Category Archives: Funding

King Canute, social mobility and the Education Endowment Fund

As today is designated ‘social mobility day’, where Nick Clegg darkens our screens to explain that what he is saying now, he actually truly believes in – as opposed to everything he said before, which he said to get elected – it’s worth looking again at one of Michael Gove’s bright ideas: the Education Endowment Fund (to be run by the Sutton Trust and the Impetus Trust – see here for details)

The Fund has been set up with grand aims. It is designed to address the monumentally complex problem which is routinely explained by Gove as follows: only 40 pupils out of 80,000 on free school meals end up going to Oxford or Cambridge. This often-aired statistic is a crude measure, but makes the obvious point well enough – poor kids don’t do as well as rich kids.

Odd, you may think, that ‘social mobility day’ comes from a Government that has trebled tuition fees and all-but knocked education maintenance allowance on the head, but let’s stick with them for a moment.

After all, Gove has raided the piggy bank to put £125 million into the Fund, to pay for innovative ideas which will help disadvantaged children.

But, slow down, don’t think for a moment that this is £125 million coming to a school near you. Far from it – this is an Endowment Fund, so the hard cash is limited to the interest earned on the investment. Assuming a safe and steady return of about 5% – this amounts to a pot of £6 million or so a year.

Without wishing to appear cynical, it would take a blinkered enthusiast – like those who believed Canute could turn back the tide – to think that 6 million quid will somehow reverse the very deep-seated educational inequalities Gove identifies.

To illustrate the merest drop in the deepest ocean this Fund represents, here’s a comparison (crude, I’ll admit, but if it’s good enough for Gove…):

Her Majesty’s Government rustle up £125 million to spend on the nation’s needy – Eton School holds an investment portfolio of about the same amount.

So, the Government’s collective will to address educational inequality equates roughly to the financial strength of one private school (remarkably, a few years back, a loss of £4 million on the private school’s investment was described by the bursar as ‘a pity’. And aside from being extraordinarily wealthy, Eton benefits from tax exemptions, courtesy of their charitable status. Puts the Endowment Fund in some kind of context, doesn’t it?).

No doubt something good will come of the Fund. My guess, two years down the line, there will be somewhere for Clegg to visit and grin for the camera – just to show he cares.

But will it address the fissures that run deep through our society? Will it turn the relentless tide that piles opportunity on top of wealth? King Canute proved his point, he showed that words are not enough. Nor, unfortunately is £6 million – if the Education Endowment Fund is as good as it gets, Gove and Clegg will end up in deep and choppy seas.

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New improved EMA is not something for Lib-Dems to celebrate

It doesn’t take a master strategist to figure out what’s happening. The Lib Dems are taking a pasting for being too cosy with the Tories. So every now and again the boys in blue cut them a bit of slack and take one for the team; they allow the Lib Dems to say they have made a difference to Government policy. The Tories even allow them to imply that, without the odd splash of yellow, Cameron’s lot really would be getting away with murder. Cue a grateful populace.

Except, so transparent is this tactic – so obviously manufactured to appease the ego of Clegg and his team – that it manages to achieve the exact opposite: contempt rather than gratitude. Part of the problem is the preposterous enthusiasm with which the Lib Dems greet anything that they have had a say in.

Take the curtailment of Education Maintenance Allowance – funds to help keep cash-strapped 16-19 year olds in education. It started off as a £560m pot – and today, in it’s Lib-Dem moulded form, amounts to the considerably more modest amount of £180m. Given the money is already targeted on poorer teenagers, you’d be hard-pushed to celebrate this as a victory for fairness and justice.

Unless, of course, you are a Lib-Dem in which case you have ‘fought’ and ‘won’, ‘extra’ cash (even though the whole EMA was scaled back and today’s money is coming from an as yet unspecified cut from within the Education budget). The spin machine ramps this up, claiming the Lib Dems have achieved a ‘boost’ of £1200 for the poorest children, despite the fact that they would have got this under EMA anyway – well, all except a genuine ‘boost’ of, hold your breath, 77p.

The detail of the scheme also questions whether the Simon Hughes-driven back-patting is a tad premature. Namely, much of the new Fund will go to colleges to support their students – the risk here is that those most in need of this cash will be deterred at the prospects, and won’t enrol in the first place.

