Your Weekly Sector News 04/11/22

Despite the government’s ambitions to level-up education, leaders are concerned that schools and trusts will fall behind as more challenges unfold. Keep reading to find out more about the problems of academy expansion, pay rises for support staff, and the ways struggling readers can be supported as they continue into secondary education.
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Ofsted reveals how secondary schools support struggling readers

This week, Ofsted published a report that shows how strong secondary schools have helped a higher-than-expected proportion of poor readers achieve a grade 4 or above in English Language at GCSE.

Amongst the six schools they visited, researchers found that strong and involved leadership was a key factor contributing to pupil success. In each school, reading was led by a member of the leadership team, who invested time and resources in staff training and bespoke teaching interventions. This helped to raise the profile of reading at each school, making it a priority for all teachers and support staff.

Critically, leaders also understood the importance of identifying gaps and monitoring pupil progress. Each school screened the whole of Year Seven, as well as any pupils who joined afterwards. Further diagnostic tests were used with the lowest performers to address specific reading gaps, from phonics knowledge to comprehension. This information allowed schools to offer a ‘tailored process for each individual student’ to help them strengthen their reading skills.

Teachers received specialist training in reading and shared their knowledge with colleagues, creating a culture of collaboration across the school. Schools also emphasised ‘the importance of a well-informed librarian […] it’s made all the difference.’ School librarians were part of initiatives to promote reading and support struggling readers. They often administered reading tests and assessments, using data to keep track of children’s progress and recommend suitable books for them to read.

Ofsted highlights that reading is a fundamental life skill, yet pupils who arrive in secondary school as poor readers often struggle to catch up. Each year, ‘only 10 percent of disadvantaged children who leave primary school with their reading below the expected standard get passes in English and mathematics at GCSE.’ By sharing examples of good practice, Ofsted hopes to support other secondary schools and inform inspection practice.

Unions accept pay rise for support staff

After consulting with members over the last two months, trade unions met yesterday and agreed to accept a pay offer which will see support staff, including teaching assistants, technicians, administrative staff and other council workers, paid an extra £1,925 this year. This equates to a 10.5 percent increase for the lowest-paid workers, the highest pay award offered to local government staff in more than a decade.

The offer also includes a 4 percent increase to allowances alongside a one-day increase to the annual leave of all employees. Unison’s national secretary for local government, Mike Short, said, ‘our immediate priority, now, is to get the money into the pay packets of workers as soon as possible.’ Both the increase to pay and allowances will be backdated to April, meaning that schools face paying out a lump sum.

Without extra funding from the government, school leaders are concerned about the impact of mounting financial pressures, including the teachers’ pay award, rising energy bills and catering costs. Last week, a survey by the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) revealed that, out of 630 school leaders and business managers, 58% said they were considering reducing teaching staff and increasing class sizes, whilst 55% considered reducing the number of teaching assistants.

This year, the Department for Education has increased core funding for schools by £4 billion. Analysis from Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) shows that rising financial costs look just about affordable for schools this year, at least on average. However, researchers say that ‘by 2024-25, after accounting for the specific costs facing schools, we estimate that school spending per pupil will still be 3 percent lower than in 2010.’ Faced with real-term cuts from next year onwards, leaders predict that standards in education will fall unless the government decides to act.

Targets for a fully trust-led system by 2030 at risk

Earlier this year, the Department for Education (DfE) published the Schools White Paper, laying out its vision for a fully trust-led system, in which all schools are expected to belong to a strong multi-academy trust or have plans to join one by 2030. The government also expects most trusts to be on a trajectory to serve a minimum of 7,500 pupils or run at least 10 schools.

However, since the paper was published, many trusts have had to put a pause on their plans for growth. In the midst of the education funding crisis, trust leaders and boards are now focusing ‘solely on survival rather than expansion.’

Already facing huge financial challenges across their own schools, trust leaders say they will not take on any schools with large deficits. But as this becomes more common, there is a concern that trusts will fail to expand and many mainstream schools will be left behind, putting the government’s target for 2030 in jeopardy. Sam Henson, director of policy at the National Governance Association, says that ‘there needs to be a total review of funding, full stop. It goes way beyond the issue of trusts growing and towards why are these deficits there in the first place.’

Responding to a survey by the National Association of HeadTeachers (NAHT), more than nine in ten school leaders said their schools will be in a deficit next year unless they make significant cuts. Many trusts are using their reserves to manage energy, pay and other costs. The Rev Steve Chalke, founder of the Oasis foundation which runs 52 academies in England, said, ‘at this burn rate, in under three years we will be bankrupt.’ Leaders have called for the government to intervene, warning that schools will struggle to contribute to levelling-up ambitions.

Meanwhile, the government is working towards plans to package clusters of schools eligible for government intervention and allowing them to be moved en-masse into MATs. Ministers believe that a more strategic approach to academy expansion will help trusts expand into new areas and achieve sustainable growth, ensuring that the most vulnerable schools are supported.

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