New data on schools and their pupils

Unless there is a dramatic change in the birth rate over the next few years, the peak in the primary school population is probably very close to being reached. Data on schools and pupil numbers published by the DfE today https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/schools-pupils-and-their-characteristics-january-2017 reveal a slight decline in the number of Key State 1 infant classes above the nationally agreed limit of 30 pupils per class. The decline is only 0.1% from 11.9 to 11.8% of these classes and is still way above the 10.4% achieved in 2011 and 2012. Still, it remains below the 13.8% of 2006, and should fall further over the next few years.

There is still pressure at Key Stage 2, with average class sizes increasing from 20.4 to 20.8 across England. It seems likely that this average will continue to increase for the next couple of years that is unless Brexit results in a mass emigration of young families to other European countries. This seems less likely, although still possible, after the discussions last week on allowing existing migrants from the EU to remain in England.

There was a big jump in the average size of secondary classes, from 20.4 to 20.8, their highest level since 2008. With the increase in pupil numbers over the next few years, this average seems set to increase still further, perhaps towards the 21.5 reached in 2006.

The implications of the National Funding formula will probably be most keenly felt in the 5,400 primary schools and nearly 130 secondary schools with fewer than 200 pupils. Some of the latter may be UTCs and Studio schools with the chance to grow, but many of the primary schools could face an uncertain future with the costs of closure affecting local authority transport bills in rural areas.

On average, 12% of primary schools have less than 100 pupils. However, the average hides a wide range, from just 2% of schools in London to 19% in the East Midlands and 22% of primary sector schools in the South West. I am sure the travel implications have been taken into account by those reviewing the effects of school funding and the new formula.

The Church of England will certainly be interested in what happens to small schools under the new funding formula since more than a quarter of their primary schools have fewer than 100 pupils. In five regions the percentage of their schools with less than 100 pupils is more than 30% with the East Midlands having more than a third of Church of England primary schools being of this size. However, the Church of England has only 2% of its schools in London with less than 100 pupils, the same as the average for all schools. By contrast, London has the largest Church of England primary schools with one having more than 800 pupils. Still, by that is small compared with the largest primary school in London that has more than 1,500 pupils.

 

 

 

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Walk or ride to school?

I had been wondering what had happened to the data on journeys to school that the DfE has produced at various times in the past. Thanks to a recent parliamentary question I now know the information is included in the Department for Transport’s travel survey. Their latest report on 2015 can be found at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/551437/national-travel-survey-2015.pdf This not the reference cited in the PQ, and Hansard should note that the link in the PQ doesn’t appear to work.

Perhaps the least surprising finding is that fewer older children walk to school. The survey found 48% of 5-10 years olds, compared with 37% of 11-16 year olds, walked to school. However, for journeys of under one mile only 78% of 5-10s walked compared with 87% of 11-16s, so the overall figure may reflect the longer journeys faced by some secondary age pupils, especially in rural areas. In both age groups the percentage walking had declined between 1995/97 and 2015 with, perhaps inevitably, more car journeys taking the place of walking. This may partly be the exercise of parental choice leading to the selection of schools further away from home and partly an anxiety about safety. Indeed, journey distances to education setting have increased by 15% between 1995/97 and 2015. Journey times as a result have also increased by an average of 21 minutes.

The survey also found 59% of 7-13 year olds that walk to school are usually accompanied by an adult. That would have been unthinkable 60 years ago when I started at secondary school. The main reason cited for accompanying a child is the issue of traffic danger. Sadly, apart from accompanying children to school, walking seems to become a less common activity as people become older.

There appears to have been a small increase between the two surveys in journeys by ‘other’ means that include rail and cycling. These ‘other’ forms of transport play a larger part in the journeys of secondary school pupils compared with primary school pupils. I have a secondary school in my councillor division that has a significant number of pupils that cycle to school: indeed, it may have more than any other school in the country, As a result, I am delighted to see any trend back towards cycling.

However, since the unweighted sample since in 2015 was 2,941 made up of 1,475 primary and 1,466 secondary age pupils the outcomes depend heavily on the statisticians have created a valid and reliable sample of the school population. There is some risk of error in the less common forms of transport with, for instance, cycling accounting for 4% in 2009 but only 1% in 2013.

However, as noted earlier, the main trend appears to be for walking to be replaced by a ride in a car to school. This isn’t a healthy trend for either the children concerned or for the air quality around schools where parents drive-up to drop their offspring off in large numbers. The notes to the survey do acknowledge the risk of sampling error.

 

 

Tories & Grammar Schools

As most followers of education know, Buckinghamshire was one of the counties that refused to fall into line with the 1976 Education Act and produce a programme for the removal of their grammar schools. As a result, it retains a selective system across the county after having seen Milton Keynes and its comprehensives split off in the 1990s to become a unitary council.

