16 to 19 discretionary bursary fund: allocation methodology consultation

Those readers that live in rural areas might be especially interested in replying to this consultation currently open for responses. https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/16-to-19-discretionary-bursary-fund-allocation-methodology

The closing date is on the 23rd May 2019, unless presumably a general election is called before then, in which case purdah rules might apply.

There is a whole section of the consultation about transport costs for this age group that will allow comments about how unfair the present arrangements are. Indeed, the consultation acknowledges the special position of London, and the TfL provisions for travel in the capital for this age group.

There is also a mention of the Grayling Rail Card that will help student using the remaining rural railways to travel to school or college, but does nothing for those travelling by bus or without any transport links at all.

The first section of the consultation is about replacing the present grant based upon student numbers times a fixed amount with a more nuanced grant based upon deprivation factors. The present arrangements were introduced when the coalition scrapped the Education Maintenance Allowance introduced by the Labour government.

Given the battering that the 16-19 sector has taken over funding, the new arrangements should not be used to further withdraw cash from the sector. If ‘need’ is taken into account, It must be related to courses studies as well as income Why should students using very expensive equipment, as say on engineering courses, be provided with a free education, whereas those on catering courses may be required to buy both specialist clothing and even sets of knives.

With the learning leaving age now at eighteen, the rules should be the same for this age group as for other children in education. Local authorities, if funded, would be much better placed to provide the transport arrangements than individual schools and colleges. But, that would require an acceptance that local authorities are a ‘good thing’, something not universally accepted in government.

 

So, if you have an interest in this area, please do download and reply to the consultation. The more responses about the transport issue the better. Perhaps, we can make a difference for families living in rural areas for a change.

 

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Goodbye to the Village School?

The Church of England appears to have accepted the fate of some of its schools will be closure. https://schoolsweek.co.uk/church-of-england-prepares-for-closure-of-village-schools/ As I have been saying for some time on this blog, the new National Funding Formula won’t save many of our small primary schools from closure, and may even hasten their demise. Where rural authorities could once ensure their local funding formula provided for the high overhead costs of these schools, the combination of a lump sum and the manner in which the sparsity factor is to be applied will probably sound the death knell of some small schools. How many, is a matter for debate and someone – the DfE as the national planning body or local authorities that will pick up any additional transport costs resulting from school closures – should probably now be doing some planning ahead to identify the extend of any closure, What is the acceptable time for a five year old to be on a bus or in a taxi across two journeys to and from school? Will the Church of England be lowed to provide the new larger schools to replace those closed as too small for the modern age?

Indeed, the whole issue of home to school transport arrangements should be reviewed so that they don’t fall disproportionally on rural counties and are almost totally avoided by the large urban authorities and London boroughs. Should secondary schools be able to attract pupils be providing free transport to the possible detriment of other schools in their local area as regards pupil numbers and the funding consequences? Is the High Needs Block sufficient to provide for the transport needs of children with SEND needs?

How important are schools to their communities? I note that Barbara Taylor, the secretary of the National Association of Small Schools and chair of governors of an Oxfordshire primary school with less than 50 pupils, accepted in the Schools Week article “that some underperforming small schools may have to close, but argued “most” perform well and are a “focal point of the community”. I would agree with that view, but it isn’t fashionable at Westminster.

Now is the time for those that support small schools, especially in rural areas, to put the pressure on MPs representing rural constituencies? If you want to ensure your local school will survive this unintended national policy outcome then send your MP an email to that effect before anyone has mentioned closure: afterwards may be too late as this requires a policy rethink and isn’t about saving just a single school. Many of these MPs represent traditionally safe Conservative seats, but parents and other family members often form a large part of their electorate. The alternative is to build more house in the village and attract enough new families to make the school secure, but that isn’t always an option.

Without a change of policy, the view of The Reverend Nigel Genders, head of education at the Church of England, as expressed in the Schools Week article, that some schools may have to close might just be an understatement.

More evidence of funding pressures

The government published data on planned local authority and school expenditure on Children’s Services in 2017-18 as Statistical First Release 48/2017 https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/planned-la-and-school-expenditure-2017-to-2018-financial-year

The data provides some further evidence of the pressure on both the education budget and the whole of Children’s Services with funding generally not keeping place with expenditure increases. The differences between academy and local authority financial years still pose problems for the DfE, although, after several years of qualified accounts, there has hopefully been some progress in the direction of transparency across geographical areas with different mixes of schools. Nevertheless in table 4 of the main tables there are a couple of dubious looking sets of data from two authorities.

With all the talk about growing mental health problems in school-age children, it is concerning to see the fall over the four year period shown in the statistics in spending both in total and per capita on the school psychological services. Planned spending is £12 per capita in 2017-18, down from £15 in 2014-15. I do hope that the difference has been picked up from public health or some other budget, but if not, this needs re-visiting.

Spending on SEN transport is, however, going in the opposite direction once the cost- of post-16 transport is taken into account. By contrast, as a result of changes in their policies by many local authorities, spending on general school transport is falling as the cost outside London is being transferred to parents through either expecting more to pay for transport or to change the schools their child attends from a catchment school to the nearest school.

Funding for Sure Start Children’s Centres and early Years funding has been decimated, reducing from £78 per head in 2014-15 to an estimated £48 in 2017-18. This has resulted in many centres closing. The net effects of this closure programme will only be revealed in the next few years.

