Absence rates are still a concern in some schools

Earlier today the DfE published the results of the data collected about pupils’ absence from school during the autumn term of 2017 https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/pupil-absence-in-schools-in-england-autumn-term-2017 Not a lot had changed since the previous autumn term and the overall picture has remained broadly at the same level now for three years. However, as the DfE concede, – levels of authorised absence have decreased, while the levels of unauthorised absence has increased.

For state-funded primary and secondary schools, the authorised absence rate decreased from 3.3 per cent in autumn 2016 to 3.2 per cent in autumn 2017 and the unauthorised absence rate increased from 1 per cent in autumn 2016 to 1.1 per cent in autumn 2017. Part of the increase was down to the fact that that the level of absence among persistent absentees rose slightly from 11.4 per cent in autumn 2016 to 11.5 per cent in autumn 2017.

Illness is the most common reason for absence and heavily influences overall absence rates.  It accounted for 58.3 per cent of all absence in autumn 2017, a lower proportion than seen in previous years; it was 58.4 per cent in autumn 2016 and 58.8 per cent in 2015. This variation from autumn term to autumn term can be the result of winter illness patterns and in particular whether the flu season starts early or not. The level of absence for religious reasons is also variable from year to year; depending upon when major moveable festivals appear in the calendar. In 2017, there were some dates that fell outside of term time and that reduced the number of days pupils were absent.

Authorised family holidays are now very largely a thing of the past, but there is still an upward trend in days lost to unauthorised holidays, albeit the increase from the previous year was relatively slight. For some families the fine can be seen as just another expense as part of the overall holiday costs and if the holiday price is cheaper in term time there may actually be a cash saving even if it can affect a child’s education.

Interestingly, just over a quarter of pupils had no recorded absence in the autumn term. However, the trend towards not arriving on time is gathering pace, with 266,905 recorded occurrences. Not a huge number, but the highest figure for the past few years.

I fear 14-18 schools frequently seem to appear close to the top of the list of schools with well above average absence rates. In Oxfordshire, three of the eight schools with the worst overall absence rates are 14-18 schools. I need to check whether there are issues about how some pupil activities in these schools are recorded. Otherwise, it seems likely that turning schools into academies hasn’t proved a magic bullet in terms of curing high levels of absence: leadership is, I suspect, much more important than school organisation in bringing down absence rates. It might be worth asking MATs how much of their central funds are aimed at reducing absence rates in schools where it might be an issue?

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At least everyone is now talking about teacher workload

DfE press officers were unusually busy yesterday, with several announcements made to coincide with the Secretary of State’s speech at the NAHT conference in Liverpool – not a professional association solely for primary leaders, as some seem to imagine, but for leaders in all schools.

One of the most important announcements was that of the formation of a Workload Advisory Group to be chaired by Professor Becky Allen, the director for new Centre for Education Improvement Science at UCL’s Institute of Education. The appearance of senior representatives from the teacher associations among the membership makes this look like a reformation of the former body that existed under the Labour government. Assuming it produces proposals that are accepted by the DfE, then this Group should help Ministers restore some morale to the teaching profession by signalling that they are taking workload concerns seriously.

Announcements about the treatment of so called ‘coasting’ schools and forced academisation may well sound, if not the death knell, then certainly a slowing of primary schools opting to become academies. Why give up relative independence under local authority administration for the uncertain future as part of an Academy Trust, where the unelected trustees can decide to pillage your reserves and move on your best teachers and there is nothing you can do about the situation. That’s not jumping from the frying pan into the fire, but taking the risk of walking out of your house and leaving the front door wide open.

Hopefully, the Secretary of State is starting to move towards resolving the twin track governance system that has emerged since Labour and the Conservatives jointly decided to have a fit of collective amnesia about the key importance of place in schooling and also demonstrated a complete lack of the need for any democratic oversight of local education systems. My Liberal Democrat colleagues that demonstrated no opposition to academisation during the coalition government are, in my view, almost as equally to blame as the members of the other two main political parties for not recognising the need for significant local democratic involvement in our school system.

The Secretary of State might now be asked to go further and adopt the 2016 White Paper view that in-year admissions for all schools should be coordinated by local authorities; a local politician with responsibility for schools should also once again have a voting position on schools forum rather than just an observer role, especially as the NAHT have pointed out the growing importance of the High Needs Block and SEND education where links between mainstream schools and the special school sector is a key local authority responsibility. http://www.naht.org.uk/news-and-opinion/news/funding-news/naht-analysis-of-high-needs-funding/

The idea of a sabbatical mentioned by the Secretary of State was discussed in an earlier post on this blog, but there was little else on teacher recruitment in his speech.

