Too little: too late?

First it was Boris; then Mrs May and finally some of the other leadership contenders. What were they talking about? Not Brexit, although of course all the contenders for the Conservative Party leadership have been trying themselves up in knots of various tightness on that issue, but rather funding for schools.

Reading the runes of what was being outlined, it seems cuts to tuition fees might be some way down the track. If funding for schools and further education is back on the Tory Party agenda, it is difficult to see how the Treasury would be willing to spend more on higher education funding in the immediate future, especially once other Ministers put out their begging bowls. Sure, funding for International Development might be cut to below the level currently agreed to make some savings. This might be justified by citing Donald Trump and the USA level of aid. There might also be some cash to allow higher spending because of better tax revenues, but the police and Ministry of Justice have a real claim on extra cash to fight the rise in certain types of crime, including knife crime and the NHS can always do with more cash.

How much of the suggested increase in funding for education is real, and how much merely determined by the fact that pupil numbers will continue to increase over the next few years, is difficult to determine from the level of the pronouncements made so far, except for Boris’s statement on secondary schools. Not recognising the needs of further education and 16-18 funding might make Boris’s statement about £5,000 per pupil in the secondary sector look like vote catching idea, rather than a serious analysis of where the Tory Party’s current school funding policy has made a mistake. At least in the TV debate, FE, apprenticeships, and skills did receive a mention and, unless I missed, it selective education didn’t.

Any talk about increasing education funding by Conservative may be a case of too little and too late. The warning signs have been there for some time, and the fact that school funding didn’t play much of a part in either of the last two general elections was a bit of a surprise, although the effects on the ground were less obvious than the reductions in school reserves and the consequences of changes to come that are obvious to those that manage budgets, but were not then visible to parents.

For me the funding priorities are: 16-18 funding; early years and children’s centres; SEND funding and protecting rural schools facing falling rolls as the birth rate declines and the housing market stalls. There are other priorities, including metal health, although some cash has been allocated for this, and teacher preparation and career development. All staff will need competitive pay increases if the wider labour market remains as it currently is, but that will be true for the whole of the public sector and might reduce the amount specifically available for education; hence my earlier comment about the challenge in trying to reduce tuition fees.

Unless there is an emergency budget, any changes are not likely to reach schools before April or September 2021 at the earliest.

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Benchmarking

As is usual, the run up to the Easter break brings a clutch of education stories, partly fuelled by the arrival of the conference season for the main teacher associations. Governments of all colours probably always worry about the bad publicity they will expect at this time of year, as much is made of the poor state of health of the school system in England.

This year is proving to be no different to usual, with school funding, teachers’ pay and workload and children’s mental health all taking the headlines, along with testing and its associated consequence of off-rolling, a term unknown to the general public before the last few months, but now probably bidding to be the new word of 2019. What I haven’t heard is anything about education’s contribution to the climate change emergency. Should it feature more in the curriculum and what practical steps ought schools to be taking? In my post headed ‘gas cooking’, I suggested school students might like to conduct an audit of their schools to see what changes should be introduced.

Opposition parties are always quick to say there isn’t enough funding for schools, and I am happy to support their claims. This blog has regularly charted the decline in the level of reserves across maintained schools and the growth in the number of schools with deficits rather than cash balances. However, there are still schools with balances, some quite large in cash terms. How can this be, in an under-funded system? Is the balance between funding based upon pupil numbers, and that designed to cover the cost of ensuring a schools remains open regardless of changes in pupil numbers, right in the new formula now being introduced?

I especially worry about small rural schools, and my concerns have been shared by officials in North Yorkshire as detailed in another recent post on this blog. There needs to be some national benchmarks over finance that governing bodies can measure their schools against on a regular basis. The DfE has already done some good work here, but it needs to do more. At the heart of the debate may be the decision, made way back in the early days of delegated budgets, to fund schools on average salary levels and not actual cash amounts. Thus, schools with young teachers paid less than average benefit, but schools with teachers at the top of the pay scales find funding inadequate to meet their salary bills. The real squeeze on 16-18 funding hasn’t helped either, as many schools deploy their most expensive staff to teach this age-group.

