Congratulations to the Education Select Committee

Alongside the unfolding shambles that is Brexit much of the work of parliament at Westminster goes on almost as normal. Next week the All Party Parliamentary Group on the Teaching Profession s its spring meeting, and I have provided them with an update on teacher recruitment along the lines of yesterday’s post on this blog.

However, of more significant to the work of parliament was the meeting yesterday of the Education Select Committee. Details at https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/education-committee/news-parliament-2017/send-evidence-17-193/ The minutes haven’t been published yet, but will be well worth reading when the do appear.

When I first started following the work of Select Committees in the 1980s, and then submitting written evidence, and in 1996 being called for the first time to provide oral evidence, these Committees met in rooms at Westminster. They mostly just questioned experts in the field they were discussing. There was no TV channel or live streaming, and I recall astonishing a clerk by requesting that a graph accompanying my evidence needed to be reproduced in colour in the minutes if it was to be understood by readers. Incidentally, guidelines in many organisations for reproducing graphs and charts in both colour and monochrome are still often very lax, making some documents very difficult to understand.

Issues such as concerns about the presentation of data will have been fully understood by those providing evidence to the Education Select Committee yesterday. In three groups, of either two or three, young people with special needs or disabilities provided evidence of their own experience of the education system to the MPs on the Committee. I think this is the first time that the Committee has actually heard at first hand from students with SEND of their experience of our education system.

Schools should not be just exam factories, but pupils with SEND should not lose out in achieving their full potential just because they face additional challenges.  Relegating these pupils to a separate room at lunchtime might be both convenient and help to ensure their safety, but it doesn’t help in making friendship with other pupils. Simple actions such as the wearing of a ‘high vis’ Gillet in the playground can warn other pupils to take care, and reduce the need for isolation and significantly increase opportunities to associate with other classmates.

All new schools should be built with doors and circulation spaces wide enough to take motorised wheelchairs, for even if there are no pupils when the school is being built, who is to say that there won’t be parents, staff, governors or even HMIs making use of such aids to their mobility? For the same reason, lifts must provide access to all upper floors where teaching takes place.

Funding for SEND, and the High Needs Block in general, needs more attention and I hope the Select Committee will consider that issue along with the part the NHS can play in early identification of those that need EHCPs rather than waiting for children to start their education. I hope that yesterday was the start of more conversation between Select Committees and those whose voices are often not heard enough.

Advertisements

How to build a new school

WHAT a mess the process of creating a new secondary school for pupils in Oxford has become.

Way back when government know what it was doing and how to conduct itself properly, the creation of new schools for an expanding population was a partnership between the relevant local authority and the government department in London.

Then came Labour’s academy programme and then Michael Gove’s desire to promote so-called ‘free schools’.

Especially in respect of the latter, local authorities became side-lined once they had identified a need or even if they had not done so, if a promoter want to create a ’free school’ in a particular area. The same was also true for UTCs (university technical colleges) and studio schools.

Oxfordshire’s identification of the need for new secondary school in Oxford in their Pupil Place Plan in 2015 attracted the interest of Toby Young, the promoter of a free school in West London.

As a result, a second proposal for a free school was launched by what is now the River Learning Trust – a multi-academy trust based in Oxfordshire.

This trust was successful in being granted permission to operate the new ‘free school’ in September 2015.

Local authorities can oversee the development of new academies and Oxfordshire has successfully done so for several new schools, including the new secondary school in Didcot, which opened on time.

However, the development of free schools is the responsibility of the Education and Skills Funding Agency.

In July 2016, I asked a question at the county council about the possible site for the new school and was told: “The sponsor’s and EFA’s current preferred location for The Swan School remains The Harlow Centre.”

The cabinet member who answered did not know when the school might open and how it would be linked to the annual school admissions.

Fast-forward two years until 2018, and at county council in March 2018 I was told in answer to another question that ‘the completion for the Swan School may not be ready until 2021’ and a planning application should be submitted by the end of May.

I was told that in summer 2019 Meadowbrook College, on the proposed Swan School site, should start to be demolished and its new build would complete by September 2020.

In early 2021 the Swan School should be complete but until then the school will probably be in temporary accommodation for two years, the answer added.

So, by March 2018, it was already known that the school would be two years late and have to open in temporary accommodation.

At county council in July, I asked more questions about progress, including if we had absolute assurance that the Education and Skills Funding Agency would not pull the Swan School given the delay in receiving planning permission.

The cabinet member undertook to ask the agency for an answer.

We can assume that the trust still wish to go ahead with the scheme, as there is still a need for a new school. With the appointment of a headteacher, this must still be the intention.

