Welcome back to school. I trust that your summer has been relaxing and enjoyable and I wish you the best of luck for the academic year ahead.
Debate and discussion about education has not abated during the summer weeks and I would like to focus on two key issues that have come to the fore once again – and which will define our education system in the years to come.
Funding at 16 to 19
The annual Funding Impact Survey conducted by the Sixth Form Colleges Association shows that 70 per cent of college leaders do not think that the amount of funding they are likely to receive in 2016 will be sufficient to provide a high-quality education.
Furthermore, 83 per cent do not believe it will enable them to provide the support required by students that are "educationally or economically disadvantaged", and almost all the leaders are worried about the financial health of their institution – 36 per cent even said it was likely they would be forced to close by 2020.
The clear problems reflect the dire financial situation across 16 to 19 education, although for sixth form colleges the threat is particularly acute (not least because the absence of a VAT refund scheme costs colleges £318,000 a year).
For 16 to 19 education as a whole, the situation is stark. In 2011/12, the median income for pupils in secondary schools was £5,620. For university students it was £8,414. For 16 to 19-year-olds in schools and colleges, it was £4,645. After 2015/16, funding for advanced level students is planned to fall further –– the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) has estimated that it could reach less than £4,400 per student. This means, ASCL says, reductions in tutorial support, additional activities, pastoral/learning support, and teaching time for courses. It means increases in class sizes and the withdrawal of less popular courses (languages, further maths, economics).
The government has abandoned 16 to 19 education – a decision that seems idiotic in light of its obvious ambition to grow the economy further and faster in the coming years.
There are already stark warnings being issued. For example, more than a third of modern language courses have been cut at sixth form colleges and the Association of Translation Companies warns that the UK is already losing £48 billion in exports each year because of poor language skills.
The danger is real and present and ministers must act. If not we could destroy our sixth form college system and massively restrict the range of options that our young people have for their education post-16.
Academies – again
I have always said, in this column, that the one thing that matters in providing a high-quality education is high-quality teaching. It's the people that make the school.
The claim that academy status is the secret to ensuring that every school becomes good or outstanding is ludicrous. Why do we English have such an obsession with types of school?
Politicians focus on school structures because they can – shiny new buildings make for good photo opportunities. Education crackdowns win votes. Focusing on teacher quality, training and CPD is a lot harder and nowhere near as sexy.
And this is not just a policy, it is an ideology – just look how the schools that ministers visit now are seemingly always academies. Such a unstinting policy focus should of course be backed up by very clear evidence of its effectiveness.
However, "academisation is not always successful nor is it the only proven alternative for a struggling school". Not my words, those of the Education Select Committee after its in-depth investigation into academies last year. It called on the government to "stop exaggerating the success of academies".
But alas, having academised well over half of all secondary schools and many primaries, the government is increasingly hell-bent on spinning the figures. So much so that nothing is clear in this era of "transparent" government.
The latest question mark comes after a Freedom of Information request to the Department for Education (DfE) by the Local Schools Network. It shows that secondary schools rated inadequate are four times more likely to remain inadequate at their next inspection if they become sponsored academies (27 per cent of the sponsored academies remained inadequate compared to seven per cent of non-academies).
The DfE has labelled the figures "misleading" and questioned the (admittedly small) sample – just 66 secondary schools and 48 primaries (also showing a similar result).
The DfE says that its "latest figures" show academies are "driving up standards". It says that sponsored academies have much better improvements in their GCSE results than non-academies.
We all know the saying about statistics. They can be made to show anything. Which is why the academies debate rumbles on, as both sides continue to argue over what the figures mean.
However, one thing is clear – there is certainly no over-whelming, uncontestable dossier of evidence to justify the government's single-minded and aggressive focus on this one policy above all other alternatives for struggling schools.
In the modern world of evidence-based education, when teachers across the country rely more and more on proven effective approaches to learning, it is ironic that the DfE is still refusing to practice evidence-based policy-making.