Rods, poles and perches

The announcement of 10,000 new prison places and increased use of stop and search by the Prime Minister made me think about what he might announce for education once he goes beyond the financial carrot necessary to shore up our under-financed education system.

With such an ardent Brexiter in charge, could he direct that the curriculum change on 1st November to throw out any reference to the decimal system and witness a return to imperial weights and measures? Could the government mandate that temperature again be expressed in degrees Fahrenheit rather than Centigrade, and kilometres be banished form the language once again? Any other summer and these might seem silly season stories, but not in 2019.

I have no doubt that schools would rather than spend the £2 billion to build new prison places that this cash was spent on youth services, more cash for special schools and strategies to reduce exclusions and off-rolling by schools. This could include better provision of professional development courses to help teachers educate challenging pupils rather than exclude them. Such measures might obviate the need for building new prisons.

I do not want to return to the dark days of the Labour government, just over a decade ago, when, at any one time, around 4,000 young people were being locked up: the number now is closer to 1,000 despite the issues with knife crime that like drugs issues is now seeping across the country at the very time when it seems to have plateaued in London.

More police and other public service staff are necessary for society to function effectively, but the aim must be on prevention and deterrents not on punitive action and punishment. Criminals that know they are likely to be caught may well think twice: those that know detection rates are abysmal will consider the opportunity worth the risk.

The State also needs to spend money on education and training of prisoners as well as rehabilitation of offenders after the end of their sentence; especially young offenders. The recent report from the Inspector of Prisons makes as depressing reading as the study highlighted in a previous post of the background of many young people that are incarcerated for committing crimes. If we cannot even work to prevent the smaller number of young people imprisoned these days from re-offending what hope is there if society starts to lock up more young people again?

A recurrent theme of this blog has been about the design of the curriculum for the half of our young people not destined for higher education. Here the new government could do something sensible by recognising that schools have accepted that the EBacc offers too narrow a curriculum to offer to every pupil and to encourage a post-14 offering that provides for the needs of all pupils. This might be achieved by encouraging schools and further education to work together.

A start might be made by increasing the funding for the 16-18 sector and identifying what was good about the idea of University Technical Colleges and Studio Schools and why the experiment has not worked as its promoters had hoped.

 

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Good news for Didcot

Well done to the Oxfordshire UTC. The 14-19 school received a ‘Good’ rating from Ofsted this week, after its first ever inspection. In the same week the UTC in Derby was placed in special measures.

You can read the Ofsted report on the Oxfordshire UTC at  https://reports.ofsted.gov.uk/inspection-reports/find-inspection-report/provider/ELS/141111 Schools week had some interesting statistics on UTCs recently. https://schoolsweek.co.uk/derby-manufacturing-utc-placed-in-special-measures/ Apparently, according to the report by Schools Week

almost a quarter of the 33 UTCs inspected so far have received Ofsted’s bottom grade.

Sixty-one per cent of all UTCs inspected have been rated less than ‘good’.  Six, all grade three or four, have since closed.

 Of the remaining 27 that are still open, 14 are rated either ‘requires improvement’ or ‘inadequate’.

Most UTCs have struggled since they were established in 2010, mainly because of problems attracting enough pupils to stay financially viable. Eight have so far closed.

 In January, Schools Week revealed that almost every UTC missed its recruitment targets last year, leaving them with combined debts of over £11 million.”

The UTC in Didcot is clearly bucking the trend for UTCs as a whole and I am grateful to the person that emailed me last night after the Ofsted Report had appeared to draw it to my attention. However, I still have anxieties over its long-term future if it cannot fill all the places it has on offer.

What Ofsted have revealed is that although the Oxfordshire UTC is still a work in progress it has strong leadership and a clear vision of what it is seeking to achieve.  The school and its staff are also aware that a proportion of their pupils come to them at fourteen with a less than successful record of achievement in the school system. Unlike some 14-18 schools they are not only aware of this but also set out to change the relationship with these pupils and the education system. That’s a tough job, but like Meadowbrook, the alternative provision in Oxfordshire, where Ofsted also commented on the work with teenagers that have reacted against schooling, the Oxfordshire UTC is also winning the hearts and minds of these young people. As Ofsted commented in their summary:

Pupils, including some who had previously struggled to engage with education, are inspired by the UTC’s ethos.

The Inspector went on to add that:

Since the UTC opened, some pupils have arrived in Year 10 having had negative experiences of schooling. Staff quickly get to know the pupils well, and support and reassure any experiencing stress or anxiety. Pupils gain a sense of community, security and pride during their time at UTC Oxfordshire. This equips them with great confidence and maturity.

Inspection report: UTC Oxfordshire, 22–23 May 2018

Schools cannot succeed without strong and purposeful leadership and the Oxfordshire UTC certainly has a leader creating a successful school backed by a strong team and supportive sponsors.

My more general anxiety is how the next generation of leaders for the school system will be developed? Some MATs will ensure that they create leadership pathways, but how will the stand alone academies and the remaining maintained schools ensure a leadership pipeline that is sufficient to meet the needs of all schools. This question is especially pertinent at a time when the need for career pathways for teachers that doesn’t involve whole school leadership is once again being discussed.

There are other reasons why I have concerns about 14-18 schools, but in this case I am delighted to offer my congratulations to the Oxfordshire UTC.

Transfer at 14; good idea, badly executed?

