As predicted: more pupils than last year

Over 2.3 million pupils are in being taught in academies or one type of another (72.3% of all secondary school pupils) along with over 1.4 million in primary schools (29.7% of all primary school pupils). These numbers were released yesterday by the DfE as part of their annual assessment of schools ad their pupils. This information has appeared somewhat earlier than expect; it was scheduled to appear in June.

The trend towards declining pupil numbers  at the lower end of the primary age range, and growing numbers at Year 7 in the secondary sector, is now clear to see from these figures and will come as no surprise to those that follow the data about schools and their pupils.

Overall, however, the number of pupils in state funded primary schools rose – as it has since 2009 – although at a slower rate than in recent years. There are 26,600 more pupils than in 2017, and 101,100 more since the 2016 census. The number of pupils in state funded secondary schools rose for the fourth year in a row by around 35,000, and in 2018 had a greater increase in population than primary schools.

There was some consolidation in the primary sector resulting in a net decrease of 20 state-funded primary schools, whereas in the secondary sector there was a net increase of 28 state-funded schools.

All-age schools once looked on askance, not least by the 1944 Education Act that outlawed them by requiring a break at eleven, are still on the increase, albeit perhaps at a slower rate than previously. In January 2017 there were 150 such schools, but this figure has increased to 163 state-funded schools in January 2018. Some of these are ‘free schools’, the most misnamed designation ever invented for a type of school.

As the economy has continued to create more jobs, especially for women, the continued fall in the number of registered pupils for free school meals is not a complete surprise. However, there is still anxiety that the universal free school meals policy for infants is affecting registration for free school meals, causing some schools to lose funding through the Pupil Premium. The issue of funding for deprivation and how it is used by schools is now overdue for a review as all schools will shortly feel the full effect of FSM+6 on their budgets. Perhaps the Social Mobility Commission might like to consider this issue.

A third of all pupils in the primary sector now come from what is classified as an ethnic background, although that includes nearly eight per cent from White non-British backgrounds. Just over one in ten pupils are from Asian background, and one in twenty from ‘Black’ backgrounds.  Slightly more than one in twenty are described as, of ‘mixed’ backgrounds, and this category is likely to increase over the coming years.

Fewer than one in twenty infants were in over-size classes of more than 30, with the majority being in classes of 31. As intakes have reduced in size, so has the issue of over-size classes for infants. Over the next few years, large classes are more likely to be a growing problem for secondary schools unless funding, especially for 16-18 improves.



Why are school under-performing?

There are times when I wonder whether the Tory announcements on grammar schools are merely a smokescreen to draw attention away from the fact that they haven’t been able to recruit enough teachers? Even if they genuinely believe that more selection will help some pupils do better, their responsibility as a government is to offer hope to the parents of all pupils and also to all pupils. The purpose of government is not to encourage any pupil to feel a failure. While Society accepts all cannot win prizes in competitions, education isn’t a competition, but rather an opportunity to draw out the best in everyone.

Rather than concentrating on what happens at eleven, when much of the damage is done, Mrs May might reflect on whether allowing local councils to axe Children’s and Sure Start centres was a good idea? My view is that the more we do to close the gap in the early years, the more that investment pays off later. The trouble is that the return isn’t a quick one, although narrowing the gap at the age when formal schooling starts might be helpful. The report last week of more children starting school not properly toilet trained, along with other reports of language and social skills gaps, shows the gulf we have allowed to develop in society between those with and those without. Hopelessness can breed extremism and all the risks history has shown us throughout the twentieth century that were associated with the consequences of allowing it to develop in a society. One wonder how far better education has helped create a situation where there are currently no wars in the Western hemisphere.

So, rather than concentrating on grammar schools and a way of finding an alternative to Free School Meals to measure deprivation, the Tories might want to look at the characteristics of children that fall behind expected rates of progress. Some have special needs, and these should be catered for. But, for others it may be attendance, where they sit in the class, the degree of encouragement from home or one of several other reasons that early years teachers can identify.

