Can UTCs survive?

Schools Week, the respected education newspaper, is reporting Michael Gove as saying that the UTC programme has failed. This will be bad news for Lord Baker whose brainchild the idea was in the first place. UTCs were Lord Baker’s second attempt to kick-start a technology sector in schooling in England, after the limited success of his City Technology College programme initiated when he was Secretary of State for Education.

Mr Gove’s comment will come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog. A thriving technology sector is probably a good idea for schooling in England, but to create a new type of school for some, but not all, pupils at age 14 was asking for trouble. To compound the recruitment problems facing these new schools by using the market model of either compete and succeed or fail and die was to demonstrate why Tory market economics finds it hard to work in education.

Incidentally, closure is a feature of market economics, as even Waitrose has apparently found out recently, with the announcement of the closure of five of its branches.

So, where does technology education go from here? The easy answer is to let the existing UTCs and their companion Studio Schools limp on, with some making a go of it where there is local support and others failing to recruit sufficient students to be financially viable. A better answer, and one that should be welcomed by the clutch of former accountants currently running the DfE, would be to call in the receivers and see how the assets can be best used for Schools England. Will the current Secretary of State have the courage to take this radical approach? We will see.

With the raising of the learning leaving age to eighteen, the break at fourteen for some pupils was always going to look out of line with the idea of a common curriculum up to the age of sixteen, even with those pupils that would benefit from a fresh start at fourteen. My guess is that the promoters of UTCs and Studio Schools didn’t plan effectively for the type of pupils other schools would encourage to switch in an era where cash rules and pupils come with a price upon their heads.

If UTCs are going to be a short-term feature of our education scene, could the Secretary of State please now pay attention to the fate of Design and Technology in all our schools? Post BREXIT we will need those with the skills and interest in the whole gamut of design and technology to help create our future wealth. Sadly, the subject has been ignored by the DfE for too long and the limp approach to the D&T teacher shortage adopted in the recent Migration Advisory Committee report didn’t receive the rebuke it deserved from the business community.

We need a thriving design and technology sector in our schools, please will someone now come up with a credible plan to help us achieve that aim?



Time for a review of UTCs?

The news that yet more UTCs are struggling to survive comes after reports of the over-representation of these schools at the top of the absence tables, as noted in a post last week. The idea of 14-18 schools specialising in science and technology, together with the accompanying studio school concept for a wider range of subjects, has merits, as their champions such as Lord Baker have always pointed out.

Sadly, the idea of depositing a cuckoo in the next of 11-16 and 11-18 schools in any area is fraught with difficulties. No schools wants to lose pupils at fourteen, unless that is they cost the school more to educate than they bring in as funding. Hence the struggle some UTCs have faced to recruit anything like a balanced intake, or in some cases an intake that would be large enough to make them financially viable.

As I reported earlier in the year, UTCs face extra running costs because they are delivering high cost subjects to largely examination age groups of pupils, but on a funding model that doesn’t take that fact into account. With the emergence of the now well documented problems across the sector, it is surely time for a review to decide whether to support the concept of a break at fourteen or engineer the existing schools back into the mainstream system to help cope with the rising secondary rolls over the next few years. Keeping open under-used schools while extra places are needed in the same locality is a waste of public money.

In many ways the 14-18 experiment is a good example of a market at work. Any new start-up venture has to compete with existing suppliers and often finds it a challenge unless they have the edge on design, price or technology. In this case, often despite spending lots of money on advertising, the 14-18 sector hasn’t caught the imagination of parents. Outside London, the fact that parents that didn’t face any travel costs to send their children to school would have to pay if their teenagers moved to a UTC might well have been a deterrent that the government could have found a way around: possibly by encouraging the UTCs to fund buses from key local centres.

If the UTCs are struggling to create a brand, then it seems likely that the studio school movement has even less definition and will only attract pupils where there is a strong local resolve to make such a school work. Nevertheless, there is merit in offering a fresh start at fourteen for some pupils, but the concept does need more thought. The involvement of the further education sector needs to be considered as part of any review, since colleges can offer an alternative structure for those seeking a curriculum post-14 that the average school cannot provide. Now FE is back under the wing of the DfE it should be easier to organise a coherent 14-18 offering.

However, any review might need to start by asking the question; at what age do we want specialisation to start? For if we want everyone to follow the same curriculum until sixteen, the need for separate schools after fourteen for some pupils is difficult to justify.

