into care.

In a small borough such as Haringey, a child may stay at the same school even if fostered within the borough. In a shire county there is a greater change of children having to change schools. I have written before of the challenges finding school places for children taken into care places on local authority officers. The DfE really ought to do something about putting a time limit in place for a school or college place to be made available after a child is taken into care or moves to a different placement.

Is there any difference in the innate ability levels between the children taken into care in the two authorities? I would be surprised if that was the case.

So, could we ask whether the funding of the Virtual School and indeed of all schools in the authority may partly account for the difference in outcomes in terms of those transferring into higher education? It is true that Oxfordshire is a member of the f40 Group of local authorities and feels especially keenly that its High Needs block is under-funded.  Haringey, is a London borough, usually seen as one of the group of Inner London boroughs, although it is a borough of extreme contrast from Highgate and Muswell Hill at one end to South Tottenham and Northumberland Park at the other.

Could funding account for at least a part of the difference in outcomes? Certainly London boroughs are more generally found at the end of the scale with high percentages of care leavers going on the higher education and several shire counties can be found at the other end of the list, so it is at least a plausible argument.

Raising education aspirations and attainments among those taken into care and building their self-confidence remains a key task for our Children’s Services around the country. After all, it was one reason why the two separate services were brought under one roof, so to speak, by the Labour government a decade or so ago.

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.

750 not out

After celebrating its 5th birthday in January this year, this blog has now reached another landmark: the 750th post. The administrators tell me that means somewhere close to 450,000 words have appeared so far, with a word count averaging somewhere between 550-600 words per post: slightly shorter in recent years than in 2013 and 214.

Key themes in recent times have included, the place of local democracy in the school system and the recruitment scene for teachers, whether into teacher training or for the labour market for teachers and school leaders. This blog has published an analysis of the monthly figures from UCAS for applicants and applications to teacher preparation courses for graduates almost since the day it started. Those post followed on from a monthly review I wrote during the first decade of the century. It that case, circulation was only to a band of paid subscribers.

My involvement with TeachVac and its global affiliate has allowed me to make comments on the state of the labour market for teachers and school leaders in England. However, since much of the data TeachVac holds is unique to the company and TeachVac is a free to use recruitment site for both schools and teachers it isn’t a good idea to give away everything for free, so the data has been used sparingly on the blog.

How did this blog come about? Between 1998 and 2011 I wrote a series of columns for the Times Education Supplement, the venerable and much respected publication for the teachers and their schools. When I retired from their service, I wrote for Education Journal for a year or so, but was never really satisfied by being tied down again to a publication schedule: hence, eventually in 2013, the blog.

The nature of blogging provides freedom to the creator of the pieces to say what they want when they want. Originally, it was a blog about the numbers in education. To some extent it still is, but it has widened its approach, especially after I became a Liberal Democrat County Councillor in Oxfordshire in May 2013. My experiences with schools in Oxfordshire has resulted in a number of interesting posts since then, some of which have subsequently appeared in print in the Oxford Mail.

Where next for the blog? I suppose the next goal must be to reach 1,000 posts, probably by sometime in 2020. There is certainly enough to write about.

I would like to thank the many people that have added comments to the various posts over the years. There are some regular commentators, such as Janet Downs, and there are those that have just posted a comment about one specific post. Then there are the many people that have liked various posts. Thank you for your votes of support and appreciation.

The blog is mainly read by United Kingdom readers, although recently there have been more readers from the USA than in the early days and there has always been a small number of visitors from locations in different countries around the world.

If you have read this far, thank you for letting me indulge myself and I hope to keep you entertained, informed and possibly sometimes even educated.