Should we abolish tests in the primary school? There certainly shouldn’t be tests that stress, pupils, teachers and families. However, the data already shows that many disadvantaged pupils fare less well in our system than their more fortunate classmates. I would not want that fact to be lost. We have emerged from a culture when expectations of some children were low, and as a result not much was achieved. Don’t, please let us go back there. Humane, reasonable, tests backed by effective resources and a better use of emerging technologies can create a future golden age as we approach the 150th anniversary of state funded school in in England. Such  a system might be better at attracting and retaining its teachers in what is now a global marketplace.

Teacher recruitment update

The question of school and college funding may have driven the issue of teacher recruitment from the top of the education agenda, but that does not mean that the concerns about staffing have one away. They have just been buried under more topical concerns.

Whether it a sign of the growing number of secondary pupils for September or that the funding crisis isn’t as bad everywhere as it obviously is in some schools, but advertised vacancies are ahead of this point last year in the TeachVac system www.teachvac.co.uk That’s good news for teachers and trainees looking for a job for September, but less good news for some schools trying to recruit a new staff member.

As in the past, the main secondary subjects fall into three groups. Firstly, there are the quasi-vocational subjects of business studies and design and technology where there has already been more vacancies recorded in 2019 than the market can cope with and schools anywhere in England could find recruiting a teacher challenging. Schools seeking a teacher of physics can also face recruitment issues regardless of where the school is located.

The second group of subjects are those where local recruitment challenges may now be apparent, but recruitment problems are most likely to affect schools in London and the Home Counties. These subjects include, mathematics, English, computing, religious education and music. Most of these subjects may well migrate into the first group before the May resignation deadline.

Finally, in the third group are three EBacc subjects, modern languages, geography and history as well as physical education. At present, there is no sign that there won’t be enough of teachers in these subjects to meet needs. However, as noted in the past, this doesn’t address either the issue of the quality of applicants or the possibility that some schools may find attracting candidates a challenge for a variety of reasons.

In the primary sector, vacancies seem to be appearing more slowly than last year, perhaps reflecting the slowdown in the birth rate that is affecting intake numbers quite dramatically in some areas.

It is worth noting that you still wouldn’t be able to obtain this information from the DfE’s vacancy site. As of last Friday, the DfE site had only around 25% of the live vacancies being carried by TeachVac, so teachers looking for a job might use the DfE site if it was a vacancy in the first group of subjects listed above, as applicants may well be few and far between, but for subjects in the other groups they might well be missing some possible opportunities if they stick to just the DfE site.

I don’t know how much the DfE has spent on their site so far, but, as I have comments before, a simple site linking to other free vacancy sites such as TeachVac would achieve a better outcome for far less expenditure of public money.  This takes us back to school funding and why the DfE chose to compete in a marketplace already well served in this manner?

1p on Income Tax for Education?

Are school underfunded? To politicians the question is probably more one of, ‘do parents perceive schools as being underfunded and will that affect how they vote?’ Despite a campaign ahead of the 2017 general election on this topic, my sense was that education wasn’t a major topic during that election. Would it be now? Has the growing campaign by some schools to ask parents for cash to fund their running costs pushed the issue up the political agenda for any post-Brexit era?

My genuine answer is that I am not sure. We have been here before. As this blog has pointed out in the past, the post-1979 period was one of financial hardship for public services that last through most of the 1980s. Indeed, I have looked back at my 1986 book on ‘Schools in London’s Commuterland’ to find that even then some schools in Surrey were asking parents for sum like £5 per term or £14 for new pupils.

Throughout the early 1990s the Liberal Democrats had a well-known policy of ‘1p on Income Tax for education’. The policy attracted voters, and was based upon a feeling that schools were under-funded. Could it be revived on the basis that the government has pledged more cash for the NHS, but not for education, and it seems likely that the present financial support from the public purse will not be sufficient to fund increases in all public services at present levels of taxation.

The alternative to public funding, schools going cap in hand to parents, lacks any real support for a social justice agenda. Parents in my Division in North Oxford, where I am the county councillor, can certainly afford to part with a small sum from their disposable income for the school their child attends. The same isn’t true for many other parts of the city, where parents live on much narrow margins between income and expenditure.