At best, this is a modest rearguard action to salvage something from the wreckage of endless Tory cuts. And, despite the oh-so-obvious political manouvering, this was achieved as much by the reality of student voters turning against the Lib Dems in their thousands (tipping many Ministerial marginal seats into the red), as it was by Clegg and the gang. So, sorry, don’t expect me to be grateful.

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Gove forgets to mention the ‘c’ word

I’ve been a bit unkind to Michael Gove in a previous blog (or two), but he turned up a few surprises in his first major speech since becoming Education Secretary. Addressing the National College for Leadership of School, his message of greater school autonomy and more power for the top bods was well-designed to win over his audience (others were impressed too, such as Conor Ryan, former adviser to David Blunkett).

It was a substantial speech and there’s much to pick over (and – gulp – a fair bit to agree with). His words were well-crafted and pleasantly lacking in endless criticism of what went before (Gove seems to do ‘new politics’ much better than his Lib-Dem colleagues – he could teach Clegg and Alexander a thing or two).

No mention of ‘free schools’ (two reasons for this: one, he was keeping his powder dry for today’s announcements; and, two, businesses setting up schools is completely at odds with his message that ‘Headteachers know best’, so he must have wisely decided to keep schtum).

But the biggest surprise was the complete absence of the word ‘cut’ (or ‘deficit’) from his speech. It seems his reforms are taking place in a vacuum, shielded from the grim fiscal realities every other Con-Dem Minister is trotting out to justify wince-making cuts.

Refreshing stuff, in many ways. But odd.

This lack of economic context places Gove out of step with his Con-Dem colleagues. And David Willetts, in particular, who has earnestly begun his task of cost-cutting, with some painful cuts to higher education and talk not of the benefits but the ‘burden’ of providing university places.

So while Willetts is busily pruning expectations, Gove seems to be doing exactly the reverse.

He (Gove that is) says that difficult economic times are no reason to ‘scale down ambitions’; he draws attention to the ‘brain-boom’ emerging from Chinese and India universities, and suggests we need to match them; he waxes lyrical about US Charter schools where children from the ghetto are getting to elite universities; and he wants ‘more teachers’ to get masters and doctorates.

All this suggests more university places – and therefore (significantly) more investment, not less.

This is a bit of a mystery. If I was Danny Alexander I would be straight on the phone to ask Gove: what gives? And if he can’t get through, I expect it’ll be because David Willetts got there first.

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Only business will profit from free schools

When it comes to ‘free schools’, there seems to be a pretty significant difference of opinion between the Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, and his boss, Education Secretary, Michael Gove. Between them they can’t seem to decide whether schools should be able to make a profit or not.

‘Free schools’ are Gove’s big, bold – and ever-so-slightly bonkers – idea for reforming education. The plan is to allow parents, teachers and businesses to set up their own schools, resulting (supposedly) in a more diverse education sector. If Gove has his way, free schools will emerge in their hundreds over the next few years.

There are some major flaws in all this.

I set out some of the arguments against free schools here, but to cut a long story short: free schools don’t raise standards; they increase social segregation; they lower the standard of school buildings (do you have a problem with your child being educated in an office block? Nick Gibb doesn’t); they cost a lot of money; and they divert resources away from existing schools.

So, I hear you ask, what’s the point?

I have a theory. Free schools are not really about education at all. They are part of a revolution the Con-Dems are planning. And the revolution is this: profit.

Many Conservatives have long looked at the state with a sense of antipathy bordering on rage. They are now ably supported by the Orange-Book Lib-Dem brigades, who are shaped by their hostility towards the state – particularly where it provides universal public services funded from the public pocket.

They look at schools and think: couldn’t we spend a bit less? Isn’t there money to be made in those classrooms?

Now, the Con-Dems are being cute. They know they weren’t elected in order to dismantle the state. So they are engaged in a concerted effort to do two things: first, denigrate what the state does, with endless talk of ‘waste’ and ‘inefficiency’; and, second, dress up the alternative in the seductive language of ‘choice’, or ‘freedom’, or ‘fairness’.

