School transfer costs

Once you move from a placed base system for the governance of schools, to one where a market model is the preferred choice, it is probably inevitable that each year schools will move between Multi- Academy Trusts for a variety of different reasons. Today, the DfE has published a note on their statistic pages about the number of such moves and the financial implications. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/academy-transfers-and-funding-england-financial-year-2017-to-2018

In the five years between 2013-14 and 2017-18, some 628 academies moved between MATs or MACs or moved from being single entities into a multi-school trust. Even though the overall number of academies managed as national schools has been increasing year by year, the percentage of academies moving has also been increasing. In 2013-14 the percentage of academies moving between or into Trusts was 0.5% of the overall total. By 2017-18, schools moving or joining Trusts accounted for 3.3% of the overall total of academies. It would have been helpful if the term financial year had been defined in the document. It must be assumed that it refers to the DfE’s financial year and not that of academies: they are not the same, and that has caused issues with the DfE’s accounts in the past.

In the days before the academy programme it is difficult to think of any local authority school being moved to another authority’s control, although whole authorities were broken up for a variety of reasons. Northamptonshire will be the next authority to see its remaining maintained schools split between two new unitary councils, after the financial problems that beset the county council earlier this yar. The DfE might like to publish data on the costs of such restructuring alongside these costs in the academy sector, just for comparison.

2017-18 was the first year that the number of schools receiving grant funding on moving between Trusts fell; from 60 schools the previous year to 49 in 2017-18. However, the savings were proportionally not as significant, as the bill over the two years such cash payments may be spread was only £370,000 less. Hopefully, there will be a larger decline in such expenditure in 2018-19.

Over the five year period, the cost to the system has been some £22 million. The DfE note explains what has been covered by this grant funding.

As the DfE explains, an academy can change trust arrangements only on the agreement of the Regional Schools Commissioner (RSC) acting on behalf of the Secretary of State (prior to 2014 decisions were taken by the Secretary of State).  It may apply to do so voluntarily – for example, a single academy may apply because it wants to benefit from the greater capacity (eg school improvement) from being part of a multi-academy trust; or the transfer may be initiated by the RSC because of concerns about the performance of the academy or the trust responsible for it.  The latter scenario is sometimes referred to as re-brokerage and is similar to intervention in local authority maintained schools, which sees them transformed into sponsored academies. Of course, before academies the local authority either had to solve the problems with the school or opt to close or amalgamate it with another school.

The largest sum identified in 2017-18 was for an academy in Stockport, where the cost identified was in excess of half a million pounds. Think what that cash might have done if used in other ways.

 

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‘intervene fast… take the serious action necessary’. Promises

Why has the Regional School Commissioner for North West London and the South Central Region not issued any warning notices to any school about poor performance since the end of 2016? The updated DfE list of such notice published earlier this week  https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/list-of-letters-to-academy-trusts-about-poor-performance reveals that the last notice issued was in December 2016 and that was to a school issued a pre-warning notice at the start of that year. Indeed, all the schools issued with notices in 2016/17 had previously received an earlier letter, meaning no new school in the region has been added to the list since early 2016.

Is the Office of the RSC not communicating to the DfE or has the RSC decided that the Secretary of State’s words in his speech to the NGA that ‘on those rare occasions when a school is failing – be in no doubt – we will intervene fast and we will take the serious action necessary’ doesn’t apply in the North West London and the South Central Region?

It cannot be that there are no Inadequate schools within the region, although there may not be many. The RSC appears also never to have issued any sort of notice to a school run by any of the faith groups in his region. This may explain why the school I highlighted in my previous blog post hasn’t received any overt indication of concern about performance, except from Ofsted when it declared it Inadequate in the spring of 2017 and received expressions of further concerns in the two follow-up s8 monitoring reports.

Is the RSC for the North West London and the South Central Region trying a new policy, at variance with the words of the Secretary of State, by seeking to improve schools beyond the glare of publicity? Interestingly, the figures for number of notices issued by the North West London and the South Central Region are also matched by some other regions that have also not published any notices in 2017/18, whereas the RSC for the South West has issued five of the 12 notices in 2017/18.

There are clearly Inadequate academies, as rated by Ofsted, in the regions where no notices have been published in 2017/18  as well as previously rated Inadequate schools where progress to return to an effective standard of education has been unsatisfactory. How are RSCs handling these schools now the notices seem to have fallen out of fashion? How will the Secretary of State’s promise to intervene fast be acted upon if the general public do not know what action is being taken by an RSC?

The Secretary of State has also promised more openness from Headteacher Boards and their minutes, so that is one possible way forward. Local politicians might also like to call RSCs before their Education Scrutiny Committee to given an account of how the RSC’s Office is raising standards in their local area among the academies and their Trusts. Oxfordshire’s Education Scrutiny Committee has been holding such meetings for the past three years with the RSC or their Office. Sadly, the ESFC have yet to agree to such a meeting despite two academies being in financial special measures for more than two years.

