Admissions still a headache for everyone

The DfE has recently published data about appeals for admission to primary and secondary schools. The data relates to admissions for the start of the 2018-19 school year; mostly for September 2018, but some schools may start their year in August. Although the data relates to admissions to any year group at the start of the school year, it seemingly doesn’t cover in-year admissions from parents moving into an area during the school year. There also doesn’t seem to be any mention of special schools and the evidence appeals could provide about the pressure on places in that sector. The basic information is available at  https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/admissions-appeals-in-england-academic-year-2018-to-2019

As pressure on primary places has eased, with the downward trend in births, so the percentage of appeals lodged in relation to admissions to infant classes in the primary sector has also reduced; from 3.3% of admissions in 2015/16 to 2.0% for the 2018/19 admission round. There has been a similar, but smaller percentage, decline in appeals for places in other years in the primary sector.

By contrast, in the secondary sector, where pupil numbers are on the increase, appeals are on the increase, up from 29,000 in 2015/16 to nearly 38,500 for the 2018/19 admission round. The percentage of these appeals decided in the parents’ favour has also been in decline during this time period as pressure on places has intensified.

This data is important to parents that will soon be struggling with the admission process for 2020. Local Authorities must publish their admission booklets by the 12th September, in order to allow parents to express their preference for schools by the end of October, for the secondary sector, and by early 2020 for the primary sector.

Last year, parents in Oxfordshire faced the problem of deciding whether or not to apply for a place at a school that didn’t exist. Some parents in the London borough of Enfield face the same prospect this autumn. Wren Academy want to open a new school and have created a set of admission criteria, including:

The remaining places will be allocated equally between Foundation and Community applicants as follows:

  1. a. Faith places (up to a maximum of 92) allocated in the following order: i. Up to 55 places for Church of England applicants ii. Up to 37 places for other Christian faith applicants b. Community Places (up to a maximum of 92) for all other children 
  1. Where there are places available in either category 3 or 4 above,these will be filled from the other category.

Leaving aside the issues parents will have about whether they can apply for both a Foundation category faith place and a community place as well, and whether both parents need to be of the Christian faith for a Foundation place or just one will do, there is the issue surrounding the fact that the school hasn’t yet been created by the DfE, and thus no Funding Agreement has been signed.

The DfE really needs to update the Admissions Code to deal with this situation and make explicit that any school included in the admissions booklet is guaranteed to open the following September.

 

 

 

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School places still needed

Pupil place planning is at the core of a successful education system. The DfE has recently published a new Statistical First Release about school capacity 2017: academic year 201/2017. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/school-capacity-academic-year-2016-to-2017

The headline is that 825,000 places have been added to the school estate since 2010, a net increase of 577,000 primary places and 248,000 secondary places. Between 2016 and 2017, 66,000 primary places and 23,000 secondary places were added. As is generally known, the pupil population has been increasing and that increase has now started to reach  the secondary sector after a period where rolls in secondary schools had been declining: indeed, they still are a the upper end of some schools.

Whether or not new schools are needed to cope with the growth in pupil numbers depends upon the degree of spare capacity in the system: hence the DfE’s capacity surveys. However, that capacity has to be in the places where it will be needed, otherwise it is of little use. During periods of reducing pupil numbers canny local authorities always used to try to close their worst schools whether selected on performance grounds or because of the state of the buildings. They know that when pupil numbers started increasing again someone, usually central government, would have to pay for a new school. The decline in local authorities’ power and influence in education rather put a stop to this practice, but a couple of academy chains have closed schools that were uneconomic because they couldn’t attract enough pupils.

The DfE latest finding was that the number of primary schools that are at or over capacity has remained relatively stable since 2015, following a long term increase. The number of secondary schools that are at or over capacity has increased slightly since 2016, following a long term decrease. This suggests that the growth in the primary school population may be nearing its peak, at least at Key Stage 1. The DfE confirms this, by stating that local authority forecasts suggest primary pupil numbers may begin to plateau beyond 2020/21. Secondary pupil numbers are forecast to continue to rise as the increase seen in primary pupil numbers arrives in the secondary phase. Indeed, secondary school rolls will continue to increase well into the next decade. This is good news for anyone thinking of secondary school teaching as a career.

I have some concerns that the capacity in the secondary sector may not be increasing fast enough to meet the demands of the known increase in the school population. While it is still easy for a local authority to work with a developer over the creation of a new primary school for a housing estate, few estates are large enough to generate a developer provided secondary school. Asa result, the DfE will almost always have a bigger role to play in the development of new secondary schools.