If you believe, as I do, in the philosophy that a state education system should provide a standard of education necessary to create a high level of outcomes for all pupils, encouraging parents to pay towards a school’s funds creates an unfair advantage for those with the cash to help.

The funding debate is often mentioned in relation to the issue of staffing. Ever since schools gained control of their budgets in the 1990s, head teachers and governing bodies have been free to decide how to reward teachers in a system where central direction and control has become increasingly weaker.

Few now understand that the Group Size of a school once controlled not only the head teacher’s salary, but also the number of promoted posts a school could deploy. As a result, since school control of budgets came into force, the government has only ever funded schools on the average cost of a teachers: schools with lots of young teachers often did well, but those with lots of teachers on the top of the pay spine and with TLRs had a salary bill in excess of what their funding would be each year. Should these schools be allowed to top up their funding from parents? Then there is the question of reserves. Any parent asked for cash should require the school to display their latest set of accounts so the actual financial position can be determined.  Finally, ought there to be benchmarks in terms of issues such as pupil-teacher ratios and class sizes that identify funding levels. But, there is still the issue of how to compensate for the fact that older more experienced teachers cost more than younger less experienced ones?

One solution is to even out the costs by increasing the CPD allocation to young teachers so the actual cost of a teacher to a school is the same wherever they are in their career.

Revenue balances: a waste of money?

The issue of high salaries paid to top officers by some academy trusts, highlighted in the previous post, isn’t the only financial issue facing the sector.  Now that more of the 2017-18 account are appearing a Companies house, it is possible to see the extent of the revenue balances being held by many academies; together with the occasional deficit.

So far, in Oxfordshire, 20 of the 39 Trusts operating academies or free schools across the county have reported their accounts and had them published on the companies house web site. In aggregate, they reveal around £4.6 million of revenue reserves held by primary schools and £4.3 million held by secondary schools. However, the deficits across both sectors total £1.1 million, mostly from one secondary school that has been in financial special measures for a couple of years and is gradually reducing its deficit.

One multi-academy trust, United Learning, operates six schools in Oxfordshire, but does not reveal revenue balances by school in their accounts. This MAT pools the money centrally for all their schools, and can then presumably use it where it can do the most good. Pooling also allows the total amount held in reserves to match the needs across the MAT in any one year and the amount can be set at a lower level than if the figure is chosen by each school. This was the approach taken in the past by local authorities, before schools gained control of their own budgets nearly 30 years ago.

A MAT operating say, 30 schools can decide that a reserve of five per cent overall might be appropriate to meet the contingencies and future needs in any one year of all schools in the MAT, whereas each school governing body might be more cautious and aim for 10% if setting a level on its own.

There is, however, a risk with pooling across geographical boundaries that schools in one area could be subsidising schools in another area. If parents discovered that a school in a MAT was taking this approach, they might choose not apply to that school, but to a school where the full funds were available for the education of their offspring.

This is an argument that balances are reducing because of the financial pressure that school currently face. There are certainly schools where revenue balances were lower in 2018 than in the 2017 accounts. But it is not yet a universal truth for all schools.

Could all schools in a local area be required to bank either with the local authority or an arm of central government? Such pooling would only work if these balances can be used rather than be treated as a deposit accounts. Pooling balances might also free cash being saved by schools for special projects at some point in the future for more immediate use, including cash being accumulated for capital projects. There seems little other justification for revenue balances of more than £1 million being held by some secondary schools other than future capital projects, especially while other school have insufficient funds.

Funding schools is a tricky business, but money should not be tied up in reserves when it can be released for improving teaching and learning.

Staying put

By a strange quirk of fate I had a meeting in Portcullis House at 6pm on Tuesday. While the Palace of Westminster itself may have been buzzing with excitement, across the road the parliamentary estate was emptier than I have ever seen it on a day when parliament was sitting. Apart from the security team and catering staff looking for customers, the building was largely deserted.

Still, the meeting will allow me to say if asked where were you when the historic vote took place that I was at Westminster. It will join those other two historic ’where were you’ moments’ in my life – JFK’s assassination – at a church sale of work – and the demolition of the Berlin Wall – on the Friday morning telling a group of Year 1 BEd students that they should always remember where they were when they heard the news that the Wall had fallen.

