More to attend school of their choice

Purdah is turning out to be a curious state of affairs during the referendum campaign. Normally, during a general election, virtually everything in government stops. However, the DfE seem to be carrying on as normal in some ways but not in others during the current period of purdah. Yesterday, the statistical release on the admissions round for September 2016 was published. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/secondary-and-primary-school-applications-and-offers-2016

There was the usual headlines about London parents being less successful than those elsewhere. However, to fully understand the London data, compared with the rest of England, you need both a sense of history and a knowledge of geography. The tightening of rules regarding free home to school transport by many shire counties over the past two years, as austerity has taken hold in local government, inevitably means more parents have no choice of school unless they are willing to pay for travel. Thus, many rural areas have more than 90% of parents receiving their first choice of school even at the secondary school level.

In London, where travel anywhere across the capital is free for travel to school regardless of parental income, parents can make a choice knowing that if unsuccessful they will still be offered a place in a school somewhere. Providing the figures by borough is even more unhelpful in London where the construction of secondary schools, was largely governed by the former LCC and it successor the ILEA often many decades ago. For various reasons, the outcome for the location of schools was not evenly spread around the then boroughs. Add in factors such as single-sex schools and faith schools and even single-sex faith schools and the distribution only makes sense at a greater level than that of the individual borough.

Nevertheless, some of the London problems may be the result the growth of 2.8% in the number of applications received this year to 548,006, compared to 533,310 in 2015. DfE officials said the increase was due to a “rise in births which began in the previous decade”: no surprise there, and London is likely to have seen a growth of more than 2.8% in applications.

The gap between the national average and outcomes for school places in London is much less at the primary school levels that at the secondary, level with Barking & Dagenham even doing better than the national average. This is despite I seem to recall dire warning some years ago of a shortage of school places in the borough.

Indeed, 84.1% of 11-year-olds across the country landed their first preference, compared with 84.2% in 2015 and 88.4% of children seeking primary school places were offered their first choice, up from 87.8% last year. This improvement suggests that the funds David Laws pledged for school building programmes, when he was the Minister, may be starting to have an effect even despite the growing school population. It may also reflect the work done by many local authorities to manage pupil place planning. This is a service that government doesn’t always seem to fully appreciate, especially when dumping a free school or UTC in an area where it is not helpful to effective place planning for all pupils.

Hopefully, the DfE now realises that overall planning at a national level just wouldn’t work and that effective local decision-making, especially for primary education must be retained and even encouraged.

 

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Planning on the back of an envelope

Education planning now seems to be in the hands of either a member of the House of Lords for the Tory Party or groups of parents for the Labour Party. I am not sure my own Lib DemS even understands the concept of planning, just as they also don’t sometimes seem to understand how markets operate.

Lord Baker’s idea of vocational colleges for the 14-18 sector chimes well with my 2002 Report on ‘No Child Left Behind’ for the then Lib Dem education spokesperson, now Lord Willis, where I was one of the early advocates for a 14-18 sector. The difference was that I wanted the sector as part of rational planning for the whole age-group, not just the abstracting of limited numbers of young people across the country to attend such colleges. How will it really work in rural areas unless someone pays for the transport costs? In London the Mayor has so much cash that he can provide free transport for secondary age students to travel to school anywhere in the Capital. Locally, in Oxfordshire, the ruling Conservative and Independent Coalition will probably struggle against budget cutbacks to maintain the present level of home to school transport provision in 2014.

If the Tories have abrogated planning to Lord Baker then Labour seems, according to the new Shadow Secretary of State, to be happy to pass the baton for the future of our school system to random groups of parents that presumably want private schools on the rates. I suppose that is one way of reducing the influence of the independent schools, but it will come with a hefty funding cost or will produce a lot of disappointed parents. But, perhaps Labour has noticed that relatively speaking apparently fewer new schools backed by parents and teachers are now being approved than in the first rounds of free school applications.

There has been a lot of thinking about schooling over the past decade by the many lobby groups and think tanks, as well as national anguish about the performance of our school system. So we are not short of ideas, what we are short of is proper planning. Why spend money on new schools when we have the FE sector that can now take pupils from 14. The FE sector needs attention anyway, and a real boost in both resources and status, along with an encouragement to raise outcomes in the way that many schools have achieved during past decade. There is also the danger that planning 14-18 without thinking about what goes before or comes afterwards for all young people is disruptive of Key Stage 3, and may require a huge expenditure on school buildings using cash that might better be used for other areas such as social housing projects.

Finally, I haven’t heard anyone mention the teachers that might be needed, and whether Lord Baker’s plans will be neutral in staffing terms? There are not enough highly qualified maths and science teachers to go around at present. If we increase demand, by teaching more science and technology, then the discipline of the market will be reflected in the price schools will have to pay. We are already at risk of not training enough mathematics, physics and computer science teachers, and it is important to know the effects of any shortfall on other schools if the vocational colleges are funded sufficiently well to take first pick of what teachers there are.

A new approach to 14-18 is definitely needed; whether more schools is the answer is open to debate. There might be better use of the resources. Bringing back 14-19 FE back into the DfE, and away from BiS might be a start.

Crisis, what crisis?

Normally I have a great deal of time for Fiona Millar and her comments about education. However, her column in today’s Guardian (4th September) did raise my hackles somewhat. It all stems from a Local Government Association spokesperson’s remarks yesterday about a ‘crisis’ in school places for primary schools. Now that’s just the sort of story editors have had pencilled in as part of their forward planning for September, and the need for a ‘start of term’ education story, as Fiona knows very well. The LGA spokesperson talked not of a ‘crisis’ this September, and thousands of children still looking for a school place, which seemingly there isn’t, but of one two years down the road in 2015. Now it just so happens that 2015 is an election year, as Fiona Millar is quick to point out, but any September shortfall that year might not be apparent until after a spring election, so where’s the political mileage in that unless you run the story now. The Daily Mail, an unlikely companion for Fiona Millar, but presumably happy to back a Tory Councillor, has also run the story for the past two days with a shocking account that raises the spectre children on a three day week.

There are two years to solve this problem, so it’s possibly a bit early for screaming headlines, especially as councils across the country have been planning for this, as the Cabinet member for Coventry made clear in a BBC local radio discussion I had with him yesterday morning. I suspect the whole thing is an attempt to secure more funding from central government because, again as Fiona points out, councils will find it a challenge to fund the new provision needed from their own resources, especially when faced with the significant drop in overall funding for local government as a whole that we are well aware of by now.

Where I do agree with Fiona is that what used to be an relatively easy planning exercise for most local councils has become more challenging with the addition of free schools, academies – in their various Labour and Tory guises – and UTCs and studio schools plus the ups and downs of the housing market. But London councils have had to manage complex arrangements with cross-boundary transfer for many years. So Fiona, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to say ‘something has gone badly wrong’. It might go wrong in the future, but there is time to prevent that happening. And, by the way, if the Labour government had listened to the London Councils in 2007 it would probably have stopped its policy of building replacement secondary schools and spent the cash on primary school places. However, when the present government moved to do just that, it was faced with a judicial review.

Along with Fiona, I also think the government has to decide who is running our schools, and have written about that issue before. And, as regular readers will know, at present I am more worried about a teacher supply crisis next year than a theoretical school place shortfall in 2015. But, time is running out, especially if you need to build a new school.