At least in Oxford, the track record of the Education and Skills Funding Council in ensuring enough secondary places is mixed. All new schools must be ‘national’ schools under the free school and academy badges. County place planning identified a need for a new secondary school in Oxford City by 2019. An academy chain offered to sponsor a new school –call it a free school or an academy, it doesn’t really matter – finding a site was always going to challenge the local authority and the EFSC has now reached a position where the school seems unlikely to open in 2019. Such a situation is unacceptable to me. If the local authority had failed, parents could take the feelings out on local councillors at the next election. Civil servants in Coventry are protected from such democratic action, but I suppose might risk their jobs if local MPs felt affected. In this case, there are no Tory MPs in the City of Oxford and indeed, at present no Conservative councillors at any level of government.

If the government cannot take front-line responsibility for school place planning and the delivery of these places, then it should be fully returned to competent local authorities across England.

More to attend school of their choice

Purdah is turning out to be a curious state of affairs during the referendum campaign. Normally, during a general election, virtually everything in government stops. However, the DfE seem to be carrying on as normal in some ways but not in others during the current period of purdah. Yesterday, the statistical release on the admissions round for September 2016 was published. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/secondary-and-primary-school-applications-and-offers-2016

There was the usual headlines about London parents being less successful than those elsewhere. However, to fully understand the London data, compared with the rest of England, you need both a sense of history and a knowledge of geography. The tightening of rules regarding free home to school transport by many shire counties over the past two years, as austerity has taken hold in local government, inevitably means more parents have no choice of school unless they are willing to pay for travel. Thus, many rural areas have more than 90% of parents receiving their first choice of school even at the secondary school level.

In London, where travel anywhere across the capital is free for travel to school regardless of parental income, parents can make a choice knowing that if unsuccessful they will still be offered a place in a school somewhere. Providing the figures by borough is even more unhelpful in London where the construction of secondary schools, was largely governed by the former LCC and it successor the ILEA often many decades ago. For various reasons, the outcome for the location of schools was not evenly spread around the then boroughs. Add in factors such as single-sex schools and faith schools and even single-sex faith schools and the distribution only makes sense at a greater level than that of the individual borough.

Nevertheless, some of the London problems may be the result the growth of 2.8% in the number of applications received this year to 548,006, compared to 533,310 in 2015. DfE officials said the increase was due to a “rise in births which began in the previous decade”: no surprise there, and London is likely to have seen a growth of more than 2.8% in applications.

The gap between the national average and outcomes for school places in London is much less at the primary school levels that at the secondary, level with Barking & Dagenham even doing better than the national average. This is despite I seem to recall dire warning some years ago of a shortage of school places in the borough.

Indeed, 84.1% of 11-year-olds across the country landed their first preference, compared with 84.2% in 2015 and 88.4% of children seeking primary school places were offered their first choice, up from 87.8% last year. This improvement suggests that the funds David Laws pledged for school building programmes, when he was the Minister, may be starting to have an effect even despite the growing school population. It may also reflect the work done by many local authorities to manage pupil place planning. This is a service that government doesn’t always seem to fully appreciate, especially when dumping a free school or UTC in an area where it is not helpful to effective place planning for all pupils.

Hopefully, the DfE now realises that overall planning at a national level just wouldn’t work and that effective local decision-making, especially for primary education must be retained and even encouraged.

 

Crisis, what crisis?

Normally I have a great deal of time for Fiona Millar and her comments about education. However, her column in today’s Guardian (4th September) did raise my hackles somewhat. It all stems from a Local Government Association spokesperson’s remarks yesterday about a ‘crisis’ in school places for primary schools. Now that’s just the sort of story editors have had pencilled in as part of their forward planning for September, and the need for a ‘start of term’ education story, as Fiona knows very well. The LGA spokesperson talked not of a ‘crisis’ this September, and thousands of children still looking for a school place, which seemingly there isn’t, but of one two years down the road in 2015. Now it just so happens that 2015 is an election year, as Fiona Millar is quick to point out, but any September shortfall that year might not be apparent until after a spring election, so where’s the political mileage in that unless you run the story now. The Daily Mail, an unlikely companion for Fiona Millar, but presumably happy to back a Tory Councillor, has also run the story for the past two days with a shocking account that raises the spectre children on a three day week.

There are two years to solve this problem, so it’s possibly a bit early for screaming headlines, especially as councils across the country have been planning for this, as the Cabinet member for Coventry made clear in a BBC local radio discussion I had with him yesterday morning. I suspect the whole thing is an attempt to secure more funding from central government because, again as Fiona points out, councils will find it a challenge to fund the new provision needed from their own resources, especially when faced with the significant drop in overall funding for local government as a whole that we are well aware of by now.

