Funding issues remain

Yesterday, I received two comments from different parts of the country about issues that this blog has been highlighting over the past few months. I have reproduced these comments below:

The funding issue is key here and seeing all this unfold is quite alarming.  It seems that the government is intent on more MATs forming, though some of the income streams are becoming more uncertain, especially ones that can buoy up emerging MAT central teams.  I think it is crunch time at the moment because the government is essentially funding two systems at the moment—an enlarging academy sector and a diminishing LA sector.  I think this is one of the reasons why money is so tight.  

 There remains the question of small schools, as they will not fit into MATs (put simply, they do not bring in enough cash and are too difficult for most), and the diminishing funds available to LAs  means that small maintained schools are suffering and will continue to do so.  You cannot get rid of many of these schools as they are strategically important in many rural areas, and losing them would just consign many rural communities to being retirement destinations, the economies would lose any vibrancy without families living in them, and there would be potential food security problem if farms cannot pass onto younger families to run.  

 Finally a word about SEND.  The situation is dire, with in effect there being a cut in money for SEND—at a time when there is a massive rise in demand.  For this year, the ** Schools Forum has put 0.5% of the Schools block funding in to the Higher Needs block (though there would still be a £4.5 million deficit), and is consulting on putting 1.0% into the Higher Needs block next year.  

 To my mind the whole system is unsustainable, and clearly shows that the Tories simply do not care about children with SEND.  I reckon that all of our PRUs and current alternative provision in the county will disappear in its current form over the next two years, as the funding is being cut by half next year.  This is a massive crisis as it will just mean that the system as a whole will have to pay more for these hard to place youngsters as they get older, and their problems have not been solved whilst they were children in the education system.

Shortly after I received the above, this note followed:

Another dimension which has not yet been much talked about is the impact of the so-called ‘Hard formula’.  If that means money is allocated direct to every school from London, the scope for the Schools Forum to make minor tweaks is removed for maintained schools, but MATs will still be able to make transfers within their schools, as far as I understand it. This is because the DfE money will, in the case of MATS, go to the MAT and not the individual schools. This potentially puts schools in MATs in a difficult position. The Schools Forum is at least public and democratically observed, whereas the MAT trusts seem to me to be able to do whatever they want.

Both comments are from those with experience in education and whose views I fully respect.

If The Secretary of State is really intending to reduce exclusions, as he said yesterday, then these are the issues he has to ask his civil servants to start to address.

With birth rates now lower than a few years ago, the plight of rural schools where there is no now housing in prospect, could be dire, especially if they have any extra costs not catered for in the national formula. Time for some Tory MPs to wake up and smell the milk, so to speak.

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Goodbye to the Village School?

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

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

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

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

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

Levy or a tax on small schools?

I wonder how the Apprenticeship Levy is working out in your part of England. Many primary schools have had to pay into the Levy because, as maintained schools, their local authority is the ‘de jure’ employer. Academies and voluntary schools, along with free schools, generally escape the Levy, unless part of a Multi Academy Trust with a pay bill of more than £3 million.

In Oxfordshire, the primary schools are likely to pay just short of half a million pounds over the course of the financial year into the Levy. With a Teaching Apprenticeship not up and running in time for this September that leaves either support or other staff apprenticeships or the possibility of using the cash to develop the existing teaching force through advanced apprenticeships as a way of accessing the Levy.

In my book, preparing primary teachers for a leadership position would have been a useful way to spend the Levy. Now, I am not clear whether it can only be spent in the school from where it has been collected or whether, as the ‘employer’, a local authority can aggregate the cash rather than see it not being used.

In former times, this would have been a task for an officer overseen by a director, perhaps after a discussion at a committee meeting. Contrast this with the cabinet system, where, if the Cabinet Member isn’t interested, it is difficult to see how policy is formed unless a particular officer is prepared to make an effort. In constrained financial times, such as local authorities now face that seems unlikely in many authorities: perhaps readers can tell me different in their experience.

There is a further problem thrown up by the cabinet system. When seeking information in public, do you ask a question of cabinet member for finance, as the department collecting the Levy; the cabinet member responsible for education activities, as covering the operational area or the cabinet member responsible for human resources as they should be informing other operating areas about the policy for handling the Levy? With only one question at a Cabinet Meeting, councillors, at least in Oxfordshire, cannot afford to make the wrong choice if they want to be able to ask a supplementary.

Nationally, I wonder whether the teacher associations have been as ‘on the ball’ about the consequences of the Levy as they could have been. The last thing I want to see is financially hard-pressed primary schools paying into a fund that isn’t then spent for their benefit. I still wonder why there wasn’t more of a fuss about taxing the smallest schools while letting off some of the larger schools. This doesn’t seem equitable to me, especially when funding is so tight. Added to all the other cost pressures on schools, this is another nail in the coffin for the small village primary schools. Is that something the present government wants to achieve: surely not?

