New data on schools and their pupils

Unless there is a dramatic change in the birth rate over the next few years, the peak in the primary school population is probably very close to being reached. Data on schools and pupil numbers published by the DfE today https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/schools-pupils-and-their-characteristics-january-2017 reveal a slight decline in the number of Key State 1 infant classes above the nationally agreed limit of 30 pupils per class. The decline is only 0.1% from 11.9 to 11.8% of these classes and is still way above the 10.4% achieved in 2011 and 2012. Still, it remains below the 13.8% of 2006, and should fall further over the next few years.

There is still pressure at Key Stage 2, with average class sizes increasing from 20.4 to 20.8 across England. It seems likely that this average will continue to increase for the next couple of years that is unless Brexit results in a mass emigration of young families to other European countries. This seems less likely, although still possible, after the discussions last week on allowing existing migrants from the EU to remain in England.

There was a big jump in the average size of secondary classes, from 20.4 to 20.8, their highest level since 2008. With the increase in pupil numbers over the next few years, this average seems set to increase still further, perhaps towards the 21.5 reached in 2006.

The implications of the National Funding formula will probably be most keenly felt in the 5,400 primary schools and nearly 130 secondary schools with fewer than 200 pupils. Some of the latter may be UTCs and Studio schools with the chance to grow, but many of the primary schools could face an uncertain future with the costs of closure affecting local authority transport bills in rural areas.

On average, 12% of primary schools have less than 100 pupils. However, the average hides a wide range, from just 2% of schools in London to 19% in the East Midlands and 22% of primary sector schools in the South West. I am sure the travel implications have been taken into account by those reviewing the effects of school funding and the new formula.

The Church of England will certainly be interested in what happens to small schools under the new funding formula since more than a quarter of their primary schools have fewer than 100 pupils. In five regions the percentage of their schools with less than 100 pupils is more than 30% with the East Midlands having more than a third of Church of England primary schools being of this size. However, the Church of England has only 2% of its schools in London with less than 100 pupils, the same as the average for all schools. By contrast, London has the largest Church of England primary schools with one having more than 800 pupils. Still, by that is small compared with the largest primary school in London that has more than 1,500 pupils.

 

 

 

School funding: Oxfordshire as a case study

A version of this article appear in the Oxford Times  newspaper of the 23rd March 2017

Why, when it has been generally acknowledged that state schools in Oxfordshire are poorly funded, has the government decided some Oxfordshire schools should lose even more of their income?  This was the conundrum facing those of us concerned about education in Oxfordshire just before Christmas when the government at Westminster announced the second stage of their consultation around a new fairer funding formula for schools.

Most of the secondary schools in the county stand to see an increase in their funding under the new proposals. That’s the good news, although it doesn’t extend to all the secondary schools in the county and the increase may not be enough to cope with the rising costs all schools face.

The really shocking news is the cuts to funding faced by the majority of the small rural primary schools across the county, especially those in the Chilterns, Cotswolds and across the downs. Although the cut is only a percentage point or two, it may be enough to create havoc with the budgets for these schools, especially as they too face general cost pressures through inflation and rising prices. Even the schools promised more cash, mainly schools in Oxford and the other towns across the county, won’t in many cases see all the extra money the government formula has assessed them as being entitled to receive. This is because the government has proposed a ceiling to the percentage increase any school can receive. A bit like saying, ‘we know we are paying you less than you deserve, but we cannot afford the full amount’.

I had anticipated the new formula was likely to bring problems, so tabled a motion at the November meeting of the county council to allow all councillors to discuss the matter. Sadly, the meeting ran over time and my motion wasn’t reached. Hopefully, it will be debated in March*, although that is just a day before the consultation ends. There has been no other opportunity for councillors to discuss the funding proposals. Parents and governors of schools should respond to the government’s proposals

I support the retention of small local primary schools where children can walk or cycle to school and the school can be a focal point for the community. It seems this model isn’t fashionable at Westminster, where larger more remote schools serving several neighbourhoods seem to be what is wanted. I know that retaining small local schools looks like an expensive option, but there are also benefits to family and community life by educating young children in their localities.