Where I do agree with Fiona is that what used to be an relatively easy planning exercise for most local councils has become more challenging with the addition of free schools, academies – in their various Labour and Tory guises – and UTCs and studio schools plus the ups and downs of the housing market. But London councils have had to manage complex arrangements with cross-boundary transfer for many years. So Fiona, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to say ‘something has gone badly wrong’. It might go wrong in the future, but there is time to prevent that happening. And, by the way, if the Labour government had listened to the London Councils in 2007 it would probably have stopped its policy of building replacement secondary schools and spent the cash on primary school places. However, when the present government moved to do just that, it was faced with a judicial review.

Along with Fiona, I also think the government has to decide who is running our schools, and have written about that issue before. And, as regular readers will know, at present I am more worried about a teacher supply crisis next year than a theoretical school place shortfall in 2015. But, time is running out, especially if you need to build a new school.

Funding for new school places: who has the ultimate responsibility?

The Public Accounts Committee has just published a short report into the Department for Education and the capital funding for new school places* following anxiety about the supply of places to meet the growth in the school population. It is worth highlighting the following paragraph from the summary of the Committee’s Report:

The Department does not have a good enough understanding of what value for money would look like in the delivery of school places, and whether it is being achieved. In response to fluctuations in local demand local authorities can direct maintained schools to expand or close but do not have this power over academies or free schools. Local authorities need to have mature discussions with all parties, including the academies and free schools, to resolve any mismatch between demand and supply for their communities as a whole. We hope that discussions at local level always prove successful, but the Department needs to be clear about how it will achieve the best value for money solutions in the event that local discussions fail to achieve a resolution. This has to be in the context that Free Schools and Academies are directly accountable to central Government, but the Government has no mechanism to force them to expand to meet the demand for school places. In addition, the Department does not sufficiently understand the risks to children’s learning and development that may arise as authorities strain the sinews of the school estate to deliver enough places. The imperative to increase the quantity of school places should not be achieved at the expense of quality.

This debate was further articulated in paragraph 14 of the report. The Committee asked the Department how it would resolve matters if, for example, it would be better for an academy or free school to expand or to close in accordance with changing demand in an area, but the particular school(s) did not wish to do so. The Department told The Committee that such situations are best settled by sensible discussions between professionals in the area concerned. The DFE said that such situations are intensely local and that, as opposed to a central direction from government, it would rather see local authorities and schools working collectively to meet such challenges. The Department assured us that it monitored these matters closely and that all cases so far had been resolved properly by discussion. The Department stated that, were it not to find a solution through discussion, it would look at the individual circumstances and make decisions accordingly. The parties involved need to be confident that a process to resolve these matters exists.

The Committee’s Report commented it hoped that discussions at local level always prove successful; it added, however, we would like to receive greater reassurance about the actions the DfE will take in order to help resolve matters to achieve the best value for money solutions in the event that local discussions break down.

Now in response to what is happening in Oxfordshire, I find the DfE’s comments curious since they have side-stepped the question of what happens if the DfE sanctions a new school where there is clearly an over-supply of places in the short-term. Both the UTC in Didcot and the Studio School in Banbury are in areas where the local supply for school places in the 14-18 age range is clear sufficient for the next few years, unless there is a dramatic upturn in house building. That hasn’t stopped the DfE introducing these two new schools that will make the position in terms of overall places even worse in the short-term, as I indicated in an earlier column. Whether the capital resources would have been better applied providing additional primary school places in schools where parents want their children to attend is a moot point. Indeed, the Committee recognised that the present system might force local authorities to expand poorly performing schools, because they had no choice of an alternative.

It does seem odd that more than 140 years after the creation of State Education such a basic issue as the provision of places for every child should have caused so much confusion and anxiety. It may be fun to create new types of school, reform the curriculum, or even take on the teachers, but a Secretary of State also has a Department to run, and successive holders of that office under both the present coalition and the previous government don’t always seem to have realised their duty of care to provide a service fit for everyone who uses it, and not some of them. The next crisis in Minister’s in-trays is probably around the matter of teacher supply. Let us hope that they don’t make the same mistakes as has happened with the supply of school places. The provision of teachers is, after all, just as basic an issue as the supply of places. After 140 years we ought to be getting both right not risking serious shortcomings in both. That’s not the way to a world-class education system.

* http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201314/cmselect/cmpubacc/359/35904.htm