System autonomy or a system for the future?

Hard on the publication of the report from the social Mobility Commission, headlined in the previous post, comes a report from the Centre for Education Economics, the re-named CMRE or Centre for Market Reform in Education. This is a body that avowedly believes in market solutions to improving education. Their report is entitled ‘Optimising Autonomy; a blueprint [sic] for reform. http://www.cfee.org.uk/sites/default/files/Optimising%20autonomy%20-%20Web%20.pdf?utm_source=CMRE+News+and+Events&utm_campaign=15cd691116-The+Centre+for+Education+Economics&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_9bd023bfaa-15cd691116-92109333

Now, generally I find the former CMRE view often too market orientated for my taste, but this new report by James Croft bears reading as it makes some interesting observations. I remain un-reformed in my view that if the democratic process has a place in education at a national level then it also has at a more local level. This report does at least recognise some role for local authorities, but it might be better if they were to have worked through case studies of what can actually happen. How much might bussing in rural areas cost to achieve greater parental choice and is it worth the expenditure. A key question surely for a centre concerned with economics one would have imagined.

I also conclude that if competition was such a good idea then large retail chains would not impose the discipline that they do on their stores. I think, more important, as I have said at two different conferences this week, is the issue of technological change and our approach to education. The ‘free marketers’ have become too obsessed with the ‘wrong’ question of parental choice and have missed the issue of how education should respond to a changing environment and what the consequences are for the system as a whole.

Before 1870, England assumed that parents that wanted education would seek it out and pay for it. With the advent of greater suffrage and votes for all came the thinking about educating the electorate and a necessity for State intervention; something many other countries had already embarked upon. Parents often now choose to rectify the deficiencies of the State system through paying for private tutoring and home schooling is on the increase.

I think a centre dedicated to education economics might well look beyond the issue of for profit or not in schools and widen the debate into ‘for profit’ activities in education and how we achieve the aims of social mobility discussed in the previous post. Especially, what part will changes in technology play in the future shape of learning for our citizens and their families?

The general election was a good example of backward thinking, with the debate largely about selective education. Why should the State pay for this form of education over any other. Again, an interesting question for economists to discuss. I suspect the return on State investment is much greater with non-selective education across all government services. But such a calculation is notoriously difficult to undertake effectively.

I am interested to know where Labour stand in the debate on the politics and economics of schooling. As a left-winger for most of his career, does Mr Corbyn want to see a return to full State control and is that local or national. After all, Labour nationalised the NHS in the 1940s, so presumably is comfortable in keeping schools out of local democratic control?

 

Hats off to hard working volunteers

One of the privileges of being a parliamentary candidate is the opportunity to meet some amazing groups of people. Shortly after writing the previous post I went to meet a group of parents of children on the autistic spectrum or in the process of being diagnosed. The testimony of each and every one really reinforced the views I expressed in the previous post.

Here are a group of parents battling a dysfunctional education system that is lacking in resources and where many of the primary schools face cuts in funding under the new national funding formula. Light years ago, when common sense prevailed, local authorities had teams of SNASTs working with schools on special needs issues and training. After all, a new teacher cannot learn everything in a 39 week postgraduate course or a three year degree. Indeed, school-based training for teachers may make the exclusion of this type of special need from discussion during training even more likely.

The lack of a training syllabus for leadership also now means it is hit and miss whether new school leaders are properly prepared for their role and helped to understand the place of EHCPs and how to liaise with the health service. Local authority services are also under strain and the government’s policy towards the creation of new special schools seems lacking in definition and awareness of need.

The growing visibility of mental health issues and a greater understanding of autism has helped in some cases, but I am sure hindered in others as head teachers decide the challenges are too great and seek to offload pupils to special schools where with a little extra support and training they could be educated in community schools.

I know that charities such as MIND provide general training for teachers on the whole spectrum of mental health issues, and also that many issues don’t become apparent until pupils are in secondary school. Autism and its associated conditions need early detection and this is helped where class teachers and the other members of the classroom team, especially of the youngest children, are alert to any signs of a lack of development not fully within the normal parameters. Eyesight and hearing issues need monitoring, but so does the signs of a lack of social interaction and sensory issues that may act as pointers.

