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.

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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.