You cannot bank on education

In response to my most recent article, the Times Educational Supplement Scotland published a letter from Ronnie Smith, General Secretary of the EIS – the major teaching union in Scotland.

I copy it here for fuuture reference:


When budgets are tight, thoughts always turn to how the shrinking cake of education spending is to be distributed, as Don Ledingham demonstrated in his column last week. The real challenge for all in education is to fight to maintain levels of investment in education – not to agonise over how to share out the crumbs.

A “flexible learning credit”, as described by Mr Ledingham, sounds a much less objectionable term, but the proposal is really for a voucher scheme by any other name. The effect is to introduce a market in education where the pupil acts as a consumer, choosing where to buy discrete packages of learning.

But which pupils should have access? How and by whom would it be decided which learning packages are to be made available? And could a student choose to spend the whole credit on one (very expensive) course, thereby narrowing unacceptably his or her range of learning?

At a practical level, students in a sparsely-populated country like Scotland would have limited ability to buy learning packages elsewhere. For those who could, issues such as transport costs would disadvantage poorer students. This proposal increases the risk of social exclusion and stratification of schools.

Any significant uptake would militate against the capacity of public authorities to plan appropriate provision of their school estate and of their staffing. Such instability is damaging to all. Further, in enhancing the right of certain individuals to choose in this way, the rights of others to choose are diminished – if, for example, an Advanced Higher in a community school becomes unviable since six out of 10 students have decided to take their “custom” elsewhere.

A focus on the individual merely as a consumer of learning also undermines the concept of the student as part of a school community – a place which generates social, cultural, sporting activity and relationships, as well as certificated learning. This narrows and impoverishes the whole-school experience.

And where’s the evidence that this would “improve the educational outcomes for children”? Consider what happened when we deregulated school meals and introduced a quasi-market of free choice in school catering. Few would argue that it improved the dietary or health outcomes for our children.

Ronnie Smith, General Secretary, Educational Institute of Scotland.

Here’s the article which he is referring to:


The report on Scotland’s schools, published in December 2007 by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, criticised the Scottish education system for not making a strong enough link between funding and educational outcomes.

In the United States, there is also a move to consider how “learning- oriented funding” might be used to improve the educational outcomes for children.

My own interest in this area was triggered by considering how we could fund sixth-year students who wanted to take Open University courses through the Young Applicants in Schools Scheme, which allows students to follow Advanced Higher equivalent courses online with the support of an Open University tutor.

The problem I encountered was where to find the funding to allow such students to follow these courses. The reality is that all available funding is locked up in schools through the traditional secondary-school funding formula, typically based on a per capita allocation which takes account of the number of students in the school.

It is this “devolved” budget which pays for teachers and support staff, allows resources to be purchased and covers any other expenditure deemed to be the responsibility of the school.

The alternative model I have been exploring is one which identifies the per capita allocation as a flexible learning credit that students can use to access learning at a place and time of their own choosing. Such a system would support two of the key principles of A Curriculum for Excellence: personalisation and choice.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that every senior student currently carries a nominal “value” to the school of £3,500. Before the start of an academic session, students would select their learning programmes from a wide variety of courses and opportunities, including their own school’s traditional senior school curriculum or other learning opportunities which may be available outwith their own school. Some students may elect to study a distance-learning programme that carries an SCQF credit equivalent to HNC, Higher or Advanced Higher.

Funding would follow the student and be credited to the organisation delivering his or her learning. Most students would choose to continue to study courses at their own school and the funding would remain there.

Of course, there would be real concerns that schools might see funding drain from their own school. Nevertheless, given the challenges facing public service budgets, it is fitting that we begin at least to try to cost the delivery of a particular course. For example, how much does it cost to deliver an Advanced Higher course to 10 students for the teaching equivalent of a day’s teaching time (including the pro-rata teacher’s non- teaching time)? The cost would be 20 per cent of that person’s total salary which, including on-costs, could be £8,000-£10,000 per day. The delivery costs for such a class would therefore be £800-£1,000 per student. Such data begins to show how funding might be used to access other equivalent learning opportunities.

However, one of the benefits from such a scheme is that it would provide an incentive for schools to co-ordinate their senior courses to allow them to specialise in delivering some programmes that are not viable when confined to their own pupils.

The scheme I have described links funding with the learning output (courses), but does not take the next step of linking funding to outcomes (results). Perhaps that is for another day?


Public Spending Cuts

East Lothian Council’s Administration has begun a major review of budget options in response to expected cuts in funding from central government for local authorities over the next few years.

Although details of East Lothian Council’s funding allocation for 2010/11 will not be announced until late this year, our Finance colleagues are predicting that the cut in income to the council could be as much as £4.6 million (our department accounts for nearly 50% of the Council’s total budget).

In a report presented by our Council’s Head of Finance, David Spilsbury, earlier this week, councillors were advised that as well as planning for funding cuts, they would also need to allow for increased demands for spending on services such as those for older people and children, homelessness and waste. 