At present, the Pupil Premium helps one group of materially deprived children, but there may be others that are emotionally deprived, change school frequently and in mid-year, suffer from poor attendance or are caught by the digital divide, whether absolute or just governed by broadband speeds. These may not always be the same children. In this day and age we should know what works and help classroom teachers to identify and use the appropriate techniques, drawing on extra funding as appropriate. If, for instance the extra funding London schools receive over most of the rest of the country is shown to produce better results in a matched sample of pupils then we need to ask whether dealing with that issue should come ahead of creating more grammar schools.

What we need is a focus on quality assurance as a model and not quality control where those that pass the quality threshold go one way at eleven and those that don’t are sent down another path. Wherever that happens it is the wrong model.

Education failure brings consequences

Sir Michael Wilshaw’s savage attack on the failure of the school system, and especially secondary schools failure to provide an effective education for children from disadvantaged backgrounds is not surprising in the light of some of his previous statements. Whether the government will take any notice is another matter: they should do so.

The Chief Inspector concluded his talk to the Festival of Education, held in the leafy glades of Wellington College, with the following comment;

“I came into teaching, above all, to make a difference to the lives of our poorest children. As Chief Inspector, I have attempted to show how the educational underperformance that blights the lives of disadvantaged pupils in reality beggars us all. Of course, the poor suffer the worst consequences. But we are all the poorer for their missed opportunities and wasted potential.”

I have every sympathy with that view, as indeed do the many hard working teachers that struggle on a daily basis to achieve miracles in many schools. It is interesting that in picking out his five reasons for failure he didn’t mention the changes made by the coalition government, such as the Pupil Premium and the introduction of free school meals for infant pupils that have tried to start reducing the gap.

His reasons for failure were distilled under five separate headings;

The political ideologies of both left and right

What he called the structural vandals

The constraining curriculum

And both poor teaching and poor leadership


I think the first, second and third reasons have similar elements to them as the final two are also related. But, the 1980s and 1990s were a long-time ago, indeed before most of the children in schools were even born. However, I think he is correct in saying that politicians too often concentrate on how to do things rather than a simple goal to achieve.


In Oxfordshire, after the dreadful Key state 1 results of 2011, the ‘every child a reader’ campaign had a simple aim; ensure every child could read. It didn’t matter what sort of school they went to or how it was organised, what mattered was that children were taught to read.  The campaign started by the Evening Standard in London had a similar aim.


Whatever the turmoil of the next few years may bring we must not lose sight of the need to reduce the education gap between different groups in society. Uneducated, unemployed and feeling unloved by their country is a recipe for disaster if it affects a large group of those living in England. Sir Michael is right, “educational underperformance that blights the lives of disadvantaged pupils in reality beggars us all”. We now have to live with the consequences.



Too bright for the Pupil Premium?

The government seems to be briefing about possible changes to the Pupil Premium. The suggestion seems to be that bright children need it less than other children (choose an adjective with care here – dim/thick/less able but not SEN – all have implicit value assumptions associated with them). If this mooted alteration to the Pupil Premium is true, then it is the first change since it was agreed that pupils in primary schools needed more help than their secondary brothers and sisters and rates were altered accordingly. At the same time, pupils in care also received even more funding; quite rightly so.

Surely even the Tories wouldn’t want to say that because you are a bright five year-old, according to baseline testing, you don’t qualify for the Pupil Premium even though you are in a single parent household on low income and there is another toddler for your mother to look after, so you don’t receive the sort of attention you need to stimulate your innate ability. But, perhaps that is exactly what they do want to say. Reward the hardworking poor, but punish the children of those that aren’t aspirational for their offspring sounds like a Tory mantra.

Indeed, perhaps this is a change that is aligned to the return to selective school campaign. After all, if the Pupil Premium helps produce more children in primary schools for less well-off households that can pass the entry tests for selective schools then they will displace children from higher income brackets some of whose parents might then have to resort to paying for private education rather than allow then to attend secondary modern schools.

Of course, the concept of equality behind the Pupil Premium is to provide help where it is needed to bring everyone up to the level expected of them by the point at which you take the measurement of attainment; either Key Stage 2 and the move to secondary school or Key Stage 4 and the former school leaving age.

