Wednesday, 26 June 2013

What the spending review means for schools

The 2010 spending review was one of the most gruelling experiences of my career. It's difficult to express to anyone who hasn't been through it how emotional SR negotiations can be. I felt a huge weight of responsibility for squeezing the best possible deal out of the Treasury.

So I have a lot of sympathy for what my old colleagues in the DfE have been going through over the past few months in preparations for today's announcement. Perhaps this makes me prone to being overly sympathetic but I do think they've done a pretty good job.

But what does it mean for schools?

"Protection" for schools

The headline is that the "schools budget has been protected in real terms". What this means in practise is that the revenue budget for pupils aged 5-16 has been held flat taking inflation into account. As there is a rising number of pupils that will mean a (small) per pupil reduction. It doesn't cover the 16-19 budget so school sixth forms aren't included in the protection. There's no news yet on what will happen to this budget.

Now they'll probably be some political debate about whether this picture constitutes genuine "protection" but it doesn't really matter. The reality is schools will feel that budgets are tighter but won't find themselves facing big cuts. They will be in a much better place than other public services (including the NHS as, while, that budget has also been protected costs are rising at much faster rate than in education).

National Funding Formula (NFF)

The Chancellor also announced that a NFF would be introduced. This is a big win for the DfE as it has been in the pipeline since 2010 but neither the PM, DPM or Treasury have previously been prepared to commit given the political risk of big changes to the distribution of school funding. It is badly needed as the current distribution of school funding makes no sense. At the moment LAs simply receive what they got the previous year (per pupil) - and this has happened every year since 2005. There is no account taken of demographic changes since then at all. There are a couple of things to look out for as details start to be unveiled over the coming months:

  • What factors are used? The, probably fair, assumption is that a NFF would see inner-city LAs lose out in favour of schools in rural and suburban areas. However, the distribution of funding is entirely dependent on which factors one decides to prioritise. If you up the amount attached to each EAL student, for example, inner cities will do better. If you up the amount for small schools then rural areas will benefit. There's no right answer.
  • Will Local Authorities be given any discretion? There are two ways to implement an NFF - give money direct to schools and bypass LAs altogether or publish indicative figures for schools but give LAs some discretion to take local factors into account (e.g. high levels of migration into a particular part of the Authority). Both ways have pluses and minuses.

Update: I understand that the NFF being considered would be at LA level. Authorities would still decide school level budgets but would only be able to use a limited number of factors (as per changes introduced this year).

Education Services Grant (ESG)

The ESG is what academies get in lieu of services they would previously have received from local authorities. Maintained schools get the same amount but their money goes to the LA rather than them directly. This budget - which is around £1bn at the moment - is being cut by £200m. So academies will lose roughly £20-£30 per pupil and LAs will lose the same amount for any maintained schools in the Authority. The DfE press release also says £150m will be saved from efficiencies to the academies process. I assume this will mean reductions to the start-up costs sponsors receive when they take over a new academy.

And that's it really. There's no detail about any of the other big DfE budgets like childcare and teacher training but we can probably assume they will not be protected in real terms given the overall cut to the DfE budget (of around 2%) and the relative protection given to schools.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Why Fiona Millar is right

OK so I don't think she's right about everything but I agree with a lot of what she says here about school admissions.

She's right to argue that the school system needs to be genuinely comprehensive if all children are to get a good education. And she's right that arguments for diversity of provision and school choice are undermined if the admissions system is palpably unfair. For those of us who think school choice can be an important tool for creating real educational opportunity in disadvantaged communities this is an important challenge.

I've always found it odd that some proponents of  choice policies also want more grammar schools. The two are clearly completely incompatible. Imagine a town with two hospitals - the first is allowed to turn away anyone they think looks a bit too sick. The second has to take anyone who turns up. The really sick have no choice in this system - they're going straight to hospital number two. And - to stretch the analogy a little further - what would happen as a result? Hospital number one would get all the easy cases; look good in league tables and have no trouble recruiting staff. Hospital number two would have a much harder job; have to deal with all the deaths in town and struggle to find anyone prepared to work there.

The same is true for schools. Selection simply gives in-demand schools the opportunity to screen out the hardest to help pupils, leaving them to congregate elsewhere. More selection would do nothing to increase the overall number of good school places; it would just distribute them differently, and in a way in which the poorest would lose out most. No politician is going to take the political hit required to convert the remaining grammars to comprehensives.  However, they could be encouraged to federate with nearby schools on the model of the Bright Futures academy trust which is built around Altrincham Grammar Girls School. Parents still can't choose AGGS for their child they can at least send them to a school which has access to their staff, facilities and peer networks.

