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Podcast | Season 3 | Episode 1: Teacher Pay, Grammar Schools & the NSN Innovation Fund

Season 3 | Episode 1: Teacher Pay, Grammar Schools & the NSN Innovation Fund

In this new episode of the Schools & Academies Show Podcast we cover some of the latest and most pressing news stories to affect the education sector.

This month we are joined by Stephen Morales, Chief Executive of the Institute of School Business Leadership (ISBL), who shares his valuable insights to offer further clarity and explanations as to how the sector can respond to these latest developments. 

This month’s headlines:

Useful links:

  • Follow this link for the updates on the New Schools Network Innovation Fund
  • Here is the link for the Academy trust handbook 2022

Join the conversation and let us know your thoughts by tweeting us @SAA_Show

Listen to the full episode below.


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Alex Wallace:
Teacher pay increases places financial strain on the sector. Are new grammar schools back on the educational agenda? And the New Schools Network looks to fund innovative thinking in education. Hello, and welcome to the first episode of this new season of the Schools & Academies Show Podcast. My name is Alex.

Sam Powell:
And I'm Sam. Together, we'll be your hosts for this brand new season. Each month, we're going to bring you a roundup of all the big news affecting the education sector. And along with our network of experts, we'll be looking to break down the stories and shed light on how these developments will impact schools and trusts across the country. All in one bite-sized package.

Alex Wallace
: We'd like to thank you all for joining us. And we hope that you enjoy what we have to offer. Welcome to the Schools & Academies Show Podcast. Despite what people outside of the sector may presume, I think that August can actually be a pretty busy month in and around schools. Just because pupils aren't in, doesn't mean the site isn't busy, or being used in different ways. For example, contractors might be in, there might be deep cleans going on, sports camps, or staff preparing rooms for the forthcoming academic year. People are still getting busy getting ready for the new term. One of the things which is definitely being looked at over the course of the summer, is budgetary allocations and the allocation of resources, which is what our first story covers today.

Sam Powell:
If you found your way to this podcast, I'd imagine you're already pretty familiar with the most recent teacher pay increase. While the government are calling this a ‘landmark rise’, it really seems like it's causing a lot more headaches than it's fixing. Not only is the raise below the current rate of inflation, but there's no extra funding being supplied to help alleviate the £2.3 billion it's expected to cost. Estimates reckon that just under 60% of school leaders won't be able to meet the extra costs alone. And over 40% are expecting that they'll have to let stuff go in order to meet the extra costs.

Alex Wallace:
To help us provide better insights to these news stories, we'll be joined by an expert. And this month, we're joined by Steven Morales, the CEO of the Institute of School Business Leadership. Steven, thank you for joining us. We really appreciate you being here. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself and your background within the sector?

Stephen Morales:
Yeah, hello, and thank you very much for inviting me to join. So yeah, my name is Steven Morales, I'm the Chief Executive of the Institute of School Business Leadership. I've been involved in the education sector for over two decades now. I've had stints abroad, I've worked in the independent sector, the state sector, I’ve worked in academies and maintained schools. And I continue to operate as a member of a small trust in the Midlands. I'm also an academy ambassador. So you know, I've got privileged insights to, what life on the frontline looks like. In addition, I spend an awful lot of time with officials and in some cases, ministers talking about policy reforms that, in particular have an impact on the way that schools are run, leaning into finance and operations rather than pedagogy, but I also have a strong relationship with all the sector bodies, the head teacher associations, the employee bodies, CST, NGA, and so forth. And as an institute, and it's right that we do, we engage heavily in research, both domestic and international. So yeah, I mean, I've got I think a broad interest in the education space, and hopefully some of my experience within schools and trusts gives me privileged insights.

Alex Wallace:
Steven as we've heard budgets are going to be tight this academic year, and they're going to be stretched pretty far in order to meet pay increases, and leaders might be considering cuts elsewhere. With this in mind, what do you expect will be the first thing to go in order to meet these pay increases?

Stephen Morales:
So I think the first thing to say is that the pay increase is just one of a number of cost pressures that schools are facing, and certainly the late announcement of the additional 2% on top of what many, many schools and trusts will of budgeted for has caused high levels of frustration. And there's two sides to this isn't there? So, when we've heard that inflation is going to rise again, it's 10.1%. It was 9.4. I believe, before today's announcement, the prediction is it's gonna go to 11. So many of the unions are saying the 5% isn't even enough. But also, at the same time, school leaders are saying 5% isn't enough. It's falling way short of the 10.1% we're running at at the moment. But even 5% is unaffordable because it's not funded. On top of that, we've of course got inflation across other areas of products and services that schools have to buy, which is causing pressure, and we've got the energy crisis, unprecedented, 300%, plus, in some cases increases on energy.