 

Headteacher Boards: Value for money?

Last week, the Minister, Nick Gibb, was asked by Labour’s Angela Rayer about the cost of Headteacher Boards. There are the Boards set up to help the DFE over the issues relating to academies, by providing support to their Regional School Commissioner. The Board has a mixture of elected and appointed members. The Minister’s answer, reproduced below, is illuminating.

The compensation paid to elected, co-opted and appointed members of the eight English Headteacher Boards (HTBs) was £472,530 for 2017/18. For 2018/19 that cost is expected to be approximately £450,000. The Department has not yet profiled the budget for years beyond 2018/19. The schools/trusts of each HTB member are paid £500 per day when head teachers attend HTB meetings, plus in some cases, £250 for half-day reading/prep time. If HTB members are not serving head teachers, this money is paid directly to them.

Written Answer: 142872 15th May 2018

On top of this there are the secretariat costs associated with serving the purpose of the Boards. At present, Readers can find the minutes of decisions from these Boards and other information about their roles at https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/schools-commissioners-group/about including the register of interests of both commissioners and board members. The government has announced that there will be greater transparency

On the day following the written answer quoted above, another Minister, Nadhim Zahawi provided more information about the government’s thinking on these Headteacher Boards.

My right hon. Friend, the Secretary of State said in his recent speech to the National Association of Head Teachers conference that he wants greater transparency about the workings of Regional Schools Commissioners (RSCs) and Head Teacher Boards (HTBs) that advise and challenge RSCs. The department will work with the sector over the coming months to develop proposals, for consultation in the Autumn, to support a clear and simple accountability system. This will build on the information already available regarding RSCs and their work, including academy transfers. We currently publish records of HTB meetings. In July 2017, we produced updated Terms of Reference for HTBs as part of the summer HTB elections. We publish conflicts of interest registers for HTB members and RSCs, as well as information on the roles and responsibilities of the RSCs and criteria for all relevant types of RSC decisions

Written Answer: [143140 16th May 2018

In Oxfordshire, where I am a county councillor, the Education Scrutiny Committee has held an annual meeting with the Regional School Commissioner for our area or a member of his staff if he could not attend. The Committee regards such meetings as part of their function in monitoring and understanding the policies behind the operation of academies of all types educating children in the county.

Personally, I have not always felt that there is enough transparency or urgency when academies face problems. Spending nearly half a million on a set of Boards that process information may provide some legitimacy for the process, but whether or not it is good value for money is another matter. Could the cash be better spent elsewhere?

 

Urgent action needed

The following are extracts from a Section 8 monitoring report issued today by Ofsted. The school, a secondary school, is part of a multi-academy company and was declared inadequate in May last year by Ofsted. Somewhat surprisingly, Ofsted didn’t return until January 2018.  When they did, they found some good things within the school and some improvements, but to quote for the S8 report:

Although there have been undeniable improvements to safeguarding, behaviour and morale of staff, there are considerable weaknesses at the level of governance and the multi-academy company. These weaknesses have the potential to put the good work of school staff and the pace of improvement in jeopardy.

 However, following the review, the XXMAC and governing body have been slow to improve their effectiveness. It is understandable that directors’ decisions about senior leadership are sensitive, but other statutory duties of the governing body and the company have been neglected (my emphasis)

 Directors and governors have not taken enough responsibility for ensuring that leaders strategically map out the key priorities for iimproving the school. Nor have directors and governors demonstrated how they will evaluate improvements by their impact on pupils’ progress, attendance and behaviour. In short, it is not clear that directors and governors know how to judge what is working in the school and what is not. (my emphasis)

 In addition, XXMAC and governors have not done enough to maintain good levels of communication with parents or involve them more closely in the school’s drive for improvement. In this way, leaders at the highest level are not directly helping to restore the school’s reputation in the local community. 

 This haphazard approach is not helping pupils to achieve their full potential. 

 There is no clear strategy in the school improvement plan for reducing casual and persistent absence. Good attendance is not a high enough priority in the school. 

 However, the support commissioned by the XXMAC is not sufficient to build capacity and establish a common sense of purpose for the school. For example, important decisions about leaders’ roles and the priorities for the future are not being made on the basis of a thorough review of the school’s performance. Instead, decisions are being made on an ad hoc basis, relying upon the goodwill and integrity of current school leaders.

 So, where do we go from here? The previous Chief Inspector was right to argue for inspection of MATs and MACs. Who now takes responsibility for acting upon this damming report; The Regional School Commissioner; the Funding and Skills Council; Ofsted or the Secretary of State? The local authority cannot do so, but someone should be take action by Monday, especially as the school is also still in financial special measures and there were issues raised in the 2017 accounts about the management of financial matters.