Education is also likely to place further demands on the Council’s finances.  While school rolls have been relatively static over the past three years, they are expected to rise in East Lothian by over 5 per cent in the next two.

Even without pay awards, staffing costs – which currently account for almost half of the Council’s cost base – will also continue to grow.  For example, the cost of making good pension deficits will increase from £1.3 million to £2.2 million each year from 2011.  Salary progression for some employees is also expected to add a further £1.5 million to the bill in 2010/11. 

There seem to be four alternatives when facing up to such challenges as a manager:

1. Allow yourself to be consumed by the enormity of the task and suffer from a form of “manager’s paralysis”; or

2. Denial – tell everyone it’s going to be OK and hope it won’t happen; or

3. Panic and grab at any alternatives which appear at first glance to generate savings but fundamentally undermine the service to it’s long-term detriment; or

4. Maintain a calm, rational and positive focus upon what it is we are trying to achieve – in our case educate and support children and young people – and collectively look for imaginative and sensitive solutions which change the way we do things.

As far as I’m concerned the only viable option is the number 4 – with the focus being on collective action where all parties have access to the facts. 

As Dave Berry, the Council leader put it:

 ‘In my opinion, there will be no ‘silver bullet’ that will solve these problems at one stroke. But what this Administration intends to strive for is a judicious combination of efficiency savings, income generation, shared services, co-operation with partners, especially in the Third Sector and the kind of effective overhaul of services that has resulted in Adult Social Care moving from habitual annual deficits to releasing three quarters of a million pounds to allow for the provision of further services.’ 

I will be returning to this theme on a regular basis over the coming year.



Kinship Carers

I had the privilege of meeting a remarkable group of women last week when I attended the East Lothian Kinship Carers Support Group.  These were – with one exception – grandmothers who were formally recognised as having parental rights for their grandchidren. 

The definition of Kinship care is as follows:

Children who cannot live with or be cared for by a parent and who are living with a relative or family friend who is responsible for their upbringing

 The benefits of kinship care have been identified in research studies as:

  • children feeling loved, valued and cared for
  • children being able to maintain a sense of identity, having a sense of belonging and feeling settled because they are placed with people they know
  • children having more stable placements than children placed with non relative carers and being less likely to be subject to placement moves
  • children being able to maintain contact with their family and friends

A number of disadvantages have also been identified, including:

  • limitations to freedom for children and carers
  • financial hardship
  • problems for carers in having to cope with the behaviour difficulties of young people
  • lack of support from child welfare agencies
  • overcrowding
  • ill health of carers
  • less thorough assessments for kinship carers than non relative foster carers and less stringent monitoring of placements
  • lower reunification rates for children and children being less likely to be adopted

The Scottish Government published a report in December 2007 entitled “Getting it right for every child in foster care and kinship care – a National Strategy”

As I listened to their stories – which were so often connected to their own children’s drug abuse – I was struck by the life-changing impact of having to take on the role of being a parent at a time in life when they would reasonably have been expecting to slow down and enjoy the fruits of retirement.  I tried to put myself in their place – and failed miserably!

Yet for all the personal challenges it was obvious that the children they cared for were benefitting so much from living in a such a loving and caring environment.

We concluded by talking about the funding process.  In East Lothian we only fund kinship care at a level equivalent to foster carers when the child is officially on the Looked After Register. This undoubtedly provides a real challange to many of those kinship carers whose grandchildren are not in such a category.

I’m afraid I couldn’t stop thinking about them all weekend!


Learning-oriented funding systems

I came across a very interesting report from the Center (sic) on Reinventing Public Education which was founded in 1993 at the University of Washington.

The 2008 report entitled Funding Student Learning: How to Align Education Resources with Student Learning Goals describes how it might be possible to redesign educational funding systems.  The introduction from the Chair of the working group Professor  Jacob Adams is worthy of analysis from a Scottish perspective..

“Education finance has emerged as one of the most salient public policy issues of the new century. In the early 2000s, for instance, and again in 2008, state and local officials faced tough budgetary choices brought on by a slowing economy and falling revenues.”  In Scotland we have only really been facing up to tough budget choices in the last three years but the challenges we now face are no different from those facing our counterparts in North America.

“Attention to education finance has extended beyond the halls of government as well. The National Research Council convened an expert panel to examine issues of funding equity and adequacy, and analysts developed new techniques to estimate the cost of achieving educational goals. Philanthropies and government funded large-scale studies of K-12 spending, while think tanks on the left and right released reports urging changes in the way states deliver resources to schools.” This has not been a key focus in Scotland despite the OECD Review.  Perhaps the new challenges faced by the public sector allied to static levels of educational attainment and no apparent correlation between increase in funding and improvements in outcomes will stimulate more attention on this area.

“In the press, new forms of teacher compensation and charter school funding routinely made national headlines. On Wall Street, Standard & Poor’s developed an online tool to correlate school spending with performance, as well as a consulting service to improve school district practices regarding pensions, energy, and other non-instructional costs. In short, resource issues in public education now span policy and practice, engage advocates and academics, and arise whether the topic is general support, school improvement, constitutional duty, or organizational efficiency.” But not in Scotland.