For all these reasons, special needs is an area that needs careful coordination and sensible use of resources. Government has decided that adoption services are too important to be left to single local authorities and has regionalised the service. I would argue that special needs is too important to leave to individual schools and MATs and is another function where a democratically elected local authority has a real and effective role to play in creating an excellent service. If a local authority fails, take it out of their hands, but also understand why it has failed and create the support for future success. Measuring failure without creating the opportunity for success is no way forward.

So, my best wishes to the parents I met and all other facing challenges they didn’t expect and the system doesn’t want to know about.

 

School days mean school days

The judgement of the Supreme Court on the matter of whether term-time holidays are ‘acceptable’ in terms of pupil missing school is interesting. The lower courts clearly sides with the parent, and accepted the decision of the parent. This presumably was based, at least in part, on the contract between parent and State. The parent is required to secure the education of their child, but the State doesn’t prescribe how that is achieved, except in essence by stating a default position of schooling provided by the State. The Supreme Court had to decide the meaning of “fails to attend regularly” in section 444(1) of the Education Act 1996.

The Supreme Court would now seem to have very clearly reaffirmed that if you enter into that contract with the State for the State to educate your child, it is binding in terms of the requirement to deliver your child to school when the school is in session; illness and other specified unavoidable events apart being allowed as reasons for non-attendance.

Interestingly, the parent or child has historically had no come-back on the school or its overall operator if for any reason the school cannot open. Hence the residual duty remaining with local authorities to step in and ‘secure’ the education of a child if something happens to an academy or free school. Hence, also why the State has never guaranteed the level of teaching or the qualifications of those required to teach any particular child anything.

I have read the judgement of the Supreme Court, and Lady Hale in particular with interest and was struck by the following paragraph in what was an excellent summary of education history and the law on attendance that is well worth reading and largely free of legal jargon.

Finally, given the strictness of the previous law, Parliament is unlikely to have found it acceptable that parents could take their children out of school in blatant disregard of the school rules, either without having asked for permission at all or, having asked for it, been refused. This is not an approach to rule-keeping which any educational system can be expected to find acceptable. It is a slap in the face to those obedient parents who do keep the rules, whatever the cost or inconvenience to themselves.

Copied from: https://www.supremecourt.uk/cases/docs/uksc-2016-0155-judgment.pdf

We are now, it seems, much closer to the pre-1944 Education Act position where even a single day of missed school could be regarded as unacceptable and the commission of an offence. Parents will now need to take heed of the rules of the school.

However, I foresee some future questions over the legitimacy of absence by ‘illnesses where the illness is self-certified by the parent. Taking a Friday and the following Monday off ‘sick’ may be especially risky is a school creates a rule requiring a doctor’s note in such circumstances. The absence of a note might be an unreasonable absence.

The case still leaves un-resolved the twin problems of the price of holidays for families with children at school and the issue of families that work in holiday areas. The original Victorian legislation recognised we were in part an agricultural nation and that affected attendance at school. The current legislation doesn’t recognise we are now a service-based economy. For good measure, it also doesn’t recognise that the Victorian legislation on home to school transport provision needs bringing up to date as well.

 

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.

Ministers and the Rule of law

The judgement of the High Court in the recent case concerning term-time holidays is now available for all to read at http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Admin/2016/1283.html The issue itself is on the way to the Supreme Court, where it seems likely that they DfE may be joined as an ‘interested party’ to the case. That makes the remarks by the Minister of State, Mr Gibb, quoted by the Guardian on the 9th June that “schools should continue applying the current regulations that allow parents to be fined” all the more interesting.

The recent case turned on whether the pupil had ‘regular attendance’ as that is what primary legislation requires from parents that entrust their offspring to the state school system for their education. Parents, it must be noted, are not required to send children to school to be educated, but if they do so it must be ‘regularly’. There seems to be no similar legal penalty that appears to be enforced for those that decide to home school or educate their children in some other way than sending them to school and that issue may need to be looked at if the government loses in the Supreme Court and reconsiders the current legal position.

Under the ‘rule of law’ governments are bound by the actions of the courts. In England, our common law system is founded on the judgements of the courts, and especially the superior courts, and these decisions change legislation enacted by parliament, usually by clarifying them. This is often because the way parliament legislates can mean Acts of Parliament are badly drafted and not enough time is spent at the Committee Stage picking over the Bill during the discussions. Interestingly, the House of Lords generally does a much better job of scrutinising legislation that starts there than does the other chamber.

