900th post: Solar or PV?

I thought I would save this post for something special, but I couldn’t wait, so just noting in passing that today is my birthday, I wanted to comment on the apparent lack of inclusion of schools in Labour’s announcement about renewable energy this morning. After all, climate change and reducing fossil fuel use is something very urgent and special. For everyone

The announcement from Labour talks of solar panels when I think that they mean photovoltaic panels, generating electricity and not just heating water. More concerning to me is that there is no mention of installing such panels on schools or other public buildings in the announcement. Indeed, the announcement reads more like a bribe than an energy policy advocating renewables as a way forward.

Way back in 2007, in a chapter in a book edited by Duncan Brack and called ‘Reinventing the State’, I advocated that ‘schools should take the lead in areas such as renewable energy use.’ In the chapter I wrote in the book, I suggested ’the use of community bonds to fund capital developments associated with both energy saving and the adoption of renewable supplies’. I also suggested that such schemes would also help in the education of future generations about the need for the responsible stewardship of our plant.

Earlier this year, I suggested all governing bodies should be required to undertake an audit to see if they can reduce the carbon footprint of their school and increase the use of renewable energy. I suggested starting by substituting cooking by gas with cooking using electricity in school kitchens. Schools might also encourage more cycling and walking to and from schools and less use of parent’s cars to transport pupils. How about a policy of some school minibuses being electric powered, especially where they are only used for short distance journeys.

Councils that commission home to school transport could require all taxis undertaking journeys of less than a specified distance to be electric powered vehicles and, if operators want to charge more, perhaps councils could offer lease deals to prevent costs spiraling out of control.

I wonder if new schools are being built with grey water recycling facilities and other energy saving specifications. Maybe, like sprinkler systems, the government doesn’t think these type of changes are appropriate for new schools?

As regular readers know, I also have a think about how school playgrounds and other outdoor spaces could be used to help create renewable energy during the long periods of the years when they are not being used for their designated purpose. Someone told me of a road surface being trialed in France that might be used. I will see if I can follow up on this idea.

Finally, has your school introduced a policy to eliminate the use of plastics where possible and how well are you succeeding? Should the DfE being providing more help and encouragement?







Not Full Circle?

In the early 1990s, I sat on Oxfordshire’s Education Committee. At that time, we were forced to outsource the county’s school meal service. The contract went to an offshoot of what was then CfBT,. After several changes of direction and contractor, the one constant was the need to outsource such services. With the coming of local management by schools, first grant maintained schools, then academies and finally all schools were allowed to do their own thing and decide either who to appoint or even to provide the meals service themselves. With the collapse of Carillion, the question is whether the wheel is now turning again and creating a climate for a politically controlled in-house delivery of services once again?  Of course, while schools retain the purchasing decisions, as the budget holder, there will never be a return to the previous system of a centrally imposed system.

In the early days of this blog, in 2014, I wrote about some of the issues facing councils and contractors, especially over the savings in staff costs -see https://johnohowson.wordpress.com/2014/07/28/private-or-public/ and I wonder whether another stage in the cycle of government contracting is starting to emerge. In the immediate post-war period of central planning, public bodies often ran most services. There was no profit element to consider, but cost controls were of variable quality. The Thatcher era saw a mass transfer of services to private companies, with an expectation that costs would fall. Maybe some did, but others didn’t and some benefitted from the proceeds of technological change that drove down costs, but didn’t create competition and didn’t always drive down prices.

However, when costs have been reduced, it is clear that the profit element in a contract is often paying for more than the risk involved in the enterprise, especially where it is services that are being provided. I recognised this when I set up TeachVac and the DfE presumably recognise it with their latest attempt to establish a vacancy service for schools and teachers. In education, the problem is that many of the budget holders, schools, are too small to gain purchasing power, except where they can purchase locally.

Can and should democratically elected local authorities play a part in providing services to schools? We shall see. There are clearly those on the right of politics that see State provided services as an anathema. Presumably, they are not happy with the DfE creating a publically operated vacancy service for teachers?  I have yet to see any opinion from them, but it is an interesting test of where they see the limits of state action?

Finally, back to the Carillion saga. Fortunately, Oxfordshire had been in the process of recovering the contracts for both construction and facilities management services outsourced in 2012 to Carillion. This is as a result of pressure from councillors of all political parties. From 2014, issues about school construction projects not meeting deadlines were regularly raised at political group briefings. Oxfordshire’s residents are fortunate that the County has no Party with a large majority and every incentive for opposition parties to hold the ruling group’s feet to the fire over the management of services. But, in education none of this solves the bigger governance issues around the two parallel systems of academies and maintained schools.

Food for thought

Last Friday the DfE published its annual census data on schools. This deals with the number of schools and also provides details about the number of pupils. The headlines, larger classes and larger schools, were well covered by the media. The increases in pupil numbers were not unexpected, although the increase in average class size at KS2, while average class sizes at KS1 remained the same, might not have been predicted by everyone.

Average class sizes in the primary sector are now larger than a decade ago, but remain 1.4 pupils per teacher smaller than in 2006 across the secondary sector as a whole. Average class sizes in the primary sector are at their smallest in parts of the North East, where the growth in pupil numbers hasn’t really happened yet and largest in parts of outer London where they are approaching 30 pupils per teacher in both Sutton and Harrow at 29.6:1. Several other London boroughs have average class sizes of over 29 pupils per teacher.

However, one table that interested me and hasn’t been widely reported on was the take-up of school meals. This was the first year of the free school meals for infant pupils. At the census, the average take-up of school lunches by infant pupils was 85.6%. However, since pupils absent on the day are included in the overall total, the actual take up by pupils present in school was presumably somewhat higher than that in schools where some pupils were absent. Redcar in the North East had the highest take-up at 94.5% of it infant school population if you exclude the 100% in the City of London’s one primary school. Not far behind were a group of six London boroughs that included Kingston and Islington. At the other end of the table were Brighton and Hove, at just 70.5% take-up and Oxfordshire with the second lowest figure of 77.4% take-up. These authorities were followed closely by Thurrock, Medway and Hillingdon. The south east had the lowest take-up of any region at just over 81% whereas Inner London averaged over 90% take-up, closely followed by the North East region.

It is difficult to know what to read into these figures on take-up. Are families in affluent areas happy to ignore the free meals on offer or were these authorities where the meals service had collapsed after the assault on provision during the Thatcher years? The former clearly doesn’t work everywhere as a reason, otherwise places like Kingston upon Thames would not be so close to the top of the list. Perhaps, parents in these areas understand the value of the £400 of saving taking up the free meal deal can provide, especially when the alternative is spending income taxed at 40%.

It isn’t a rural urban divide either, so may be some other factor is at work. As a councillor in Oxfordshire I will be asking questions about why the take-up is so low locally? But, the Tory cabinet member was always opposed to the free school meals policy, so that may have had some effect.