However, the object of this post is really to consider the report today that surveyors and estate agents are gloomier about the housing market over the next three months than at any time for 20 years, albeit due to uncertainty over Brexit.

If the housing market does lock up over the next three months, then there will be implications for schools, given that so much of their income is tied to pupil numbers these days. Some schools may benefit as they will keep pupils that might otherwise have left for pastures new, but if turnover in the housing market really slows down, then there will be losers as households with grown up children stay put and are not replaced by new young families looking for school places.

Some developers may find sales on new estates slow down, and the new school being built will be faced with the choice of either opening with fewer pupils this September or deferring opening for another year and thus helping increase pupil numbers at other local schools. As all such schools are either academies or free schools of one variety of another, it only impacts on local authorities in terms of their ability to manage the overall provision of schooling in their area, something government hasn’t been overly concerned with in recent years.

Of course, we might see some extra spending on marketing and publicity as schools seek to fill empty places using cash better spent on teaching and learning. Ever since the doctrine of parental choice came into being after 1979, the idea of glossier brochures, open days and league tables has come to dominate the annual round of school selection.

Should the DfE follow up on its new free vacancy site by designing a free marketing portal for schools to reduce the cost to schools of recruiting pupils? The DfE could then ban excessive spending by individual schools. However, it would also have to stop practices such as providing free buses for pupils from some locations, something parents would not welcome.

Then there is the other side of ‘staying put’. What might teachers decide to do in the present circumstances. Will they stay as well or will they go, perhaps overseas in even greater numbers?

 

School funding – is it ever enough?

The Education Policy Institute, where David Laws, ex-Education Minister is Chair of the Board, published a report on school revenue balances today. The data on school balances discussed in the report in maintained schools comes partly from the same DfE source discussed in a post on this blog on the 12th December 2018.

Simplistic analysis of the report produced comments that the Report showed schools were under-funded. This was because one in ten of the remaining maintained secondary schools had a deficit overall and many others were in deficit in the latest year data was available for from the government. In reality, as the EPI report discussed, the picture is both more nuanced and more complicated than a bald assessment that schools don’t have enough funding, although pressure on 16-19 funding almost certainly does need attention.

What is less clear is the extent to which the former funding formula created winners and losers and whether the new formula will help redress the balance in the future. Personally, I don’t think it will. However, there also needs to be more understanding as to why these one in ten maintained secondary schools cannot live within their means for several years and more schools are now in that position?

As EPI note, academy chains have fewer schools with deficits and are able to move money around between schools. Local Authorities cannot do this to help schools over a temporary crisis. Should the remaining maintained schools now be treated as if they were a Multi-Academy Trust, allowing cash to be moved between schools?  If local financial management means the cash provided for a school is for that school, then MATs should not be allowed to take any cash away from one school to help another and can only charge for services provided.

The EPI report covers this point in their policy recommendations

  1. With increasing financial pressures on schools – particularly in secondaries – the government should consider before the Spending Review whether higher per pupil funding is needed, or whether efficiency savings can make up part of the current shortfalls. It should especially focus on the strains faced by many secondary schools, and assess whether changes in pupil numbers are likely to ease financial pressures, or whether these will prove more enduring.
  2. Further consideration should be given to what extra help or advice can be offered to those schools facing large deficits.
  3. The government should determine the reasons for the lower level of in-year deficits in academy trusts, and whether there are any lessons to learn from this.
  4. The government should also look closely at the level of “excessive”, unallocated, surpluses and consider if existing rules allow for these resources to be used effectively.

The last recommendation from EPI is interesting, especially in view of the concerns over deficits. As I noted in December, some schools have balances equivalent to 20% of their annual income and there are schools with more than £1,000,000 in reserves. My view, as expressed in December, is that revenue income is for spending in the year it is provided ad for the current pupils, although setting a sum aside for depreciation is now acceptable.

Finally, TeachVac www.teachvac.co.uk was established to help schools cut costs by providing a free vacancy service to schools. I am delighted to record TeachVac handled nearly 55,000 vacancies in 2018 and has a great start to 2019, breaking records. Just why the DfE needs to run a rival scheme isn’t clear.