Moving forward without compromise

Is the climate changing about how the education system should be governed? I have been to three different events over the past week where there has been discussion about the different places of local authorities and the academy sector in taking our school system forward to new levels. Mostly, the academy debate has focused on Multi-Academy Trusts rather than single converter academies, but the issue affect all schools.

I think that there is growing recognition of the point made here previously that ‘place’ is important in the provision of high quality education, and especially schooling. There are three key areas to consider; planning the local system within a national framework; operating the system for the benefit of all and ensuring high quality provision for all by both monitoring outcomes and through the effective deployment of resources.

Sadly, the present arrangements seem to fall down on all of these three key areas needed for a fully functioning high quality education system. As a politician, albeit only a local opposition spokesperson, I am aware that politicians have ideas, but that these needed to be challenged. We need a return to the ‘Yes, Minister, but’ culture within our officer core, rather than a ‘Yes Minister’ outlook where everything a politician says is immediately policy.

Let me cite some examples. Oxfordshire has a good track record of building additional schools where there is new housing developments, but cannot control the process in the same way where the need is in an established built-up area. This is especially true where there is an accepted free school bid on the table from a local academy chain. As a result, I was told at the county council  meeting held yesterday that these new school buildings will probably be two years late. Extra cost and disruption to pupils, but who takes responsibility for this outcome?

In terms of operating the system, in-year admissions remains a minefield, as I have pointed out in relation to children taken into care. These are some of our most vulnerable youngster, but schools can stall on offering those pupils places. In some cases, schools can also encourage inappropriate home schooling in Years 10 and 11 instead of working across the locality to solve the underlying issues creating the original situations. Finally, the disbanding of local advisory services and SEND teams was an important mistake that teaching schools have not fully been able to rectify. CPD is not only about the needs of the system, but also the needs of individual teachers. Sometimes these needs are not in the interests of the schools where they are working. But, that shouldn’t mean that such needs are ignored.

Returning responsibility to local authorities with the power of central government to insert Commissioners when the authority clearly isn’t fulfilling its duties would be one model. It has the benefit of being based upon the concept of democratically elected bodies. Unelected Boards at a much finer grain than the present RSC regions is another, NHS style, approach. There may be other models based upon say, Growth Boards or any other justifiable set of boundaries that work.

What is needed is the will to take the best of recent reforms and dump the bits that don’t work. Whatever the choice, we need a service that is just that, a cadre of professionals working for the good of all and prepared to make hard choices.

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Thank you

A big thank you to all readers. Whether you are one of the regulars or just coming across this blog for the first time, I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for reading these posts. Today is the fifth birthday of this blog. It started on the 25th January 2013 with a post about the level of reserves then being held by schools. In the five years I have been writing the blog it has had 50,000 visitors – this landmark was passed earlier this month – and the 100,000 views landmark will be reached early next month as the total currently stands at 98,668 or just fewer than two views per visitor. The day with the most views was the 8th March 2014, when there was a reference to the blog in a national newspaper.

I think it is reasonable to claim that this blog helped lead the way in terms of highlighting the deteriorating situation in relation to the flow of new entrants into the teaching profession. Because much of my working life was spent in and around the area of teacher supply, it is perhaps not surprising that issues about teacher numbers should have remained a prominent theme across the years.

In August 2013 the DfE was quoted by the Daily Mail as saying what I had written in this blog was scaremongering and based upon incomplete evidence (blog post 14th August 2013, if you want to look it up). It wasn’t then and what I say isn’t now. But, I do sympathise with DfE press officers having to try and come up with an answer when the negative stories appear. The media is less interested in the good news, for instance, when applications increase. The easing of the concerns over maths teacher numbers during 2017 also wasn’t really reported, but that may be an issue of quantity not matching the quality needed?

Along with teacher supply, I have tried to keep an eye on the stories behind the numbers in education; or at least some of them. From rural schools in London to the profit companies make from education there is always something to write about and the blog has now reached more than 650 different posts in its five year lifespan. 130 of the posts have drawn comments and again, my thanks to those that comment regularly on what I have written; my especial thanks to Janet Downes for her insightful comments on many different posts.

Regular readers know that I am a Liberal Democrat politician and have fought two general elections (unsuccessfully) and two county elections (both successful) as well as one election for the post of Police and Crime Commissioner, all during the life of this blog. It is good to have some time off this year; assuming that nothing goes wrong and there isn’t another general election.