That’s exactly what they’ve done with free schools, arguing this gives parents the ‘choice’ to set up a free school. I have yet to see any published research or survey which suggests there are anything more than a handful of parents who would want to do such a thing. Most, I expect, would consider the idea with incredulity, baffled at the idea their lives are so time-rich they have the scope to add ‘set up and run a school’ to their daily to-do list. Ridiculous, isn’t it?

I’m more persuaded by the idea that charitable foundations may run some schools, particularly faith-groups (which is a whole different blog), but the reality is that the only institutions interested in moving into education in a big way are businesses. They would find the economies of scale appealing (a thousand schools means you could negotiate some real cut-price catering contracts), but they would only be interested if they could make money.

And this is where it gets interesting.

Nick Gibb, has said quite clearly – unequivocally – that companies should not be able to make a profit from schools. In fact he has said profit-making schools take vital funds out of education and move it straight into a companies bulging balance sheet. You can read the full interview here, but these were his exact words:

“The trouble with allowing companies to make a profit from providing schools is that it take money out of the education system, significant sums of money out. We want to make sure that all that money is retained within [the education system] and if it [profit] were necessary, fine but it’s not necessary…”.

The difficulty is that Michael Gove has said the complete opposite. He doesn’t have a problem with schools being taken over by schools and run at a profit. As he says himself, he is after all ‘a Conservative.’

I find myself thinking: I agree with Nick.

But there’s only going to be one winner isn’t there? No doubt Michael Gove will have his way.

The slow death of state education has begun. It will be allowed to wither on the vine, while it’s made easier and easier for business to get their foot through the door.

So, profit-making schools here we come! And, remember this: if you don’t like it, you have a choice – set up your own. Then if it all goes wrong, it’ll be your fault. Nice, eh?

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Lib-Dems: Building Problems for the Future

It looks like there will be an announcement, early in the coming week, that will bring the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme to an end. Some projects will continue to a finish (they are too far down the line to halt) but there will be a number being curtailed before the first foundations have been laid.

Putting aside the impact this has on our nation’s future (for the moment), some of the disappointed losers look like they will fall within the constituencies of prominent Lib-Dems. They will have some explaining to do to their constituents, many of whom will be rightly baffled at how a school can be ‘vital’ one minute and unnecessary the next. And this is not, it seems, a saving in the name of deficit-cutting – BSF funds may be re-allocated to the Academies programme (or worse, free schools!)

A quick look at the areas where projects are incomplete – and therefore most likely to be for the chop – suggests Ed Davey (Kingston), Sarah Teather (Brent) and Paul Burstow (Sutton) – among others – will have to hastily consult their well-thumbed Lib-Dem guide entitled: ‘How to avoid taking responsibility for anything mainly by shifting the blame to other relevant parties, particularly Labour but sometimes the Conservatives depending on the situation’.

In this case, they can’t, unfortunately for them, claim they didn’t know (or say this has been sprung upon them because of the deficit in Greece or a drop in the Turkmenistani Manat; or whatever improbable excuse they are now wheeling out for shifting, within hours, from a party that thought immediate spending cuts were disastrous to one that was happy to grab the other end of Osbournes two-man public-sector-chopping saw). No, this was a cut they knew was going to come because the Conservatives said so before the election.

Sarah Teather (the Lib-Demmer who is now Minister for Children and Families), now happily working alongside Nick Gibb (the Conservative Schools Minister), may find it particularly difficult to explain away these (and future) cuts: she made some remarkably bold claims about a ‘massive’ cash injection for schools, if the Lib-Dems had their way. As James Powney points out, she didn’t mention BSF cuts in any of her election leaflets. If I was a constituent, I’d be watching closely to see whether this ‘massive’ spending injection materialises and I would be very sceptical about the impact of the pupil premium in areas like Brent (fodder for another blog post, I think).

Of course, we should not underestimate the ability of Lib-Demmers to twist their way out of a tight spot and, as is their wont, peer down on the murky reality of decision-making from their high-yellow ground. We only have to look to David Laws (remember him?) for evidence of this ability to sing different tunes to different audiences. In a classic bout of pre-election Lib-Demmery, Laws managed to describe the BSF as ‘crucial’, express concern that those nasty Tories would take money out of school-building and – get this – also say the Lib Dems would be ‘reviewing’ BSF anyway. It’s the talent for simultaneously holding all possible positions on a single issue that makes the Lib Dems such an infuriating bunch.

