Local authorities have a role to play in education

For several decades, successive Labour and tory governments lambasted local authorities for spending too much on central office costs and depriving schools of cash. There were even those in Mr Gove’s time in office that may have believed that all money not handed to schools was money wasted. Now I read in a new report from Ofsted on an Oxfordshire secondary school that:

‘Directors of the multi-academy company have failed to ensure that leaders had enough capacity during and since the subsequent restructuring to bring about necessary improvements at the school.’

Presumably they felt more money should have been spent on additional leadership capacity at the MAT because Ofsted went on to say

The principal of the school is now accountable for six primary schools in the MAT. In the autumn term, she provided interim leadership for one of the schools, following the departure of its headteacher, reducing leadership capacity at the secondary school further. Poor strategic leadership by the MAT has contributed to the decline in the overall effectiveness of the school.

This faces head-on the issue I have raised in this blog before. Can we afford these small MATs with expensive overheads when funding for schools is under pressure and salaries are being held down below inflation for all except those that it is still open to negotiate their own salary increases should they wish to.

Reading the Ofsted report on this secondary school in the MAT is like reading a review of the worst of the former inadequate local authorities. In this case, the worst of the diocesan behaviour also seems to have been present, since it the MAT is entirely comprised of church schools.

It must now be clear that MATs are no longer the guarantee of success that those who dreamed them up believed they would be. They can be costly drains on school resources with insufficient economies of scale and no democratic accountability.

Why did the parents at this school have to wait for Ofsted. In the past they could have lobbied their local councillor and no doubt kicked the councillor out if nothing had happened. I know that there were, and probably still are, ‘rotten boroughs’ where councillors are always certain of election if they belong to the right Party, but most in my experience do a good job for their residents even in those circumstances.

Can we afford to spend millions of pounds on ineffective MATs and some of the other new ideas of the past decade when funding for schools is under pressure? Readers will know of TeachVac, now probably offering more teacher vacancies on one site than any other job board or website, and for free. The success of TeachVac demonstrates what can be achieved in driving down costs to effectively fund teaching and learning. Diseconomies of scale have the opposite effect.

If local authorities retain the oversight of children’s safety, they should also retain the oversight of their education by the State within their local area and the next government should finally recognise that point. At present the system doesn’t work and, as this Ofsted report demonstrated, there are risks that it can even be harmful to children. Such a situation cannot be allowed to continue.




Another aspect of the funding problem

What happens if a large secondary school at the centre of a multi-academy trust comprising a mix of both primary schools and a secondary school goes bust, perhaps because the original founders made some unwise decisions and there was then a drop in applications from local parents to send their children to the secondary school, aware that teachers were leaving the schools and concerned that standards might slip as a result? Or because there was an outflow of EU nationals from the area now Article 50 has been triggered.

Does the failure of the secondary school bring down all the primary schools in the MAT as well or can they survive on their own. At what point should the trustees decide to cut a financially unviable school adrift and will the Education Funding Agency allow them to do so if there are other assets in the MAT that might keep the school going for longer?

I am sure that there are civil servants in Coventry thinking about these types of scenario and perhaps role-playing them with Regional School Commissioners. How far have they progressed in their thinking should the MAT has a faith base and all the schools within it belong to the same faith or Christian denomination?

Sitting in the wings is the local authority, with whom the ultimate authority for providing every pupil with a school place still resides. What happens if the school that has just become financially unviable is in a rural area and the places at other schools require a large increase in the school transport bill? Who picks up the tab?

Obviously, the ideal solution is for the school buildings to open under a new administration, but will the government allow that to happen if it means writing off the debts of a school. To do so might encourage other schools to run up large deficit budgets, secure in the knowledge that the government will bail them out. One answer might be for the government to replace the trustees. But at what point? As soon as a deficit budget position is reached? When the deficit going forward looks as if it will reach a pre-determined percentage of current turnover after taking any falling rolls and thus falling income into account? If the financially unviable school is a faith school, can a new faith school replace it? To do so might well save on transport costs, but a replacement school that wasn’t faith-based might allow for transport savings. Of course, much will depend upon who has the ownership of the buildings?

