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Counting the cost of a fragmented school system

Blog Editor, IOE Digital16 July 2019

Sara Bubb. 

In an effort to turn schools into academies too little attention has been given to constructing a middle tier oversight system that is fair and efficient for all.

This is an unescapable conclusion of our new study, Understanding the Middle Tier: Comparative Costs of Academy and LA-maintained Systems, which has uncovered the cost of England’s systems for overseeing academies and local authority (LA) schools. We found a complex and confusing picture that reinforces the Public Accounts Committee judgement that the Department for Education’s ‘arrangements for oversight of schools are fragmented and incoherent, leading toinefficiency for government and confusion for schools.’

The ‘middle tiers’ are the systems of support and accountability connecting (more…)

Local heroes? Labour's plan for a 'middle tier' should be seen as work in progress

Blog Editor, IOE Digital2 May 2014

Ann Hodgson and Ken Spours
The latest output from Labour’s policy review tries to tackle one of the most difficult legacies of the Coalition Government; a highly fractured and privatised English education landscape. Accordingly, David Blunkett’s Middle Tier Review decided to take aim at the Achilles’ heel of the Gove education revolution – the centralisation of contracting with thousands of schools in the hands of the Secretary of State and the fracturing of the local landscape that, they argue, undermines standards and opportunity for all.
The political dilemma for Labour, however, was to avoid being seen as embracing the old world of the local authority or “creating wholesale upheaval and deconstructing the existing landscape”. Its answer has come in the form of a complex set of proposals aimed at creating coherence, consistency and collaboration in a reconfigured local landscape. Drawing on what it sees as the successes of London Challenge, as well as other examples of local good practice, the Review makes a total of 40 recommendations. However, Labour’s new policy framework on education governance arguably revolves around five key areas.

  1. The appointment by clusters of local authorities of Directors of School Standards (DSS) who will oversee local performance and institutional collaboration and will work with the National Office of School Commissioners.
  2. Local authorities to be responsible for a range of functions including fostering collaboration, representing parents, planning school places and championing the needs of vulnerable groups such as NEETs (young people not in employment, education or training).
  3. Academy chains to be regulated and inspected and schools will be free to leave them and to join other types of partnerships or trusts.
  4. Education Panels of local stakeholders to provide additional local oversight and accountability.
  5. The re-establishment of the National College of School Leadership linked to an alliance of teaching schools.

In addition, and as almost throw-away points, the report also suggests the need for a light-touch curriculum framework with room for local innovation and the establishment of a Curriculum Advisory Group. This would be drawn from across the political spectrum and report to the Secretary of State to overcome politicisation of the curriculum and to ensure that all students have an entitlement to personal development, citizenship and a sense of identity and belonging.
The report, Review of Education Structures, Functions and the Raising of Standards for All: Putting Students and Parents First, is not the easiest of reads. It is simultaneously both complex and technical, and vague and open-ended. Nevertheless, its strengths lie in its recognition of the need for the devolution of powers to the local level; for greater institutional collaboration; a consistent approach to teacher professionalism and qualification; strategies to gradually knit together a local learning system and the promise of a more open approach to curriculum and innovative learning.
Interestingly, David Blunkett’s Foreword to the document focuses on learning, creativity and inspirational teaching rather than the substance of the report on educational governance. This could be seen to reflect where his heart really lies.
There are, of course, weaknesses. To some the document will still look very New Labour with its reluctance to fully politically invest in local government and local democracy – the central role of local commissioners to hold the show together; the rather vague and constrained roles of local authorities; the lack of substance behind the proposals for collaboration and the possibility that Education Panels might turn out to be just talking shops. The document also broadly ignores post-16 education and colleges, even though it talks briefly about progression at 16.
However, there may be cause for a more benign interpretation. This was never going to be easy for Labour, given the ambition of the Gove organisational revolution and David Blunkett has had to balance the advice from the different think tanks – IPPR and Compass – as well as the political preferences of Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt. As such it should, we think, be seen as work in progress with some promising proposals that will need elaborating and much discussion. There’s a lot to play for as Labour continues with its Policy Review and tries to be in a position in 2015 to put any of this into practice.
 