How long will they be able to sustain this “you name it, we’ll sing it” approach to politics? Their abandonment of Building Schools for the Future may well leave them struggling to hold their note; their previously forgiving audience may well start to heckle with the cry: “we didn’t vote for this!”.

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Free schools – the case against

The Lib-Cons are putting ‘free schools’ slap-bang in the middle of their education plans for the first term (although this agenda is much more ‘Con’, than ‘Lib’ – Michael Gove’s in the driving seat). The plan – based on a Swedish idea – is to open up the management of schools to parents, charities and businesses, with new management structures shaking things up, bringing nothing short of a ‘schools revolution’.

Will it work?

The answer of course is: who knows? But if I was pushed (not too hard), I would say ‘no’. In fact, push (just a little harder) then I would say free could be disastrous.

I’ve had a look around some of the recent commentary on free schools. This, it seems, is the case against:

1. Where’s the money coming from for free schools?

Budgets are tight – and are only going to get tighter as the Lib-Con squeeze on spending continues in the months ahead. So, in this time of frugality, how are free schools going to be funded? They will incur capital costs, as well as revenue to pay for teachers, teaching assistants, cooks and all the other people it takes to run a school. The evidence from Sweden shows a ‘significant increase’ in costs in order to set the schools up. After a decade of free schools, areas with a high proportion of free schools had a higher than average cost-per-pupil.

This doesn’t look good for the long-term, but what about next year? The Institute for Fiscal Studies explains that free schools are to be funded from the Building Schools for the Future budget. Whether or not you think is a wise re-allocation of funds, this money-stream is due to run dry in 2011.

So, given that free schools are going to find it impossible to get going in time for the new school year in 2010, where’s the money coming to pay for them from 2011 onwards?

To hazard a guess, free schools will be paid for from a re-allocation of existing school budgets – this will mean front-line cuts coming to a school near you.

2. Will free schools raise standards?

This is a real sticking point, but it’s questionable whether free schools raise standards. The ‘Trends in International Maths and Science Study’ ranks England eight places higher than Sweden. Where free schools have raised standards, critics suggest it’s because they’ve creamed off the best students which in turn gives them better results.

Before the election, a certain Liberal Democrat leader described free schools as a ‘disaster for standards’. On this one, I agree with Nick.

3. Do parents really want to set up their own schools?

Apparently, the number of parent groups who have shown an interest in starting their own school has ‘surged’ to 550. Now, call me an old cynic, but that number seems ridiculously low. What’s the ratio between the number of people who phone to find out about a job and those who actually apply – maybe one in ten? More pertinently – how many actually get the job – one in fifty? I struggle to see this ‘surge’ translating into more than a handful of free schools, certainly not the ‘hundreds’ anticipated by Michael Gove.

Parents – in any great number – simply don’t want to run their own school. Most find the idea preposterous. Sure, there will be very active parents here and there but that will be it: actually running a school has very limited appeal to parents (where’s the time in any given day?).

Advocates will no doubt wheel out Toby Young who always seems to pop up at this point. He seems a nice chap and makes a good fist of arguing for free schools. But do you remember the Sinclair C5? To me, Toby Young is the Clive Sinclair of the free school movement: a likeable, enthusiastic advocate for a product that is ultimately doomed to failure. Like the C5, free-schools will prompt some head-scratching and the words: ‘but why would I want one of those?’

4. How will free schools help struggling schools?

Let me state the obvious: schools exist. They may be good, bad or indifferent but they are there, lurking on a street corner near you. If a school is struggling – let’s say a change of Head has meant some upheaval (or, indeed, a free school has poached all the good teachers): is it not wiser to help the school, rather than to turn on our collective heels and set up another new one two doors down? What happens to the existing school? More importantly: what happens to the children in the school if the free school can’t take them because it’s still being set up (or is full). Are they left to wither in a school that is having all it’s resources slowly stripped away? I can’t see how this will do anything but increase the gap between the educational-haves and the have-nots.

