Missing the point

For the past year I have been drawing attention to the fact that children taken into care during the school year and then placed away from home may well have to change schools at short notice and mid-year. In many cases, schools asked to admit these young people recognise that the Admissions Code provides for priority for looked after children during the admissions round. However, in some cases, schools take an entirely opposite approach to in-year requests for a place and do everything to stall an admission.

Yesterday in parliament, my MP asked a question about this issue:Layla Moran (Oxford West and Abingdon) (LD)​

Looked-after children in Oxfordshire could have to wait for up to six months to get into the secondary school that they need to, primarily because local authorities do not have the directive powers over academies that they do over maintained schools. What is the Minister doing to ensure that the most vulnerable children do not miss a day of school?

Here is the Minister’s response
Nadhim Zahawi

Those most disadvantaged children, to whom the hon. Lady referred, are actually given priority during the admissions process.

https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2018-05-14/debates/28B7B87C-B33B-4B69-B2D5-16AF519F3309/OralAnswersToQuestions

The exchange shows how it is necessary to be very precise when wording parliamentary questions, as indeed journalists tell me that it does when wording Freedom of Information requests. The Minister is technically correct, but that answer seems to apply more to the normal admission round for the start of the school year than to casual admissions in-year, as happens when a child is taken into care.

The DfE does need to address this issue. I would ask readers to check what is happening in their locality. Are there children in care being tutored away from schools because a school place cannot be found? How closely is the local authority monitoring this issue and what are the large children’s charities doing about the matter?

It is tough being taken into care and, as the admissions code recognises, we should be ensuring priority in the education of these young people at any time of the year. This includes continuity of provision.

I recognise that there are some areas of the country where there are large numbers of such children being placed and so of these are areas in selective systems further reducing the option of schools that can be approached. Should we offer more boarding school places for such children rather than trying to find foster families or is that too much like returning to institutional care – they is still the issue of how to handle school holidays in those cases.

Being taken into care presents a big risk to the education of a young person. At least trying to ensure that they can be found a school place quickly and that schools recognise the need to transition these newcomers into school life effectively and with sympathy is the least we should ask of a civilised society. Please do not allow these children to be forgotten.

 

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A fudge with no teeth

Today’s political announcements about the shape of new school places in England might mark a turning point. Conversely, it might just be a neat solution to two problems that needed a resolution. First on grammar schools, and the £50 million funding for the expansion of places. Let me state at the outset that I am opposed to selective education, especially at age eleven. I believe that the Liberal Democrats should campaign to remove these schools even though the Lib Dems run councils in Sutton and now Kingston upon Thames in London that have such schools within the council boundaries.

The BBC has an interesting chart showing what has happened to the size of grammar schools between 2009-10 and 2015-16. Of the 20 such schools shown, all have expanded. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-44067719 Whether this means that the remaining 140 or so grammar schools haven’t changed their intakes isn’t mentioned. As I have remarked before, the government faced a dilemma. With pupil numbers rising sharply in many of the areas in the Home Counties and outer London where a disproportionate percentage of grammar schools are to be found, doing nothing would effectively decrease the percentage of pupils in these areas able to attend a selective school. Such a policy risked creating the worst of all worlds; not pleasing those that want the abolition of grammar schools, but also upsetting parents who would find it difficult to secure a place for their offspring in an increasingly competitive application process. Today’s announcement will, the Secretary of State no doubt hopes, placate the latter while doing no more than enrage the former, but without lasting political damage, and be seen as the best compromise on offer.

Liberal Democrat Education Spokesperson Layla Moran has said in a press statement: “Grammar schools are the wrong answer to the wrong question. This money should be spent on local schools so that every young person across the country can get the education they need to prepare for the future.” But has stopped short of calling for the removal of these schools. Perhaps this is because such a policy is already implicit in the Lib Dems approach to education. I summed much of that approach as I see it in a recent chapter in a book by the Social Liberal Forum that I co-authored with Helen Flynn. A review of the book can be seen at https://www.libdemvoice.org/a-21st-century-liberal-approach-to-education-57473.html albeit written by a committed Liberal Democrat.

