Spotlight on Education – Summer 2023

Spotlight on Education – Summer 2023

Welcome to our latest Spotlight on Education newsletter.

We hope you enjoy this edition which highlights some of the latest news and issues affecting the education sector.

In working with individual academies, academy chains, free schools and independent schools, our dedicated education team can deliver the comprehensive knowledge and expertise that education leaders look for.

Schools struggling with Government initiated Private Finance Initiative payments

Many school leaders face significant increases in their private finance initiative (PFI) payments.

Reports have emerged that certain headteachers in the West Midlands anticipate needing to allocate an additional £150,000 or more towards these payments, leading to significant challenges in maintaining educational quality and meeting operational costs.

PFI has been a tool used by multiple Governments since the late 1990s to finance new schools. Under this model, private companies build and maintain school sites in return for mortgage-style payments typically spread over 25 years. After this period, the properties are transferred to the public sector.

School leaders have highlighted the pressure caused by a 12.9 per cent rise in annual PFI payments. The increasing financial obligations, coupled with over a decade remaining on many PFI contracts, have led schools to tighten their belts. Unfortunately, this has included leaving teaching vacancies unfilled due to limited funds.

The payment hike is tied to the retail price index (RPI), which increased from 8.3 per cent in 2022 to 12.9 per cent in 2023.

Concerns about these increases have been raised by schools across the West Midlands and other regions. The Westminster School, for example, is preparing for more than £100,000 rise in payments.

Speaking with online publication Schools Week, Head of Q3 Academy Tipton, Keziah Featherstone, stated that the increase in payments has greatly restricted the funds available for students.

Government figures reveal that there are 694 PFI projects nationwide with a total capital value of £54.7 billion, with nearly a third of these related to schools.

In response to these challenges, some school leaders have written to the Education Secretary, Gillian Keegan, requesting that the RPI increases be treated as an ‘exceptional funding factor’.

This adjustment would ensure that schools are reimbursed for the gap between the original and current payment rates, providing some relief for struggling educational institutions.

Government promotes AI in schools and eyes protection of pupil’s data

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is carving its path into numerous sectors and education is not immune to this sweeping wave of change.

The Government’s recent drive for the advancement in AI will ensure that schools reap financial and operational benefits from AI applications.

The rise of AI and large language models like ChatGPT and Google Bard can unlock an improved understanding of educational strategies.

The wealth of data AI can process holds the potential to refine teaching methods, optimise resource allocation, and enhance student learning outcomes.

However, there is a cautionary aspect to consider. With the ability to facilitate extensive data analysis, AI might attract private companies looking to leverage pupil data for profit.

This raises vital questions about the ownership and financial value of such data, as well as the need for schools to gain returns from any commercial use of this information.

The Department for Education (DfE), spearheaded by Baroness Barran, is actively engaging with these complex issues.

While no definite principles are set yet, the DfE is partnering with experts in data ethics and privacy to navigate these tricky waters. The Department’s concerted efforts demonstrate a commitment to responsibly integrate AI in schools, prioritising the safeguarding of pupil data.

While AI promises significant benefits, it’s important to find a balance between harnessing its potential and addressing its challenges.

Speaking with online publication, School Week, Neil McLean of the Chartered Institute for IT, explained that there are “four Ps” to consider when using AI: purpose, processes, people, and payback.

These “four Ps” encapsulate the need for ethical data usage, robust data handling and security measures, professional accountability of those involved, and the realisation of substantial benefits for schools.

These benefits should not be restricted to monetary gain but should also actively improve the quality of education for your students.

MAT hubs can tackle schools suffering ‘educational isolation’

Many schools face “educational isolation”. This is a challenge that extends beyond geographical remoteness to include professional, economic, and cultural isolation, resulting in a lack of much-needed resources.

“Educational isolation” is a complex issue, and its impact resounds particularly in rural and coastal areas.

Factors such as socioeconomic issues, limited employment opportunities, and infrastructural challenges contribute to the hardship these schools face.

Furthermore, a recent report by Professor Tanya Ovenden-Hope and Dr Rowena Passy highlighted that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds in these isolated schools tend to have lower achievement levels compared to their urban counterparts.

The solution to this challenging predicament might be found in the Multi-Academy Trusts (MAT) hub model.