This blog is now on its fourth Secretary of State and I predicted the change this January in a post at the end of 2017, before the reshuffle was announced.

My one regret is that schools are still not doing enough to share in the challenge to cut Carbon emissions. My one hope is that someone will come up with an energy scheme that can utilise the vast acreage of school playgrounds that lie unused for more than 99% of the year.

Thank you for reading: my best wishes for the future.

 

Not a surprise?

In my Review of 2017, I wrote that:

‘Although there have been changes in the junior ministerial ranks, the Secretary of State has served throughout the year and is now approaching the point in her tenure when she is in the zone where many politicians find themselves either changing jobs or being removed from office in a reshuffle.’

Lucky guess or just reading the political runes? I note that the TES expressed similar views, so perhaps the departure of Justine Greening wasn’t unexpected. Nevertheless, we must thank the now former Secretary of State for her calming period in office. If it survives, still no means a certainty, the National Funding Formula may be Justine Greening’s legacy from her time in office at Sanctuary Buildings. We now await the possibility of changes in the more junior ministerial ranks.

The new Secretary of State served on the Education Select Committee for a period after 2010 and we had this exchange when I gave oral evidence to the inquiry into attracting, training and retaining the best teachers, when I appeared as one of a panel of witnesses.

 Professor Howson: I can’t imagine that the CBI would be terribly happy if we took the whole of Oxford and Cambridge’s output to fill our 35,000 places. That is part of our dilemma. Yes, we want people who are as well qualified and able as possible, but we are not competing in a vacuum, and society as a whole has to decide where it wants to put teaching in terms of the competition for graduates.

Q149 Damian Hinds: Gosh-most people would say that teaching should be very near the top. McKinsey, BCG and Goldman Sachs can fight their own battles, but in society, we want teaching to be very high up on that list of priorities, don’t we?

Professor Howson: Then this Committee must recommend that the Government take actions to achieve that. As someone has already said, pay may well be one of those actions.

Q148 & Q149 https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201012/cmselect/cmeduc/uc1515-ii/uc151501.htm

It will be interesting to see how quickly Mr Hinds acts to deal with the problems over teacher training numbers discussed in this blog and elsewhere during the past week. Perhaps he might like to create a specialist group to advise him on possible ways forward. I am sure that with his track record on social mobility including his role in the APPG on social mobility, he will find many willing to offer help.

Apart from teacher supply issues, Mr Hinds will need to look at the governance of the academy sector and how it relates to the remaining maintained schools. Having been educated in a faith school, he will not be unaware of the role such schools play in our system despite the increasingly secular nature of much of modern society. They may offer a model for cooperation that could plot a path to a unified system working towards the goal of greater social mobility that works not only for potential university graduates but for apprentices and everyone else in society.

Social Mobility Commission

It is not really surprising, to see that the whole of the board of the Social Mobility Commission has followed the lead of their chair and resigned. I commented on the Commission’s most recent report in a previous post. Officials at the Commission have talked to me about teacher recruitment in the past and are clearly aware that good teaching can have an effect on educational outcomes. This was something the Liberal Democrat Education Association discussed at a conference in Oxford yesterday.

So, who might replace Alan Milburn and be handed the responsibility for chairing the Commission, assuming that the Commission retains its present form and function? Perhaps, David Laws, former Education Minister of State and briefly Treasury number 2, in the coalition government might make a good choice? He has spent his time since being ejected by the electorate in 2015, building up the Education Policy Institute as a leading think tank, and is well on the way to making EPI match the Institute of Fiscal Studies as the leader in its area of expertise. However, with experience beyond just education and a wide range of contacts, David would make an excellent chair, with a good head for data and understanding of the machinery of government. He was also heavily involved with the introduction of both the Pupil Premium and the infant free school meals policies, both key measures to help achievement and further the possibility of social mobility during the coalition.

Of course, if he wants to stay where he is and thinks he can do more good at EPI, Nick Clegg, the original architect of the Pupil Premium is another name to conjure with for the role of chair. Andrew Adonis might be another name for the frame were he not presently heavily engaged with trying to develop the national infrastructure.

As an active Liberal Democrat, I make no apologies for suggesting two fellow Liberal Democrats for the exacting role of chairing the Commission. Other members that could sit on the Board might include a senior Labour figure from the Brown government, a Conservative peer and perhaps a well-regarded figure from the charity sector with long experience of social mobility.