If ‘it is not clear that directors and governors know how to judge what is working in the school and what is not.’ Then such a situation must not be allowed to continue. Action this day please.

 

Another Oxford issue

Earlier this week the eyes of the country were on Oxford because of the story about issues with cancer treatments at the Churchill Hospital, the regional oncology centre. Locally, the Oxford Mail, the City’s daily newspaper, had at front page lead with concerns around one of the secondary schools in the city, St Gregory the Great.

Regular readers of this blog will recall a post about ‘a tale of two schools’ from last autumn. St Gregory the Great is a an all-through school under the auspices of a Roman Catholic Multi Academy Company, called the Dominic Barberi MAC. This is a group of Roman Catholic academies in Oxfordshire, of which St Gregory is the only secondary school. It might be described as the classic pyramid model of a MAT.

St Gregory the Great came into being when Oxfordshire remodelled the previous three tier system in the city into a conventional two-tier system in the late 1990s. A ecumenical upper school, St Augustine, was replaced, after heavy lobbying of the then School Organisation Committee by the Roman Catholic Church, with a Roman Catholic secondary school; St Gregory the Great.

For the first decade, the school lived an untroubled life, serving both Roman Catholics pupils and local children whose parents were willing to send them to the school. Problems started with the move towards academisation. The need for more primary provision in that part of Oxford meant a decision to create an all-through school with a new primary department. This resulted in a financial disaster when the school overestimated the funds it would receive from changing its age range. At the same time, absence rates in the secondary school were on the increase, and during a period of falling rolls, the school was not the top choice of schools within Oxford for many parents.

Eventually, in 2016, the government’s Funding Agency put the school in special measures and required a plan to eradicate the deficit. The head teacher was replaced. Eighteen months later the school was declared inadequate by Ofsted. Since then further problems have emerged. Many are of a longstanding nature.

In June 2014, I received the following response to a question at Oxfordshire’s Cabinet about attendance cross the county.

Supplementary:  Responding to a question on whether the Cabinet member would make representations to the school commissioner and Ofsted as to the very high non-attendance at St. Gregory the great school, Councillor Tilley replied that the School Improvement officer had been sent into the school to try and establish the underlying cause of the high absence rate.  She had further requested that an analysis of poor attendance be undertaken on a class by class and year by year basis. This has been successful in improving attendance in the past.  Should this not improve attendance, she would then consider contacting Ofsted?

Attendance fell in 2016-17 (Trust Annual Accounts, page 23) and remains a key issue for the school.

I want to see this school succeed, because it is needed for the pupils of East Oxford, whether Roman Catholics, pupils of other faiths or those of no faith.

However, it isn’t clear that the present system of governance is working. Who has the lead responsibility of turning around academies that are failing?

The regional School Commissioner – no obvious action on his part or interest from the Headteacher Board; the EFSC – since putting the school in special measures it hasn’t cured the ills of the Trust, just cut the deficit at the school and possibly imperilled the education of many pupils as a result?  Indeed the Trust accounts for 2017 point to procurement issues; lack of supporting receipts on credit card expenditure and a lack of timely bank reconciliations and insufficient evidence of review. (Trust Annual Accounts, page 32)

Ofsted – a second school in the Trust has now been declared inadequate, but Ofsted is powerless to act against the Trust as a whole. The Roman Catholic Church – the Church needs to prove it is concerned for the welfare and education of all pupils and is not trying to create a school only for Roman Catholic pupils with no concerns for the other pupils in the area leaving someone else to pick up the pieces. The recent removal of the head and deputy of the school over the Christmas holidays needs to be justified and an explanation as to the experience and expertise of their replacements to deal with the problems facing the school needs to be made clear.

The DfE has issued a statement to the media today saying that they are taking action, but it isn’t clear what they are doing or how they are operating, other than presumably some behind closed door discussions with the Academy Company and presumably the Diocese of Birmingham.

At the heart of this mess is the governance structure for academies and the ability of a Trust to act appropriately for the good of all. After all, only 37% of pupils and 30% of staff at St Gregory the Great are declared Roman Catholics according to the Trust annual accounts (page 21).

I declare an interest as a councillor in Oxfordshire, but one only has to look at the fortunes of the two secondary schools declared inadequate in 2017 by Ofsted for the issues to become glaringly apparent.

As the new Secretary of State was educated in a Roman Catholic school, he needs to tell his officials to sort out the problems at St Gregory the Great and across the school group. Otherwise, Oxford will have two national disaster stories about public service failures at the same time: not a record to be proud of for any government.

 

 

 

Can you trust the data?