5. Who will get into free schools (and who won’t!)?

If free schools have more control over their admissions policies, there’s the risk that the difficult, challenging children (you know – the naughty ones) will be kept out. Isn’t there? What about children with special educational needs? Or children who speak English as a second language? Where is the incentive (or the requirement) to provide a decent education for these children? Where will they go? To the local school that’s been there all along; a school that is slowly being run into the ground because – guess what – the free school down the road gets better exam results.

6. Are the Swedes advocates for Swedish free schools?

Remarkably, even the Swedes aren’t that keen on the Swedish system. Their education minister, Bertil Ostberg, said the schools were a failure and has warned Britain not to introduce them. He said: ‘We have actually seen a fall in the quality of Swedish schools since the free schools were introduced.’

Oh dear – does anyone agree with Michael?

7. Do we want schools to make a profit?

There are those who are hugely in favour of free schools. Big business, both here in the UK and overseas, are currently salivating at the prospect of making money from our schools system. One provider has said they would be keen to get involved, if they could run ‘thousands’ of schools.

Do we really want our schools to make money? Are there mechanisms in place to prevent the curriculum being unduly influenced – nutrition lessons brought to you by Nestle, anyone? Businesses will want to cut costs – less qualified teachers would be much cheaper: is this what we want?

8. What happens if – when – a free school fails?

Big business – let’s call this one Muck-Ed – sets up a chain of free schools. All goes well until a subsidiary, completely unconnected to their education business, hits the rocks. Muck-Ed needs to take drastic action, so closes its schools.

Who picks up the pieces? Where do the children go? Yup, back to the local school we go – the one that’s been there all along.

So: that’s the case against, or some of the case at least. It doesn’t look good. It seems crackers to put so much energy into a system that doesn’t seem to have worked. I’m not sure there’s much of an appetite for free schools – certainly not compared to people who just want a decent state school nearby: so, shouldn’t we focus on this instead?

There is of course one, guaranteed, evidence-based, sure-fire, relatively cheap way of improving schools in this country. That’s for my next blog…

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Education cuts: we ain’t seen nothing yet!

The Guardian has given us a sneak preview of where the Lib-Con cost-cutting axe is going to fall but a lot of questions remain unanswered.

Of the proposed cuts, I find it hard to get too emotional about the prospect of Teachers TV coming to an end (as a project I mean – lots of sympathy for anyone losing their job). I used to flick through their website when I was training and there’s some nice ideas to be found, but I’d be hard-pressed to think of the times I’ve used it now I’m teaching.

You could also make a case, I suppose, for the School Food Trust being wound-down, but what would Jamie Oliver say? Becta – the agency which promotes ICT innovation in schools – looks like it’s on the hit-list too. A shame; in my experience teachers who have worked with them have always come back buzzing with ideas.

Cuts to the clunkily-named, but ‘does what it says on the tin’, ‘Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency’ (QCDA) are more interesting. Somebody, somewhere needs to organise examinations – and the qualifications that go with them; presumably, then, the ‘Q’ bit will be rolled into the Department for Education centrally. However, cuts to the QCDA give a clear signal that centrally driven curriculum reform is coming to an end. Jim Rose’s review – which my school have adopted with great gusto – looks like it’s going to be parked and then scrapped.

The rhetoric from the Lib-Cons is that curriculum will be the responsibility of schools so, what follows, is that the ‘Curriculum’ bit of QCDA can go. While lots of teachers resented the relentless central directives about what should be taught, when it should be taught and for how long, it’s fanciful to say that all the curriculum functions of the QCDA can simply disappear. Can schools really plan their curriculum in a vacuum, without any kind of central repository of information or guidance? The leap from a centralised system to a localised one (whether you think this is a good or bad move) needs sensible management and transition time. So, this is either a recipe for much chaos or it could simply mean a bureaucratic-shuffle, moving bodies from quango to Gove’s Education HQ.

What’s clear from all this is that there are very few easy wins when it comes to cost-cutting. Departments have already offered up their least-favoured and least-successful projects, so the focus now must shift to the more-favoured and more-successful ones. The Building Schools for the Future funding has already been halted. The real question, though, is: what else? To get anywhere near the £6billion extra cuts the Lib-Cons have planned this year, it’ll take more than a shuffling of functions. The truth is – we ain’t seen nothing yet!

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