Absence trend still downward

Yesterday the DfE issued its annual statistical bulletin on school attendance and absence rates. You can read it at There are also accompanying tables detailing information at local authority and even at individual school levels, but you might have to do a bit of cross-checking with Edubase to identify school names this year.

Generally, overall rate remained stable. The overall rates are heavily influenced by illness, so either a bad winter with lots of flu and other illnesses or a mild illness free winter can affect the figures in one direction or the other. The bulletin notes that

“The overall absence rate across state-funded primary and secondary schools decreased slightly from 4.5 per cent in autumn/spring 2014/15 to 4.4 per cent in autumn/spring 2015/16. The overall absence rate in primary schools decreased from 4.0 per cent to 3.9 per cent and the rate in secondary schools decreased from 5.2 per cent to 5.0 per cent. The decrease in overall absence has been driven by a decrease in the authorised absence rate across state-funded primary and secondary schools – which fell from 3.6 per cent to 3.4 per cent between autumn/spring 2014/15 and autumn/spring 2015/16.”

The various rows about term-time holidays doesn’t seem to have overly affected these figures. Family holidays not sanctioned by the school accounted for 0.2% of absences compared with over 66% as a result of illness and the rate hadn’t changed from the previous year.

There is good news for the government on the drive to force down persistent absenteeism. However, one in ten pupils still missed 10% of more of schooling. In secondary schools this rose to nearly one pupil in every eight at 12.3%. This group are no doubt reflected in the under-performing students at GCSE. Sadly, 20% of pupils on Free School Meals were persistent absentees compared with only 8.2% of other pupils. Engaging these pupils with learning from an early age is still a key priority and the best way to close the gap in performance.

There is still much work to be undertaken with Pupil Referral Units where, perhaps not surprisingly, absence rates are still very high. In view of the reasons why pupils end up in PRUs this isn’t surprising, but more attention needs to be paid to this group. The Treasury might ask whether the wider benefits to society of re-engaging these young people with learning might be worth the spending involved in the short-term, especially if it could help identify what would reduce the entry numbers. A review of the effects of the EBacc orientated curriculum on these pupils before they are dispatched to a PRU might be worth the investment, although many would be willing to provide an answer now.

As in past years, Studio Schools and UTCs feature disproportionally in the top 20 secondary schools for absence rates. In view of the fact that Years 10 & 11 are years of high absence this isn’t perhaps totally surprising but it does raise the question of why some pupils have been persuade to move at the end of Year 9. A new start of a blessed release?

Another market failure

Two studio schools for 14-18 year olds in the midlands are to close because of a failure to recruit enough students. This is how the message was announced by the trust responsible for the schools.

The Midland Academies Trust is to change the learning provision for students at its studio schools in Hinckley and Nuneaton.  Students will now be given the opportunity to continue their studies at other schools within the Trust supported by North Warwickshire and Hinckley College.  They will continue with the specialist CREATE Framework, supported by personal coaches and enjoy work experience arrangements aligned with the key features of the studio school model.

The decision comes as increasing financial pressures due to low pupil recruitment make the economic viability of small schools hugely challenging. The studio schools cater for 300 students each (600 in total) but there are currently a total of 157 pupils on roll across both schools. Year 10 and Year 12 students will be given the opportunity to continue their studies at either The George Eliot School or The William Bradford Academy from January 2016.  Current staff will continue to work with them and they will continue with their work placements and relationships with employers.

The Year 11 and Year 13 students will remain at the studio schools until the end of the academic year. – See more at:

At least the examination year pupils are to be catered for without the need to move school just over a term and a half before their examinations. Hopefully, they won’t experience any serious staff changes.

The Trust responsible for the two schools posted this announcement on the 1st December. As I pointed out when the UTC in the west midlands announced its closure in the spring, local authorities weren’t allowed to just shut down a school at short-notice.

Indeed, it is probably time that the EFA has talks with the government about a protocol on closure procedures, especially where it is due to financial viability. With the first stage of the admissions process now largely finished for 2016, a stress test, like that applied to the banks, should be administered by the EFA to all schools it funds and a list of those at risk published so that parents can decide whether moving their child at 14 is really a sensible idea.

In many ways I think the notion of a 14-18 sector is a good one and some of the schools are already flourishing with good recruitment, but many aren’t. After all, why would a school want to wave goodbye to four years of possible funding by encouraging students to change school at 14 unless by doing so their results improved.