One might think that as a result of being a selective county, parents in Buckinghamshire wouldn’t be very interested in the present Tory inspired debate on the topic of more selective schools. Not a bit of it. While Mrs May, as Prime Minister, is talking about increasing the number of pupils from deprived backgrounds attending selective schools, or at least I think that is what she is saying, Bucks County Council has consulted on a proposal that would make it even more difficult for such pupils to attend grammar schools, especially if they lived in the rural parts of the county.

In a consultation on changing the home to school transport policy earlier this year, the county said;

This potential change would mean that free school transport would only be provided to the nearest secondary school to your home address.  The school could be located in Buckinghamshire or in a neighbouring county and could be an Upper, Grammar (for qualified children only) or Comprehensive.

As I read the paragraph above, if the nearest school is a secondary modern, even if the grammar school is next door to it, you won’t be provided in the future  with free transport to the grammar school unless it is the nearest school, even if you pass the entrance test and are offered a place. This is interesting in the town of Buckingham, where the grammar and secondary modern schools are adjacent to each other: those coming from the north could have the secondary modern as their nearest schools and those from the south, the grammar school. That is frankly madness if it is the case as a result of the consultation being accepted.

If this view is also accepted by government, it would seem to fly in the face of helping more children from deprived backgrounds to attend selective schools, if on top of uniform and other costs their parents also had to pay the transport cost of attending a grammar school, but not a secondary modern.

Personally, as regular reads know, I would do away with selective schools and make all schools achieve the very best for all pupils in an inclusive social setting. How schools are organised internally to achieve that aim is a different matter.

Perhaps, because transport to school is free for all in London, Mrs May, an MP whose constituency abuts Buckinghamshire to the south, hasn’t picked up on how her party is behaving with regard to grammar schools and widening participation. The solution of free transport to school of choice for all, as in London.

Tergiversate

The Lord Adonis is one of the few politicians in recent British history to have tergiversated twice in his career. He started life as an SDP councillor on Oxford City Council and then joined the newly formed Liberal Democrats, I believe even going so far as to win the Party’s nomination as prospective parliamentary candidate for Westbury in the mid-1990s. However, before the 1997 election, he had left the Party and eventually became a Labour supporter and took the Labour Whip when appointed a peer. Now he has it has been reported resigned from that Party to take up an appointment under the Conservative government.

I first met Lord Adonis in the 1980s when I was chairman of the Costwold Line Promotion Group that was campaigning initially to save and then to improve the line between Oxford and Worcester – he was already interested in railways at that time. Incidentally, that was ten years after I met Jeremy Corbyn in Hornsey during the two 1974 general elections where I was the agent for the Liberal candidate and he was part of Labour’s election team in Hornsey.

After Oxford, Lord Adonis went on to be the Education correspondent at the Financial Times for several years and I recall feeding him stories about data on education issues such as pupil teacher ratios and the cuts to music services under the Thatcher government.

Lord Adonis is a very able man with concerns about issues such as transport and education that he is able to articulate effectively. He has a concern for those the system doesn’t protect; hence his early support for academies after he spent a period while in Oxford as a governor of a secondary school in Blackbird Leys, the estate in south Oxford located in a part of the city where there is significant deprivation.

As someone who has remained a Liberal for more than 50 years, despite two periods of political neutrality during my career, once as a civil servant and the other as vice-chairman of a national charity, I would never have surrendered my basic beliefs and, despite differences with my Party at times, would never have wanted to leave it.

No doubt some journalist or other will ask Lord Adonis how he has been able to reconcile a political life with adherence to three different political ideologies, assuming he now accepts the basic direction of travel of the Conservative government in taking on his new job. If he doesn’t, then he should make clear the grounds on which he has accepted the post.

I cannot also help but wonder if there are some Conservative Party members that will feel just a tiny bit put out at the appointment of Lord Adonis. The message to them being, even if you work hard for the Party, we will take the best person even if traditionally they have been part of the opposition to our values.

One wonders if this act of tergiversation will be the first of many in a re-alignment of political opinion in England or just a rare footnote in British political history and the career of one individual?

Playing the school place lottery

In the 1970s, when I started teaching, the issue of banding was seen as contentious by many educationalists as it felt like social engineering. Nowadays, some academies, and other schools, have not only adopted the practice but have also, in some cases, gone further and turned admission into a straightforward lottery. In a few cases they have combined the two approaches and created lotteries for each group. For parents in those rural areas where there is in reality only one school their children can attend this must seem like some form of fantasy world.

When lotteries were first mooted local authorities still managed the admissions process for almost all schools. Now over half of secondary schools are their own admissions authorities. That probably doesn’t pose a problem at present as we are close to the bottom of the demographic cycle and pressure on secondary school places is not yet intense across mush of England. However, in five years time things will be different. Imagine a world where all secondary schools are their own admissions authorities, and use a banded lottery system. You are a parent of a child in the middle band – an average kind of Jo(e) – What happens if your first choice school is over-subscribed and you lose the lottery? Suppose the same is true of your second and third schools. No problem, the local authority must find you a school for Jo(e), and if it is more than the statutory walking distance they must pick up the travel bill as well under present arrangements.