How the government will enforce the rules on selection, offered as a sop to opponents of selective schools and a fig leaf to make the policy more attractive overall, is an interesting question. I assume it is to be just a fig leaf. After all, will any new rules apply to applications for all the places at the schools that take the money or only to applicants for the additional places funded through the new cash for the extra places? This would potentially create two admission rounds: one for existing places and the other for the new Hinds’ places. The latter might perhaps only be open to pupils from certain primary schools with, say, a history of not sending any pupils or only very small numbers to the selective school sector. Alternatively, the rules might stipulate only pupils on Free School Meals in the year they apply for a place. One might envisage some other such permutations. All would need monitoring, plus a clear set of sanctions, especially where the selective schools are not co-educational schools, but the primary schools in the area are co-educational.

The other announcement today, about faith schools, is potentially more momentous and deserves a blog post of its own.

 

Can schools cause a housing crisis?

Are academies screwing up the housing market? In the 2016 Education White Paper, it was hinted that in-year admissions might be returned to local authority control as they manage the main admissions round. So far, nothing has happened.

With secondary school rolls now on the increase in many parts of the south of England, and likely to eventually increase across the whole country over the course of the next few years, many more schools are filling up in some of their younger age year groups. They are, therefore becoming more reluctant to offer places to in-year applicants.

I have been campaigning for some time about the effect this can have on children taken into care that are having to experience a long wait before a school is forced to take them in the end; this at a very vulnerable time in their lives when being deprived of social interaction school can offer is a real concern and needs urgent action.

Now, I am also being told of parents moving mid-year for employment reasons that are finding schools reluctant to offer a place to their child. Where most or all secondary schools are academies this leaves the parents in a weak position and their child or children possibly out of school for several months.

I have remarked before that it is a supreme irony that a parent talking a child on holiday for a fortnight can be fined, whereas one taking them across town to a new house can be excluded from schooling for much longer. Something isn’t right here, and the government needs to take action. Firstly, they should determine the size of the problem and what the effects of rising rolls are likely to be on the need for in-year places and spare capacity within the system.

Builders, developers and employers human resources departments need to understand the effects of current policy, since with social media being immediate in nature it could slow down the house market and make employees reluctant to switch jobs mid-school year if they believe schooling will be a problem for their children.

As an aside, many schools could do more for children they admit mid-year and might want to track how well they integrate into the school. Schools with large number of forces children are well aware of this problem and that was one reason the Service Children’s Premium was introduced.

The fact that academies are their own admissions authorities is probably at the heart of the problem. Perhaps head teacher boards could discuss the issue wearing their responsibility for the system and not as heads of individual schools or directors of MATs.

Pupils deserve an education and although inconvenient and sometimes unsettling to schools in-year movement will take place and needs to be handled in both a sensitive and timely manner. If a school has a place in a year group it is difficult to see why the decision isn’t Immediate, especially with the power of information technology.

Transfer at 14; good idea, badly executed?

Schools Week has been running a story about the failure of many UTCs and Studio Schools to attract pupils for September. Their latest news is that Plymouth UTC will now not take any pupils at 14 this coming September http://schoolsweek.co.uk/troubled-utc-plymouth-pauses-recruitment-at-14/ Here in Oxfordshire the news on that front is better, with two of the three UTC/Studio schools fully subscribed. Indeed, the Didcot UTC has made 120 offer for 120 places equal to its Planned Admission Number and the Studio School in Bicester exceeded its PAN of 50 with 53 offers to the 60 applicants. Now, whether or not they all turn up is another matter, and we won’t know until parents have considered issues such as how much it will cost to transport their child to the school.

The Space Studio School in Banbury follows the trend identified by Schools Week, with 16 offer for the 75 places available. But, located as it is in the grounds of the town’s largest academy it has always seemed to me to be a bit of an oddity.