Now, if what the government are saying is that the use of Free School Meals as a proxy for entitlement isn’t the best measure, then we need to know what they are considering replacing it with? No doubt it would be helpful if any debate about changes to the Pupil Premium could also be a part of the discussions on a national funding formula for all schools. The present disparities in school funding levels mean that pupils from low income households in rural areas often receive much less funding than those in similar income households in some urban areas; especially in London. So, could the change to the Pupil Premium help iron out this problem if the government isn’t willing to tackle it in other ways?

One problem is that any degree of extra complexity added in to the Pupil Premium scheme will almost certainly significantly increase the cost of its administration. Sometimes, a universal flat rate programme is the most cost-effective, even if it is something of a blunt instrument. However, until the government reveals its hand, we won’t really know whether this is just an attempt to save money from the education budget or another attack on the low paid by this Tory government.

Tell it as is it – Part 2

The Public Accounts Committee has just issued its latest report entitled the ‘The Funding for Disadvantaged Pupils’.

In the summary it concludes that ‘… the Department for Education needs to be better at supporting schools to share and use best practice more consistently so that more schools use the Pupil Premium effectively. In addition, there remain inequalities in the core funding received by schools with very similar levels of disadvantage. As the impact of the Pupil Premium will take a long time to be fully realised, the Department needs to do more to demonstrate its emerging benefits in the meantime. We also urge the Department to carry out an early review of the effectiveness of the Early Years Pupil Premium.’

This seems to me to reinforce the point make in the study of the DfE by Dr Cappon, mentioned earlier this week by this blog in another post. Perhaps politicians have confused the concept of a market with the role of players within it. When I did Economics 101, or ‘O’ level as it was in the UK in those days, the first two lessons were on markets and effective demand. We were all told that we might like a sports car, but most of us would not be able to afford one. Our latent demand wasn’t the same as our effective demand for a second hand old banger as our first car. On markets, it was seen as the mechanism for determining the price of a good. Indeed, in areas such as the Stock Market, it still is. However, markets usually have winners and losers and losers react in different ways, such as by reducing supply or quitting the market.

Now the best thing to come out of the past twenty years in education is a recognition that there is more than one type of meaning to the term ‘equality’. It was a sharper focus on the recognition that spending on some pupils needs to be greater if they are to achieve a minimum standard of education that led to the Pupil Premium. I would argue that the Lib Dems were the first to articulate this concept under Phil Willis and Richard Grayson when he was at CentreForum as it then was. Indeed, Nick Clegg also brought an understanding of this notion of equality from his experience as an MEP to this debate.

The challenge, as the Public Accounts Committee and Dr Cappon make clear is, in a department of state where an idealistic notion of the market as a means of solving problems holds sway, how do you get consumers – the schools in this case – to use their resources to the end you seek: reducing the learning gap between the disadvantaged and others in society. Do you use a carrot – the equivalent of lowering prices – or a stick, send in Ofsted to create effective use of funds such as the Pupil Premium? The problem with the market model is that consumers -schools – have to want the same thing as the DfE, and that might not be their focus.

Is a ‘special offer this week – funds for disadvantaged pupils – buy here’ really the best way to eradicate the learning gap and increase social mobility? Clearly, the Public Accounts Committee don’t seem to think so. That they also think there are issues with the core funding of schools is another worry for another blog post.

Good, bad and indifferent (coasting)

The headline  of this blog sort of sums up my view of the performance of academy chains as I read it in the Sutton trust Report issued today.

As a local politician, I might be forgiven for saying that such a judgement might have been made about local authorities when they were more directly responsible for schools and not, as now, just the education young people living in their communities receive. Even though that battle for local authorities to be allowed to act as academy chains was lost, at least with the two historically large political parties, some time ago, the need for an understanding of the effects of geography on academy chains and their performance is worth monitoring.