However, it seems increasingly unlikely that it will open in 2021, and temporary accommodation will need to be found if the first round of pupil is to arrive in 2019.

It is assumed that planning permission will be required for any temporary buildings needed from September 2019.

In July 2018, I asked at county council whether, in view of the very large number of children from within the EU that are within city primary schools, who would be transferring into the secondary sector in the next few years’, the school might not be built as a result of Brexit.

I have not received an answer to that question.

The city council’s East Area Planning Committee turned down the planning application for the school at their meeting in September – a decision that was called in and will be reconsidered today.

The county council’s cabinet will discuss the Swan School in an exempt session tomorrow.

The whole saga from start to the current uncertain situation shows the lack of coherence in our present education system.

Under the former rules, it seems certain that the county council, having identified the need for a secondary school, would have designed and built it in time for a 2019 opening, possibly even 2018.

Even had the school been designated an academy, this might have been achieved.

The creation of the school as a ‘free school’ has created delay and allowed concerns about the site to create the present high degree of uncertainty.

The situation for parents in the city of Oxford is now complicated with respect to admissions to secondary school for 2019.

Parents in Oxfordshire have been short-changed by this shambolic process and county council taxpayers stand to lose out for up to three years if the temporary accommodation requires pupils to be offered free transport to school.

Should the new school not be built, the ongoing cost to council taxpayers in additional transport costs could be considerable, depending upon how many of the 1,260 pupils would be eligible for free transport.

In the present financial climate, this cost could probably only be met by cutting other council services.

Were Oxford part of a unitary council structure, then school place planning would have been a function of the council deciding the planning application.

Under the two-tier system currently in operation across Oxfordshire, the city council is the planning authority, but the county council has the responsibility for pupil place planning and the number of schools.

However, the county has lost control over the building of these new schools.

This article first appeared in the Oxford Mail on 15th October 2018. As many readers know, I am an Oxfordshire County Councillor and the Lib Dem spokesperson on education on the county.

Commuting pupils: are most to be found in London?

How much does the provision of free transport affect the choice of secondary school in London? What is clear from data published recently by the DfE is that pupils in London, and especially those living in Inner London, are among the most mobile in the country, especially at secondary school level when it comes to attending a state school outside the boundaries of the local authority where they live.  https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/schools-pupils-and-their-characteristics-january-2018

The percentage of pupils living and attending schools in a local authority, as a percentage of resident population, ranged from almost 100% in Cumbria to just 54.6% in Knowsley in Merseyside. However, along with Reading, at just less than 64% attending schools in the borough, these latter two authorities were very much outliers. Some 26 of the 30 mainland local authorities with the lowest percentage of their resident population attending schools in the authority at secondary school level were London boroughs. I don’t know how much of the explanation in Reading is a combination of the presence of two highly selective schools and a distribution of schools dictated during the twenty years when Reading was part of the County of Berkshire before it was broken up into different unitary authorities.

History, as well as free transport, may also play a part in the reasons why London figures so largely in the authorities with the most movement. For around a century, school building in Inner London was governed by a single agency; first the LCC and then the ILEA (Inner London Education Authority) that was abolished by Mrs Thatcher’s government. In outer London, although the creation of the boroughs dates back more than 50 years, many of the secondary schools in north and west London were built on sites created by the former Middlesex County Council.

The creation of academies, free schools, UTCs and studio Schools will also have help encourage movement of pupils, but, I suspect, to a lesser degree than the historical location of schools.

Although there is cross authority movement at the primary school level, it tends to be at a lower level as most pupils will attend their nearest school except when different demographic pressures put pressure on specific schools in urban areas creating a movement across boundaries. By contrast, the movement across local boundaries for pupils in the special school sector is higher than in either the primary or secondary sectors in many local authority areas. This is not really a surprise, since creating specialist schools is often more cost effective if they can reach a certain size and not every authority wants to provide specialist provision for every type of need.

Outside of London, many of the pupils moving across boundaries will have to pay for their own travel costs, as authorities have modified their travel policies, in an effort to reduce expenditure. However, county council’s expenditure on travel is still a large burden to many authorities, especially for children living in rural areas where the local bus service has now disappeared and either a special bus must be run or a taxi provided at significant cost to the authority.

 

Funding dilemma

There is an interesting story on the BBC web site today about a school with 300 holes in its roof. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-44456241 Now this is not a crumbling Victorian pile that ought to be knocked, down but a modern building recently re-built – with shiny design features and a landscaped setting. Unfortunately there appears to be a substantial issue with the roof.

Under the regime initiated by Labour and continued by the Coalition and the recent Conservative governments, education budgets have been devolved to schools and increasingly taken away from democratically elected local authorities. The professional association that represents most secondary head teachers, the ASCL, has supported school-led financing for ever and a day.