With the demise of several UTCs and studio schools, plus a small number of other academies, these scenarios are no longer in the realm of the unthinkable. But, does there need to be a level playing field with some clear and open guidelines that don’t encourage schools to create deficits on their revenue spending.

At present, there is the ‘financial notice to improve’ from the EFA, but, the issue is what happens when the school or MAT doesn’t do so for reasons beyond its control? Time to re-read the Academies Financial handbook.


Finance comes centre stage

Up until 2017, education, and specifically the schools sector, has been a relatively easy ride for the government on the back of some historic funding levels that originated during the last Labour government and were largely protected under the coalition. Is 2017 the year when all this is set to change? Will parents start noticing the arrival of austerity in the nation’s schools or will they be persuaded that the new funding formula is actually providing additional funding for schools, especially in the more rural tory heartlands?

The Rural Services Network clearly subscribes to the latter view with a headline in their latest bulletin, Government plans will see small rural schools protected by a ‘sparsity’ funding factor’. http://www.rsnonline.org.uk/services/sparsity-funding-to-protect-rural-schools On the other hand, the NUT/ATL collaboration of teacher associations thinks differently according to their press release that combines the new funding formula with the recent National Audit Office publication to come to the conclusion that ‘school funding cuts [are] worse than predicted. JAMs [Just about Managing] hit hardest as school budgets plummet’. Clearly, this group remain a key target for those concerned with policy-makers.

The NUT/ATL press notice cites the following as average cuts for different groups.

Primary pupils

Cut for every pupil between 2015/16 and 2019/20

Schools with the least number of JAMs: £297 a year

Schools with the most number of JAMs: £447 a year

Secondary pupils

Cut for every pupil between 2015/16 and 2019/20

Schools with the least JAMs: £489 a year

Schools with the most JAMs: £658 a year

JAMs are calculated by NUT/ATL in the following manner: Our metric for JAMs at a school is the number of pupils who are currently not receiving free school meals but have done at some point in the last six years. We then put the schools in 10 groups based on the percentage of JAMs on the school register, and found funding averages for each group.

Now this assumes that those that come off the free school meals register move into work at the JAM level. But if they found work six years ago they might now be earning more. However, the analysis does seem to reflect that some schools are worse off than others.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, cutbacks of this magnitude are likely to affect staffing levels in schools. Whether schools will concentrate on keeping teachers and reviewing staffing levels for non-teaching staff will be a factor TeachVac will be monitoring during 2017. The number of entry level leadership posts may also come under scrutiny if schools are trying to save money. Other areas of the budget likely to be affected are, repairs and maintenance and spending on professional development. MATs may well want to ask  whether a better deal is possible on professional fees and staff in schools may query whether their executive head should earn more that the local Director of Children’s services?

Finally, for schools looking for saving, TeachVac remains the free recruitment site that costs schools, teachers and trainees nothing to use; visit www.teachvac.co.uk to try it out in 201.




Economic matters

An American President once said ‘the economy, stupid.’ Often that seems to be the case. Indeed, the austerity facing public services in Britain at present can partly be put down to the management of the economy in the first decade of this century. If governments cannot or will not raise revenue from either wealth or income and discount land taxes, then, unless the economy is growing strongly, they will be unable to expand public services, should they even wish to do so. There is also the argument that the State should not provide services for the many, but just a basic lifeline for the few, but we won’t go there in this post.

All this matters to education, as we have seen with the relatively parsimonious new funding formula announced by the government in the run up to Christmas. With adult social care, the NHS and other services probably ahead of education in the minds of many voters, it was always going to be a challenge to secure more funds for schools: especially, when rising pupil numbers mean more is needed in any case just to stand still. Finding even more cash for enhanced services did seem a bit like ‘pie in the sky’ at the present time.

Nevertheless, it remains to be seen how parents react to news that their children’s school might be having its budget cut, even by no more than a couple of per cent.  With no elections in London in 2017, save for by-elections, the government can probably weather the storm of protest in the capital.