Were the local authority still the key policy maker for education, I am sure there would be a local initiative to the preserve the present distribution of schools by driving down costs. In a recent piece in this paper, the head teacher of Oxford Spires Academy specifically complained of the cost of recruitment advertising. Three years ago, I helped a group found a new free job board for schools that uses the disruptive power of new technology to drive down recruitment costs for schools. TeachVac www.teachvac.co.uk now matches jobs and teachers throughout the country for free at no cost to teachers or schools. We need innovative thinking outside the box of this sort in all areas to help sustain our schools in the face of government policies that threaten their very existence.

Across the county, all schools, whether academies or not could collaborate to purchase goods and services needed, whether regularly or only once a year.  This common procurement idea is much easier when academy trusts are headquartered locally. It becomes more difficult when their central administration has no loyalty to Oxfordshire. May be that’s why local academy chains have been more restrained in their executive pay than some trusts with a more limited local affiliation.

Cllr John Howson is the Lib Dem spokesperson on education on Oxfordshire County Council and a founding director of TeachVac http://www.teachvac.co.uk. He is a visiting professor at Oxford Brookes University. 

*The motion was debated and passed without the need for a formal vote. Councillors from all Parties expressing assent.

Funding takes centre stage

The launch of a report by the Education Policy Institute about the new government funding formula seems the have unleashed a renewed interest in the proposals, at least the proposals for schools, if not for the SEND High Needs block. https://epi.org.uk/report/national-funding-formula/ Even the, soon to be Osborne edited, Evening Standard had an editorial about the funding of schools in yesterday’s edition.

The issue about school funding breaks down into two quite separate parts. Firstly, is the formula an improvement on what has gone before and secondly, is there enough money for schools and education in general. The answer to the latter is a resounding NO from almost everyone.  Hamstrung as it is by the-U- turn on increase in tax on the self-employed the government could have found a fig leaf to offer schools, such as abolishing the apprenticeship levy as the education budget already pays for teacher trainees; they could be re-badged as apprentices and it would at least help reduce taxation on schools facing NI and pension increases this year. The government also look guilty of breaking another manifesto promise. The 2015 General Election Conservative Party manifesto said:

“Under a future Conservative Government, the amount of money following your child into school will be protected. As the number of pupils increases, so will the amount of money in our schools. On current pupil number forecasts, there will be a real-terms increase in the schools budget in the next Parliament.” (Bold added by me)

On the first question about the new formula, the answer you receive will depend upon who you ask. Most of London loses and is unhappy, many urban areas outside London see gains, but these are capped and the picture in the rural areas is confusing: some win, others such as Oxfordshire have many schools that are losers. Thus, few feel really satisfied, especially when looking at the overall financial situation for their school over the remainder of this parliament

Part of the problem might be that civil servants don’t seem to have fully road tested the formula. Did Ministers allow them to? But, can we afford to close small secondary schools in the Yorkshire Dales; in Shropshire and no doubt in some other rural counties? The notion of rural seems different when decided at Westminster than when viewed from a county hall. In this lies the dilemma: in a national service, how much local discretion do you allow? Apart from rural schools, separate infant and junior schools will largely become a thing of the past under this new formula, as will small faith schools, many in urban areas on restricted sites that don’t allow them to expand. Is this what the government wants? Are large schools regardless of distance from a pupil’s home what is needed for efficiency in a time of austerity?

Why is the proposed formula slanted towards secondary schools when the Pupil Premium is primarily aimed at primary and early years’ pupils? What is the point of such a weighting for deprivation being different between the two funding streams? The period between now and the close of the consultation and what happens afterwards will be an interesting time.

 

Scrooge or Santa: It depends upon where you live

My favourite line from the DfE’s consultation document on the new funding formula for schools is:

5,500 schools will benefit from the minus 3% per pupil funding floor protection.

I think that this is a line that the late, great, author George Orwell might have penned in either 1984 or Animal Farm. The real outcome of the government’s deliberations is definitely buried in the small print. An analysis of Oxfordshire primary schools shows an almost equal split between those schools likely to benefit and those that will be worse off. The division is stark between urban schools, especially those serving communities with high degrees of under-performance that will see more money, although some may be capped by the use of floor and ceiling mechanisms, and the small, usually rural schools that are almost universally losers. Of course, I welcome the extra cash for the schools that benefit.

In the secondary sector, around two thirds of Oxfordshire schools see gains, whereas the other third, again mostly the more rural schools, will see their income drop unless they can recruit more pupils to compensate for the reduced formula funding. As secondary schools are close to the bottom of the demographic cycle in many parts of the country the loss will be to some extent mitigated by opportunities to expand as pupil numbers increase. However, rural secondary schools, and popular schools already bursting at the seams won’t be able to increase pupil numbers. The same is likely to be the case for selective schools in some of the less well funded shire counties, where they are facing reductions in the examples presented by the DfE. As these schools often have little room for expansion, cuts to already poor funding levels won’t seem like a great Christmas present.