The Sutton Trust report seems somewhat light on the effects of funding. Where chains have schools in different funding bands – Ark has most schools in London, but some in Birmingham and on the south coast – do schools with different funding levels perform differently?  This might suggest that either the Pupil Premium or a national funding formula would be the better policy initiative to support.

The Sutton Trust accepts that generally London schools do better than schools elsewhere and academy chains with a strong London focus seem to do well. Is that because they are better funded; because they are nearer the DfE and can meet officials more often; have better leadership; or some other factor perhaps related to how we measure disadvantage?

I think, as in the days of local authorities there is a clear message about both leadership and purpose in this report. By itself neither is sufficient. Perhaps a score on leadership turnover might be added to a future report. Both Harris and Ark have strong central direction and some continuity of leadership. The best Chief Education Officers ran authorities where they knew what was wanted and set out to do more than just manage their schools. To the extent that hasn’t yet happened with the academy chain model means that governments seem to have replaced one system regarded as failing by another that probably isn’t yet any better overall. Whether the loss of democratic accountability is a price worth paying for the cost of the change is a matter for debate.

In defence of some academy chains they have taken on some very challenging schools. There may have been a degree of self-belief in the academy process that verged on naivety among all concerned. Changing the label on the door and upgrading the uniform may be necessary but not sufficient requirements for changing a school, but every academy chain needs to understand what works for the type of schools it is managing. The DfE needs to make sure they do so: hence the need for Ofsted to inspect academy chains in the same way as they do local authorities.

Finally, it would be interesting to rank academy chains on the central costs of running the chain compared with outcomes. I don’t know whether better performing chains are leaner or whether less well preforming chains need higher overheads to manage support for challenging schools? Certainly, salary costs needs looking at when some chains are paying their directors more than Directors of Childrens’ Services that are responsible for both far more schools and a social services arm of their service. Both, after all, are being paid with public money.

Ending child illiteracy by 2025

The Liberal Democrat plan to end illiteracy by 2025 announced today would mean that every child born in 2014, ought to leave primary school in 2025 able to read and write at a standard identified to lead to success in secondary school and beyond. To help them meet this commitment to end child illiteracy by 2025 the Lib Dems would boost the early years Pupil Premium to an even higher level than the primary school Pupil Premium thus recognising the vital importance of a child’s early years for learning and development.
The Lib Dems would also overhaul early years teaching qualifications by letting nursery staff work towards Qualified Teacher Status and by 2020 requiring a qualified teacher graduate in every school or nursery delivering the early years curriculum.
As a Lib Dem, I have been fighting for better early years education for decades. This aim is reminiscent of the Millennium Development goals of 2000 that sought to ensure primary education for every child throughout the world by 2015. And what’s the point of primary education if children don’t learn to read, write, count, and lay down the skills to acquire the tools they will need for their future lives as adults.
Despite a focus of attention on the lack of education success among the poor that goes back to work undertaken when Ruth Kelly was Secretary of State in the Labour government, it is still clear, as Nick Clegg pointed out, that it is those less well off in society whose children don’t make the expected levels of progress.
Labour has been hinting about cutting tuition fees if elected. As Labour was the Party that introduced them in the first place in 1997, and then increased them, requiring students to repay the cash borrowed from day one rather than when they started earning, as now, Labour must say if it favours supporting undergraduates ahead of ending illiteracy in the next parliament; it cannot do both and still stick to its spending plans.
To achieve the ambition of ending illiteracy by 2025 means providing the cash for schools and early year settings to achieve this goal. Depriving local authorities of the cash to support pre-school settings where health, welfare and education issues can be dealt with together won’t allow the goal to be achieved. Yes, the bulk of the funds should go to schools and through an early years premium, but the work needs co-ordination and that is where local authorities need funds. By all means make it a ring-fenced grant, but do not force local authorities out of supporting initiatives by cutting their funding.
Schools also need to know how to deal with that small group of parents that are indifferent to their child’s progress and don’t, can’t or won’t work with the school and pre-school setting in helping their children learn. Helping schools know what works rather than everyone re-inventing the wheel will also ensure best use of the money. Does that mean a role for local authorities?