We all know that exiting the European club was going to be a full-time job and that it came at a time when George Osborne had predicted that the worst of the effects of the crash would be felt by the weakest in society. Such factors make the work of any Social Mobility Commission more of a challenge, but no less important.

With the IT revolution once again picking up speed, and predications of massive job losses from the growth in Artificial Intelligence awakening the Luddite mentality in many of us, the Commission must act not only as the government’s conscience on social mobility, but also as a source of genuine new policies that are radical and forward thinking. More of the same just won’t work.

We have seen in Germany that the failure to ensure the success of the economy across the whole country has inevitably lead to the rise of the far right in politics. Social mobility is important, but we cannot ignore those left behind. They must not become the poor relations kept, for ever, out of sight.

Does education planning still matter?

Recently, I attended a meeting where the discussion turned at one point to the notion of education planning and identifying the needs of the service for the future. Planning hasn’t had a good press in recent times, with the market principle sometimes being seen as the dominant approach to outcomes: think, the debate about parental choice.

In the early days of this blog I discussed the issue of planning after the publication of a National Audit Office report into pupil place planning. In the light of the discussion in the meeting this week and the fact that a visitor to this site unearthed the original earlier today and thus reminded me of its existence I thought it was worth a second appearance four and a half years later to see how well it had lasted as a piece. You, reader, must decide.

Planning School Places: More than just about the numbers

Posted on March 18, 2013

On Friday 15th March the National Audit Office issued what can be seen as a critical report about capital funding for primary school places in England http://media.nao.org.uk/uploads/2013/03/10089-001_Capital-funding-for-new-school-places.pdf

The media, as might be expected, latched on to the fact that 250,000 extra places will be needed by September 2014, with a further 400,000 required by 2018, rather than the more technical discussion about the manner in which places are funded, and the value for money associated with the process. The figures for pupil places required are not new, although the shortfall still remains too large, and until recently hasn’t been treated with any degree of urgency at Westminster.

More important than the numbers is what can be read into the Report about the two competing ideologies in British politics – on the one hand, the market as a mechanism for solving all problems; and on the other some form of state planning. The post-war period has been marked in many parts of the public sector by a shift from a planning-based approach to public policy to a more market-based approach. The current generation of think-tank and policy research probably don’t realise that in September 1939 when DORA was introduced overnight (Defence of the Realm Act), using the experiences gained during the first World War, Britain became one of the most controlled and planned societies in the world: today planning is a concept that often seems to have a bad name in public sector policy, especially in education. However, the NAO Report ought to mark a reappraisal if not a turning point in the debate.

In the private sector, future planning is an integral part of every successful business. Just consider the fate of either those retailers that didn’t plan for the effect of the internet on their customers or the train operators who have failed to cope with a record growth in passenger numbers. Without planning comes not just chaos, but also inefficiency and public disappointment that eventually can lead to a sense of dissatisfaction with politicians. Now of course, planning isn’t an exact science, and bad planning can result is poor outcomes for society. But, planning for school places ought to be a basic part of the management of our education service.

Part of the reason for the failure in dealing with provision for the current upswing in the birth rate is undoubtedly the breakdown of the arrangements for controlling schools that stared a quarter of a century ago with the Education Reform Act, and site-level  management of schools. When the Labour Government invented sponsored academies to take over failing schools they destroyed many of the remaining education planning frameworks without making clear what would replace them. With Westminster and Town Hall both either unable or unwilling to take on the responsibility, there has been a sense of drift and ‘passing the buck’ rather than of co-ordinated planning: hence the NAO’s concerns about both numbers and value for money.

One outcome will be that parents in many areas are now faced with Hobson’s choice over what school they can send their child to, and the notion of parental choice will become, like the red squirrel population, restricted to ever smaller areas of the country, at least for the next decade.

Those parents whose children are starting school in locations where selective education still divides children at eleven might also want to consider how their secondary school system will cope with the increased numbers, and whether a system designed in the Nineteenth century for the few fits the educational needs of the many in the Twenty First century, one where all students will be expected to remain in learning until they are eighteen, irrespective of parental income or status.

From my perspective, however we procure the school places, and that might be through a market based approach, the State has a duty to ensure all pupils have a school place available to them that is not an unreasonable distance away from their home and doesn’t demand they attend a school that has an ideology or teaching methodology objectionable to their parents. To fail in planning for this basic task, while still requiring parents to send children to school, if not educated elsewhere, under pain of the criminal law, is a basic failure of government that is unlikely to go unpunished at the ballot box; although whether the right tier of government will shoulder the blame only time will tell.