 

 

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.

Apprenticeship Levy

In the bizarre world that is education under the present Tory government, stand-alone academies with a payroll of less than £3 million are exempt from paying the new Apprenticeship Levy; all schools in any MAT with a payroll of over £3 million across the MAT will pay the levy, even if they are a small primary school; voluntary aided schools are probably exempt as the local authority is the de facto but not de jure employer so long as the school payroll is below £3 million, but all maintained schools will pay the levy regardless of the size of their payroll because the local authority is the employer, even though in these days of delegated budgets it has no control over spending by the schools.

This is a shambles that does a great discredit to the governance of education. If this is currently the position, it should be rectified forthwith. Either it is a tax on all schools or it isn’t. My position is that the government already takes out of education a sum needed to fund the training of new teachers and it should pray that cash in aid to the Treasury in order to have all state-funded schools exempt from the Levy. I don’t mind if the larger private fee-paying schools contribute since they often employ teachers whose training has been paid for initially by the State, but paid back by individuals through the tuition fee repayment schemes in operation since the late 1990s.

If schools are not exempted from the Levy, then they should make full use of benefits. Sadly, these are by employer, so a large county council with many maintained schools will pay a large sum in levy, but receive little back through the pay-out arrangements.

School budgets face enough other pressures at the present time, including for many small primary schools the loss of part of their block grant under the new funding formula arrangements. In Oxfordshire, the loss per schools equates to several thousands of pounds and may make the difference between survival or closure for village schools with less than 150 pupils.

I don’t know whether it is this government’s intention to redraw the map of primary schooling in England, but it could be well on the way to doing so if the combined effect of budget cuts and cost pressures make such schools unable to breakeven financially.

As I have hinted before, one solution is to downgrade the leading professional in small schools from a head teacher to a head of site paid on a lower salary. The risk is that any savings are then spent on a salary for an executive head teacher paid more than value of the savings. Whether deputy head teachers and other experienced teachers would be willing to take on the role of site leader for less money than the current head teacher will, I suspect, depend upon the terms and conditions offered, especially in the smallest of schools. However, unless some savings can be made, I fear for the future of many primary schools. Hopefully, I am being alarmist, but removing the Apprenticeship Levy from all school budgets would be a start.

 

Are small schools doomed?

The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) clearly worries that they will be. They have raised their concerns and the story was picked up by the BBC. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-37860682 although I couldn’t find any press release on the ASCL web site that prompted the BBC story. Perhaps it is part of a campaign by teacher associations about the funding of schools?

As regular readers of this blog know, I have expressed concerns before about the future of small schools, especially if the block grant that underpins their finances is removed, possibly as part of a funding formula based on an amount per pupil. Such a funding system, perhaps topped up by sum for deprivation in a similar manner to the present Pupil Premium, has a beguiling simplicity about it; easy to understand and easy to administer: job well done.

However, such a top-down approach does have other ramifications. The most obvious is that for as long as anyone living has been in teaching higher salaries have been paid to teachers in London and the surrounding area. This is a policy decision that could be ratified in a new formula through an area cost adjustment as Mr Gibb said during his recent visit to the Select Committee when he appeared to talk about teacher supply. So, if a policy to support London, but not other high cost areas is acceptable, what about rural schools? As I mentioned in a recent post, on the 3rd October, some shire counties have a large number of small schools in their villages. Northumberland has some of the most expensive. Oxfordshire has a third of its primary schools with fewer than 150 pupils and the removal of any block grant would undoubtedly mean their closure, as ASCL pointed out.

Does a Tory government that has already upset some of its supporters in the shires over re-introducing selection to secondary education now want to risk their wrath over shutting the bulk of the 5,000 or so rural primary schools, not to mention small schools in urban areas? As many of the latter are faith schools this might also upset both the Church of England and the Roman Catholic churches, especially if pupils were transferred to non-faith based schools.

Councils might also be upset if the cost of transporting pupils to the new larger and financially viable primary schools fell on their council tax payers. After all, as I have pointed out in the past, children in London receive free transport to schools anywhere in the capital within the TfL area; this despite London being classified as a high cost area in which to live.

There is a possible solution, return to local funding models where communities can decide whether to keep small school open. Of course, it won’t be decided democratically through the ballot box, since local authorities still are regarded as not being capable of this sort of decision, even when run by Tory councillors. But, a grouping of academies in a Multi-Academy Trust could take such a decision or they could assume government policy on school size was reflected in the funding formula and close schools that cannot pay their way.

If you believe in the need for small schools linked to their community, now is the time to say so. To await any consultation on a funding formula may be to wait too long.