Schools Week has been running a story about the failure of many UTCs and Studio Schools to attract pupils for September. Their latest news is that Plymouth UTC will now not take any pupils at 14 this coming September http://schoolsweek.co.uk/troubled-utc-plymouth-pauses-recruitment-at-14/ Here in Oxfordshire the news on that front is better, with two of the three UTC/Studio schools fully subscribed. Indeed, the Didcot UTC has made 120 offer for 120 places equal to its Planned Admission Number and the Studio School in Bicester exceeded its PAN of 50 with 53 offers to the 60 applicants. Now, whether or not they all turn up is another matter, and we won’t know until parents have considered issues such as how much it will cost to transport their child to the school.

The Space Studio School in Banbury follows the trend identified by Schools Week, with 16 offer for the 75 places available. But, located as it is in the grounds of the town’s largest academy it has always seemed to me to be a bit of an oddity.

Despite these good recruitment numbers, there remain for the schools in Oxfordshire the same issues rehearsed before in this column. Existing Oxfordshire secondary schools will lose the funding of 173 pupils if all those offered places move to the Didcot and Bicester schools. That’s the best part of £700,000 in one year. Over four years it would amount to not far short of £3 million pounds after allowing for inflation. Put this drain on income on top of the 8% the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggested might be the cuts to school budgets over the rest of this decade and you have the potential for financial problems at other schools.

To make the most of a system, you need a degree of planning or unlimited funds. We don’t have either at present and we don’t seem to have a government that understands that in times of austerity you need to make the most of the resources that you do have available.

The issue in Oxfordshire is, what will be the consequences for schools losing pupils at 14 and 16, whereas elsewhere the consequence is the opposite. What happens to the schools that don’t attract enough pupils to pay their bills? The silence from the Regional Schools Commissioners and the National Commissioner on the need for a rational approach is of concern. These civil servants must not be high priced rubber stamps approving new academies without understanding the consequences.

In the end, it will be the much maligned local authorities that will have to sort out ant mess. It may be no surprise that the Plymouth UTC operates in a selective school system. In such a system, few pupils will leave a selective school at 14 making it even harder to recruit from the remaining schools with the pupils that didn’t take or pass the selection process.

It is probably time to look at how the transfer of pupils at 14 is going to work in the longer-term: leaving it to the market isn’t really an option.

Can UTCs survive?

Schools Week, the respected education newspaper, is reporting Michael Gove as saying that the UTC programme has failed.  http://schoolsweek.co.uk/michael-gove-utcs-have-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 https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/561152/SFR51_2016_text.pdf 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?

W(h)ither UTCs?

This month the Education Funding Agency has issued financial notices to improve to two University Technical Colleges; Daventry and Buckinghamshire. Interestingly, both are cited in a recent House of Commons Library briefing paper on UTCs (No 07250 issued 15th March 2016) as having relatively low recruitment figures in their early years of operation. Indeed, Daventry, according to the local newspaper, is currently considering moving from its current 14-18 UTC model to become an 11-18 school, presumably to boost numbers and help with school places in the area.  Nationally, three of the first 41 UTCs have either closed or are in the process of doing so, as are also some of the other 14-18 Studio Schools. However, a further 20 UTCs are in the planning stage.

So, might UTCs be set to become the ‘De Lorean’ of the education world; a good idea, but not financially viable? Having visited the Didcot UTC recently, I can see the attraction of the concept as supported by Lord Baker. But, they do run into a number of challenges. Firstly, changing school at 14 isn’t a normal part of the school scene, so the UTCs have to persuade young people and their parents that the change is worthwhile. Secondly, the schools that they are departing from will lose cash for every pupil that transfers. After four years a school losing ten pupils a year could be £200,000 down on income, but still be trying to offer the same curriculum to its remaining pupils. Lose twenty pupils a year and the cash burn is even more concerning. Some schools might fight to keep their pupils or only be interested in losing those that cost more to educate than they generate in revenue.

As each UTC has its own brand, there isn’t even a coherent national offering and some UTCs may look more attractive to pupils with an interest in vocational courses rather than academic prowess. This raises the question as to whether or not these pupils could have been more cost effectively educated by the further education sector. Certainly, a school that gains a reputation for only educating part of the ability range is less likely to flourish, especially if that part is the less able group. UTCs are also probably not helped, especially in rural areas, by the fact that there is no support with transport costs unless the UTC is able to provide assistance. This isn’t an issue in London, where TfL provides free transport for all school pupils, but it is in the rest of the country where the cost of attending a UTC may run into several hundred pounds a year compared with staying put at the school you joined at eleven.

The government will need to work out how to make UTCs a success if they want the concept to flourish in the manner that Lord Baker intended. This will be a challenge while the government continues to believe in the market approach to education. Funding these schools differently to other schools would result in cries of ‘foul’ from the school losing pupils at 14, but as we have seen with Daventry and Buckinghamshire, the risk of not doing so is that the UTCs will struggle to maintain financial solvency, especially as they are operating in areas of the curriculum with above average teaching costs in both revenue and capital terms compared with say an arts based curriculum.  ln a school offering the full curriculum, expensive subjects can be balanced with less costly ones. Alternatively, if you are a free school, you can opt only for a cheap languages and arts subject curriculum and eschew the expensive science and technology areas, however useful they might be to the national economy.

Unless there is a real desire by government to make the UTC idea work for the 14-18 age group the concept seems potentially at risk of becoming like Lord Baker’s earlier foray into this area, City Technology Colleges, doomed to be little more than a sideshow in the educational fairground.