So, should a Minister tell schools to ignore the decision of the High Court? He certainly won’t be able to tell them to ignore the judgement of the Supreme Court even if he doesn’t like it and even if he intends to try and change the law in a new Act of Parliament. I wonder if it was ill-judged on his part to so strongly support the government’s current position on term-time holidays, especially as it is only backed by secondary legislation, when LORD JUSTICE LLOYD JONES at the High Court had said in the judgement on the recent case at paragraph 19 that, “the regulation does not have the effect of amending the statute. In my view, the nature and scope of the offence created by section 444(1) remain unchanged. In particular I would reject the suggestion that Regulation 2 has the effect that any absence without statutory excuse necessarily constitutes an offence under section 444(1).”[of the relevant Education Act]. On that basis, perhaps most parents who have felt hard done by where a fine has been issued will now take their case to the Magistrates’ Court and plead ‘not guilty’, at least until the Supreme Court has ruled in the matter.

Realistically, it seems to me that ‘regular attendance’ has to be looked at in the round. The common sense view would seem to be that where a pupil has a good attendance record and the time off for holidays doesn’t impinge on important learning activities it could be treated no differently to the similar outcome if a pupil suffered a common childhood illness or a severe bout of flu. Where a child has a poor attendance record, then the holiday might just tip the balance between regular attendance and a failure to maintain regular attendance. In this case because it seems from the judgement that the child’s parents were no longer together and the other parent had already taken the child out of school that year, one can understand why the Council acted as it did, even where the child had an otherwise apparently very good and regular attendance record.

It is important that any revision of the primary legislation must define what is meant by ‘regular’. That will be a challenge. However, with home to school transport there has been a clear distance definition for very many years, so, about attendance, it should be possible to say something like, unless the pupil is unwell or attending a medical or dental appointment the parent of a child where the parent has asked the State to educate the child will need to ensure the attendance at school of the child by the required time every day that the school is open for the provision of schooling.

Finally, I support the view that where an offence is one of strict liability, as attendance at school is deemed to be, then it needs to be clear exactly what is required; it isn’t at present. I also dislike fixed penalty notices as a punishment because they take no account of parental circumstances and bear down more heavily on those that are less well off.

Surely, the real solution is for parents to accept the need for pupils to attend all the time and for travel companies to seek out vacations that cost no more in school holidays than during term-time. But, that is easier said than done.

 

 

What is reasonable?

Until we see the full judgement in the recent case we won’t know what the judges in the High Court were thinking when they seemed to deemed it ‘reasonable’ for a parent to be able to take a child on holiday for a week during school term-time.

It is worth recalling that the overarching responsibility of parents is to see that their children receive an education when they are of compulsory school-age (there is a grey area for young people between the ages of 16-18 that will need clarification at some point.)

For young people between 5-16 the law says:

Duty of parents to secure education of children of compulsory school age.

The parent of every child of compulsory school age shall cause him to receive efficient full-time education suitable—

(a)to his age, ability and aptitude, and

(b)to any special educational needs he may have,

either by regular attendance at school or otherwise

The issue turns on the definition of ‘regular attendance.’ If the parent, as most do, hands over the responsibility to the State, what is the nature of the contract between the parent and the State?  The State agrees to provide the child with 190 days of schooling per year. It is accepted that children may be off sick and there may be other reasons for a child not to be present, but these will require ‘leave’ to be absent.

In the 1990s two things happened, Ofsted started reporting regularly on attendance levels at schools and the State wanted to drive up standards of education that were thought to be falling. As a result, the law was tightened to ensure regular attendance, with two defences; ‘sickness or unavoidable cause’ or ’with leave’. Historically, schools could grant up to 10 days leave, but that right was removed over time.

The government explained the basis for this change in relation to family holidays in the background to the secondary legislation making the change.

 The 2006 Regulations refer to parents applying for family holiday in “special circumstances” and to schools having discretion to grant up to ten school days of holiday per year. Many parents and some schools have interpreted this law as an automatic entitlement to an annual two-week term time holiday. The Education (Pupil Registration) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2013 amend the 2006 Regulations to clarify that leave of absence during term time shall not be granted unless there are “exceptional circumstances”.