Of more interest is the situation in the countryside where many small rural schools look like being losers. Indeed, a quick survey of primary schools in the Henley constituency, Boris’s old stamping ground, revealed that 35 primary schools might be losers under the new formula, while just ten would gain funds. Now, I am sure that the good burghers of the Chilterns and adjacent clay lowlands can afford to support their local primary school through some backhanded giving. But, I am not sure that was what they expected as the outcome from the new formula.

The alternative is to see a redrawing of the map of primary education in rural areas, with fewer larger and more efficient units based around market towns. To achieve this outcome, more pupils would be required to travel longer distances to school. The cost of this happily falls, not on the government, but on local council tax payers. Conservative County Councillors defending their seats in May 2017 will no doubt hope that school funding and the survival of village primary schools doesn’t become an election issue, along with grammar schools. For a revolt by parents in the Shires would be bad news for a government with a small majority at Westminster.

Watch for signs that the consultation on the funding formula isn’t going to plan and that the timescale for introduction is amended. If not, following on from cuts to rural buses, mobile library service, road mending, grass cutting and a host of other services, might 2017 be another year where the political map is redrawn?

TeachVac offers a helping hand

The Social Mobility Commission Report published earlier today is quite hard hitting on education. Gilliam Shephard, a former Conservative Secretary of State for Education is the Commission’s deputy chair, so this cannot be seen as just a rant from left-wing pro-local authority supporters. The full report can be found at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/569410/Social_Mobility_Commission_2016_REPORT_WEB__1__.pdf

A key recommendation in the section on schools relates to teachers.

Recommendation 2: The Government should fundamentally reform the process which recruits and distributes new teachers across the country.

The school-led approach to teacher training is not working to get the quality and numbers of teachers into the schools that need them most. The Government should introduce a new national system which acts as a front end for school led initial teacher training programmes and which provides central marketing, applications, screening and first stage recruitment processes (initial interviews). A system along these lines would provide economies of scale and would mean that teaching could better compete with other top professions in presenting a high quality marketing offer. The provider of this service could work with school partners to develop a process matching schools to candidates, heavily involving the schools themselves and ensuring a fair distribution of quality candidates.

This is the first serious criticism of the school-led approach to teacher preparation, and it is based not upon the quality of the training, but on how it works in practice. As the Commission say in the recommendation quoted above, it doesn’t get (sic) the quality and numbers of teachers in the schools that need them most.

The Commission didn’t mention the large sums spent on recruitment of teachers – £200 million on leadership recruitment was mentioned in the research published last Friday – and the lack of a coherent regional policy in preference for teacher preparation places being allocated in either schools or providers rated as of high quality even where they don’t deliver recruits into the schools that need them.

Regular readers will know that at this point I will mention TeachVac http://www.teachvac.co.uk that has for the past two years been offering a free recruitment site to the teaching profession. The aims of TeachVac were to provide high quality data about how the labour market works in real time and also to help schools reduce the cost of recruitment in order to allow more money to be spent on teaching and learning. TeachVac is effectively already offering part of the Commission’s vision and are happy to work with others to provide the whole process.

The Commission has other recommendations, including re-inventing the Schools of Exceptional difficulty Allowance of the 1970s whereby teachers were paid more to work in specific schools. The Commission should note that it has to be schools and not local authority areas else teachers at Kendrick School and Reading School would benefit from an area based scheme. Neither school has difficulty attracting staff for the reasons the Commission consider affect the outcome of children from deprived backgrounds in Reading.

Overall, this is an important report that reinforces many of the messages about what has happened to education. The over-emphasis by governments on structures and not outcomes together with competition not cooperation has stalled and even reversed the drive towards social mobility. As the Commission says bluntly. Selective schools in greater numbers are not the answer, if they are at all.

Walk or ride to school?

I had been wondering what had happened to the data on journeys to school that the DfE has produced at various times in the past. Thanks to a recent parliamentary question I now know the information is included in the Department for Transport’s travel survey. Their latest report on 2015 can be found at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/551437/national-travel-survey-2015.pdf This not the reference cited in the PQ, and Hansard should note that the link in the PQ doesn’t appear to work.

