How current assumptions in the system are limiting the conditions for growth in challenging schools – The free market

Assumption: The free market is the answer. 

With the announcement of the abolition of Local Education Authorities we are moving lock, stock and barrel to a free market education system, [1]one where supply and demand will influence decisions with little or no counter control. Is this system likely to give us a better quality education and a greater choice for parents? We seem to lack substantive evidence to suggest that the model of academies and free schools are not yet proven as the true panacea*[2]. Sadly, many of those schools that have remained unable to reach the good with Ofsted persist as stubbornly Requiring Improvement or Failing regardless of their structure.  In this essay I am looking to outline how a partial free market system increased the difficulties for my school and least supported the most vulnerable in the community. I conclude that market forces alone can-not provide an education system that supports their needs and demands. But I am also unclear if high parent power students’ (See the chapter on parent power for a definition.)  are getting value from this system either? I am concerned our current process, generates complacency in the winners of this system while whipping to a frenzy the losers.

The local area governance at the start of my headship.

Within my local area, any school that was Good or Outstanding converted to academy status under the new regime in 2010 – 2011 when the financial incentives were strong.[3] One conversion involved the Diocese, the others were stand alone. This left three local authority state schools within the area who were unable to convert. They were at various stages of Failing and or Requiring Improvement. To become an academy these schools would have needed to seek sponsorship. No state school within an area was willing to engage in this notion.

We existed in a typical rural suburb scenario, where the two ex- grammar schools maintained their capacity to attract and to receive the higher ability students. Every year a constant clamour to attend one of the ex- grammar schools occurred. Entrance exams took place and applications over flowed for these two schools. Two other schools over the last twelve years had, with exceptional head teachers, managed to turn their performance around and were now rated as Good. They also converted swiftly to the new structure; to secure the funding incentives available at the time. These schools also received above and beyond applications in Year Seven. The three remaining schools within the area mine included, were understandably the least preferred option for any parent and rarely received enough applications to fill their places.

Unique to our area, was the fact that we were experiencing a significant and long term reduction in the number of students attending all secondary schools. This meant that in a relatively free market of choice there were more places than there were students. So those less attractive schools were going to receive less students than they are able to take each year. (This is described as the PAN the number of pupils a school has the capacity to take each year.) Receiving less students is a major problem for a school as you are funded by the number of students that you have. This funding is lagged.

To add to this, one academy in the local area decided with their new build, to increase the number of students by another sixty for each on coming year. As an academy you have the right to set your own numbers for entry with little or no negotiation and or say from the Local Authority. The year later two more good academies made the decision to increase their intake by twenty- five and fifteen students respectively.  This resulted in adding more places to a system that already had too many places.

For the weakest school like mine this had a direct and exceptionally damaging impact. As numbers dwindled even further, budgets reduced to damaging levels. For one school their numbers were so effected that they reduced to less than half of what they needed to remain sustainable. The dwindling numbers for all three schools acted like a slow death placing a severe strangle hold on the finances. We were lucky to buck this trend slightly as we generated some interest, yet we operated between one and two classes below our PAN. This was damaging to our budget.

Isn’t this a good idea that the free market and the powers of academies led to the good schools taking in more students and the weakest having less? This is what parent power and choice is all about, so stop whinging!

Taking money away from schools with the most problems.

In our current system the number of students you receive equates to the funding you obtain for your school. The more students the more money. The less students the less money. In the scenario described above. The schools that need to carry out the largest amount of progress and school improvement, received the least amount of money.

This system began to make turning around a “failing” school even harder for a number of reasons. Like many failing schools I had already inherited a £660,000 deficit. We then had a budget that was reducing year on year to add to our woes. As our Year Seven numbers decreased our forecast budgets for future years looked damning. We were going to have to school improve with less and less money. The system was funnelling the money into the schools already doing well, and removing it from those that weren’t.