If the provision of school places isn’t at the top of Minister’s agendas at present then it ought to be. There may be more fun tasks, but concentrating on the basics must now be top of both Ministers and officials ‘to do’ lists. History will judge a Secretary of State harshly if he or she as steward of our state education system fails to provide enough school places during the next decade.

 

Plenty still to do for the Education Secretary

So, Justine Greening stays as Education Secretary. This is probably not a great surprise given the hand the Prime Minister had to play with after the general election. Any expansion of selective schools seems likely to disappear from the agenda in fairly short order, except perhaps for allowing grammar school places to increase in areas with selective schools in line with the growth in pupil number.

This may allow some space for other less contentious issues to be moved up the agenda. Here are three of those that matter to me. Firstly, children taken into care that need a new school should be guaranteed a place within 10 working days of arriving in care. It is unacceptable that some in-year admissions can take months for these vulnerable, but often challenging young people.

Secondly, I would iron out all the financial anomalies that have been allow to creep into the system. Whether it is the Apprenticeship Levy; Business Rates or VAT, all schools should be dealt with on the same basis. And as I mentioned in the previous post, the status of school funding should be quickly make explicit. Will no school now lose out under the new formula?

Thirdly, school playgrounds and other outside areas represent some of the most under-used assets in the country. Many are covered in heat retaining black asphalt or acres of green grass. These could be ideal spaces for a low cost renewable energy drive to make use of the space that for 99% of the year isn’t fulfilling its primary purpose.

On an equally big scale, the Secretary of State needs to tackle the teacher supply crisis, by both stemming the rate of departure of existing teachers and finding ways to attract new entrants, such as through a graduated loan forgiveness scheme, although it wasn’t a great success last time it was tried.

A cross-party efficiency drive to seek out areas where schools can save money might help identify cost savings, such as in recruitment through the adoption of free sites such as TeachVac that don’t cost the government or schools anything.

There are no doubt many other areas of procurement where savings can be made to allow the 1% salary cap to be raised, at least for young teachers. Action on workload would also help to make teaching look more attractive as a career. Perhaps the Secretary of State could invite the Local Government Association to take the lead on a cost saving drive as part of a recognition that municipalisation offers better prospects than just leaving decisions to the private sector.

A drive to revitalise professional development for teachers, from new entrants still learning the ropes of the profession to school leaders taking on the most senior roles is something that would gain the Secretary of State much respect and would not be politically controversial.

Finally, looking at how the teaching profession will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the 1970 Education Act and plan for the next 50 years of change would be a potential feel-good and low cost exercise that could create positive headlines. Such headlines will be needed if, as some expect, we might face another general election in the autumn, as in 1974.

Funding formula to go?

There are reports that the National Funding formula is to be abandoned. I received this from the Lib Dem press office just a few moments ago.

The Liberal Democrats have responded to reports that the Conservatives are to bow to massive backbench pressure and abandon their proposed shake-up of school funding.
Liberal Democrat Education spokesperson John Pugh said:
Finally, the Conservatives have been forced to re-think their deeply flawed funding formula, which would see savage cuts to schools in most areas of the country. Their proposals were utterly cynical, taking from some areas to give to others, rather than committing to give all schools the additional funding they need.”I am surprised to hear this even being discussed during purdah as it amounts to a change of policy already under consultation.

Locally, if it proves to be true and not just electioneering, I am both glad for the rural primary schools, 100 of them in Oxfordshire, where the cash for the school was going to be cut (see earlier posts), but sad that Oxfordshire and the other F40 authorities will have to wait longer for a fairer distribution of funds to schools.

However, I am not surprised at the possibility of an announcement. Trying to reform school funding in the middle of the largest increase in pupil numbers in almost half a century was always going to lead to electoral disaster. One wonders why the Tories backbenchers waited until the day before the local elections to put on the pressure as any announcement has surely come too late to influence the voters in the shire counties voting tomorrow.

Then there is the issue of where the Conservatives now stand on funding schools? Unless they can come up with something better than just a U-turn on their formula they will still be leaving school looking at a funding shortfall over the life of the next parliament. Reciting the mantra of strong leadership on school funding just looks silly in the circumstances.

Finally, it doesn’t look like good government to change your mind in this way. There will certainly need to be some clarification of the government’s position. And, what next, a change of mind over selective schools?