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.

 

School funding: Oxfordshire as a case study

A version of this article appear in the Oxford Times  newspaper of the 23rd March 2017

Why, when it has been generally acknowledged that state schools in Oxfordshire are poorly funded, has the government decided some Oxfordshire schools should lose even more of their income?  This was the conundrum facing those of us concerned about education in Oxfordshire just before Christmas when the government at Westminster announced the second stage of their consultation around a new fairer funding formula for schools.

Most of the secondary schools in the county stand to see an increase in their funding under the new proposals. That’s the good news, although it doesn’t extend to all the secondary schools in the county and the increase may not be enough to cope with the rising costs all schools face.

The really shocking news is the cuts to funding faced by the majority of the small rural primary schools across the county, especially those in the Chilterns, Cotswolds and across the downs. Although the cut is only a percentage point or two, it may be enough to create havoc with the budgets for these schools, especially as they too face general cost pressures through inflation and rising prices. Even the schools promised more cash, mainly schools in Oxford and the other towns across the county, won’t in many cases see all the extra money the government formula has assessed them as being entitled to receive. This is because the government has proposed a ceiling to the percentage increase any school can receive. A bit like saying, ‘we know we are paying you less than you deserve, but we cannot afford the full amount’.

I had anticipated the new formula was likely to bring problems, so tabled a motion at the November meeting of the county council to allow all councillors to discuss the matter. Sadly, the meeting ran over time and my motion wasn’t reached. Hopefully, it will be debated in March*, although that is just a day before the consultation ends. There has been no other opportunity for councillors to discuss the funding proposals. Parents and governors of schools should respond to the government’s proposals

I support the retention of small local primary schools where children can walk or cycle to school and the school can be a focal point for the community. It seems this model isn’t fashionable at Westminster, where larger more remote schools serving several neighbourhoods seem to be what is wanted. I know that retaining small local schools looks like an expensive option, but there are also benefits to family and community life by educating young children in their localities.

Were the local authority still the key policy maker for education, I am sure there would be a local initiative to the preserve the present distribution of schools by driving down costs. In a recent piece in this paper, the head teacher of Oxford Spires Academy specifically complained of the cost of recruitment advertising. Three years ago, I helped a group found a new free job board for schools that uses the disruptive power of new technology to drive down recruitment costs for schools. TeachVac www.teachvac.co.uk now matches jobs and teachers throughout the country for free at no cost to teachers or schools. We need innovative thinking outside the box of this sort in all areas to help sustain our schools in the face of government policies that threaten their very existence.

Across the county, all schools, whether academies or not could collaborate to purchase goods and services needed, whether regularly or only once a year.  This common procurement idea is much easier when academy trusts are headquartered locally. It becomes more difficult when their central administration has no loyalty to Oxfordshire. May be that’s why local academy chains have been more restrained in their executive pay than some trusts with a more limited local affiliation.

Cllr John Howson is the Lib Dem spokesperson on education on Oxfordshire County Council and a founding director of TeachVac http://www.teachvac.co.uk. He is a visiting professor at Oxford Brookes University. 

*The motion was debated and passed without the need for a formal vote. Councillors from all Parties expressing assent.

First red alert from TeachVac in 2017

There is a certain irony that on budget day TeachVac has issued its first red warning of teacher shortages in 2017 www.teachvac.co.uk . After matching the demand for teachers as measured by vacancies recorded against the supply of trainees not already working in a classroom, Business Studies as a subject, today reached the 20% level of remaining trainees available for employment. At this point, TeachVac suggests that there will not be enough trainees to fill their share of vacancies during the remainder of the recruitment round until December 2017, for January 2018 appointments and codes the subject red. At the level of a red alert, a school anywhere in England may experience recruitment difficulties in this subject from now onwards. Such has been the number of vacancies recorded since January that it is entirely possible that the stock of trainees in Business Studies will be exhausted before the end of April this year.

The next subject on the radar is English. Although currently at an amber warning, meaning schools in some areas may face a degree of challenge in making an appointment, we are watching the number of vacancies posted every day with great attention in order to see how quickly the trainee pool is being reduced. Schools that use TeachVac’s free service are told the latest position when they input a vacancy and they can also find out the state of the local job market should Ofsted come calling and ask for this information. Teachvac’s monthly newsletters also provide useful updates on the overall situation

Teachvac staff will also be delighted to talk with Sir Michael Barber about his new role improving public sector efficiency for the government that was announced in the budget, especially since TeachVac offers schools a free service in a manner that can save both the government and schools considerable amounts of money and provide much needed rea-time data about the working of the labour market for teachers.

The other budget announcements regarding education were fairly predictable, subject to anything in the small print not revealed in the Chancellor’s speech. I would have liked to see the situation regarding the levying of the apprenticeship levy on schools tidied up, so all pay the same if they have to pay anything. The wording on free transport to grammar schools for pupils on free school meals is frankly perplexing. I am sure the situation will be clarified over the coming days. The capital for refurbishing schools, spread a sit is over several years, isn’t going to go very far once urgent problems have been attended to.

The big loser in education are the self-employed tutors that will now pay more in National Insurance and face big penalties if they don’t declare their income for tax. The same may apply to supply teachers, depending upon how they arrange their affairs.

 

Politicians rule: OK?

The recent Select Committee report on Multi Academy Trusts (MATs) raises two significant issues in my mind. https://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201617/cmselect/cmeduc/204/20402.htm

These issues are of

Community and,

Democratic control

They are rather neatly summed up by the Select Committee in their executive summary as follows:

We have outlined six characteristics which we believe trusts must possess in order to be successful. These include strong regional structures, robust financial controls, enhanced opportunities for career development and tangible accountability at all levels.