Overall, it looks as if the gains will largely be achieved by smoothing out the historical anomalies in authorities where the long-terml average has covered a wide range of different localities from those in the top decile of deprivation to those in the lowest decile. To achieve sufficient transfer of funds, there has also had to be internal transfers leading to the losses faced my many schools in the less well-funded authorities such as Oxfordshire. To some extent the use of floors will prevent the cuts affecting individual schools from being too great, but the use of ceilings may deprive some schools of the full amount indicated by the new Formula.

Of course, this isn’t a good time to be conducting this exercise. It would have been better for the Labour government to have undertaken the exercise a decade ago, when pupil numbers were in decline and funds were more generous. At that time all might have been winners and the government wouldn’t in some cases be looking like Ebenezer Scrooge..

Funding schools has always been a contentious issue, and this consultation may affect some Conservative County Council candidates next year if it looks as if a well-liked local school is losing funds and might even have to close. One can image the number of opposition candidates already looking out the ‘Save our Schools’ posters ready for the New Year.

A small tweak on the block grant might go a long way to protect many small primary schools where the expense of preserving them might be worth not having to pay the cost of providing transport to pupils required to relocate even before looking at the cost of building new school place sin the remaining hub schools in the market towns.

However, before the final step of either a local authority closing a school or a MAT throwing in the towel, there will be amalgamations and reductions in the number of head teachers, with one head probalby leading several schools in a cluster. That might work, but the NAO report earlier this week showed that it isn’t just the outcome of the funding formula that will determine the survival of lots of schools, it is also the many other cost pressures that they face. For a start, schools could be exempt from the apprenticeship Levy on the grounds that ITT costs already mean education is paying for the training of its professional workforce.

Are small schools doomed?

The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) clearly worries that they will be. They have raised their concerns and the story was picked up by the BBC. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-37860682 although I couldn’t find any press release on the ASCL web site that prompted the BBC story. Perhaps it is part of a campaign by teacher associations about the funding of schools?

As regular readers of this blog know, I have expressed concerns before about the future of small schools, especially if the block grant that underpins their finances is removed, possibly as part of a funding formula based on an amount per pupil. Such a funding system, perhaps topped up by sum for deprivation in a similar manner to the present Pupil Premium, has a beguiling simplicity about it; easy to understand and easy to administer: job well done.

However, such a top-down approach does have other ramifications. The most obvious is that for as long as anyone living has been in teaching higher salaries have been paid to teachers in London and the surrounding area. This is a policy decision that could be ratified in a new formula through an area cost adjustment as Mr Gibb said during his recent visit to the Select Committee when he appeared to talk about teacher supply. So, if a policy to support London, but not other high cost areas is acceptable, what about rural schools? As I mentioned in a recent post, on the 3rd October, some shire counties have a large number of small schools in their villages. Northumberland has some of the most expensive. Oxfordshire has a third of its primary schools with fewer than 150 pupils and the removal of any block grant would undoubtedly mean their closure, as ASCL pointed out.

Does a Tory government that has already upset some of its supporters in the shires over re-introducing selection to secondary education now want to risk their wrath over shutting the bulk of the 5,000 or so rural primary schools, not to mention small schools in urban areas? As many of the latter are faith schools this might also upset both the Church of England and the Roman Catholic churches, especially if pupils were transferred to non-faith based schools.

Councils might also be upset if the cost of transporting pupils to the new larger and financially viable primary schools fell on their council tax payers. After all, as I have pointed out in the past, children in London receive free transport to schools anywhere in the capital within the TfL area; this despite London being classified as a high cost area in which to live.

There is a possible solution, return to local funding models where communities can decide whether to keep small school open. Of course, it won’t be decided democratically through the ballot box, since local authorities still are regarded as not being capable of this sort of decision, even when run by Tory councillors. But, a grouping of academies in a Multi-Academy Trust could take such a decision or they could assume government policy on school size was reflected in the funding formula and close schools that cannot pay their way.

If you believe in the need for small schools linked to their community, now is the time to say so. To await any consultation on a funding formula may be to wait too long.