They further explained that;

For pupils to benefit from education and achieve their full potential they must attend school regularly. School attendance data from 2010/11 showed that 90 per cent of pupils with an absence rate of less than 4 per cent achieved 5 or more A*- C grades at GCSE or equivalent. In primary schools, 4 out of 5 pupils with an absence rate of less than 4 per cent achieved level 4 or above in both English and mathematics.

As Oxfordshire County Council’s document on the subject for parents notes;

90% attendance means that your child is absent from lessons for the equivalent of one half day per week.

So how draconian should the State be? Personally, I think in the first year of schooling  when routines are being set and key topics may be being learnt for the first time every effort should be made to attend and taking time out may not be helpful either for the child or their classmates if it disrupts the teaching. As a rule of thumb after that I think where pupils are rarely or never off sick, the guidelines in the old 10-day rule probably provided a sensible rule of thumb for head teachers. After all, some parents cannot take holidays during school holiday period because of the nature of their jobs. However, if a child has missed a lot of time through sickness, taking time off turning term-time that year for a holiday isn’t a good idea and I would expect a head teacher to refuse ‘leave’.

Essentially, the legislation should encourage parents to make the most of the education on offer for their children without seriously affecting either their education or that of their classmates.

My parents only ever took me out of school for one week at the start of my third year in junior school and I never really understood the work on fractions that was introduced during that week. Had it been the last week of the summer term it might have been a different matter.

However, what is clear is that major changes to legislation really ought to be part of primary legislation and not created by secondary legislation and Ministerial fiat. Had that been the case here, Parliament could have discussed in committee what it meant by the phrase ‘attend school regularly’ and the acceptable reasons not to do so.

Perhaps, as a result of this parent’s action it will now have a chance to do so. They might also ask whether if the State isn’t able to fulfil its part of the contract it should make up the missing days? Lord Denning did discuss this in Meade v Haringey in 1979 at the end of the Winter of Discontent, but it never came to trial and a decision.

 

 

 

 

Please spend the extra cash

Last week David Laws, the Minister of State, announced new funding allocations for schools that would disadvantage no school, but add some £350 million to funding for schools in around 60 local authorities. These were mostly shire counties, but there were a smattering of London boroughs and unitary authorities. https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/fairer-schools-funding-2015-to-2016 Apart from Bury, Salford, Barnsley and Walsall, the Metropolitan Districts were conspicuously absent from the list.

Generally, the announcement was greeted with pleasure. After all, extra cash is always welcome, especially as it came on the same afternoon that the Treasury was taking cash away from schools to pay for the increase in funds to the hypothetical teachers’ pension fund. However, pleased as I am to see more cash going into schools, I did wonder whether the poorest authorities with the largest increases in cash had lots of schools with deficits because they were so poorly funded at present? Bromley, the largest gainer by authority, with an 11.3% increase, mostly has secondary schools that are academies, so it is difficult to know their financial position. However, it had 16 primary schools with reserves at the end of 2012-13 in excess of the guideline eight per cent, and only six primary schools with a deficit. Even more curiously, the Primary School with a reported total revenue balance of more than 16% scored poorly on the Ofsted dashboard, being in the lowest quintile for Key Stage 2 outcomes on certain factors. They may need more money, but should surely be spending the cash that they are given. Shropshire, a county that receives some 6.2% more under the Laws’ plan, had a greater mix of schools with deficits and above guideline balances at the end of 2012-13, but again one of the schools with significant balances performs less well than the national average at Key Stage 2.

I don’t know whether any of these schools have used the parable of the talents in their school assembly,  but they certainly need to be questioned about whether they have taken the message behind the parable to heart. I have consistently maintained that revenue income is there to be spent in the year it arrives, and not to be squirreled away for some possible emergency or future capital project. If the message really is that poor performing schools are too often cautious with their cash, and this is holding back their pupils, then something needs to be done about it, and quickly. Otherwise, the extra cash won’t add value where it is really needed.

There is one further question about the announcement. In rural areas, the School Forum, for it they and not local authorities as the document seems to imply that set funding parameters, could choose to use a sparsity factor in their formula. Some, including Oxfordshire’s Forum didn’t do so. Was this a strategic mistake, and might the outcome have been even more cash for the county’s schools if they had done so? This just goes to show how complicated the whole funding business has become. Still, at least all the cash now remains within education, and cannot be siphoned off into other services.