The Common Funding Formula now being introduced is a direct result of this line of thinking. I well recall when head teachers couldn’t even authorise the change of a light bulb without an order number from their local authority and that was obviously as crazy in education as it has been elsewhere in the public sector where I have encountered such rigid rules controlling expenditure. There has to be a degree of trust of those in authority at all levels. Heads know this when allowing heads of department latitude in how the spend money on their subject or age group.

The problem comes, as with the school in the BBC story, when there are special needs in terms of problems facing a school. I wrote about this issue in terms of UTCs with extra equipment needs because they specialised in high cost areas such as engineering or manufacturing. A common formula doesn’t take this aspect into account.

The stark dilemma is either a common formula that hurts those on the extreme of spending demands or a formula plus add-ons decided by someone either nationally or locally. The government has solved the dilemma in Multi-Academy Chains by suggesting, in Lord Agnew’s recent letter, a return to the status quo ante whereby money can be vired between schools at the behest of the MAT governing group.

So, the solution for this school may be to join a MAT rather than remain as a single academy or as in this case a Voluntary Aided school that presumably had to pay for part of the rebuilding cost?. The problem for these schools is that no self-respecting MAT would want a school with such horrendous building problems that affects their budget. This can leave such schools in limbo until someone somewhere finds the cash to solve the problem.

More than century ago, Sidney Webb considered the issue of school funding in a chapter in one of his books. He discussed the issue of a non-specific grant versus the totally hypothecated funding stream of the time: his preference was for the former rather than the latter.

This debate comes on top of the wider debate about the funding of schools and the need for more cash. It is disingenuous of anyone to try and mix up the two problems. The former will remain even if there is more cash overall, unless the system of distribution is altered.

Of course the system can also make economics, as I have demonstrated by backing TeachVac, the free vacancy web site for schools and teachers. www.teachvac.co.uk So far TeachVac seems to be doing much better than the DfE site in the North East, but that’s a story for another day.

More money for grammar schools

What’s the point of a consultation if you know the outcome before you start? Opponents of grammar schools, myself included, must be asking themselves this question after yesterday’s Autumn Statement. The Chancellor announced:

5.13 Grammar schools capital – As part of the government’s ambitious plans to ensure every child has access to a good school place, the Prime Minister has announced plans to allow the expansion of selective education in England. The government will provide £50 million of new capital funding to support the expansion of existing grammar schools in each year from 2017-18, and has set out proposals for further reforms in the consultation document ‘Schools that Work for Everyone’

So, even if the response to the consultation was unanimous, the government has made provision to spend actually not £50 million a year as in the text, but £60 million a year over 4 years if you take the figures in the data tables. But, what’s £10 million pounds a year in a government budget of trillions.

Spend 0 -60 -60 -60 -60

Source: policy decisions document HM Treasury 2016.

Even that figure could be revised upwards. Now £60 million a year won’t buy you very many new grammar schools. Perhaps 5 a year for each of the four years funded, assuming the sites already exist and it costs £10,000 per pupil place for a 1200 pupil school. As most selective schools are in the South East, costs might be higher. It would be cheaper for a MAT to close an existing school and re-open it as a selective school, presumably something some MATs will already be thinking about. However, the statement specifically mentions support to expand existing grammar schools. Is this a smokescreen or won’t the money be enough to do more than add places to cope with the growth in pupil numbers and keep the percentage of the local population attending grammar schools stable rather than declining as pupil numbers increase? The answer isn’t clear.

The EFA already has a budget for new buildings, so presumably some of that could be diverted into building more selective schools instead of UTCs and Studio Schools that frequently don’t seem find themselves seen as successful schools on some performance criteria and aren’t always very popular with parents.

Those schools in poor quality buildings will rightly say that the £60 million could have been used to help far more pupils achieve a good standard of education through repairs than by spending it on encouraging switching from the private sector to a free grammar school place, as may well be the outcome of creating new grammar school places.

Despite the public statements about the economy, there seemed to be little new spending on education to help economic development in the FE sector in the Autumn Statement. Presumably, this will be left to un-elected LEPs (Local Enterprise partnerships) to bid for funds based upon the outcomes of the reviews held earlier this year.

 

 

Keep fire sprinkler systems for new schools

Building Bulletins are somewhat of an esoteric area of education policy. Nonetheless they are an important one and over the years have helped shape policy on school design and architecture. They haven’t always got it right, and there is always a tension between design standards and the cost of building a new school. Indeed, some local authorities have space standards for new schools that are more demanding that those issued by the government. But, they have been an important part of our education policy agenda for as long as I can remember.