Stephen Morales:
If we think back to the comprehensive spending review announcement, and the amount of money that was going to schools, whilst it wasn't an enormously generous settlement, I think the sector had reconciled itself to being a just about sufficient to keep your head above water and probably maintain status quo. I don't think there was many that believed that was enough to do anything particularly progressive or stretch, but it certainly was enough for the majority to just about make ends meet. When you layer on top of that, the ambition that's in the white paper, when you layer on top of that, the expectation to close the gap post-pandemic. And now you've got to meet all of this new set of cost pressures, it becomes very difficult to see how this is in any way sustainable. Now, you asked the question very early on in the conversation, what's likely to go first, well, some schools and some trusts will use their reserves, and they will continue to operate with the model that they've got at the moment. Some don't have that luxury, so they will have to make difficult decisions very quickly. Where can you make the big savings? Well, you certainly can't make big savings in non-staff cost areas, you certainly can't make savings on energy at the moment, because we know we've just talked about, 300%, in some cases, increase in energy costs. So it's difficult to see beyond staff where those savings might come from.

Stephen Morales:
Now, I have heard that schools are considering in the first instance, support staff as the easy option. The only option, I think. I would caution heavily against just taking that view. I mean, it may be that on balance, that's where you'll identify savings, but I think schools just need to be careful that they are they're taking a very short term view of this and saying, if we can reduce back office staff, we can maintain our teachers and frontline teachers, but if you don't have access to the skills and capabilities of good business leaders and their teams, you're likely to only exacerbate an already difficult problem because if you don't have someone who's really carefully monitoring your spend, your budget planning process, if you can't identify efficiencies throughout the year, because you don't have the capacity within your organization to do that, then okay, you might make savings through some back office staff in the short term. But in the longer term, you're putting yourself in a very vulnerable position. So I'm not saying don't look at support staff, but I'm saying don't exclusively look at support staff. So look at your staff structure in the round.

Stephen Morales:
And this is an uncomfortable thing to say, but I’ve got to say it because I think in terms of where is there potentially big savings, I think you have to look at leadership structures. And if someone is not in front of a child, what strategic contribution are they making? So if you've got a very top heavy management structure, and very well paid senior leaders, what I think we need to be able to say with confidence is that there's that there's a clear return on investment. So if that strategic leader is adding such value that they're indisposable if you like and certainly at that at that salary level, then there's a case to be made. But if there’s ambiguity about those that are not in front of the child and paid big salaries then, I think we need to question it. So, in summary, big savings beyond staff are very difficult to identify, cost pressures are enormous, reserves will go so far. But then I think it is about having a very forensic look at the way the way the organization, both a school and a trust is configured and how talent resources are being deployed. And how given the funding allocation you have, how do you? How do you work within that?

Alex Wallace:
Sure, I suppose it's about having a robust financial infrastructure isn't and that ability to scrutinize.

Stephen Morales:
That's right. And that's why if you take out those key personnel, those people who can help with that process, who are skilled at doing that, then I worry, that pedagogical leaders on their own, trying to do this very complex calculation, and make informed and evidence based judgements about talent deployment, won't be able to do it, because they won't have those colleagues alongside them supporting them.

Sam Powell:
So next up, we've got a story that's a bit out there. But if it does come to pass, it could really send some shockwaves through the sector. If you believe the polls it’s looking more and more likely that Liz Truss is going to be the next Prime Minister of the UK. Liz has been pitching herself as the education Prime Minister for a while now in her own words, and suggested that if she were to take over number 10, she would lift the ban put in place by the Labour government on opening new grammar schools. This is a move that has caused the press to continually throw around the phrase, “the biggest revolution in English education for half a century”. Truss has said that she's a huge supporter of grammar schools, and she wants more people around the country to have the choice to send their children there just like she has.

Alex Wallace:
Stephen, what are your thoughts on this? And do you actually see it happening?

Stephen Morales:
So I think the grammar school conversation is interesting, for me it feels like a strange conversation to be having given that we've got a very fragmented system at the moment. And we've got a white paper, which sets out very bold ambitions for a fully trust-led system. And the grammar school bit for me feels a bit peripheral to that, given that there are there still 60% of primary schools and 20% of secondary schools that aren't in trusts, winning the hearts and minds of the leaders of those establishments and institutions is surely the first big hurdle for government to overcome. And by the way, I think that's a huge challenge, winning the hearts and minds of those schools and their school leaders. On the grammar schools, of course, you know, any potential Conservative Prime Minister is going to want to appeal to their base, and their most loyal supporters. Grammar schools are popular amongst conservative voters and grammar schools are predominantly in areas where the conservatives have historically done very well so it would be odd for any potential Conservative Prime Minister to be saying they don't like grammar schools.