“The attention is well deserved. Americans spend more than $500 billion a year on elementary and secondary schools, making education the largest expenditure in most state budgets, and periodic assessment of education’s return on investment is a responsible undertaking. In this case, however, there is more to it. A careful look leads one to conclude that the nation’s attention to education finance is unsatisfying. For a quarter century, America’s schools have been searching for greater student learning and falling short.”  In session 2007-2008 Scotland spent £4.75 billion on pre-primary, primary and secondary education up from the 2002-2003 figure of £3.33 billion (a 33% increase) without any significant improvement in educational outcomes during that time.

“The sum of new finance-oriented legal theories, legislative actions, analytic perspectives, and management decisions has not closed the gap between the nation’s educational ambitions and student accomplishments. In fact, spending increases have outstripped achievement gains, and new funding programs have not propelled students over the performance bars set by states. It seems that the connection between resources and learning has been growing weaker, not stronger.” There does not appear to have been any positive connection between resources and learning in Scotland.

“A basic flaw in these improvement efforts is that they look to the education finance system for solutions when the system itself is the problem. As you will see in the pages that follow, state education finance systems were not designed with student learning in mind, nor have the superintendents and principals who manage educational resources been trained to make the strategic connection between resources and learning one would expect in a learning-oriented system.”  The Scottish funding system is not connected in any way with student learning in mind.  It is much more about defining a mechanism to ensure that money is apportioned in a transparent and efficient manner – but with no consideration to how that money will be used to improve learning – the system is based upon an assumption that resources will be used effectively.  No Scottish educational administrator such as myself or secondary headteacher has received specialised training to make a connection between funding and student learning.

“What’s more, because of the way these systems operate, elected officials, educational leaders, and the public are equally hard pressed to know how resources actually have been deployed or the ways they may (or may not) contribute to learning. The bottom line is that education finance needs to be redesigned to support student performance. To get there, a more fundamental analysis and approach to resource management is needed, one that steps back from incremental funding increases, new programs, and conventional practices to tackle the more basic question: How can resources support the nation’s ambitions for student learning?” I’d argue that it’s now time to do something similar in Scotland.


Linking educational funding with learning activity



Professor Richard Teese 2008

Back in December 2007 the OECD published a report entitled Reviews of National Policies for Education – Quality and Equity of Schooling in Scotland. I’ve written previously about Professor Richard Teese – the main reporter for that report -who criticised the Scotish education system for not making a strong enough link between funding and educational outcomes. I picked up on this same theme in a related post when considering further how funding might be used as a lever to improve educational outcomes for children.  However, over the last few months I’ve been giving this entire area a great deal more thought and have been researching how we might change the way we do things in Scotland.

I suppose my interest was initially triggered by considering how we could fund sixth year students who wanted to take Open University courses through the YASS scheme. The problem that I encountered was where would such funding come from to allow such students to follow these courses?  The reality is that all available funding is locked up in schools through the traditional secondary school funding formula which is typically based upon a per capita allocation which takes account of the number of students in the school.

It is this “devolved” budget which pays for teachers and support staff, allows resources to be purchased and covers any other expenditure deemed to be the responsibility of the school.

The alternative model I have been exploring is one which identifies the “per capita” allocation as a flexible learning credit which the student can use to access learning at a place and time of their own choosing, e.g. their own school, YASS, Queen Margaret University in East Lothian, a Further Education College or even another school in East Lothian.

For ease of exemplification let’s say that every senior student in East Lothian currently carries a nominal “value” to the school of £3000. Before the commencement of an academic session students would select their “learning programmes” from a wide variety of courses and opportunities ranging from their own school’s traditional senior school curriculum or other learning opportunities which may be available outwith their own school. The system I have in mind is that the funding would follow the student. In such a scenario some students may select to study a distance learning programme with a university which carries an SCQF credit equivalent to HNC, Higher or Advanced Higher – the payment of such courses would directly follow the student and be credited to the relevant organisation delivering the learning.  Most  students would choose to continue to study courses at their own school and the funding would remain within that establishment.

Of course there would be some real concerns that schools might see a drain of funding from their own school as students choose to study elsewhere.  However, one of the benefits from such a scheme is that it would incentivise schools to co-ordinate their senior courses to allow certain schools to specialise on delivering some programmes which currently are not viable when only recruiting from within their own school.

The last element of this possible scheme is that funding would also take account of student outcomes. I’m not yet sure how we might be able to achieve this but I reckon that a certain proportion of the funding for each student would be linked to educational outcome and would only be released to the organisation claiming the funding on confirmation of outcome, e.g results. 

Over the coming months I’ll be researching and writing about this further but in the meantime I can recommend the following links for those who might be interested in following this up themselves.

System Funding Council funding 1999 – grant letter – funding student learning – Redesigning Public Education