Market failure, especially in new products, isn’t unusual. These schools do represent a new type of schooling that may need more marketing to parents. Whether we should be experimenting in an age of austerity where the government wants to take a billion pounds out of education procurement – presumably including spending on marketing – is an interesting question.

Could the same result have been achieved just by general further education colleges widening their offering to the 14-16 age-group? What are the real costs of each of these new UTCs and studio schools? As I have said elsewhere, each school needs a head teacher and other leadership staff. This puts pressure on the pool of leaders that isn’t an inexhaustible supply, making it more difficult for every school looking for a new leader.

However, the biggest question for debate is that of how far our education system should be organised on market principles?

Tory muddle over new schools?

Free Schools Good: UTCs bad. Is that the latest message about schools coming from the Tory Party?  If so, where does that leave studio schools, converter academies and regular sponsored academies. Frankly, I haven’t got a clue.

Readers will recall that UTCs are 14-18 schools created by this government along the lines of the City Technology Colleges championed by Kenneth Baker when he was Education Secretary. Not surprisingly, he is in favour of the UTCs as well. One might have expected that the Tory Party having invented these schools would be in favour of more of them in the next parliament, but no, in January, as this blog reported in a post on the 6th January, the Tory Party attacked Labour’s costings for 100 new UTCs during the life of the next parliament. At that time it didn’t offer any suggestion that extra schools would be needed to cope with increased pupil numbers. Depending upon your view of how large schools should be come, new schools may or may not be necessary to deal with the growth in pupil numbers.

If we do need new schools, are 14-18 schools now off the Tory agenda or only going to be present if there is local demand and hang the problems that might be caused for existing schools. It is one thing to protect the education budget from cuts, but surely that doesn’t mean wasting money on creating schools where they are not needed.

The Tory Party is no doubt relying on the Policy Exchange review of Free Schools published today to support the case for more of these schools. The evidence in the report is debatable to say the least and might support more than one conclusion as a Policy Exchange spokesperson agreed on the Today programme this morning when debating with Rebecca Allen of the FFT’s new datalab research centre. I guess if you take out the religious free schools, such as those opened by members of the Jewish community, the data on performance by free schools might be even more questionable.  With a drive to raise standards in all schools, the fact that some high performing schools near free schools apparently saw their performance decline is worth unpacking as in most situations those tested didn’t have the option of the choice between a free school or their current school when deciding on school choice.

Probably the most distressing aspect of the announcement today is that in a time of austerity the Tory party still seems to want to favour the few over the many. Spending all available funding on raising standards for all rather than wasting time and energy on the few parents that want their own form of education will surely do more to help England plc in the future.

Anyway, as Policy Exchange have shown, more and more free schools are being opened by academy chains and other established groups rather than by parent or teacher groups. Why not rebadge them as voluntary schools, for that is what many of them increasingly are, but under a new guise.

Figures don’t add up

The big news story this week has been the Conservative Party’s attack on Labour’s plans for education in the next government. Specifically, the Tories have attacked the costings for three of Labour’s policies: that all teachers should be qualified; the creation of 100 University Technical Colleges; a Director of School Standards in every local authority. Of course, if you ask the Treasury mandarins to cost a policy, they will do just that. What they won’t do is ask the wider questions, such as how does this match your own policy so we can factor in those cost as well?

Nowhere is this more evident than in the costing of the UTC policy. The government paper has estimated Labour’s policy as having capital costs over the parliament of around £1.4 billion and staffing of £75 million. But, it hasn’t identified whether the present government, if re-elected, would cease to open any new UTCS or Studio Schools for 14-18 year olds and then taken those costs into account. It also doesn’t seem to have assumed any staff cost saving resulting from the transfer of these students from existing schools. If there isn’t any savings, then the present UTC policy is extremely wasteful of resources and Labour are just copying the Tories in the same manner as the Tories copied Labour over spending on academies. These figures also don’t taken into account the need for any new spending on secondary school places resulting for the birth rate increase over the past decade that will have filtered through to secondary schools by the end of this parliament. It would be legitimate to assign some of those places to UTCs if that we what was wanted.