Other areas to see large per capita reduction over the four year period include school improvement services and regulatory duties. In both cases, time will tell whether this is either a sharpening of efficiency in local authorities that previously spent well above the median amount or a real deterioration in the quality of services across the country? It is certain that a better organised service without the twin track academy and maintained school systems running in parallel might provide the biggest opportunity for savings. However, to tackle the legacy of Mr Gove would take real political courage and probably a more settled House of Commons than currently exists.

The pressure created by the increase in the size of the looked after sector has resulted in a 10% increase in spending over the four years analysed. Sadly, the two areas not to share in this increase are spending on respite care and on education of looked after children. Surely, both are reductions to regret and to try to reverse as soon as possible.

Both substance misuse services and teenage pregnancy services have suffered significant cuts over the past four years; hopefully in some cases because of less demand for these services, but keeping funding might have produced even better results in the future.

On the day that a major credit rating agency downgraded the UK’s Sovereign Nation credit rating again, citing public finances as one reason, these DfE figures must raise questions about whether the poorest in society are being disproportionally affected by austerity and whether that is what we want as a Society.

Minutiae for manifestos

Political parties are now frantically writing their manifestos for June 8th. The headlines are probably obvious: selective schools; funding; workload; testing; standards; teachers, and ensuring that there are enough of them, and possibly something about free schools and academies. But, beneath the surface there is room to include some specific ideas that might help various groups. Special education doesn’t often get a mention, nor do children taken into care, but both are among the most vulnerable in society.

Put the two factors together and make a placement outside of the local authority responsible for taking the child into care and you have a complex situation that the present governance of education regulations don’t really provide for. Hopefully, schools are willing to cooperate and offer a rapid re-assessment for an Education & Health Care Plan, where that is necessary and provide a place. But, what if a school doesn’t want to do so and is an academy, as an increasing number of special schools are becoming. Who has the right to demand that such a child is placed in an appropriate school setting as quickly as possible? It really is unacceptable for the government to worry about pupils that miss a fortnight’s education for a family holiday and fine them, but take no action for a child out of school for several months because no school place can be found for them. The 2016 White Paper suggested that local authorities should once again have the last word on in-year admissions, regardless of the type of school. I hope that all political parties will pledge to look at the issue of school places for children taken into care mid-year, as most are. If a fortnight is too long for a holiday, it is too long for a child taken into care.

At the same time, I would like a review of the school transport arrangements. It is grossly unfair that children in London, regardless of parental income, receive free transport, but those outside the TfL area are subject to archaic rules designed nearly 150 years ago. How many cars could we take off the roads if pupils travelled by bus or train to school for free, as in London? The free transport rule might also help with encouraging parental choice, as well as reducing traffic on the roads.

I would also like to see figures for the percentage of pupils from each primary school that received their first choice of secondary school rather than just figures for the secondary school. This would help to identify areas where there are either significant pressures or unrealistic choices being made by parents.

Finally, I would like to require an academy or free school considering closure to have to go through the same consultation process that a locally authority school is required to undertake. At present, academies and free schools can effectively just hand back the keys at the end of term, rather as sometimes happens in the private sector. However, this should not be allowed with State funded schools even after an unexpected Ofsted visit.

Don’t the Tories care?

Rumours about what might be in the budget regarding education are rife across the media today. We know of more money for T levels in further education but, more grammar school places are also being touted as a likely outcome.

One particularly pernicious suggestion that I have heard mention is that the Chancellor will announce that the rules on home to school transport will be altered. At present, outside the TfL area in London, where transport is free, most pupils only receive free transport if their nearest school with a place is over two miles for children up to eight and three miles for children over eight and up to sixteen. There are exceptions where the route is unsafe and for children whose parents are on certain benefits. The latter normally have a wider range of schools to select from where free travel is available.

The rumour suggests that this provision will be extended to allow all pupils free travel to a selective school up to fifteen miles away from their home. Now, one would have assumed that was the case anyway in selective authorities, but at least one such authority tried to create a ‘nearest school’ policy regardless of whether it was a grammar or a secondary modern, condemning some parents to pay to take up places at grammar schools. Preventing this anomaly seems sensible. Less sensible is applying the rule to any child within say 15 miles offered a place and forcing non-selective local authorities to pay for the transport cost even if it means a taxi at £5,000 per place per year.

More sensible would be for the Chancellor to take a look at the transport rules for post-16 pupils. There is no statutory requirement to provide free transport for this age group despite the raising of the learning leaving age to eighteen. The cost is most keenly felt by parents in Tory controlled rural areas, many of which are fully non-selective. Here there is often little choice except between a single secondary school and a distant further education college offering very different ranges of courses. In some areas, with sixth form or tertiary colleges, there is no choice if a child wants to remain in education. For pupils with special needs the distance can be even greater to attend specialist provision.

In my view, if the Chancellor is trying to do more than clear up the anomaly created by some Tory authorities trying to save money, he should support free transport for all 16-19 pupils on the same basis as for pupils from 8-16 ahead of favouring younger children attending selective schools.

Of course, he could go further and offer the same deal to all pupils across the country as pupils receive in London, free transport to all children regardless of distance travelled within the TfL area, but that would really cause chaos, even if it boosted parental choice. Not much chance of that then.