So, the middle class parent that once might have bid up the price of houses in the catchment area of a local school they wanted their child to attend could now become a burden on the taxpayer as the taxi arrives every morning for the school-run to a distant school. Now that won’t happen in London because there is free travel across the Capital for secondary school pupils, so parents wouldn’t have to pay as they would elsewhere.

Indeed, the concern over the freedom schools have to impose financial burdens on local authorities through their admissions policies is no doubt behind the rapid move to a ‘nearest school’ transport policy by many local authorities. In Oxfordshire that has not gone down well with some parents whose school will be altered as a result of the new policy.

In the end the question for the Treasury may well be whether it is cheaper to let schools picks pupils on a basis or ‘fairness’ or for parents to exercise parental choice regardless of their child’s ability. What may not be acceptable will be each individual school creating a burden on local authorities through admissions policies that push up transport bills paid for from Council Tax just so that they can say they have a fair spread of pupils.

Not a transport of delight

As a teenager 50 years ago I used to listen to the BBC’s Round Britain Quiz and puzzle over the cryptic questions set for the teams. So I thought that I would set one of my own for this blog. What links together the representation of Downton Abbey, the RAF, and a school established over 600 years ago? And how might the Prime Minster have needed to keep an eye on the outcome?

Anyone who sat through the Oxfordshire County Council’s cabinet meeting yesterday afternoon will have had no difficulty answering the question set above. But, for everyone else, I have added an explanation at the end of this piece.

Home to school transport has always proved a contentious issue in time of government spending cuts, as the rules, although seemingly simple, are often challenging to enforce fairly. Basically, the principle established many years ago is that children under eight don’t have any access to free transport if the distance to school is less than two miles unless the route is unsafe. For those between the ages of 8 and 16 the distance increases to three miles by a safe route. Changes to existing policy can have significant implications for those who live in rural counties such as Oxfordshire. Since the passing of the 1980 Education Act the issue of parental choice, and the ‘duty’ of authorities to do their best to meet parental preferences, has caused significant issues as it has made the status of ‘catchment areas’ or ‘designated schools’ much less rigid in meaning. Additionally, local authorities are still charged to do nothing that is ‘prejudicial to the efficient use of resources’.

After the county elections this May, Oxfordshire County Council embarked on a consultation to change their present travel arrangements. The consequence of that process came to a head at the cabinet meeting yesterday where the decision was taken to start the whole process again in the autumn after the level of opposition from schools, parents, and the community proved overwhelming. The actual reason given was that the DfE, who had placed new ‘guidance’ on their web site in March – and thus triggered the local review and consultation, had announced a –U- turn and dumped the March guidance and returned to the status quo ante by restoring the 2007 guidance. Interestingly, nobody challenged whether the 2007 guidance affected the consultation in any way, but I suspect that there was great relief among the ruling Conservative and Independent Alliance Group or CIA that currently governs Oxfordshire.

Much of the challenge to the consultation is centred on a small number of schools, many within the Prime Minister’s own constituency, where one secondary school was in favour and another against the changes. There are certainly anomalies that have grown up over the years across the county, and it will be interesting to see whether the new consultation goes back to first principles or tries to bury the problem.

Looming in the background is the issue of how the County deals with free schools, academies, studio schools and UTCs. I am reminded that the 2007 Guidance said:

The Secretary of State expects that local authorities may wish to exercise this discretionary power to ensure that pupils whose parents had expressed a preference for a vocational education at a 14-19 vocational academy were not denied the opportunity to do so by the lack of, or the cost of transport arrangements to such a school. Local authorities should use this power to facilitate attendance at a vocational academy where the school’s catchment area included all, or part of the local authority’s area. Where such pupils were from low income backgrounds, then such arrangements should be free of charge.

This part of the guidance has implications for the cost of transport to the new UTC in Didcot and the Studio School in Banbury, and may cause other schools to ponder whether it might affect their post 14 numbers if free transport was offered.

Perhaps, with the raising of the statutory learning age to 18, it is time for central government to review the whole set of principles behind home to school transport in an age of parental and even student choice. What worked in the uncomplicated state school system of the Nineteenth Century may not be appropriate for the Twenty First. Perhaps, travelling costs could be free for all, as in London, or be added to tax credits of Child Benefit? There is certainly, time for a wider debate than just what happens in Oxfordshire.

The answer to the question set above. Bampton features as the village in the TV series Downton Abbey. Many families from the RAF at Brize Norton send their children to secondary school in either Carterton or Burford. The secondary school in Burford traces its history back many centuries. All these towns are in the Prime minister’s Witney constituency. And the school bus from Bampton effectively goes past Carterton Secondary School on its way to Burford School. The former is an 11-16 school; the latter an 11-18 school. One or other might be affected depending on whether Oxfordshire changes the rules or not.