October 2010

The know zone

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  • Recipe for success
    Sam Ellis invites ASCL members to submit their own data and experiences to help provide the coalition government with expert guidance as it cooks up new ideas for education. More
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    The government is reviewing the teaching of languages in schools following a continued decline in the numbers taking modern foreign languages at GCSE. So what should be the future for languages in schools? More
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  • Filing down bureaucracy
    Proposals to reduce bureaucracy were at the centre of debate at ASCL’s September Council meeting, as was ensuring fairness for all in the education system as the academies programme begins to gather steam. More
  • To 'B' or not to 'B'?
    While the Secretary of State’s announcement of an English Baccalaureate could have signalled a move towards a broader, freer curriculum, the current proposal is a performance measure rather than a new qualification, says Brian Lightman. More
  • Band on the Run
    Leaders of schools and colleges have a lot in common with leaders of rock and roll bands, says Ziggy Flop, just not the sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. More
  • Lead vocals
    Quotes from John Fogerty, Robert Yates, Teddy Roosevelt and Rosalyn Carter. More
  • Engaging with all students
    Many teachers have taught year 11 pupils who fail to engage in learning or are consistently disruptive in class. More
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Sam Ellis invites ASCL members to submit their own data and experiences to help provide the coalition government with expert guidance as it cooks up new ideas for education.

Recipe for success

I like eggs. On the one hand they are an example of perfect packaging; on the other, the basis for great dishes like the omelette. The ingredients for a perfect omelette are simple: three eggs, seasoning and fresh herbs. The final result also depends on butter, a good pan, a fork and that magical ingredient, the skill of the cook.

The parallels with education are clear. Education has some fairly simple key ingredients but the skill of a good teacher in integrating them into a whole is something not to be under-valued.

There is another parallel between making an omelette and teaching. Both appear deceptively simple until you try. I would not recommend an unsupported venture into a secondary classroom. I still have the scars from my early days teaching a ROSLA group. (Younger readers should type ROSLA into a search engine.)

There is frequently a chasm between basic ingredients and final result, and usually the best way to bridge the chasm is with the support and guidance of a good teacher.

Constructive suggestions

ASCL has always tried to work proactively with governments by offering solutions and responding to emerging policies with constructive suggestions. So how do we guide the coalition government as ministers learn to work with the classic recipes of education and also try to create several new dishes at the same time?

It seems to me that the new dishes of academies and free schools are subject to a simple underlying bit of mathematics: divide the average cost of a teacher by the revenue income per pupil and remember the answer.

For example, if the average cost of a teacher is £50,000 and the income per pupil is £5,000 then the answer is 10. Let us imagine that you can afford to spend 0.6 of your revenue funding on teachers. If you divide the answer you just obtained (10) by 0.6, you get 16.7. This is the value of the pupil teacher ratio (PTR) you can afford.

There is a detailed explanation and illustration of this on the ASCL website. For the purpose of this article, suffice it to say that the funding defines a pupil teacher ratio and the key variables are average teacher cost, the proportion of funding available for teachers and the funding per pupil. This begs the inevitable question, “Am I able to operate the school on the value of PTR that I can afford?”

Firstly, the cost of employing teachers is not as simple as the price of a dozen eggs in the local shop. Depending upon what is actually meant by “We will reform the existing rigid national pay and conditions rules to give schools greater freedoms to pay good teachers more . . .” in the Coalition A Agreement, the average cost of a teacher could become a very challenging variable.

How much a school might have to pay to employ a mathematician in a free market is anyone’s guess. Add to that the difficulties for a school in a sparse rural area and you have a potential disaster for headline examination results.

Secondly, the sudden move into free schools and new style academies could easily mean that some local authorities will be unable to provide key services to schools at sensible prices. If the result is a free market for legal, HR and other services which raises the proportion of the budget a school is forced to spend on non-stafflines, the value of the affordable PTR will go up.


In addition there is the prospect of an eye-watering funding announcement following the comprehensive spending review with the government also minded to remove the protection of cash floors for LAs with falling rolls. Should the overall funding per pupil fall suddenly and significantly then that, combined with the two factors above, will produce a major change in the affordable PTR.

As several people have said, “It isn’t the fall that kills you but the sudden stop at the end.” Sudden significant change will have serious consequences for service provision in many if not most schools.

I would welcome input from members who are prepared to provide anonymous data and to consider the effect of financial changes on their own situation. With this I hope to put together a series of ASCL cases based on fact with which to inform the thinking of the ministerial team.

I hope we will be able to describe the difference between cracking three eggs to make an omelette and throwing a whole tray up in the air at once in the hope of inventing a new dish.

  • Sam Ellis is ASCL’s funding specialist

Further information

For further details and to help make ASCL’s case by providing anonymous examples, visit www.ascl.org.uk