Support ‘Looked After’ young people’s education

In my post on 11th June, after the outcome of the general election was known, I suggested some issues that could still be addressed by a government without an overall majority. First among these was the issue of school places for young people taken into care and placed outside of the local authority. They have no guarantee of access to a new school within any given time frame at present. It seemed to me daft that a parent could be fined for taking a child out of school for two weeks to go on holiday but a local authority could wait six months for a school place to be provided for a young person taken into care. (Incidentally, the parent whose case went to the Supreme Court faces a new hearing in his local Magistrates’ Court today following the ruling from the highest court in the land.)

On Tuesday, I asked a question of the Oxfordshire Cabinet members for Education and Children’s Services about the extent of the problem of finding school places for ‘Looked After’ young people. The question and answer are reproduced below.

Question from Councillor Howson to Councillors Harrod and Hibbert Biles

“How many children taken into care over the past three school years and placed ‘out county’ have had to wait for more than two weeks to be taken onto the roll of a school in the area where they have been moved to and what is the longest period of time a child has waited for a place at a school in the area where they have been re-located to during this period?”

Answer: Over the past three years it has been exceptional for a ‘Looked After’ Child to be taken onto the roll of an out of county school in under two weeks. Indeed, of the nine cases of primary age pupils we’ve looked at, the quickest a pupil was placed was 12 days (there were two) and the slowest was 77 days. For the 22 secondary age pupils the picture is even worse, with 3 weeks the quickest placement and a couple taking fully 6 months to get some of our most vulnerable young people into a stable school setting.

he main reason for this completely unacceptable state of affairs is that the Council has no power to direct an academy to admit a ‘Looked After’ Child. The only way we can force an academy’s hand is to get a direction from the Educations & Skills Funding Agency and this, as you can see from the foregoing times, can be a very long winded bureaucratic process. The fact that it takes so long for academies to admit our ‘Looked After’ Children shows how doggedly our officers pursue the matter; I suspect that many other local authorities simply give up when they meet an intransigent academy that doesn’t want to take responsibility for educating their vulnerable young people.

I found the answer deeply depressing. However, the good news is that MPs from the three political parties representing Oxfordshire constituencies have agreed to work together to take the matter forward. Thank you to MPs, Victoria Prentice, Layla Moran and Anneliese Dodds, for agreeing to seek action to remedy this state of affairs.

If readers have data about the issue elsewhere in England, I would be delighted to hear from you, so pressure can be put on officials nationally to ensure a rapid change in the rules.

Class rules: not OK

The Social Mobility Commission is an advisory, non-departmental public body established under the Life Chances Act 2010. It has a duty to assess progress in improving social mobility in the United Kingdom and to promote social mobility in England. Today it has published a report which finds that nearly half of people (48 per cent) believe that where you end up in society today is mainly determined by your background and who your parents are. This compares to 32 per cent who believe everyone has a fair chance to get on regardless of their background.

The Social Mobility Barometer uncovers feelings of deep social pessimism among young people with half (51 per cent) of 18-24 year olds agreeing with this statement compared with 40 per cent of those aged 65 and over. The full report can be accessed at www.gov.uk/government/organisations/social-mobility-commission and is based upon data collected in March, well before the announcement of the general election, although during the period when campaigning in the shire counties for the county council elections was already underway in some parts of the country.

Although the report makes depressing reading in many aspects of its conclusions, there are some interesting and more optimistic observations on which those that believe in greater social mobility can use to build. It is clear that the country almost certainly did feel at the time the data was collected for this report that austerity had gone too far in hitting the poor. 49% thought that those ‘who are the least well off’ did not receive enough government support and this rose to 61% for ‘those just managing’, whereas 58% thought that ‘those who are the most well off’ received too much government support. I am sure that those sentiments played out in the voting patterns in the general election. What, because of my age, I call the 1945 effect. That was the election when the population was finally able to express an opinion on the 1930s decade of hardship and ignored the win in the war voted for Labour and social justice.

Anyway, back to the Social Mobility Commission’s report and a few other interesting nuggets. There are clear regional divides, with London and the South East being seen as the area of opportunity and the North East being seen as a part of the country where you may have to leave to seek opportunities elsewhere. Wales and Northern Ireland are also seen as ‘go from’ areas, something the DUP will no doubt be discussing with the Prime Minister in terms of the price for supporting her government.

The fact that 64% of respondents said that they had received a better education that their parents is encouraging and something we do need to preserve for the future. The supply and recruitment of teachers is absolutely key to achieving this goal. Respondents placed education as the future outcome where prospects were brightest over the next ten years with 40% expecting the next generation to receive a better education. There is a lot of trust being placed in us as educators by society.

It was also interesting to listen to the Oxford Dictionary representative on the radio this morning talking about the level of understanding of the use of language among primary school children. The fact that ‘Trump’ is their word of the year is also very reflective of how engaged young people generally are in what is going on around them.

Of most concern in the report is the fact that there is still general acceptance that educational opportunity is still shaped by background, with those from poor backgrounds having least opportunities and that the level of opportunity deteriorates between school and university.