This approach involves neighbouring schools supporting each other under the umbrella of a Multi-Academy Trust.

A recent study of a MAT hub comprising 20 primary schools in the South West of England provided insights into how the hub model could ease educational isolation.

The report praised the model for its promotion of trusted local relationships, beneficial collaborations, and enhanced communication quality.

School leaders appreciated the non-judgmental, local support that significantly reduced feelings of isolation. The hub model also provided an environment for sharing knowledge, expertise, and resources, especially beneficial during the pandemic.

The success of the hub model suggests that MAT leaders should consider adopting this approach, particularly if they oversee educationally isolated schools.

Not only does it facilitate school improvement at a local level, but it also helps school leaders to access much-needed resources.

However, it’s not just up to MATs. Policymakers also have a significant role to play in acknowledging and responding to the unique needs of educationally isolated schools.

Speaking with Tes magazine, Steve Rollett, the Deputy Chief Executive of the Confederation of School Trusts (CST), pointed out that the strength of the trust system lies in its flexibility.

Trust models can be moulded to reflect local needs, thereby catering to the unique challenges faced by educationally isolated schools.

Collaborating with local, neighbouring schools under the umbrella of a MAT can enhance resource sharing, build stronger relationships and contribute to overcoming the challenges of educational isolation.

Calls for watchdog review after National Institute of Teaching announces MAT CEO training scheme

The UK Department for Education’s recent awarding of the multi-academy trust (MAT) Chief Executive training contract to the National Institute of Teaching (NIoT) has sparked widespread debate.

The main issue is that the contract was awarded without a competitive tender, a move that has triggered protests from several leadership training providers and sparked calls for an investigation.

The MAT CEO training programme is an initiative by the Government aiming to bolster the leadership capabilities within multi-academy trusts.

According to the 2022 schools white paper, the mission is to ensure an adequate supply of “highly effective leaders” across trusts.

The NIoT, run by the School-Led Development Trust (SLDT) and founded by four leading MATs, has been chosen as the provider for this programme.

The contract value has yet to be released, but the original tender was anticipated to be around £2.8 million.

The NIoT will conduct the training programme, set to commence in February 2024 with an initial 25 participants.

This is later than initially planned and a second, larger group of 50 participants will follow at a subsequent date.

The issue lies in the way the contract was awarded. Three leadership training providers have requested a review by the Competitions and Markets Authority (CMA), as they believe the contract award jeopardises their work and violates principles of competition law and transparency in public contracts.

These parties argue that the move could harm competition, as the NIoT’s receipt of significant Government funding could prevent other providers from being able to compete in terms of cost and quality. This could lead to a reduction in the choices available to academy trust leaders when it comes to leadership training schemes.

Despite the criticism, the DfE stands by its decision, claiming that it has met all legal requirements and that the NIoT’s contract is part of their broader plan to deliver top-quality teacher and leadership development.

The NIoT’s proposed training plan includes one-to-one coaching with a successful CEO and immersive learning.

It is important to consider the financial implications of this move. The significant Government funding that the NIoT is expected to receive could distort the market, making it difficult for other training providers to compete.

South East sees the largest increase in independent school pupil numbers

Offering an alternative to state-funded schools, independent schools provide parents with greater choice and flexibility when considering their child’s educational pathway.

This choice is becoming increasingly popular, as indicated by the rising numbers of pupils enrolled in Independent Schools Council (ISC) schools across the UK.

According to the 2023 ISC census and annual report, pupil numbers have grown to 554,243, a significant increase from 544,316 in 2022, representing a national growth of 1.6 per cent.

However, the growth is not evenly spread across the UK and varies by region. The South East, in particular, has seen an impressive rise of 2.2 per cent, while other regions like Scotland have witnessed an increase of just 0.4 per cent.

The quality of education provided by independent schools is one of the main reasons parents opt for this route.

Independent schools generally maintain high academic standards, providing students with a strong foundation in their education.

Additionally, independent schools tend to cater to smaller class sizes. This allows teachers to spend more time with each pupil, enhancing learning experiences, and providing tailored support for each student.

Independent schools often have excellent facilities, ranging from science labs and libraries to sports and arts facilities.

These schools can provide an enriching environment that encourages pupils to explore their interests and develop diverse skills beyond the classroom.