The most vulnerable are funnelled to the weakest schools in substantial numbers with the least amount of funding:

Low ability and “Low Parent Power”

For students with high Parent Power, with the increase in places even more may have got into what were perceived as the Good schools. However, for those students with the least Parent Power and the most vulnerable students they began to fill the less popular schools in significant numbers. These parents had less capacity to push for the most popular school. Their children were less likely to present performance related data to encourage the Good schools to make and allow them in. If they sat the entrance exams they were likely to fail.  These schools nestled in the more expensive areas of the region where high Parent Power tends to exist A filter system began to occur, the high Parent Power child to the most popular school, the low Parent Power child to the least popular.  Our intake became skewed with a substantial lower ability students entering our school and very, few high- ability crossing our doorway.

At the same time, we entered a Govian system of attainment as the key measure for schools. What students achieved at GCSE and A level became the measure of success in, not the journey of learning they took with a school. What students entered with was ignored. We were sunk! If we were now taking the largest proportion of lower ability students within the area, how were we ever going to compete with those schools taking the top end in this system?  It was like trying to run the four hundred metres with the other schools, except we started our race three hundred metres behind everyone else. Even if we had of been able to support these children to make exceptional progress. It was unlikely, we would ever have caught up with those that so far in front. If the system had measured the journey, everyone could have seen we had travelled a far greater distance in supporting students’ learning. Nevertheless, Gove’s early regime didn’t allow us any opportunity to evidence this. This was disastrous for us and other schools like ours. Although we took for a number of years significantly below average students, and together we reached broadly average in our results, this was never good enough for Ofsted and the regime. How were we ever going to turn around the perception that if you had a good student you should never send them to our school? How could we even up the system?

The poorest behaved students

We also began to receive more and more excluded students, or close to exclusion students. If a school is not full, then it has no ability to block an application or approach from a parent wanting to move their child to the school. If you are full you have this opportunity. In our current school system this meant that those students who had been excluded from other schools in the area, were able to approach us and enter. Regardless of the number of these types of students, that existed in each year group. Those Parents who decided to jump before exclusion were also able to attend the school.

Many of these students arrived in years nine, ten and eleven. They came with a significant dissatisfaction with the school system, alienated and generally far behind their peers in their learning. Out of a year group of one hundred and fifty we could face up to ten students in this category. Even before we considered our own students, who had arrived with significant problems from year seven. This was an influential percentage of our cohort, that annually impacted on our overall results. Our data showed our excellent ability to improve these student outcomes, but we always needed more time to do this. A year and half was never enough! Please note although funding came with them, this was often only half a year’s. These students were rarely SEND[4] as the system did not now recognised behaviour problems and a SEND need. Therefore, they came with no additional support and yet consumed our resource of time and teacher input initially.

Didn’t Pupil Premium money help?

Yes, Pupil Premium money did help in providing additional money for the most vulnerable. However, the funding was no – where near the funding that we would have received, if more students had attended the school. We also suffered from the problem that our Pupil Premium predominantly presented with multiple vulnerabilities many were also SEND. Pupil Premium is a broad brush measure that lacks subtlety. Moving a child that six years ago, took free school meals and succeeding with them. Compared to a child with a family who are in social housing, currently about to be evicted, and who have a particular SEND need. Is a vastly different experience. Yet, both types of students are lumped into this category and their progress compared. In some year groups our Pupil Premium multiple vulnerabilities exceeded 50%. Pupil premium helped a little to prop our budget as it shrunk, and ensured we spent the money on those in need. Yet it could not compensate for the overall loss of students and the funding that went with them.


SEND students

Again low parent power led to a number of SEND students entering our school, the school with the least funding to support them. If you read the Education Committee’s Admissions report [5] you will also find that our most successful schools are not always the ones to actively promote the admittance of SEND student to their schools. Recently I was asked advice from a Mum in the local area who was being advised that her SEND child would be best suited to my previous school rather than the local good school. As we had more understanding of his needs. I swiftly explained that due to the large numbers of SEND attending our school we probably did have more understanding. However, I knew the SENCO of the good school who was more than capable. I also advised that he would be in a school of one or two students with need and so much more funding. They would ultimately have more capacity to support.