I have written about the education divides locally in Oxfordshire in previous posts, this report reaffirms what we need to do. Recruit the best teachers and properly fund the schools in areas of least affluence and motive the parents to understand and support the benefits of education.

For government, spread the wealth from London and South East by opening up opportunities elsewhere or continue to see a southward shift in the population that could be accelerated after Brexit.

 

 

 

Plenty still to do for the Education Secretary

So, Justine Greening stays as Education Secretary. This is probably not a great surprise given the hand the Prime Minister had to play with after the general election. Any expansion of selective schools seems likely to disappear from the agenda in fairly short order, except perhaps for allowing grammar school places to increase in areas with selective schools in line with the growth in pupil number.

This may allow some space for other less contentious issues to be moved up the agenda. Here are three of those that matter to me. Firstly, children taken into care that need a new school should be guaranteed a place within 10 working days of arriving in care. It is unacceptable that some in-year admissions can take months for these vulnerable, but often challenging young people.

Secondly, I would iron out all the financial anomalies that have been allow to creep into the system. Whether it is the Apprenticeship Levy; Business Rates or VAT, all schools should be dealt with on the same basis. And as I mentioned in the previous post, the status of school funding should be quickly make explicit. Will no school now lose out under the new formula?

Thirdly, school playgrounds and other outside areas represent some of the most under-used assets in the country. Many are covered in heat retaining black asphalt or acres of green grass. These could be ideal spaces for a low cost renewable energy drive to make use of the space that for 99% of the year isn’t fulfilling its primary purpose.

On an equally big scale, the Secretary of State needs to tackle the teacher supply crisis, by both stemming the rate of departure of existing teachers and finding ways to attract new entrants, such as through a graduated loan forgiveness scheme, although it wasn’t a great success last time it was tried.

A cross-party efficiency drive to seek out areas where schools can save money might help identify cost savings, such as in recruitment through the adoption of free sites such as TeachVac that don’t cost the government or schools anything.

There are no doubt many other areas of procurement where savings can be made to allow the 1% salary cap to be raised, at least for young teachers. Action on workload would also help to make teaching look more attractive as a career. Perhaps the Secretary of State could invite the Local Government Association to take the lead on a cost saving drive as part of a recognition that municipalisation offers better prospects than just leaving decisions to the private sector.

A drive to revitalise professional development for teachers, from new entrants still learning the ropes of the profession to school leaders taking on the most senior roles is something that would gain the Secretary of State much respect and would not be politically controversial.

Finally, looking at how the teaching profession will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the 1970 Education Act and plan for the next 50 years of change would be a potential feel-good and low cost exercise that could create positive headlines. Such headlines will be needed if, as some expect, we might face another general election in the autumn, as in 1974.

Who would have thought it?

Education has suffered some high profile losses in the general election. Not only has Neil Carmichael, the chair of the Education Select Committee in the last parliament lost his  Gloucestershire seat, but Flick Drummond, another Tory MP with an interest in education, also lost her Portsmouth South seat to a surprise Labour victory. Edward Timpson, the Tory MP with a strong interest in the Children’s Services part of the DfE brief also lost his Cheshire seat to a Labour education activist.

Sarah Olney, given the education brief for the Lib Dems after John Pugh retired from parliament, also narrowly lost the Richmond Park seat she had so recently won in the by-election.  Sir Ed Davey once held the education brief for the Lib Dems, but he may be earmarked for another role this time around. Layla Moran, the new Oxford & Abingdon MP might be a possible Lib Dem spokesperson, but she has little or no experience of the State school system except in relation to the examination system.

Now that the Conservatives have returned as the largest Party at Westminster, to be once again called Conservatives and Unionists after their success in Scotland and with the need to rely upon the Northern Irish DUP for a working majority at Westminster, where does that leave the manifesto? Much, I suspect, will depend upon the make-up of the ministerial team and their preferences and support for different policies.

I have already written about how TeachVac www.teachvac.co.uk can cheaply and quickly fulfil the idea of a national vacancy portal and almost certainly at a much lower cost than anyone else can offer. That would be a quick win on savings to offset possible issues of further pay restraint. I suspect that industrial action over pay won’t be far off if the government sticks to the one per cent limit on pay rises.

Although, I suspect, the DUP may favour selective schools, I find it difficult to see the spread of new selective schools really taking hold in such a finely balanced parliament. After all, some Tories were not greatly in favour of axing successful comprehensive schools in their constituencies and can be expected to remain sceptical of the idea that has been so strongly associated with the Prime Minister.

Even more urgent, and top of the new Secretary of State’s agenda, may be sorting out the effect of the -U- turn on funding announced during the election campaign. Is the National Funding Formula dead in the water or will money be found to compensate the losers and still allow the formula to go ahead as planned? This will require some fast footwork between the DfE and The Treasury and it might be that the present arrangements will continue for another year, much to the displeasure of the F40 Group.

Personally, I would like to see the role of the local authority strengthened and a cap on the pay of Chief Executives and other senior staff in MATs in line with the pay of local government officers carrying out similar functions. But, that might be a bit too radical.

We are in a new era, whether it last a full five year parliamentary term looks very doubtful at present, but the Conservative won’t be keen to offer Labour a second chance anytime soon, unless they are forced to by circumstances.

