The Tory future for our schools – an unhealthy mix of ineffective regulation and quality assurance and more privatisation

Amidst all the froth and spin surrounding the Autumn Statement, one apparently small change in the arrangements for schools carries with it very great significance in terms of how government policy is evolving. The announcement is that:

“Savings of around £600 million will be made on the Education Services Grant, including phasing out the additional funding schools receive through the ESG. The government will reduce the local authority role in running schools and remove a number of statutory duties. The government will consult on policy and funding proposals in 2016.”

This represents a 75% cut in this budget.

The Education Services grant pays for a number of local authority functions in relation to maintained schools. Most of it is paid directly to academies who are then responsible for these functions.

So the first thing to notice is that this is an unacknowledged cut in academies budgets. The current ESG rate is £87 per pupil so a 1000 pupil school can expect to lose around £65,000 per year. Not something you might guess from the DfE spin.

But we do need to pay attention to what the DfE is saying. Currently these are the areas that local authorities can spend ESG on with DfE recommended levels of spend:

Education welfare services £8.65
School improvement £27.01
Asset management £7.41
Statutory and regulatory duties £28.14
Premature retirement costs/ redundancy costs £5.82
Monitoring national curriculum Assessment £0.54
Therapies and other health related services £1.67
Central support services £7.76
Total spend on ESG services for maintained school pupils only £87.00

Looking at this list, it’s pretty obvious where you have to go to make big cuts – school improvement and regulatory duties have to be in the frame if the total spend is going to come down only about £20 per pupil.

This might seem very dry and technical stuff. But it’s of a piece with the Education and Adoption Bill and suggests that there is more of the same to come.

What it will mean essentially is that there will be much less capacity for local authorities to monitor what schools are doing. And in a number of areas it is likely that schools will have to buy in advice and support from other sources – so another hit on their budgets.

The process of unpicking and reducing local authority duties will be a complex and challenging task. For those who enjoy the detail it can be found at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/335723/ESG_AnnexA_reformatted.pdf.

What is important to recognise is that these duties are not anything to do with local authorities running schools. They are about making sure schools manage themselves well, do their best for their pupils and don’t fall foul of a massive amount of legislation and regulation. Here’s just a random sample drawn from the guidance document.

– Section 542(2) Education Act 1996;
– School Premises Regulations 2012
– Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974
– Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012
– Education (National Curriculum) (Key Stage 1 Assessment Arrangements) Order 2004,
– School Staffing (England) Regulations 2009);
– Teachers’ Disciplinary (England) Regulations 2012
– Section 12, Education Act 2002; regs 26 and 27, School Companies Regulations 2002.

There are plenty more! Good luck to headteachers in becoming expert in all this stuff. They won’t be in classrooms much!

The real world we are moving into will look something like this:

– School improvement will consist of the RSC looking at data and firing off letters telling schools to do better.
– Then handing over schools needing help to a sponsor (and then sometimes changing the sponsor when the first one fails).
– The only realistic way of spotting fraud or mismanagement will be through whistleblowers because there will not be the capacity to properly monitor them.
– Schools will have to spend out of their reducing budgets to replace local authority support and become expert in all manner of stuff that is not their core business
– Schools will find they can’t cope on their own and will be forced into multi-academy chains.

The weasel words in the current DfE announcements need to be deconstructed. The direction of travel is clearly towards an unhealthy combination of ineffective regulation and quality assurance and more privatisation as more and more schools are forced into chains. Despite the fact – and we have to keep saying this loud and clear – that chains are much less effective than local authorities in improving and monitoring schools. If anyone doesn’t believe that, read the evidence deployed by Henry Stewart at http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2015/09/10-academy-myths-and-the-facts-that-disprove-them/

The current bill is clearly not the end of the line – these funding changes are clearly preparing the ground for a further assault on what is left of democracy in our school system.

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3 Comments on “The Tory future for our schools – an unhealthy mix of ineffective regulation and quality assurance and more privatisation”

  1. John, great exposition. There is so little understanding amongst national politicians on school funding that hardly anybody knew yesterday what the ESG is – or, should we say, was. And don’t get me started on so-called fair funding, just see comment from @cyclingkev.

  2. Adam Wood says:

    Thanks John, this is very good and very important – is it ok to reblog?

  3. John is right that the Tories intend to complete the destruction of local authorities, but I don’t think his scenario of the future for ‘school improvement’ gives the whole picture. One of the most significant developments in local school systems in recent years has been the growth of various forms of partnerships among schools for mutual support, as a result of the combination of the decline in the capacity of LAs and the fear of Ofsted failure.

    Some partnerships are promoted by government: Teaching School Alliances and academy chains, some are initiated by local authorities and schools themselves. In a growing number of local authority areas these new partnership bodies have been set up on an authority-wide basis, open to all the schools in the area, whether local authority or academies. They are an attempt to remake an LA-wide local school system providing mutual support in the face of the threats of competitive pressures and fragmentation. Support is funded by the schools themselves together with whatever funding they can get from the LA and government.

    It is very positive that schools are choosing to support each other in this way rather than remaining separate or having to turn to commercial providers or academy chains (though some are in them) for support. It also locates the expertise for school improvement and development where it belongs, among teachers in schools. There are however a number of problems. One concerns capacity and quality of support – is it sufficient? Another is funding – most comes out of school budgets.

    And a fundamental problem concerns local democracy, vision and accountability. These new authority-wide partnerships are not local authorities re-branded: they are generally run by headteachers, with no representation of other stakeholders – governors, parents etc. And they are not part of elected local government – at best they have a contractual relationship.

    At last we have a Labour leadership which is committed to the revival of a local authority school system. The continuation and spread of these new partnerships under this Tory government provides the basis for a future properly resourced and democratised local authority system, not ‘controlling’ schools but holding them accountable to the whole community and having an educational vision for it.

    (I’ve written about this, using Birmingham as a case study, in Hatcher R (2014) Local authorities and the school system: the new authority-wide partnerships. Educational Management Administration and Leadership 42: 3, 355-371. See also Mel Ainscow’s new book ‘Towards self-improving school systems’.)