March 2013

The know zone

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    The courts may have their work cut out coming to terms with the complexities of legal agreements regarding academies. Richard Bird investigates... More
  • Fiscal focus
    In tempestuous  nancial times, it pays to focus on a few, pragmatic aims while the storm of cuts, initiatives and other upheavals rages on, says Sam Ellis. More
  • A golden opportunity?
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  • A baptism of fire
    Linda Rodham became head of Wellfi eld Community School in Wingate, County Durham in January 2012 and found herself under pressure from the word go. More
  • Degrees of separation
    Do you welcome the government’s proposal requiring new teachers to have at least a 2.2 degree, or do you think it could restrict who enters the profession and that it could have an adverse effect on future teacher numbers? Here, leaders share their views. More
  • Simply Brilliant!
    The Brilliant Club widens access to top universities for outstanding students from non-selective state schools. More
  • Adding value
    Headaches, often associated with stress, are suffered by us all at one time. Usually characterised by a constant ache on one or both sides of the head, mostly, they are benign, and more simply irritating and disruptive to our daily life. However, when a headache persists, or is accompanied by other symptoms, you should seek the advice of a GP. More
  • Leaders' surgery
    The antidote to common leadership conundrums... More
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In tempestuous  nancial times, it pays to focus on a few, pragmatic aims while the storm of cuts, initiatives and other upheavals rages on, says Sam Ellis.

Fiscal focus

During one of my spells in charge, as part of management restructuring, I presented a new set of teaching staff job descriptions to the governing body. I could not resist the temptation to inject a joke and submitted my own as being only three words: ‘To be interrupted’. The chair of governors soon worked out that he was the target of the joke.

The joke also has a point: I find it easier to make sense of whatever general noise and chaos is flying around if I use a few key ideas as a framework. That approach applies to the hyperactivity pouring out of Westminster.

So what are my simplifying thoughts and what may they imply for the pragmatic job description of a school or college leader?

First, I think the core idea driving the tsunami of change is to move state education into a pseudo-market model, which will be responsive to the demands of ‘consumers’ and that will provide clearer accountability for public money and raising standards. Love it, hate it, or even view it as mistaken, it helps me make some sense of what is happening.

Numbers count

For example, it explains the idea of publishing anything that can be turned into numbers. ‘Consumers’ can then hold ‘local managers’ responsible in terms of forcing improvement in quality. The sign Albert Einstein had in his Princeton office springs to mind: ‘Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts.’

The idea of accountability through published information helps me make sense of the ministerial mantra of ‘simple and transparent’. This phrase, usually wrapped up with fair funding, can be found in just about every document on funding published since May 2010. I have suggested that the phrase ‘and which is fit for purpose’ should be included but some fell on stony ground...

I also note that ‘fair’ is never defined. Where it sits on the spectrum from ‘the same for all’ to ‘the same opportunity for all in the context of the activity required’ is, to me, an interesting question that I have asked several times. Some fell among weeds...

A second simplifying assumption is that the DfE has financial imperatives that must be resolved. These will override any plans for a national fair funding formula.

Changing local authority (LA) funding mechanisms in April 2013 before considering national area distributions seems illogical at first sight. However, when you realise that doing so could help solve the DfE’s problem of an overspend in the academy programme by simplifying the mechanism for additional grants to academies it starts to make sense. The acceleration of the academy programme is a key element of the pseudo-market model.

What are the bottom lines for schools and colleges? The answer is remarkably unclear. A classic example of uncertainty is the document Update on the 16-19 Funding Formula 2013-14, available from the DfE website at

Massive change

While I recommend this as required reading for any senior leader concerned about post-16 education I also note the statement in bold on page 2: ‘Readers should note that some details in this document are subject to variation based on feedback and final decisions yet to be made by ministers.’ Given that we are not told which details are subject to variation it seems to me that the whole document has the potential to be yet another ‘interruption’ that may imply massive change for many post-16 providers once the fog clears.

In terms of pre-16, the bottom line depends on what happens when the current minimum funding guarantee ends; what variations emerge from the review of the proposed April 2013 changes; what happens in the next spending review; and what happens if the national funding distribution changes. Whatever happens, less money is on the cards.

So school leaders are left scanning the horizon for the key interruptions that give sufficient information for them to decide what they are actually going to do. In a sense, I think the pragmatic job description follows Dr Livesey’s advice in Treasure Island: ‘Look out for squalls.’ Until certainty emerges, I would be doing some thinking: If push comes to shove, what is the best school structure I can operate given a significant fall in funding?

All planning may need to start from a much lower funding base. I think this indicates a need to think through organisational and pedagogical change at the 3, 5 and 10 per cent reduction levels.

Hopefully some or all of it will not be needed but I would have some ideas locked in the bottom drawer, just in case.

  • Sam Ellis is ASCL's funding specialist