Fiona's also right to challenge academies' freedom to be their own admissions authority. While the vast majority of academies don't abuse this freedom, some do; and it's not an area where there are any obvious educational benefits to autonomy. When the first handful of academies were set up it made sense to protect them from often hostile local authorities who might have used control of admissions to undermine them. Now, though, it's a different story - well over half the secondary schools in the country are now academies and no local authority is academy-free.

I can't see any reason why local authorities shouldn't be given control over academy admissions - at least if academies make up a reasonable proportion of schools in the area. As LAs divest control of schools it makes sense for them to focus on ensuring choice is working and that schools have a fair intake. This means coordinating admissions but also exclusions and special educational needs (academies already have to participate in fair access protocols and take children with a statement of special educational needs). It may also mean working to attract the best academy sponsors into the area. (Lest anyone think this is a change of heart on my part, I said all this back in 2008.)

But enforcing the admissions code more thoroughly would only deal with one kind of unfair selection. It is well established that house prices act as a form of proxy selection. Because most comprehensives select by catchment area wealthier families can buy their way into the best schools; denying choice to poorer families who are displaced. This is much harder problem to deal with (and not one Fiona, or her fellow campaigners, talk about much).

One option would be to introduce cross area lotteries but, while they might have a wonkish attraction, they're highly unpopular with parents and for good reason. It would be such a logistical nightmare that you'd risk the middle classes departing state education en masse for cut price independent schools.

This is where I see the value of free schools. If great providers - usually already involved in running excellent schools - can respond to demand from parents, who can't afford to move, by setting up new schools, then choice becomes more meaningful. The free schools I'm most excited by are those that meet this need in genuinely deprived areas, like Greenwich Free School, Reach Academy in Feltham and King's Leadership Academy in Warrington. It makes sense, in a time of scarce resources, to focus the free school programme much more tightly on these areas over the next few years.

So I agree with Fiona that fair intakes matter and that those who want real school choice should support her campaign for a genuinely comprehensive system. I wonder if she agrees with me that free schools - if properly focused and regulated - can help make this a reality?

Saturday, 1 June 2013

On Equal Marriage

Next week the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill faces its last major hurdle. The House of Lords will vote on Tuesday on an amendment that would throw the progress of the Bill into turmoil. Various faith groups and other anti-equal marriage campaigners are pushing hard to get this amendment accepted.

This issue is a particularly uncomfortable one for me. Not because I'm undecided - I'm a passionate supporter of the Bill. But because I try hard to approach all political issues - even contentious ones - analytically and with empathy towards those I disagree. But this one's making me angry.

In trying to understand why two defining moments come to mind.

The first was an argument with my best friend at the age of 18 (he's still my best friend). He is gay and I was the first person he came out to when we were 14. Because of our friendship I prided myself on having an unusually advanced understanding, for a straight teenager, of the traumas of growing up gay. On this occasion, though, I made a fool of myself. I can't remember the context but I told him that I wouldn't want to have a gay child because I'd worry they'd be bullied. He was furious with me; and it took me a while to understand why. Eventually I realised I was essentially admitting defeat on his behalf; resigning myself to accepting there would always be prejudice against him and anyone else of his sexuality. From that day on true equality for gay people has been right at the top of my personal agenda.

The second moment was in 2009 when I was working in David Cameron's policy unit. Somebody (possibly me) had suggested we should announce our support for equal marriage in the run up to the election. There was enough interest from senior people  for there to be some discussion on the merits. And I quickly realised that one of my colleagues was strongly opposed. We spent the best part of two days arguing it out. We got nowhere. My liberalism and her faith were irreconcilable. Others saw that too and decided not to press ahead with such a controversial announcement pre-election. I've never been more frustrated and disappointed in a professional context.

So this debate feels very personal to me and I do really struggle to understand the mindset of the opposition. I realise much of it, as with my old colleague, comes from a position of faith which I don't have. But then plenty of people of faith support the change. As the psychologist Andrew Solomon has written:

"In the gnostic gospel of St Thomas, Jesus says, 'If you bring forth what is within you, what is within you will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what is within you will destroy you." When I run up against the the anti-gay positions of modern religious bodies, I often wish that St Thomas's words were canonical...Keeping the homosexuality locked away within me nearly destroyed me, and bringing it forth has nearly saved me".

Even more bewildering is the opposition from commentators who claim to have no real issue with equal marriage itself but complain that Cameron is making a tactical error by "prioritising" the issue. For a start this change costs nothing and there's no pressure on parliamentary time. But more than that correcting injustices wherever we find them should always be a priority. Passing this Bill would be a huge signal to the thousands of young people around the country keeping their true selves locked away. It would give thousands more people the opportunity to celebrate their relationship on the same level as their straight friends. How many chances does any Government have to have such a direct impact on so many people for so little cost? How can that not be a priority?

Perhaps sometimes it's OK to be angry.