The valuation of the Director of School standards policy is another area where the government document has assumed a worst case scenario. I am sure all local authorities already have an officer responsible for monitoring standards. The issue is whether the new Directors would be at a higher pay grade? The Tories seem to have assumed that they will be not just responsible for standards but effectively new-style Chief Education Officers and paid appropriately.  As Labour’s Blunkett Commission suggested regional commissioners, and the idea was then taken up by the Tories, it seems unlikely that Labour want to recreate split between education and social services, especially as they introduced the merger of the two departments. Personally, I think there is something to be said for a return to separate departments, but that isn’t what the costing should have been based upon.

The third policy of all teachers being qualified is one I heartily agree with and have argued for in this blog. Sadly, the government costing document is the slightest of the three, with no background information on how the costs identified were arrived at. Indeed, so shabby may be the calculations that it is possible that Teach First trainees have been counted as requiring training even though the government already funds the training for these trainees, but describes them as unqualified teachers. Indeed, the 17,000 or so unqualified teachers identified in the 2013 School Census may also have included some School Direct salaried trainees and those completing their GTP programmes that were already being funded creating more double counting.

As Labour’s policy is for new teachers, I assume that existing unqualified teachers – formerly called instructors – would not be sacked but rather allowed to acquire their qualification part-time. This would be far cheaper than any assumption the paper might have made about full-time costs. However, as we don’t know what criteria were used in reaching the nearly £400 million over the life-time of the next parliament assumed as the cost by the government  paper it is impossible to take these figures seriously at all. They could either be totally spurious or might have some meaning to them. Either way, the policy of requiring all teachers to be trained is one that should be debated. If the training is pre-entry in future, then the costs are no more than for other teachers required in the numbers agreed by the government. It may be legitimate to recognise that qualified teachers earn more than unqualified ones, but what assumptions have been made about this cost aren’t clear. With training places being regulated, and many left unfilled at present, the comment about increased numbers is training is just silly.  The real issue is, if there is a teacher recruitment crisis, who is going to teach in our schools?

These three policy documents do not do the Conservatives or The Treasury credit and sadly don’t say how much they cost the government to produce? This would be worth knowing as we can then debate whether it was a useful expenditure of scarce public resources.

Funding of academies and free schools

I was intending to keep the 200th post on this blog for a reflective piece looking back over the first 199 posts. As a result of a Statistical Release issued today by the DfE that blog can wait. The DfE published data about academies and free school and their expenditure during 2012-13 at

There is a major anomaly on the front page where some headline statistics are presented. Nowhere does it say that the figures used are derived only from those relating Single Academy Trust information and thus seemingly don’t include data from schools in Multi Academy Trusts. Yet that is the message in a footnote on the un-numbered table in the spreadsheet of detailed tables associated with the release where on the index page it says of the National Median data ‘National median income and expenditure for academies with certain characteristics’. If it is the case that the data only applies to schools in SATs then the headline page should be revised to make clear that the data does not cover all schools with the title academy or free school but only those not part of MATs as it indeed does on page 2: but who will read the small print?

I haven’t had time to work out whether or not the addition of MATs would alter the figures and I haven’t yet considered in detail whether the median figure is the best of the available measures of central tendency to use with this data. Representing the data in graph form using candlestick graphs that allowed the number and range of outliers – both low and high – might have provided a more interesting picture of the range of expenditure.

Comparing two years of data when the sector is growing probably isn’t helpful either as if the balance between schools in and around London and the rest of the country was changing that would skew the income side of the picture and might account for some or the entire decline in income between the two years.

One point that did stand out was the relatively high figures studio schools and University Technical Colleges spent in teaching staff costs. As these schools were mostly in their first year of existence, teaching costs in excess of £6,000 per pupil may be acceptable. Should they fail to recruit sufficient pupils in the future, and a previous post has expressed some anxiety about their numbers and attendance patterns, then whether this is money well spent may be a subject for discussion in the future. Certainly in comparison with the three City Technology Colleges their staffing costs look very high.

It is also interesting to note that although the median figure for primary academies expenditure in 2012-13 was above their income, presumably meaning that they had to draw on reserves, the secondary academies in the median group didn’t spend all their income and put away £48 per pupil into reserves. At this stage of their existence it is too early to tell whether that is both sufficient for depreciation and other unforeseen expenditure or too much. It would have been helpful to see this figure against the school reserves to identify what has happened since these schools changed status.

Finally, as academies and free schools use a different financial year to other state-funded schools it is difficult to make any comparisons between these and other schools.