Academy conversions: why money doesn't always talk

Blog Editor, IOE Digital12 July 2012

Rebecca Allen
Thousands of primary and secondary schools have chosen to convert to academy status (the chart below covers secondary education). A survey by the think-tank Reform showed that financial considerations were the most widely cited reason for conversion, as predicted by many, including The Guardian.Pie chart showing share of pupils by school type in May 2012
The financial gains arise because academies can directly claim their share of the Local Authority Central Spend Equivalent Grant (LACSEG) (pdf) in recognition of the fact that as independent schools they no longer receive a number of services from local authorities (LAs), and must make appropriate provision for themselves or do without these services. LACSEG money is spent by local authorities on:

  • Educational disadvantage: pupils with special needs but without statements, behaviour support services, educational welfare services, 14-16 practical programmes, assessing free school meals eligibility
  • Educational enrichment: music services, visual and performing arts, outdoor education, museum and library services
  • Risk sharing across schools: coverage of long-term sick, termination of employment costs, redundancy costs, capital asset management
  • Shared administrative functions: school admissions, statutory and regulatory duties.

If financial considerations have indeed been a primary motivator for conversion, then is it also true that those with the greatest potential gains from conversion have done so in the greatest numbers? If this were true, then I suggest we should be able to identify likely converters using the following four criteria.
1.  Affluent schools within less affluent local authorities have most to gain from conversion
The share of LACSEG given to academies was calculated on a simple per pupil basis, yet a large proportion of LA services are used to support children with challenging educational needs. The smaller the local authority’s share of children from deprived backgrounds you take, the more you can benefit by taking your school’s LACSEG funding out of the central pot of money. Academy converters are indeed far more affluent (at under 9% free school meals eligibility for secondary schools) than the remaining state maintained sector (around 15% free school meals eligibility). It is also true that academy converters take a disproportionately lower share of the LA’s free school meals population.Histogram showing how academy converters take a lower share of poor pupils
2.  Potential benefits of academy conversion are highest in areas with a high LACSEG (as calculated by DfE)
Where a local authority’s LACSEG spending, as estimated by DfE on their website, is very high, local schools have the most to gain on a per pupil basis from academy conversion. But data actually show the local authorities that have lost the greatest numbers of schools to conversion are actually those with low LACSEG spending.
3.  Benefits should be highest in areas where the discrepancy between DfE-calculated LACSEG and ‘true’ LACSEG were highest
Many schools realised that they would receive a significant short-term windfall  from conversion because the DfE had incorrectly calculated the current expenditure on LACSEG services by local authorities. The discrepancy between calculated LACSEG and true LACSEG in an LA is anywhere between zero and almost £500 per pupil.* We might therefore expect that conversions were highest in areas where this discrepancy was particularly high. But the data show this isn’t so. In fact, some of the areas with the highest discrepancy in their calculation have had no secondary school convert to academy status (e.g. Islington, Barking and Dagenham, Hartlepool).
4.  Those in most financial need – with deficits or falling populations – should be most likely to convert
Some schools argued that they felt they had no choice but to convert to academy status to compensate for cuts in funding to their school. It is true that many schools have seen falling income year-on-year, but if this was an important motivator for conversion then those in the most financial need should have been most likely to convert. However, data show that those already in deficit in the 2009/10 financial year (the most recent for which we have all-England data) were no more likely to convert than others. Also, those with falling pupil populations were also no more likely to convert.
So, although those schools that have converted to academy status so far widely cite financial considerations, the characteristics of the converters are not as predicted if this were the sole consideration. What can we conclude from this? It is possible that many heads and governors do not have the right financial data to make the decisions about conversion, and had they done so, even greater numbers would have recognised the short-term windfall and so converted. Or alternatively political considerations for those sitting on governing bodies widely influenced the conversion decision, which is why more Conservative local authorities have seen the greatest rates of conversion. However, we should also not dismiss the idea that, at least in some local authorities, the sense of cohesion across local schools remains very high and that they value the quality of the services the local authority provides to help them provide schooling for children, particularly those in more challenging circumstances.
* Thanks to Chris Cook of the Financial Times for these estimates