Some of the earliest trusts expanded too quickly over wide geographic regions and the performance of their schools suffered as a result. We are encouraged by the development of a MAT ‘growth check’ and urge the Government to use this to ensure that trusts are only allowed to take on more schools when they have the capacity to grow successfully.

…There is also more work to be done to ensure that MATs are accountable to the communities in which their schools are located. There must be more engagement with parents and clarity around the role of local governing boards.

In my view the Committee could have used this report to go further and to have started to make the case for accountability for schooling to be brought back through the local ballot box. This would have fitted in well with the National Audit Office’s recent report where they highlighted the lack of coherent pupil place planning and the lack of any one body having overall control of the process, although local authorities retained the obligation to ensure sufficient places were available for all pupils that wanted one. And, it was local authorities that sent out the offer letters to parents this week, even where they have no control over the admission arrangements.

After nearly half a century when rampant capitalism has held sway at Westminster, under governments of all political persuasions, and municipalisation gave way to mega deals brokered in Whitehall, is the tide finally turning?

I don’t think BREXIT has yet had the time to change the public consciousness about the role of parliament at Westminster and the possible effects on the delivery of local services. However, it is clear that Westminster will be a much busier place, if it does its job properly, once Article 50 has been triggered.

Alongside the exit management process will be the return to a requirement that the sovereign parliament at Westminster must craft all our laws and not just fill in the gaps from European legislation. This will affect some parts of government more than others. Although education wasn’t as affected by the transfer of powers during our EU sojourn, as some areas of government, it is a moot point whether government will be able to meet the demands of operating a universal education service while still meeting the needs of all local communities.

Sure, some local authorities were poor at providing education, as some are with all services. Sometimes this comes down to money; other times to leadership and ambition. For instance, using the LAIT tool on the DfE web site, Oxfordshire comes 6th best on percentage of children still being breastfed at six weeks, but 125th on the percentage of pupils with free school meals achieving expected levels of phonics decoding. Public health is now a local government responsibility, whereas for academies and free schools there is little the local authority can do to change the phonics outcomes, regardless of whether you think the approach is the correct one.

So, what to do? A simple solution would be to rethink Schools Forums to include politicians as voting members in proportion to the political balance of the council. A 50:50 balance overall might be the first stage of change. Alongside this to also make clear the relationship between all schools and the local community. Could we see academies as a 21st century form of voluntary added school?

Local democracy may be imperfect, but in my experience communities do care about the local standard of education, even where many parents opt out of the state system. I would ensure a tighter regulation than in the past, so that Commissioners can be called in to run poorly performing authorities for a period. But if there is a patterns to these types of authority requiring commissioners; too small; too poorly funded; not attractive places to work, then central government does need learn the lessons and create reforms. What it doesn’t need to do is to privatise the service. In the modern world profit can take many forms and not just dividends, as the lucky shareholders of Snapchat discovered yesterday.

Post BREXIT we will need a successful education system even more than before if we are to pay our way and fund thriving services for future generations. Bring back education as ‘a local service nationally administered’.

 

Funding: the good years and the bad

The well-respected Institute for Fiscal Studies has today published a longitudinal study into the changing levels of education finance. https://www.ifs.org.uk/publications/8937

However, although factually accurate, as local authorities do still ratify the funding formula, the following statement early on in the report might be regarded as potentially mis-leading:

At the moment, it is local authorities that are responsible for determining the level of funding for state-funded schools. Each local authority receives a grant from central government, which it then distributes to schools in its area using its own funding formula.

After all, it is the Schools Forum, assisted by officers that decides on the local formula. Politicians, those that comprise the local authority, realistically now have no say in the matter, unless they are governors and elected through that route to the Schools Forum.

However, what the IFS have reminded us, at least in respect of schools, is that the 1990s were a period of funding constraint that lasted until the Blair/Brown leadership team took the brakes off education funding after their first few years of government when they were endorsing the Tory spending plans they had inherited in 1997: subsequently there was a period of increased funding as the new century unfolded. This allowed the creation of PPA time in primary schools and the growth in support staff numbers as well as generous spending on IT and improvements in pupil teacher ratios.

As this period coincided with the demographic downturn in pupil numbers, schools were relatively well funded, although the long period of decline in 16-19 funding commenced. The coalition supported school funding after 2010, but everyone now agrees that the next few years are likely to see reductions in real terms in school funding that will only be partially masked by increases in pupil numbers and any new national formula.

Even with tight floors and ceiling, there will be winners and losers with the new formula. This is partly because the gaps between the decisions on funding go way back into education history and are frequently associated with the municipal attitude to education and the size of the local tax base. When business rates were collected and spent locally, areas with good levels of industry and commerce often had well-funded education systems. As manufacturing and other industries declined, so did local funding and eventually business rates were nationalised. Successive governments missed opportunities to reform the basis of school funding preferring just to transfer the budgets to schools and away from local authorities and their politicians.

So, what happens now? If there is to be a period of austerity associated with cuts to funding to schools it is imperative that the cash is used wisely. But one person’s saving can easily translate into another’s burden. Close rural primary schools and someone has to pay for the transport of the pupils to another school. The same is true if small sixth forms are axed as no longer affordable. In the commercial world it is clear who takes decisions over cutting branches of banks or supermarkets that don’t pay. Who now decides on where schools are located: parents through the admissions system; the EFA as the national funding agency; MAT; Regional School Commissioners, but not presumably local authorities?

Many of the issues fudged when funding was adequate cannot be ignored when cash is being squeezed out of the system.