Stephen Morales:
I mean, to go as far as Liz Truss has gone in terms of undoing the ban on grammar schools is it's difficult to speculate why she's taken that particular position, but because as I say, I think positive words about grammar schools, to conservative members, I can see tactically, how that works. What we haven't heard from Liz Truss, which is often the case in any of these kind of discussions and debates, is the evidence in support of grammar schools visa vie, any other type of school. It may be that there is somewhere some deeper thinking on this, but it's a kind of throwaway comment that has landed well within the conservative membership. So you can see why she might have said it. But I'd want to know, a lot more. I'd want to see a lot more detail in terms of why undoing the ban is the right thing for our system, and where's the evidence that supports that. If Liz Truss can provide that or teams can provide that then of course we should listen as we should listen to counter arguments.

Sam Powell:
Next up, we've got some news about the New Schools Network, who until a short while ago were the top support provider for free schools across the UK. NSN recently lost their contract to a consultancy firm called the Premier Advisory Group, and unfortunately, with this news and NSN, decided that there'll be closing operations, but before they shut their doors for good, NSN decided that they were using their £650,000 reserves to set up a support grant for free schools who were committed to ending educational inequality and are looking to provide innovative thinking and activity. David Ross, who chairs NSN, and is also the founder of the Carphone Warehouse, in case you didn't know, recently said this about setting up the grant:

“The organisation has a proud history of advocating for educational equality. For a system in which every child can attend a good school and in supporting innovation to achieve this goal. Now more than ever, we need to ensure that innovative thinking and new ways of doing things are encouraged so that every child in every community genuinely has the best possible start in life.”

Sam Powell:
There isn't too much info floating around on these grants right now I'm afraid though. We don't know how much can be applied for or even how many rounds of funding they'll be. But applications are set to open in autumn, and schools interested should register their details on the register interest section of the New Schools Network website. To help you out, we've even included the link to that page in the description of the episode.

Alex Wallace:
Stephen. Responsibility for free school support going from a charity to a consultancy group seems like a bit of a shift. What should free schools expect to see change in the way that they receive support?

Stephen Morales:
I guess there's always there's always a concern where there's a conflict between commercial interests and the needs of the sector. And I guess it in many respects, it will be down to the moral ethical compass of the provider to ensure that they do right by the schools they're supporting. And it's very difficult to say a great deal more than that at this stage. Because we have to see what kind of service schools are receiving in terms of support, and how that differs from their experience historically, with New Schools Network and then I think we can make a judgement. So beyond being slightly sceptical, slightly nervous about heavy commercial interest in the middle of a package of support that’s important to the sector, it's difficult for me to comment beyond that I think.

Alex Wallace:
I suppose this is a bit of a broader question here. How important do you think organisations like the New Schools Network are for the support and the success of free schools?

Stephen Morales:
Okay in terms of how important is it for schools to allow access to support if they’re thinking about developing a free school? Well, it's a tremendously complex undertaking, and I don't think it’s necessarily as widely understood as it as it should be for the complexity that's involved. You might be a very committed member of the community that starts the conversation and brings together a parent group that say: we can see a real need here, we're going to rally around, we're going to coalesce around a strategy, and we're going to work with various agencies to make this happen.

Stephen Morales:
So often, I think there's lots of energy and enthusiasm, but when you think about what's required to set up a school; the right governance arrangement, recruiting the right both leadership and frontline teaching talent into the school, ensuring that your calculations on pupil numbers as the free school grows and developing financial forecasts on the basis of growth over a sustained period. But knowing that your financial viability depends on you achieving those targets going forward, without wraparound support, it's difficult to see how you would be able to achieve it. Now, there is potentially an argument to say, well there are different organisations including the Institute for School Business Leadership that can add value in their particular niche areas, but you’re probably bringing in four or five different organisations including support from the legal profession to pull this together, and then who's going to project manage it? You've got these disparate groups trying to coordinate this complex project. And so I can see how doing that on your own would be really challenging and I think that we had a relationship with and continue to have a relationship with New Schools Network, and a number of our fellows indeed, helped with the due diligence work. So they were retained by New Schools Networkers as consultants doing due diligence and pre application work and post-approval work. So in short, I think it's difficult to see how a group of stakeholders, really committed to a free school project could do everything that's required, without some very significant support, coordinating and pulling together all of the different strands.

