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 www.teachvac.co.uk and its global affiliate www.teachvacglobal.com 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.

 

 

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How to run a National School

Recently Lord Agnew, the PUS for the School System wrote to firms that audit academies and their Trusts/Committees. Now a letter from a Minister carries with it both political and administrative weight when compared to one from a civil servant writing on behalf of their political masters. Lord Agnew’s letter can be found at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/letter-from-lord-theodore-agnew-to-academy-trust-auditors

In the letter, , in the words of the DfE website, Lord Agnew ‘shares across the audit sector several key points that will help boards govern more effectively and make best use of the freedoms they have.’

So what are the key points in the letter? General Annual Grant (GAG) pooling is the first point specified.

Lord Agnew reminds the auditors that ‘The opportunity to pool GAG is particularly valuable, in particular to simplify the provision of support to weaker schools in a MAT until they can grow their pupil numbers. It is worth remembering that a MAT is a single financial entity.

This isn’t a power generally available to local authorities in relation to maintained schools and typifies the different power arrangements between schools in MAT/MACs and those schools still in the maintained sector. Interestingly, he doesn’t ask the auditors for a time limit on taking money away from some schools to support others. Auditors might like to consider whether this cross-subsidy between schools should really be open-ended or in need for regular justification, since Regional School Commissioners seem to differ in their approach to such weak schools. Auditors can provide helpful national guidance by acting in concert on this point.

By the time Lord Agnew has reached Auditors’ management letters, he is telling audit firms that, ‘We would like to see the recommendations made by auditors being implemented in a timely manner with scrutiny at board level to ensure that this is the case.’ Now whether or not he sees it as a duty on the auditors to see that the contents of these letters are addressed is an interesting question. Of course, if the issue is really serious, then the auditors should quality the accounts. However, this is something auditors are generally reluctant to do, even though the DfE itself isn’t unfamiliar with the process in terms of its own accounts and their relationship with the academy sector.

Lord Agnew also hope his letter will open up debate between the auditors and their clients. His list of Operational Challenges is interesting. These include,

  1. Are your clients using a standard employment contract for all teaching staff so that they can be cross deployed to different schools?
  2. Are they using the same exam boards in all their schools to enable cross school marking and also to optimise the point above?
  3. Do they have a central electronic purchase order system to ensure strong controls on expenditure?
  4. Do they have a central bank account that simplifies bank reconciliations and ensures that there is constant, easy visibility of the cash position?
  5. Are they benchmarking their supply costs and if over a number of years the level is constant have they considered employing permanent staff to fill some of this requirement thereby improving the quality and removing agency charges?
  6. Are they accessing the Department’s procurement arrangements if they are providing better value than they can achieve on their own?

The first of these is highly interesting in the sense of moving back to controlling the lives of teachers. When I joined Haringey, in 1971, my contract specified a school but added that the council had the right to move me to another school. With all school in a tight geographical area this wouldn’t have had much to concern me, even if was in use, which by then it wasn’t. With MATs/MACs spread across large areas, it might be helpful to understand whether this policy, advocated by the DfE, is having any effects on recruitment and retention of teachers both at classroom level and, more specifically, in terms of promotion to middle leadership if it mean a house move to a different area?

If these powers are to be enforced on academies, then presumably they are both important and useful for our school system. In that case, why aren’t local authorities allowed to create them for maintained schools and what is the future for stand-alone academies?

Perhaps Lord Agnew will write to Directors of Children’s Services explaining why these operational challenges don’t matter in the remaining maintained schools?

 

 

Primary schools want children

Last week the DfE published the outcomes for admissions to primary and secondary schools for the school year starting in the autumn of 2018. As might be expected at this stage of the cycle of overall pupil numbers, where primary pupil numbers are falling and secondary numbers are increasing, more pupils gained a place at once of their preferred schools in the primary sector and fewer were successful in the secondary sector than in the previous year.

These trends are likely to continue until the government either starts culling places from the primary sector as a matter of policy or allows the National Funding Formula to achieve the same end by forcing the closure of schools unable to balance their books.

As academies don’t need to stick to national pay norms and returners to the profession don’t need to be paid the salary they earned when they left, we might see some battles over the morality of teachers either being asked to take pay cuts or doing so voluntarily to keep a local school open. Whether we ever return to the sponsorship of local schools, as happened in the 1980s, when a women’s magazine helped out a small Oxfordshire primary schools, is something to watch out for over the next few years.

Percentage of entrants successful with one of their preferred schools

Entry Year Secondary Sector Primary Sector
2010/11 96.6 NA
2011/12 97.2 NA
2012/13 97.6 NA
2013/14 97.8 NA
2014/15 96.8 96.4
2015/16 96.4 96.5
2016/17 96.5 96.9
2017/18 96.1 97.7
2018/19 95.5 98.1

Source https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/secondary-and-primary-school-application-and-offers-2018

Anyway, this year there are also the usual regional differences, with parents in rural areas more likely to receive a school they have selected and parents in many parts of London the least likely to be successful. The distribution of secondary schools across much of London predates the current administrative boundaries, especially in the former LCC/GLC/ILEA area that used to lie across the more central areas of the Capital. This historical distribution of school sites affects some parts of the capital more than others and closures and housing redevelopments have also left the location of secondary schools not always ideally linked to the wishes of parents, whatever successive governments have said about wanting to support parental choice.

Even though the majority of schools are now achieving higher standards than a generation ago, there are still areas with either clusters of schools or individual schools that parents try to avoid. In most cases not all parents can do so, and these are often the parents that don’t receive any of their expressed preferences and can end up at the very school that they are trying to avoid. In many cases, they will then appeal the outcome of the admissions procedure.

With more secondary school places still needed, the importance of good pupil place planning at a local level cannot be over-stated. The DfE now seems to have recognised that fact, but has yet to create a single coordinating body and remove the Education and Skills Funding Agency from the data to day operation of opening new free schools.

 

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.

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.