Even worse for us at the same time the Gove regime changed the definition of SEND reducing the numbers and the categories that were recognised as Special Needs and therefore reducing the funding for these students. In particular those students who were classified with behaviour issues were removed from the SEND register and with this change went the additional money to support them. Guess what, the majority of student we inherited sat within this category and in a puff of smoke a further set of money disappeared from us!

The latest handbook requires SEND students to make accelerated progress in order to reach good and outstanding. With so many and very little extra funding we were cutting our support for these students not increasing it.

A victim of our own success.

As we began to improve we became known rightly in the area for being very good with low ability students and those with additional vulnerabilities. We generated our own success story. The problem was, while we loved working with these students and watching their progress. Our reputation for this type of work increased, and the number of parents who chose our school for a child with behaviour and or SEND issues also increased. There were never enough of these students to fill our school, and support our budget. Nether less, there were enough to have consumed significant resources in an ever decreasing pot.  Unfortunately, the increase was countered by other parents thinking, “I do not want to send my child there if those students are attending that school.” (Yes this does happen.) Without any additional funding, and a shrinking budget we had increased our proportion of vulnerable students significantly.


Would this of happened with or without a free market?

My problem with the free market is are we really prepared for education to have a set of winners and losers? If we are, who are the losers? Within my scenario the losers were the most vulnerable students who were funnelled into the weakest schools with the least money? Is this right? Does anybody care?  I also have a sneaking suspicion that the system could encourage a marketing strategy for the perceived good school. In a market driven system with such high stakes, it makes sense as a head, to seek out the most – able and those that will make the most progress with minimal input from the school. This is not something we like to admit as Head’s but the logic is clear to see.

Would this happen in an area where there are enough or more students than places? If schools were full?

I recently visited a school that I knew well twenty years ago, close to where I live. It is in rural area and it and one other secondary school serve two small rural towns. 20 years ago both local schools were functioning well and were considered good schools. Both schools are academies. Recently this school has for whatever reason gained a reputation for being the lesser of the two schools. Both have received Good in Ofsted. This year the favoured school has decided to increase its intake by 60 students. With shrinking budgets and the public sector finance squeeze, this is becoming a more common practice, particularly for single convertor academies. This has had a direct and immediate detrimental impact on the other secondary school. High Power Parents have decided to go to the favoured school. Leaving the less favoured with a skewed intake towards the lower ability and a significant hole in the budget. How easy will it be to climb out of this hole? What impact will this have on the students is yet to be seen. I worry that the circumstances could occur again I this area, and the second school is at risk of spiralling in the wrong direction. Sixty more students attend the great school while seven hundred suffer the consequences.

What about choice aren’t we getting more choice from market forces?

I find this argument increasingly spurious having watched a market force education system generate a polarised system of Good schools and not good. I am unsure how any parent whose child is attending a school deemed as Failing would feel they are getting choice in the system. Success breeds success, and failure seems to breed failure, not choice. There is no mechanism, in this system to support the declining school. As a Parent and Head teacher I am left wondering what choice we really have? My ultimate choice was to accept the system, or try and break it by doing everything in my capacity to not attract the weakest. Something I have never wanted to do. Yet, if we were to succeed in this brave new world than we needed more students who required less input to progress. How many other schools are making this choice?

[1] hidden by the London Mayor elections we have just seen a reversal of one of the White papers founding principles that all schools should be academies. Sadly, this still remains the reality for Requiring Improvement schools

[2] House of Commons Education Committee Academies and Free schools, Fourth report January 2015

[3] From discussion with my local colleagues at the time I understand that, the money that was removed from specialist status for schools was the same amount that arrived in budgets as a new converted academy.

[4] Special Educational Needs students.

[5] Dr Elizabeth Passmore: (2015) Office of the Schools Adjudicator (OSA) annual report September 2014 to August 201, Department for Education.



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