Perhaps the least surprising finding is that fewer older children walk to school. The survey found 48% of 5-10 years olds, compared with 37% of 11-16 year olds, walked to school. However, for journeys of under one mile only 78% of 5-10s walked compared with 87% of 11-16s, so the overall figure may reflect the longer journeys faced by some secondary age pupils, especially in rural areas. In both age groups the percentage walking had declined between 1995/97 and 2015 with, perhaps inevitably, more car journeys taking the place of walking. This may partly be the exercise of parental choice leading to the selection of schools further away from home and partly an anxiety about safety. Indeed, journey distances to education setting have increased by 15% between 1995/97 and 2015. Journey times as a result have also increased by an average of 21 minutes.

The survey also found 59% of 7-13 year olds that walk to school are usually accompanied by an adult. That would have been unthinkable 60 years ago when I started at secondary school. The main reason cited for accompanying a child is the issue of traffic danger. Sadly, apart from accompanying children to school, walking seems to become a less common activity as people become older.

There appears to have been a small increase between the two surveys in journeys by ‘other’ means that include rail and cycling. These ‘other’ forms of transport play a larger part in the journeys of secondary school pupils compared with primary school pupils. I have a secondary school in my councillor division that has a significant number of pupils that cycle to school: indeed, it may have more than any other school in the country, As a result, I am delighted to see any trend back towards cycling.

However, since the unweighted sample since in 2015 was 2,941 made up of 1,475 primary and 1,466 secondary age pupils the outcomes depend heavily on the statisticians have created a valid and reliable sample of the school population. There is some risk of error in the less common forms of transport with, for instance, cycling accounting for 4% in 2009 but only 1% in 2013.

However, as noted earlier, the main trend appears to be for walking to be replaced by a ride in a car to school. This isn’t a healthy trend for either the children concerned or for the air quality around schools where parents drive-up to drop their offspring off in large numbers. The notes to the survey do acknowledge the risk of sampling error.



Why are school under-performing?

There are times when I wonder whether the Tory announcements on grammar schools are merely a smokescreen to draw attention away from the fact that they haven’t been able to recruit enough teachers? Even if they genuinely believe that more selection will help some pupils do better, their responsibility as a government is to offer hope to the parents of all pupils and also to all pupils. The purpose of government is not to encourage any pupil to feel a failure. While Society accepts all cannot win prizes in competitions, education isn’t a competition, but rather an opportunity to draw out the best in everyone.

Rather than concentrating on what happens at eleven, when much of the damage is done, Mrs May might reflect on whether allowing local councils to axe Children’s and Sure Start centres was a good idea? My view is that the more we do to close the gap in the early years, the more that investment pays off later. The trouble is that the return isn’t a quick one, although narrowing the gap at the age when formal schooling starts might be helpful. The report last week of more children starting school not properly toilet trained, along with other reports of language and social skills gaps, shows the gulf we have allowed to develop in society between those with and those without. Hopelessness can breed extremism and all the risks history has shown us throughout the twentieth century that were associated with the consequences of allowing it to develop in a society. One wonder how far better education has helped create a situation where there are currently no wars in the Western hemisphere.

So, rather than concentrating on grammar schools and a way of finding an alternative to Free School Meals to measure deprivation, the Tories might want to look at the characteristics of children that fall behind expected rates of progress. Some have special needs, and these should be catered for. But, for others it may be attendance, where they sit in the class, the degree of encouragement from home or one of several other reasons that early years teachers can identify.

At present, the Pupil Premium helps one group of materially deprived children, but there may be others that are emotionally deprived, change school frequently and in mid-year, suffer from poor attendance or are caught by the digital divide, whether absolute or just governed by broadband speeds. These may not always be the same children. In this day and age we should know what works and help classroom teachers to identify and use the appropriate techniques, drawing on extra funding as appropriate. If, for instance the extra funding London schools receive over most of the rest of the country is shown to produce better results in a matched sample of pupils then we need to ask whether dealing with that issue should come ahead of creating more grammar schools.

What we need is a focus on quality assurance as a model and not quality control where those that pass the quality threshold go one way at eleven and those that don’t are sent down another path. Wherever that happens it is the wrong model.