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.

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 https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/360139/SFR24_2014_Main_Text.pdf

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.

Slow start for UTCs

Along with Free Schools, the Coalition, (well the Conservative section at least), is keen on University Technical Schools and Studio Schools. I don’t really know what my Party’s position is on these new types of 14-18 schools offering specialisms designed to help the local labour market, and provide youngsters will vocational skills.  I suppose we accepted them as part of the Coalition deal, and because we have always wanted better 14-18 education for those not likely to be heading straight for university at eighteen. But, I don’t recall any serious debate about the topic; perhaps I missed it somewhere early on in the life of the Coalition.

Whatever their purpose, it is sad to see that the 39 UTCs and Studio Schools open by the start of September 2103 have in some cases attracted only limited numbers of students. Perhaps not surprisingly, the UTC with the largest number of students is the JCB Academy, a flagship schools which opened in January 2013, and had 276 students enrolled by September of that year. As befits its flagship status, it also had the best attendance record of any of these schools.

Of the other UTCs and studio schools open in September 2013, 25 had an enrolment of 100 students or less, and 14 had enrolled more than 100 students. Now 150 students is a reasonable number for one year group in a 14-18 school, and would give a total of 600 when the school was fully operational. However, three of the schools with fewer than 50 pupils opened in 2012, and one that opened in 2011 with the first tranche of such schools still, apparently, only has 54 students on roll in September 2013. So, unless they increase enrolment over the next two years, they could be fully operational with little more than 100 students.

I am not sure how much capital for new buildings has been ploughed into this programme, but so far it is educating fewer than 2,500 students across the whole of England, or the size of one large comprehensive school. Hopefully, the new schools aiming to come on stream in 2014 will have fared better in the admissions round just completed; perhaps someone might like to file a few FOI requests to find out.

After the recent debate about funding for the 800,000 extra pupils entering the mainstream school system over the decade after 2010, it might be appropriate to ask whether many of the skills being offered in both studio schools and UTCs could have been taught more cost effectively in the further education sector. How far should the national taxpayer be asked to pay for a specialist local school that is often only of benefit to a small section of local industry?  This is especially the case when government is also championing the growth in apprenticeships: the two policies risk being at odds with one another.

As the decisions on where to place these schools seem more related to who wants to fund them, the opportunity to develop a coherent policy towards 14-18 education once again appears to have been lost.







Coalition gets children back to school

This post was based upon the original data released by the DfE. The data has now been reissued in revised form although the DfE say that main trends are unaffected.

Figures from the DfE released today show absence rates in the autumn term continued to fall in 2013 when compared with previous years https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/pupil-absence-in-schools-in-england-autumn-term-2013 Overall, the national figure for those pupils missing 22 or more sessions during the autumn term has fallen from 8.3% of pupils in the autumn of 2009 – the last year of the Labour government – to 4.6% of pupils in 2013, the fourth year of the Coalition government’s oversight of education. In secondary schools, the decline has been from 10.3% in 2009 to 5.9% in 2013 or from just over one in ten pupils at risk of becoming a persistent absentee to just over one in twenty.  There are similar levels of improvement in the figures for all pupil absences over the same period.

Illness still remains the main reason for pupil absence, accounting for some 59% of all missed sessions, so the relatively mild start to the winter in2 013 may have helped reduce absence along with more pressure on parents not to take holidays during term-time despite the much cheaper prices available then compared with the peak holiday periods.

One interesting challenge for the coalition is that only 2 of the 26 UTCs and Studio Schools open last autumn had absence rates for that term that were below the national average, and three of the Studio Schools appeared to have had absence rates of over 20%. Surely, cause for a quick call from Ofsted to see what is happening here, and whether they are being used by other schools as a means of exporting pupils at age 14 with poor attendance records that might reflect badly on the schools they have previously been attending. The fact that two of the Studio Schools seem to belong to the same group might also merit attention. It may well be that they are working with particular groups of pupils, although, if so, that isn’t clear from their web site, and the schools are obviously doing good things for some pupils.

However, as nine of the 25 schools with the worst overall absence rates were Studio Schools or UTCs, and one was a Free School, this does suggest there are some questions to be asked. Interestingly, 13 of the schools with the worst absence rates are primary schools and it would be important to see whether they regularly appear in the worst 25 such schools, and if so why?

For the first time data has been produced for both Pupil Referral Units and for four year olds, and both will provide a baseline for comparison in future years.

Sadly, no school had a 100% attendance record for the autumn term, but a free school in the North West and a junior school in Hampshire recorded 99% or better attendance figures for the term.

Below I am repeating the blog I posted last year about studio schools that reveals I was concerned then about attendance rates. Clearly, the issue has not been solved.

Some Studio Schools encounter student attendance challenge

Are the government’s new studio schools getting off to a difficult start? Recent DfE figures for pupil absence during the autumn term of 2012-13 do at the very least raise questions about what is happening. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/200820/Main_text_-_SFR17_2013.pdf

Five of the ten schools with the highest absence rates, across both primary and secondary sectors, were either studio schools or in one case a University Technical College. As all five of these schools had relatively small enrolments, the behaviour of just one or two reluctant transferees may have unduly affected the outcomes. Nevertheless, against a national rate of 5.2%, or 5.7% for the secondary sector as a whole, absence rates of more than 14% do seem a little on the high side.

Although the majority of the studio schools in the list were in manufacturing centres, with school systems that have faced considerable challenges over the years, it does seem odd that despite the variety of different specialism in these new studio schools so many have these high levels of pupil absence. It might have been though that a fresh start in a new school with a definite vocational slant to the curriculum, and often backed by well known employers, might have inspired pupils to attend regularly. On that basis, it is important to identify what, if anything is going wrong? Indeed, although two studio schools are ranked better than 4,000 in the list of all schools for overall absence rates, the other three schools with studio in their title are in the 600 worst performing school for absence rates.

By focussing on vocational trades, it may be that the early studio schools that a skewed distribution of ability and it will take time to enthuse the pupils about the value of their education after nearly a decade when school has not been the most welcoming of places for many of them. What really must not happen is that these schools become dumping grounds for the failures of the mainstream school system. The new schools coming on stream in 2013 and 2014, including the space studio school in Banbury, need to learn the lessons, not least about transfer to a new school at age 14, that these schools have had to encounter in their early stages of development. It would certainly not be acceptable to either turn a blind eye to high levels of absence in these new types of school or to accept it as a part of the deal for the future of education in England.

As the responsibility for these schools lies with Ministers in Westminster, so officials in the DfE, as would any competent local authority, must ask these schools for the preliminary figures for term two. If these so no improvement over term one of the academic year, action must be taken now. Not to do so will reveal to the education community that while it is acceptable  for central government to castigate local authorities for poor outcomes, government schools are able to produce even worse outcomes with impunity.