 

 

Pause for thought on rural schools

The number of rural primary schools appears to be falling. In the 2015 list published by the DfE there were 4,906 such schools. This year there are just 4,151. However, before anyone rushes to the barricades to defend the remaining rural primary schools against a policy of wholesale closure it is worth remembering that the 2006 Education and Inspections Act that required the government to keep the list of such schools was passed before the programme of mass transformation of our schools to academy status was dreamed up by Mr Gove and more recently seemingly ratified by the White Paper issued this March. Regular readers will recall the resulting furore the idea of compulsory academisation caused, including within the ranks of the Tory party.

With rising rolls in the primary sector, I speculated in my post of the 6th October 2014 on this blog whether it was worth the expenditure on the part of the DfE to continue to produce this list, but so far there hasn’t been any attempt to repeal the relevant section of the 2006 Act. I suppose it was because officials thought once all schools became academies it would automatically fall by the wayside. Now it won’t, at least for a few more years, so it might be worth either bringing all rural schools into the compass of the section or removing it from the statue book since it may offer one more reason why a school shouldn’t become an academy if in doing so it loses this protection against a review against closure.

Scanning the list I am glad to see the two Enfield primary schools remain among the five rural schools within Greater London; two in Enfield; two in Hillingdon and one in Bromley. The location of these schools in the Green Belt does stretch the definition of rural a bit, but I can quite see why they are included.

In am not sure whether Kielder First School in Northumberland is still one of the smallest primary schools in England, but with just 15 pupils according to Edubase it probably remains one of the most expensive on a per pupil basis and shows the challenge facing those wanting to introduce a National Funding Formula. Without a significant block grant element to such a formula, an element Mr Gove once wanted to abolish, such schools as this would close because they would not be financially viable. The cost of transporting the pupils to school each day would then fall on Northumberland County Council. With 78 such rural schools, this cost could be significant but would have to be met by cuts elsewhere in the County’s budget, even without adding in any academies not counted in this list.  However, North Yorkshire, with 227 rural primary schools in the DfE’s list would be hit even more if their schools were affected by a National Funding Formula that didn’t somehow take account of their importance of our rural primary schools for many small isolated communities.

The complex inter-relationships between the government at Westminster and local authorities over the supply of education really does need to be thoroughly considered before and policy changes are made. Not to do so, risk unintended consequences not just for pupils but also for their parents as council tax payers.

Rural re-visited

The DfE has published its annual list of primary schools designated as rural. This year, the total is 4,906, up by just over 200 on last year. The list includes four middle schools and 11 all-through schools. The majority of the schools are either community (1,779) or Voluntary Aided or Controlled (2,320) with many of the latter being church schools. There were 593 academies of various sorts and 206 Foundation Schools. Interestingly, there are only eight rural free schools serving the primary sector across the whole of England and two of these are all-age schools, both in Oxfordshire.

If, after his conference speech, the Prime Minister really wants every school to be an academy by 2020, rural primary schools are one of the groups he will have to work upon. Many of these schools are in Tory controlled county councils across the rural heartland of England. Although Oxfordshire is keen to convert all community and voluntary schools to academy status, there may not yet be the same enthusiasm elsewhere in some parts of the country.

There is a question over whether the government should still be funding people to go around persuading schools and authorities to convert schools to academy status after the cuts to be announced in the comprehensive spending review. Could that money not be better spent elsewhere? After all, the government could, almost at a stroke, add a clause to the current Bill about to enter the House of Lords, mandating a change of status for all schools making them converter academies and sort out the issues of trusts and other arrangements later. This would leave local authorities with the duty to champion education and monitor performance. But, this may be too radical a proposal for a Conservative government.

As I remarked last year there are a small number of schools designated as rural within the London boroughs. Interestingly, the total has increased by one this year. By contrast, there are only 107 rural designated sponsored primary academies across the country, with only Cornwall and Norfolk having total numbers of such schools in double figures. The South West, Devon and Cornwall have large numbers of converter rural primary academies, whereas there are virtually none in some of the northern rural areas. Academies as a concept does seem in the primary sector to be something of a north south split.

Some years ago in the Gove regime there was a proposal that would have severely limited the funding for rural primary schools by removing the grant each school receive independent of pupil numbers. Now, it seems as if there is a recognition that such schools serve a valuable purpose. The issue is how will they be organised in the future and what role will democratically elected local government play in their future?