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 news of the over-representation of these schools at the top of the absence tables, as reported 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 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 much 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.

Oops there goes …

Earlier this year I reported on the summary closure of a state funded school. In that case it was an academy in Kent. That event followed closely the demise of an academy chain, but not the closure of its schools. Now we learn of the summary closure of another state funded school; The Black County UTC.

Following a second Ofsted inspection the school has decided to close at the end of this term.

Here’s the message on their web site;

Planned closure of Black Country University Technical College

The Governors of the Black Country University Technical College (BCUTC) based in Bloxwich, Walsall, regret to announce that it will close on August 31 2015.

The wellbeing and success of the students at the school is the priority for the Governors and sponsors and full support and guidance is being given to them all, in particular those undertaking exams this term.
This outcome has been reached following a recent disappointing inspection, a thorough assessment of actual and projected student numbers, financial challenges, staffing capacity and the impact these will have on standards of teaching and learning.

“This has been a difficult decision for all concerned. Our primary focus remains the wellbeing and success of the students at the school, not least of all those due to sit exams this term. We are absolutely committed to ensuring that all of our students can continue with their chosen learning outcomes.

“Support and guidance is being provided to students and their parents and carers both internally and through our local partners including the Walsall Connexions Centre, Walsall Council and our neighbouring authorities of Sandwell, Dudley, Wolverhampton and South Staffordshire, and our sponsors at Walsall College and the University of Wolverhampton.

“BCUTC will work closely with the Department for Education, Walsall College and other local education institutions over the coming months to ensure a smooth transition for all students.”

Now it was always the case that private schools could summarily close, in bad times some did the day after the end of the summer term, but state funded schools had to go through a process of consultation and approval. Indeed, a school in Oxfordshire having gained approval for a sixth form is now going through the consultation process to revert to its former 11-16 status because it believes a sixth form won’t be economically viable. Had it been an academy it could seemingly just have closed that part of the school down.

As I reported in an earlier post, there are some UTCs and studio schools that appear to be struggling. Whether closing them down is the answer is a moot point, but it does beg the question of who is really in charge of the education system in England. Presumably, since the Prime Minister was prepared to extol the virtues of UTCs in parliament last week, his Education Secretary hadn’t told him of the impending closure in Walsall. With so many UTCs and studio school heading the table of schools with high absence rates something needs to done; and quickly. Rules about closure also need to be made clear to academies, free schools and others in receipt of public money.

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.