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.

 

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Top slice maintained schools?

There are growing reasons to be concerned about how the two systems of school governance; maintained and academy are working. A brief look at the accounts of any multi-academy trust with more than a couple of schools will show a figure for central costs. Assuming that the MAT has no other income, the funding for these costs will normally have had to come from the schools within the MAT. Should the remaining maintained schools, not yet academies, be top-sliced in a similar manner by local authorities rather than just offered the chance to buy back services on a traded basis?

This issue has once again surfaced because in a report published this week, Ofsted said of Newham Council in London, following an Ofsted a visit to a primary school that wasn’t a normal inspection visit:

‘The local authority has provided some support to the school in managing the manipulative and sometimes abusive correspondence and comments made by email and across social media. However, considering the position the school found itself in, and the fact that some correspondence appears to have been coordinated, the local authority’s approach has been perfunctory at best, stopping short of supporting the school in its policy position. Instead, the local authority has positioned itself as a moderator to manage relationships between the school, councillors and community groups. The expected level of emotional care and public support for school staff from the local authority has been too limited and, as a result, ineffective.’

Now this school had faced a high pressure campaign around a particular set of issues. Should the local authority have had the funds to offer the school its full support as they would have done in the past? The alternative view presumably, is that schools, whether academies or not are now funded as if they were on their own and if they want that support they can buy it.

This question follows on neatly from the Ofsted monitoring report on St Gregory the Great School in Oxford mentioned here in the post on 19th January https://johnohowson.wordpress.com/2018/01/page/2/ in which Ofsted criticised the multi-academy company for the manner they were handling the improvement of the school from its rating as inadequate. Clearly, the MAC can use central costs obtained from its schools to offer support. Indeed, the local Anglican MAT in Oxfordshire has appointed a primary adviser from central funds.

Should we treat the remaining maintained schools as if they were a local authority MAT or not bother with the issues of governance and support for these schools? In passing, there is a third group of converter standalone academies that raise another set of issues over the question of support.

With the common funding formula starting to be implemented from April, some schools may be top-sliced where their neighbour down the road isn’t yet receive the same level of funding. Indeed, why should schools hand over part of their declining income to cover central costs, if maintained schools aren’t required to do so?

How should local authorities react? They are even more strapped for cash than schools, having borne the brunt of government cuts over the past eight years: you only have to look at Northamptonshire’s financial situation to see the depth of the problems councils face.

Ofsted cannot expect more from local authorities without recognising that someone, either the school or the government will have to pay for that support. If MATs can top-slice, should local authorities also be allowed to do so?

 

 

Supporting music for young people

Over the weekend I attended two charity events in the music world. In many ways they were a microcosm of society today and reflected some ofthe wide divisions even in a city such as Oxford. Saturday’s event was in aid of The Young Women’s Music Project (YWMP). This is an  educational charity that is described in their own words as offering twice-monthly free workshops for women aged 14-21, which provide an inclusive and supportive space for young women to make music together, learn new skills, express themselves, and grow in confidence.  In their music workshops, they make and record music, plan and hold gigs and events, and discuss relevant issues affecting young people. YWMP is trans inclusive.

YWMP also brings cutting-edge projects, gigs, exhibitions and talks to Oxford in high profile institutions such as Modern Art Oxford, the Ashmolean Museum, and the Pitt Rivers Museum, in partnerships with hospitals, schools, and organizations for vulnerable young people such as VIP+ and Readipop. The projects helps young people to challenge issues affecting them in a creative and productive way, such as class, race, sexuality, gender, mental health, and consent. Their web site can be found at: http://www.ywmp.org.uk/about

YWMP’s event was a supper evening in Silvie, a bakery café on Oxford’s Iffley Road. (https://www.facebook.com/Silvie-1089930287738590/) and included poetry and music from some of the young women the charity has helped. This is a small scale charity working with many young women for whom music can matter, where creating performing or supporting on the technical side. The last is a space still mainly occupied by men.

Sunday night’s venue was on the other side of the city at Lincoln College. The college were hosts of a concert by young, and in one case very young, musicians sponsored by the charity, Awards for Young Musicians. This charity aims to help by supporting those with a talent for music, but not the financial wherewithal to be able to develop their potential. Three musicians with a collective age of just 37 and supported by the charity entertained the invited audience with a variety of classical music pieces. One of the players lives on the Isle of Wight and travels every Saturday to the Royal College of Music, a roundtrip of seven hours every Saturday, and this on top of his practice time. (www.a-y-m.org.uk). A different audience, two very different settings, but a common theme.

Both charities are well worthy of support and are trying to keep alive the great tradition of music for all our young people and not to restrict it just to those whose families can afford it. Music was one of the great success stories of the post 1944 Education Act world in which I received my education. However, ever since the 1990s, music in schools has been under an increasing threat of being marginalised. This is despite the recognition of the importance of the arts in schools that occurred when the National Curriculum was first introduced.

The present utilitarian Philistines of Sanctuary Buildings that have devised the EBacc seemingly have no real feeling for the arts in schools. The loss of cash to local authorities in favour of schools and academies has also not done music any favours, as disorganised MATs and stand- alone academies are more of challenge to persuade to work together on developing extra-curricular activities in areas such as music than in the days when the value of central funding for music services was fully recognised as a valuable part of State education in England. Hence, today, the importance of charities such as the two highlighted here. There are, of course, many others. But, if you are interested in supporting music for young people these are two I am happy to commend to your attention.

 

 

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.