Indeed, my first fieldtrip as a lecturer way back in the early 1980s was with a group of MA students, from the now University of Worcester, to interview then then head of Architects and Building Branch at the DES, located as it was in those days in a 1960s office block adjacent to Waterloo Station.

Now, I don’t often pray in aid the Daily Mail or the Mail on Sunday in this blog, but they seem to have unearthed an important story about the government downgrading the need for fire sprinkler systems in new schools to be built in the future http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3761631/You-putting-children-s-lives-risk-Safety-storm-Ministers-drop-requirements-fire-sprinklers-fitted-new-schools.html This at the end of a week when a secondary school in Sussex was partly gutted by a fire.

Arson of school buildings, although not as prevalent as a few years ago, remains a risk to school, especially as the new school year approaches. Sprinklers, at least to the standard of protect the building, can play an important part in reducing fire damage. There is a higher, and presumably more costly standard of protecting lives that would presumably only apply to boarding premises in schools as most schools can easily be evacuated, and fires, especially arson, often start when the school is empty.

If the change to Building Bulletin 100, issued by the Labour government in 2007, is true and there will be no need for sprinkler systems to be fitted in new schools that seems a short-sighted move to me. However, the government will increasingly have to bear the cost of any fire damage as academies will be their responsibility and not under the oversight of local authorities, so presumably someone has decided that the cost of either higher insurance premiums for the greater risk of a building without a sprinkler system or the re-building cost outweighs the cost of installing systems in all news schools funded by the DfE through the Funding Agency.

Personally, I think this a short-sighted decision that doesn’t take into account the personal costs involved in a fire that destroys a school and all the work of pupils and staff it contains. Water damage, although bad, is half as destructive as a school gutted by a fire. I would urge everyone that reads this blog to follow-up on this story and question the appropriateness of the decision. After all, we don’t want to see arson levels return to where they were in the bad old days.

 

Living next to the school

Last week the TES invited me to write a guest blog  for them. I have reproduced it below for anyone that doesn’t read the TES on-line

When I went to school more than half a century ago, most schools had caretaker’s houses. Even earlier, in Victorian times, it was not unusual for elementary schools in some parts of the country to be built with a house for the headteacher and his family; the head was usually male in those days, as is still too often the case.

New schools were certainly still being built with caretaker’s houses attached until the late 1960s, even if houses for heads had stopped being built by then. However, with the advent of the property-owning democracy during the Thatcher era and the right to buy, the idea of “tied” homes fell out of fashion.

There is a case for saying that certain key workers need to be located near to schools. I don’t know whether a caretaker living on site (or “building facility management team leader”, as they are probably known today) helps to reduce cases of burglary and arson at schools, but I am sure that they can be a deterrent.

Perhaps all new schools might once again be built with such a house. Indeed, as a part of the drive to build new homes in high-cost areas, schools might consider adding a property to their site if there is room. This would help with the supply of affordable houses for rent in areas where buying at present prices is impossible for most people.

When the London Docklands Development Corporation was established, it built rented flats for young teachers who could not afford to live in the area. Not all local authorities in high-cost areas seem to understand that schooling, and especially primary and nursery provision, is not a service that can be moved out of the area. As a result, teachers and other staff need to be attracted to live locally, because not everyone wants a long commute at the start and end of the school day.

With the fragmentation of the school system into academy chains, voluntary and community schools and free schools, the development of policies to ensure staff can work in local schools and retain a sensible work-life balance no longer has an obvious champion. Indeed, in areas where the planning authority is not the same as that responsible for education, there may not be an understanding of the need for key-worker homes for teachers.

The position regarding housing for headteachers is obviously different. By that stage of their career, most school leaders are probably home-owners and might not want to live in school accommodation. The generous relocation allowances some schools have offered in the past are only useful if the headteacher can afford to move house while maintaining or improving their standard of living. Otherwise, governing bodies might like to think about how the life of weekly commuting heads can be made bearable.

The School Teachers’ Review Body has been asked by education secretary Nicky Morgan – in her recently issued remit letter – to consider “evidence of the national state of teacher and school leader supply, including rates of recruitment and retention, vacancy rates and the quality of candidates entering the profession”. They will also have to take into account the overall limit of 1 per cent on public sector pay, so finding innovative ways to help with housing costs that don’t upset the Treasury might perform a useful public service. After all, if the Department for Education can control funding, surely they can find a way to help schools in high-cost housing areas to recruit and retain sufficient staff in the present economic climate.

The DfE now sets school budgets and controls the growing number of academies and free schools: that must mean it has responsibility for ensuring sufficient staff to operate those schools. And that, of course, includes caretakers.