If you want to listen to my thoughts on the present state of teacher recruitment, then Bath Spa University have just published a podcast in their Staffroom series where I answer a series of questions. You can access the podcast at https://soundcloud.com/user-513936641/the-staff-room-episode-10-crisis-in-recruitment and my interview is followed by a discussion between leading staff at the university on the same topic.

 

As expected: a bumper week for teaching posts

Well, as I expected, this week is shaping up to be the week with the largest number of vacancies for teachers and school leaders so far in 2018. TeachVac, www.teachvac.co.uk the free National Vacancy Service already operating across the whole of England, has looked at more 4,000 vacancies this week. This included repeat advertisements, re-advertisements and new vacancies.

We had expected this level of activity this week for the reasons Laura McInerney listed in her recent article in Schools Week https://schoolsweek.co.uk/fixing-the-madness-of-the-teacher-transfer-window/ She might have added the issue of school budgets and when schools are told how much cash they will have to spend in the next year or can estimate the direction of travel on the basis of pupil numbers. Secondary schools across much of the country are now looking at rising intakes and can plan forward on that basis for several years to come. On the other hand, primary schools, in many parts of the country are seeing reduced intakes, with the inevitable effect of reducing their income for the next few years, unless mergers and closures lead to some realignment of schools in the sector. Regular readers will know of my concerns for the future of small, and especially small rural, primary schools.

Anyway, the consequences of our funding model for schools when pupil numbers go up and down is an issue for another day. This week, we can discuss the consequences for schools that need to start searching for staff later in the recruitment cycle. TeachVac has been tracking the relationship between new entrants from teacher preparation courses and the demand for teachers from schools across four recruitment cycles, so we have a good idea of what the consequences of the under-performance into teacher preparation courses last September will mean for schools.

Earlier this month, on behalf of TeachVac, I provided both the DfE and ASCL with evidence from the TeachVac data that clearly identifies those subjects where the 2018 recruitment round is already showing signs of putting schools seeking to make appointments under strain. Until the DfE launches its own vacancy service across the country, it generally has no data of its own about the current recruitment round and must rely upon third party information.

Thirty years ago, I identified the government’s reliance on statistics – which they are generally good at collecting, although not perfect – with their lack of knowledge about management information on the day to day and up to the minute position in the teacher labour market. When central government didn’t manage schools such a lack was unhelpful, but not critical. Now with academies, free schools and the like, not knowing what is happening is a major failure.

TeachVac also supplies schools and those preparing teachers with up to the minute data on their local area, for use either when Ofsted comes calling and asks about the local labour market or when bids for teacher training places need to be justified on the basis of local needs.

Here is just one example of how policy may be affecting the labour market. TeachVac has recorded more vacancies this year in mathematics than in any of the last three years: is the spending on CPD for those already in post not working or is this a consequence of increasing pupil numbers or even changes in retention rates?

100 days and counting

Mr Hinds has now been in post as Secretary of State of Education just beyond the 100 day point, regarded as the first milestone for a politician by many commentators. During the same period in 2010 Michael Gove had already achieved the passing of the infamous 2010 Academies Act, despite having had to wait for the creation of the Coalition. However much many of us dislike its contents, and the subsequent effect on schooling in England, one must admire the political foresight of Mr Gove and his team of advisers.

As with all Mr Gove’s successors, there has been little sign of the same degree of ambition from the present incumbent of the office at Sanctuary Buildings. Now it is true that a minority government is in an even weaker position with regard to legislation than even a coalition. However, one of Michael Gove’s first acts at Defra this January was to attend both the Oxford Farming Conference and it alternative unofficial counterpart down the road. In doing so, he was making a clear political statement.

So, what has been achieved in the first 100 days by the Secretary of State for Education? Judging by Mr Hind’s speech to the ASCL Conference in March, it is more a matter of emphasis and a nudge here and there, than dealing with the big picture issues. A pause on changes in assessment and testing; more emphasis on reducing workload to calm down the teaching profession and a nod to the importance of technology. A sort of steady as you go regime.

So, what’s still in the Secretary of State’s in-tray? School funding hasn’t gone away as an issue, although it doesn’t seem to be playing very big in local elections across England. Parents haven’t yet seen the real effects of tightening budget. The fact that two of the three remaining maintained secondary schools in Oxfordshire had deficits of more than £1 million each at the end of 2017-18 financial years tells of pain yet to come. School Funding could be a big issue for Whitehall if teachers’ pay increases this year are more than was estimated by the Treasury in its school funding models.