How often do government departments have to reissue press notices? Following intervention from the Office for Statistics Regulation, the DfE have been placed in that position. The OSR letter can be read at
https://www.statisticsauthority.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/DfE-statistics-Ed-Humpherson-to-Mike-Jones.pdf The revised press notice and the other issue about MAT transfers raised by OSR concern matters dear to the policy objectives of Ministers, so any potentially misleading data are of concern.

However, the DfE statisticians also have to battle with others that don’t always provide data that is of top quality. As reported in an earlier post, about local authority expenditure per pupil, there are a couple of local authorities in one table in that Statistical First Release where the data must be suspect because of the reported level: it both cases, way too low.

Then there is the case of under-reporting by schools in areas such as fixed term exclusions and more specifically for the number of pupils placed on reduced timetables, but not excluded. This is an area where more work is needed to discover what is actually happening, not least in the academy sector. This work is important because of the potential safeguarding aspect.

Local authorities and the local Safeguarding Board may not be in full possession of the facts if academies do not fully report to the DfE. It would be a simple change to add to the funding letter that academies are required to report all statistics via the local authority where they are located unless the Regional School Commissioner has explicitly provided for an alternative system that is as rigorous. At present, this is an issue with one part of the dual system not working as well as the other and creating potential risks for young people.

At least these days, as with the re-issued DfE Press notice mistakes can be rectified when noticed. In the former days before the internet such mistakes could become set in stone. One of my first communications with government was to point out that pupil teacher ratios provided in a written parliamentary answer and reported in Hansard were wrong. I think the first local authority in the list missed the PTR and was allocated that of the next by mistake. It wasn’t picked up before printing and went into the record. An error notice appeared later, but who checks written PQs for later revisions? Nobody, I would hazard a guess. As a result, anyone using that data source would have inaccurate data. It doesn’t matter now, but might have then. One year, the Department had to re-issue a whole Statistical Volume because of the number of printer’s errors.

Today, the record can be set straight quickly and easily, even if the original error is retained as well.

Statistics are important as a source of information under-pinning decision making and debate, hence the need for accuracy. The question of management information that is separate from statistics is one that has always interested me. In some areas, such as the labour market for teachers, I have always believed up to the minute information is important to spot changes in trends as early as possible. However, this data is often in a raw state and not 100% accurate. Where to draw the line between management information and statistics is an interesting and ever changing debate as technology provides ever more exciting tools for data collection and analysis.

Can we afford 2,000 MATs?

Earlier today the Regional School Commissioner (RSC) for the area that covers Oxfordshire appeared in front of the county’s Education Scrutiny Committee. This was his second annual visit since taking up the post of RSC. He brought along his new deputy to listen to the exchanges.  The discussion was robust at times. The RSC revealed that he now has a staff of around 50 people in his office and has established three sub-regional boards because the area he covers is so large. However, he didn’t know what his total budget for the office of RSC was, but promised to write to the Committee with the figure.

Two other interesting facts that came out during the discussion were, first, that the chairs a committee that includes civil servants from other bodies such as the EFA and Ofsted so that he can co-ordinate ‘soft intelligence’ about schools. Chairing such a committee places an RSC in a very important position with regard to all the academies in his area. He also revealed that he thought multi-academy trusts should probably normally range from 1-15 schools depending upon location. He also wasn’t seemingly in favour of clusters of secondary schools in the same MAT, as in the ARK and Harris models. This is despite his view that the reinvention of advisory teachers for those that want to stay in their subject and not more into general leadership seem an attractive idea to him. Without some degree of local groupings of secondary schools the travel involved, apart from being wasteful of resources, might also dissuade some good candidates from applying for such a post.

Taking the point about wasting of resources in a time of austerity and tax cuts for business further, an average size of a MAT of ten schools might require around 2,000 extra schools leaders if replaced across the county, once the post of CEO of a MAT replaced the former Executive Head role. With on-costs this might cost around £200 million a year, as this blog has pointed out before. Even an average size of 20 schools in a MAT might cost upwards of £100 million. That figure would cost the equivalent of more than 3,000 classroom teachers across the sector. That seems a high price to pay for ditching local democracy and imposing an NHS style direct rule system on the school sector.

The RSC agreed that local authorities have the duty to provide education for pupils in academies where the plug is pulled for either financial reasons or persistent poor performance, if a transfer to another MAT cannot be organised. Why would a MAT want to take on a school with a financial deficit even if the MAT was prepared to try to overcome a long-standing period of under-performance against expectations?

In answer to a question the RSC seemed to accept announcing a school closure for September any time after Easter would place a burden on a local authority with regard to finding alternative school places. With reduced resources in local government, such a burden could probably only be met by taking staff off of other work. The Committee didn’t ask about the effects of closing a school in a rural area if it meant increased transport cost to local council Tax payers.

All in all the RSC must have felt the session was good preparation in case he is ever asked to appear in front of a parliamentary Select Committee, but it left this member of the Committee wondering whether the benefits of the system really outweigh the costs?