 

Minutiae for manifestoes

Political parties are now frantically writing their manifestoes 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.

School days mean school days

The judgement of the Supreme Court on the matter of whether term-time holidays are ‘acceptable’ in terms of pupil missing school is interesting. The lower courts clearly sides with the parent, and accepted the decision of the parent. This presumably was based, at least in part, on the contract between parent and State. The parent is required to secure the education of their child, but the State doesn’t prescribe how that is achieved, except in essence by stating a default position of schooling provided by the State. The Supreme Court had to decide the meaning of “fails to attend regularly” in section 444(1) of the Education Act 1996.

The Supreme Court would now seem to have very clearly reaffirmed that if you enter into that contract with the State for the State to educate your child, it is binding in terms of the requirement to deliver your child to school when the school is in session; illness and other specified unavoidable events apart being allowed as reasons for non-attendance.

Interestingly, the parent or child has historically had no come-back on the school or its overall operator if for any reason the school cannot open. Hence the residual duty remaining with local authorities to step in and ‘secure’ the education of a child if something happens to an academy or free school. Hence, also why the State has never guaranteed the level of teaching or the qualifications of those required to teach any particular child anything.

I have read the judgement of the Supreme Court, and Lady Hale in particular with interest and was struck by the following paragraph in what was an excellent summary of education history and the law on attendance that is well worth reading and largely free of legal jargon.

Finally, given the strictness of the previous law, Parliament is unlikely to have found it acceptable that parents could take their children out of school in blatant disregard of the school rules, either without having asked for permission at all or, having asked for it, been refused. This is not an approach to rule-keeping which any educational system can be expected to find acceptable. It is a slap in the face to those obedient parents who do keep the rules, whatever the cost or inconvenience to themselves.

Copied from: https://www.supremecourt.uk/cases/docs/uksc-2016-0155-judgment.pdf

We are now, it seems, much closer to the pre-1944 Education Act position where even a single day of missed school could be regarded as unacceptable and the commission of an offence. Parents will now need to take heed of the rules of the school.

However, I foresee some future questions over the legitimacy of absence by ‘illnesses where the illness is self-certified by the parent. Taking a Friday and the following Monday off ‘sick’ may be especially risky is a school creates a rule requiring a doctor’s note in such circumstances. The absence of a note might be an unreasonable absence.

The case still leaves un-resolved the twin problems of the price of holidays for families with children at school and the issue of families that work in holiday areas. The original Victorian legislation recognised we were in part an agricultural nation and that affected attendance at school. The current legislation doesn’t recognise we are now a service-based economy. For good measure, it also doesn’t recognise that the Victorian legislation on home to school transport provision needs bringing up to date as well.

 

No return to pupil teachers

Teaching should be a reserved occupation. You should only be able to call yourself a teacher if you have a nationally recognised professional qualification. Others can style themselves as tutors, instructors, lecturers or even childminders, but not teachers. After all, not just anyone can be a solicitor, doctor, and accountant, or use many other professional titles.

The next question is then: how do you obtain the qualification of a teacher. For most of the past fifty years, it has been accepted in the majority of advanced economies that teachers need both intellectual knowledge up to a certain level, (degree level in England), plus an appropriate preparation course to add to subject knowledge for those teaching in the secondary sector and proof a certain intellectual standard for those teaching younger children a range of different areas of knowledge in order to gain certification as a recognised teacher. So, where do apprenticeships fit into this model?

I have argued that advanced apprenticeships for graduates might not look very different from the existing post-1991 partnership model of teacher preparation, with a recognition of the need to marry time spent in schools with an understanding of how to be successful at managing the teaching and consequent learning of young people. Whether schools or higher education takes the administrative lead is really of little consequence. For most, higher education may be better equipped to handle the process as it is geared up to do so. Large MATs and even dare one say it local authorities operating on behalf of a group of schools may offer a sensible alternative as some of the successful and now almost middle-aged SCITTs have demonstrated. Such graduate apprenticeships might exempt schools from the punitive apprenticeship levy tax they currently face.

So, is there a place for a short course for eighteen year old as apprentice teachers: emphatically not. Any such course would fail the test of sufficient academic and intellectual knowledge and understanding. It is not the place of an apprenticeship to deliver such qualifications. After all, that is why Robbins moved teacher preparation for school-leavers into higher education in the 1960s, as I have pointed out before. To move back the other way would be an unbelievably stupid move. So, is there a route for apprentice classroom assistants that might later convert into teachers by taking a degree while at work? That might be worth discussing, but not unless the term ‘teacher’ has been reserved as otherwise the temptation to blur the edges of who does what is too great for both schools and governments faced with financial problems to ignore.

We cannot ‘dumb down’, to use a once popular phrase, our teacher preparation programme and still expect to achieve a world-class education system. I am sure that Mr Gibb, the Minister of State, will have realised that fact when preparing for his speech earlier this week on the nature of teaching and knowledge. I don’t always agree with him, but learners do need structure and signposting at the early stages before going on to develop their inquiring minds into independent thinkers. They also need teachers educated to graduate level.