Such an increase seems likely, since the Secretary of State hasn’t managed to tackle the issue of providing an adequate supply of teachers and stemming the outflow of those already in the profession. National teacher shortages are always seen as the responsibility of the government at Westminster, and 2018 is still not looking very healthy on the recruitment into training front. Failure to recruit trainees will impact in 2019 on the ability of schools to recruit new teachers and allows plenty of time for profession to mount any number of campaigns. The joint letter from a number of organisations sent to Mr Hinds earlier this week may be just the first in a veritable salvo of concern about this issue.

For me, the Secretary of State could make his name by regularising the parallel systems of governance between locally overseen maintained schools and nationally managed academies. Although not exactly the same situation, Mr Hinds may recognise, coming from a hospitality industry background that the 2003 Licensing Act did away with the dual system of liquor licences being issued by Magistrates’ Court and entertainment licences by local authorities. Our dual governance system for schools is a mess and, as I have said before, doesn’t help some of our most vulnerable young people such as children taken into care that need a place in a different school.

But then, a concern with social mobility also didn’t seem to feature large in Mr Hind’s first 100 days.

Educating children taken into care

Reflecting on my years as a secondary school teacher during the 1970s in Tottenham, I am sure that I taught many of what are now being called the ‘Windrush Generation’. These were the children from the Caribbean that followed their parents that came to Britain to help overcome the labour shortages faced by many public sector and nationalised industries in the 1950s and 1960s; nurses; bus drivers and conductors and railway porters and guards, as well as station staff working on the London Underground. I well recall the passion for the education of their children that was a feature of many of the parents attending open evenings.

Regular readers of this blog will know of my concerns for another group of young people that I view as being ignored by too many policy makers at Whitehall, hopefully not just for the sake of convenience and perhaps not ‘rocking the boat’. These are those children and young people taken into care and placed by a local authority outside of their local area; usually for very good safeguarding reasons, but sometimes because of local shortages of foster homes with appropriate experience.

In some cases, these young people are being denied an education, as schools either refuse admissions in-year or take inordinate lengths of time making up their minds. It is hard enough being taken into care, but to see your education disrupted through no fault of your own is to be punished for something that isn’t your fault. Tutoring isn’t the same as schooling and is often a poor substitute for these young people.

The DfE has a meeting later this week of civil servants and local authority officers that regularly discuss admissions issues, as well as exclusions and home to school transport matters. It is worth reminding the group that two years ago the 2016 White Paper mentioned returning powers over in-year admissions to local authorities. Such powers would go a long way to solving the problems facing these students.

Please will readers of this blog also ask their contacts to take up this issue and secure a decent education for these young people? I know that in some areas there have been concentrations of such children that can cause challenges for certain schools, especially secondary modern schools as the children mostly come from areas with non-selective secondary education and haven’t passed an entrance examination, even if the selective schools had any places in the appropriate year group, which most don’t. These schools may need extra help through a tweak in the Common Funding Formula, both nationally and by the local Schools Forum.

I would hope that Education Scrutiny and Oversight Committees around the country might also like to look at the issue of the educational outcomes of children taken into care and how they could be improved.

These are a group of young people that must not be allowed to become casualties of our system: they deserve better from us all regardless of our political persuasion.

Daft, illogical or just plain stupid?

The DfE’s recently published revised statutory guidance for the Induction of NQTs is dated April 2018. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/induction-for-newly-qualified-teachers-nqts The DfE website shows the Guidance as having been updated on the 1st April. Now, were this Guidance published anywhere else but on the DE’s own website, one might assume it was an elaborate April Fool’ day joke. But, one must presume that some hapless official was charged with uploading these changes on the day that the Teaching Regulation Agency (presumably TRA for short) replaced the now departed National College for Teaching and Leadership (NCTL). Whether the TRA will follow in the footsteps of the RAF and have an illustrious history lasting more than 100 years is probably not even a matter for debate. If it lasts 100 months it might be said to have done well.

This Guidance is another example of a ‘fine mess’ our school system in England has become. To quote from the document:

All qualified teachers who are employed in a relevant school in England must, by law, have completed an induction period satisfactorily, subject to specified exemptions (see Annex B).

The list of relevant schools includes a maintained school; a non-maintained special school; a maintained nursery school; a nursery school that forms part of a maintained school; a local authority maintained children’s centre; and a pupil referral unit (PRU).

Keen eyed readers will notice that missing from this list of ‘relevant schools’ where Induction is mandatory are independent school in England; academies; free schools; 16–19 academies; alternative provision academies; and city technology colleges. Induction can be served in these institutions, even in some cases independent schools, but it isn’t a requirement, as it is for NQTs working in ‘relevant schools’ as listed in the appropriate paragraph of the Guidance.

Schools in special measure – no mention of the term inadequate here- generally, even if a relevant school, cannot employ NQTs or offer Induction unless HMI have granted permission. But, that is what you might expect.