As mentioned already, the South East has seen the largest increase in independent school numbers. This could be attributed to various factors including population growth and a higher economic standard.

The South East is home to some of the UK’s most prestigious independent schools and its reputation as an educational hub may be attracting more families to the region.

However, it is important to note that smaller regions, like Wales and the North East, which have fewer ISC schools, may see more dramatic fluctuations in percentage change.

Last year, these regions had some of the highest growth in pupil numbers, but this year, they are among the lowest. These fluctuations could be due to a variety of factors, including economic changes and local education policies.


Schools are ‘perfectly entitled’ to engage with MPs over Labour tax proposals, ISC confirms as smaller private schools say they would struggle

The Labour Party has been talking about putting VAT on fees for private schools. They plan to use the extra money this would raise (around £1.7 billion) to hire more than 6,500 new teachers and make sure every child can see a counsellor for mental health issues at school.

They also want to improve state schools so more parents might choose them over private schools.

The Independent Schools Council (ISC) aren’t happy about this. They worry that adding VAT would make private school fees much more expensive for parents.

If parents can’t or won’t pay the higher fees, smaller private schools might lose a lot of students.

While larger private schools might be able to cope with this change, smaller ones could struggle.

The ISC has said that Labour’s education spokesperson, Bridget Phillipson, doesn’t fully understand or value what private schools do.

They think she should recognise the good things private schools offer, like high standards of education and saving money for the local state education system.

In response, the ISC has started a campaign against Labour’s plans. They’ve written letters to Labour politicians, telling them how this policy could hurt families in their areas. They’ve also given schools a template that could be shared with parents to criticise the proposal.

However, Labour has said that schools need to be careful about this. Because many private schools are charities, they’re not supposed to get involved in politics.

If they do, they might get in trouble with the Charity Commission, the group that oversees charities.

If the proposal ever comes into force, smaller private schools might need to come up with new ways to raise money or offer scholarships to counter the financial impact and keep providing quality education.

Whatever happens in the future regarding this proposal, our main focus is on making sure your finances are in order so you can continue to offer a great education to your students.

Lack of local authority support forcing more schools to form academy trusts

As the support from local councils continues to shrink, many primary schools in the UK are opting to form academy trusts. With council aid gradually dwindling over time, schools seem to have no choice but to seek alternative support.

A recent analysis found that proposed academy chains, consisting of up to 13 schools, have identified the diminishing support from local councils as a key reason for their decision to become academies.

On average, nearly half of all schools in the UK are now academies. Speaking with online publication Schools Week, Academy Conversion Consultant Jeff Marshall has stated that once 40 per cent of schools within a district convert to academies, the local authority’s relationship with schools changes from a supportive body to a service provider.

Many local authorities have voiced that they lack the staff capacity to support school improvement beyond their statutory responsibilities. In response, a growing number of schools are choosing to join a trust.

Despite these claims, some local councils like South Gloucestershire Council maintain they have not made significant changes to their capacity to support schools in recent years.

They insist that they are working closely with all schools to understand their preference for conversion or maintaining local authority control.

However, schools have started seeking support from existing trusts due to the reduced staff capacity at councils. In some cases, schools are pooling resources to afford council HR advice, with some expected to halve the cost by sourcing from alternative providers.

As councils are forced to trim their service-level agreements (detailed service provisions to schools), schools are seeking their own agreements. The cost of council services has increased over time, but the quality, schools argue, has decreased.

In essence, as the £50 million-a-year Government grant for local authority school improvement activities was withdrawn this year, councils are now expected to slice from school budgets to fund such work.

In the face of these changes, it’s becoming increasingly clear why more and more UK schools are turning to the academy trust model for support.

What our clients say… Simon Balle, All-through School

“We approached Debra to complete a VAT review of our operations in order to provide our trustees and HMRC with reassurance that we were compliant with the regulations and to provide training where necessary.

“Debra’s knowledge of VAT is exceptional and the training she has delivered and the reports she has produced have been of the highest standard.

“Not only is Debra extremely professional but also personable and is able to make a very complex subject accessible and understandable. I have been very grateful for her patience and guidance!

“My trustees and I are now confident that we are complying with all of our VAT obligations, and I would not hesitate to recommend her services to anyone that is looking to review their processes or to train their finance department.”

Mr. Walsh, Simon Balle All-through School