A cost to rural living

As a Lib Dem county councillor in Oxfordshire I was interested to read the comments of the County Councils Network spokesman for education and children’s services, about the under-funding of rural counties in relation to home to school transport. Incidentally he is also Conservative Group leader on the Oxfordshire County Council that implemented changes to transport arrangements some years ago for most pupils and has recently consulted on changes to home to school transport for pupils with special educational needs where the transport is not included in their Education and Health Care plan.

Over the past few years, I have continually pointed out in the Council Chamber that parents living in London don’t have to worry about the cost of home to school transport because TfL offers largely free travel to young people living in the capital. We now know something of the cost to local authorities of home to school transport, even after they have transferred as much of the possible costs to parents by retaining only their statutory legal services in regard to the nearest school and in most cases no longer paying for travel to the school of choice. I commented in an earlier post about the effect such a change could have in local authorities in July 2013 with a post entitled ‘Not a transport of delight’ and in October 2016 about transport to selective schools and secondary modern schools located next to each other in a post entitled ‘Tories and Grammar Schools’.

The County Council Network noted today that 29 out of 36 county councils had reduced their expenditure on home to school transport between 2014 and 2017. I expect the other seven will probably be forced to do so in the future. Between 2014 and 2017, services were scaled back, meaning that 22,352 pupils less in 2017 were receiving home to school transport services compared to three years previously.

The data shows some large regional variations in the costs of subsidised school transport, with home to school transport in highly rural North Yorkshire costing £207 per head, significantly more than in such Yorshire urban areas as Leeds (£15), Bradford (£30), and Wakefield (£23); Hampshire’s per head average of £62 is much more than in Portsmouth (£6), Southampton (£12), and Reading (£23). In every region in England, county councils are the ones that are paying significantly more per-head than metropolitan and city councils.

Even more iniquitous, yet not mentioned by the County Council Network press notice, was the fact that when the learning leaving age was raised to eighteen from sixteen the right to free travel wasn’t also altered. I don’t know whether it was an oversight or a piece of mean penny pinching on the part of government, but it is not fair on those living in rural areas, especially where the local school only goes up to the age of sixteen. If the local bus service has been axed as well, then the cost may be significant to families. I know that there is provision for a hardship grant that replaced the Education Maintenance Allowance abolished by the Coalition, but its existence is neither well known nor understood.

With rural primary schools under threat due to budget pressures, home to school transport is an issue that may force its way up the agenda over the coming months.

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Industrial revolutions alter a country’s geography

The latest State of the Nation report from the Social Mobility Commission is a bit of a curate’s egg. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/662744/State_of_the_Nation_2017_-_Social_Mobility_in_Great_Britain.pdf

Let me illustrate this in terms of one district in Oxfordshire. On page 161 the report says that; “Three districts in the South East have among the lowest attainment for disadvantaged children at key stage 2 in England: Horsham, South Oxfordshire and Arun. In all three areas, fewer than one in five children achieves the expected standard.” Yet, in the overall ranking of local authorities in Appendix 2, South Oxfordshire is ranked 178 out of 324 local authorities and is the second highest of the five districts in Oxfordshire. Oxford City is ranked 257th out of 324 councils. So, even if the Key State 2 data is correct for South Oxfordshire, how representative is it of the districts overall outcomes in terms of social mobility?

With that question out of the way, it is also worth considering the data from different stages of the education process and especially schooling relates to the data on qualifications as they may represent different groups. In many towns, as the report recognises, those that leave to go to higher education may not return, and in some university towns and cities the influx of students may boost the qualified workforce as graduates may choose to stay put, even if there is no work that makes full use of their degrees.

The data on teacher turnover and retention data is taken from the School Workforce Census and there must be question marks about the how many schools filled in the data comprehensively across all years included in the time frame. At one point the DfE was reporting lower full completion rates from London schools.

In relation to teacher recruitment, I am not sure why Regional School Commissioners should be “given responsibility to work with universities, schools and Teach First to ensure that there is a good supply of teachers in all parts of their regions.” After all, they don’t have responsibility for maintained schools. Perhaps this should read; local authorities, diocese and RSCs should come together to ensure that there is a good supply of teachers in all parts of their regions.

Nevertheless it is clear that schools in many parts of the country still have some way to go to ensure that they achieve the best possible outcomes for all of their pupils. The report, rightly, mentions transport tissues in rural areas, but doesn’t, as far as I can tell, look at what effect free travel offered to those in education by TfL may have had on education outcomes in the nation’s capital city. It certainly should be taken into account when looking at living costs in different areas.

There are those that say none of this matters for the country as a whole so long as jobs are being created somewhere in the country. They would say that no settlement has a right to exist and government attempts from the 1930s to the 1980s to support declining industrial areas have had mixed and often poor results. When Durham County classified its settlements from A to D, it didn’t try to develop the ‘D’ settlements. This report in a sense asks the same question of government; move people to economically successful area of the country or try and create economic success where present there is poverty and a lack of social mobility.  Building 100,000 new houses in Oxfordshire by 2031, and a creating a new ‘expressway’ between Oxford and Cambridge shows the thinking of the present government. I don’t think this report will change that approach.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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.