Interestingly, a teaching school that is an accredited ITT provider cannot be the appropriate body for an NQT for whom it recommended that the award of QTS should be made. However, the ban doesn’t seem to extend to other schools in the same academy chain.

So two schools next to each other. Both state-funded and employing new entrants into the profession can have very different rules governing the Induction Period of that NQT. Is that satisfactory? Should the DfE now accept that regardless of the historical nature of a school’s governance, if it is state-funded the same rules should apply to the Induction of new entrants to the profession?

Although fewer Children’s Centres now exist than was the case a few years ago, I do wonder whether they are suitable places to serve an Induction Year.  One requirement is that the Induction Year involve(s) the NQT regularly teaching the same class(es). Can this really happen in a Children’s Centre?

Perhaps the next revision might be based upon recognising the common needs of NQTs regardless of the type of school where they start their teaching careers. But, perhaps, there will finally be a wholesale review of this part of a teacher’s career following the recent consultation exercise on Strengthening Qualified Teacher Status and career progression and perhaps, the term ‘Teacher’ might finally become a reserved occupation title, only usable by those appropriately qualified and with QTS: we can but hope.

 

 

 

 

What are the aims behind a school funding formula?

Last week I attended a conference put on at the LGA’s conference centre in London by the f40 Group of authorities concerned about school funding, and how it is distributed. Despite its location close to Houses of Parliament, no representative from any London authority was listed in the delegate list. I suppose that’s not surprising in view of the relative distribution of funding across the different local authorities in England.

The historical differences between the funding of schooling across local areas in England goes way back into the history of State education and how it was funded. In an article I wrote in the Oxford Review of Education way back in 1982, I said that local government then managed eighty per cent of spending on education. Even then, recognition that monitoring of what was happening, as the education system developed from just a limited scheme of elementary schools into a more elaborate and widespread system, especially after the passing of the 1944 Education Act, was contained in an HMI publication of 1981 entitled Report of HMI on the effects of local authority expenditure policies on the Education Service in England.  (DES, March, 1982).

Over the next thirty-five years power flowed inexorably from local authorities towards central government. During this changeover period, school funding became more centralised, but also increasingly distributed directly to schools, without local government being able to do much more than try to influence what was happening.

Also, throughout the changeover period, there were calls for a recognition that the existing system was unfair and based upon factors that prevented some areas from funding education as they would have wanted. This was especially the case in the period between the 1944 Education Act and the late 1980s when local government funding, of which most education funding was a part, was not hypothecated and some authorities chose to divide up their spending in less generous ways in terms of funding schools than did others. However, the unfairness resulting from the local retention of business rates always meant some areas had to receive extra funding from central government once it was agreed that a minimum national level of funding was required to operate the school system.

After the Education Reform Act, the idea of curriculum lead funding gathered pace, and calls were increasingly heard for a National Funding Formula for schools. Despite work conducted during both the period of the Labour government between 1997 and 2010, and the period of coalition government, it was only the post 2015 that the DfE and Ministers grasped the nettle and produced the outline of a policy for such a Formula: possibly some Ministers might have wished that they had left well alone. Nevertheless, by 2018, a National Formula existed and was being implemented.

Despite the explicit basis of a formula for schools designed around four basic building blocks: basic pupil funding via an age-weighted pupil unit and a minimum guarantee per pupil; additional needs criteria; a school element including a lump sum and finally an area cost adjustment, the outcomes don’t seem to satisfy many as the f40 conference discussions revealed. Indeed, under the new formula the rank order of high funded and low funded local authority areas remains not totally dissimilar to what was there before.

Perhaps my greatest anxiety arising from the new formula, and expressed by others at the conference, as well as having been expressed before in this blog, is that small rural primary schools have generally not been given sufficient funds to survive the next few years in their present form.

Now, if that is what the government want in order to rationalise spending and cut out waste, so be it. Whether the votes in rural areas will see it in the same way, is entirely another matter. But, it does highlight how values and funding are inextricably linked. At one time Mr Gove, when Secretary of State, wanted to do away with the sump sum completely for all schools: marking certain closure for small schools. The present formula retains a lump sum, but as Peter Downes in Cambridgeshire has worked out, not one especially supportive of small rural schools. The triple weighting of additional needs through a deprivation factor, English as an additional language and prior low attainment of pupils can more than balance out the sparsity and lump sum factors when overlain by the use of a geographical area cost adjustment.

As was once said by commentators of a former system for allocating education funding in the 1970s. ‘..has a deceptive appearance of simplicity. If it is a cost projection of existing policies then there is often disagreement about each element – cost, projection and existing policy all means.

Perhaps not much changes in government.