Despite these good recruitment numbers, there remain for the schools in Oxfordshire the same issues rehearsed before in this column. Existing Oxfordshire secondary schools will lose the funding of 173 pupils if all those offered places move to the Didcot and Bicester schools. That’s the best part of £700,000 in one year. Over four years it would amount to not far short of £3 million pounds after allowing for inflation. Put this drain on income on top of the 8% the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggested might be the cuts to school budgets over the rest of this decade and you have the potential for financial problems at other schools.

To make the most of a system, you need a degree of planning or unlimited funds. We don’t have either at present and we don’t seem to have a government that understands that in times of austerity you need to make the most of the resources that you do have available.

The issue in Oxfordshire is, what will be the consequences for schools losing pupils at 14 and 16, whereas elsewhere the consequence is the opposite. What happens to the schools that don’t attract enough pupils to pay their bills? The silence from the Regional Schools Commissioners and the National Commissioner on the need for a rational approach is of concern. These civil servants must not be high priced rubber stamps approving new academies without understanding the consequences.

In the end, it will be the much maligned local authorities that will have to sort out ant mess. It may be no surprise that the Plymouth UTC operates in a selective school system. In such a system, few pupils will leave a selective school at 14 making it even harder to recruit from the remaining schools with the pupils that didn’t take or pass the selection process.

It is probably time to look at how the transfer of pupils at 14 is going to work in the longer-term: leaving it to the market isn’t really an option.

Academies: the DfE charm offensive starts here

Now it may be entirely coincidental, but over the past couple of weeks there has been discussion on the internet about the powers of academies, and specifically about their control of the assets in the Trust deed, and then yesterday the DfE have published a paper entitled Academies; a myth buster. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/academies-a-myth-buster Hopefully, this document will survive in the public domain longer than the last DfE publication reviewed on this blog.

The DfE document addresses the land point as follows:

When a community school becomes an academy, the new academy trust takes on the legal title to the land from the council, doesn’t it?

Wrong. When a community school becomes an academy, legal title is not transferred from the council to the academy trust. The freehold is retained by the council and a lease is granted to the trust.

Note, that the DfE only mentions community schools. My understanding is that if a school is a Foundation School the situation over the title to the land may be different. Indeed, there have been suggestions that some schools have looked into a two stage process of becoming a Foundation School, and then becoming an academy specifically because of the land issue. If there is a loophole with regard to ownership of the land and buildings that must remain public assets, then it should be closed forthwith.

There is another part of the document that reads rather clumsily in the present world of Commissioners and the central control of all schools from Westminster.

There isn’t much financial accountability around academies though, is there?

Wrong: the financial accountability systems in place for academies are more rigorous than those for local authority-run schools and they mean that not only do any problems get uncovered but also that there can be swift resolution of any issues. The spotlight of this accountability system demonstrates that academies cannot hide from their responsibilities and are held to account for their actions. There have been almost 200 detected cases of fraud in council-run schools.

By locally-authority run schools the DfE author presumably means community and voluntary schools. But, to describe then as locally-authority run is an insult to reality. Perhaps that’s why they are later called council-run schools, a quaintly archaic term. Interestingly, although in 200 of these schools, that set and control their own budgets, there have been cases of fraud over an undefined period of time the document doesn’t say how many cases of fraud, if any, there have been in academies during the same period, thus perhaps creating a new myth that academies don’t have any cases of detected fraud.

Finally, the DfE is categorical about profit answering that:

Oh right – but academy trusts are private companies and can make a profit.

That’s not true either: all academy trusts are charitable trusts and they cannot make a profit.

But, the DfE doesn’t say anything about either academies accumulating surpluses or the need for arm’s length contracting, especially where the academy is part of a chain that may encourage individual schools towards particular contractors.

One myth that isn’t addressed in the DfE document is that councils cannot force academies to help when pupil numbers in an area increase and the academy has spare places. Perhaps because academies can behave in that way, so it isn’t a myth, even if it could cost the council thousands of pounds in extra transport charges finding other schools for the pupils further away from the academy with spare places.