Sam Powell:
As we get to the end of our time today we've got a few other stories that we'd still like to highlight for you. These are both stories that we weren't able to give full coverage to and stories that are still set to develop in the coming months, we still think it's important to help give you a breakdown of them though. First on the docket is that we've just seen the release of the 2022 Academy Trust Handbook with a couple of changes from the Education and Skills Funding Agency. These changes are meant to help support schools trust as they look ahead to significant change, but I'm sure it's such a busy time many leaders will be happy to hear the changes are modest in nature. Given the delay to the handbook the ESFA were keen not to impose heavy demands on leaders following discussions with ministers, officials and assurance working group members. There's only four changes to the handbook covering financial reporting, special payments, indemnities and religious character. In the episode description we've included the link so that you can go over them in more detail in your own time.

Sam Powell:
Next up, we've got the news that Ofsted’s review of the National Tutoring Program has been delayed because of capacity issues. This is now the second report on the program to be delayed after the investigation from the National Foundation for Educational Research was pushed back earlier this year. It's now looking as though we won't see an in-depth review on the program until October at the earliest, a full year after its implementation.

Alex Wallace:
The NEU have made the decision to ballot members over strike action, with the ballot occurring the week of the 24th September, unless teacher pay increases are in line with inflation. If this is not met, then possible strike action could be on the cards.

Sam Powell:
Well, that's all the time we've got for today, folks. We'd like to thank our guest, Steven Morales again for providing insight into the news with us. Steven, have you got anything you'd like to say before we go?

Stephen Morales: Well, thank you very much for inviting me to participate in this very interesting discussion. I think there's lots for us to think about as an education community. We'll see what unfolds in the days and weeks ahead in terms of political decisions, the leadership of our country, the forming of a cabinet, potentially a new Secretary of State, and then we look forward to having meaningful conversations with those that are in power.

Stephen Morales:
So yeah, lots to get our heads round. Still lots still lots of uncertainty. And so we wait to see what comes. But in the meantime, I think the main thing for us as educators is to continue to not lose focus and do right by the children that we serve. Of course there are things that are causing us concern, funding, the reforms, the nature of the reforms, the speed of the reforms. But we must not forget the most important thing when we return in September is the life chances of the children under our care today.

Sam Powell:
And of course, we'd like to thank all of you for taking time out of your day to join us. Hopefully you'll join us again next month for more news from the education sector.

Alex Wallace: If you can't wait until then though, make sure you're following the Schools and Academies Show on Twitter @SAAS_SHOW for all of our frequent updates.

Sam Powell:
And if you're not already, make sure that you're registered to attend the Schools and Academies Show Birmingham taking place at the NEC on November 17th. There you'll be able to hear Steven Morales and many more sector leaders discuss all the biggest topics in education.

Alex Wallace:
Until then, we'll see you next time and goodbye.

Sam Powell:
See you real soon, folks. This episode was produced and edited by Alessandro Bilotta, Sam Powell and Alex Wallace.

Sam Powell:
Well now, look at you sticking around until after the end credits. To reward your curiosity, here is an extra question which we recorded with Steven Morales which couldn't quite make the cut on the episode. Enjoy.

Alex Wallace:
I suppose. So, with the current system offering a patchwork of different educational settings for MATs, Single Academy Trusts, Free Schools, LA maintained schools, do you see another entity bringing value to what you could already say is pretty crowded marketplace?

Stephen Morales:
Through grammar schools? Yeah, I mean, I think like everything else, what I'm always seeking, and others in a similar position to me, is show me the evidence. Show me the evidence that this makes a difference to communities of learners and are communities of learners best served by a particular model? So again, White Paper, there is the case for a Trust-Led system and it points to a number of Multi Academy Trusts that have done great things with their communities. What I would say, just very briefly on that is that the cases that have been cited in the in the annex to the White Paper, are statistical outliers, they're much bigger than the majority of Multi Academy Trusts in the country. Some of them even predate the 2010 Academy Act. So whilst they are doing great things, are they representative of the rest of the sector? And certainly those smaller trusts on a journey from, three to five, five, to seven, and so on.

Stephen Morales:
I think we need to collect more evidence to support arguments, one way or another. In fact, the Institute of School Business Leadership are just about to embark on a piece of research with one of the big universities to look at the correlation between structure, the ingredients of leadership and outcomes for children. So we're very intrigued by what combination of structure and leadership capability lead to particular outcomes for children. And we're looking at not only those ingredients, but also regional, variations and contexts. And obviously, the profile the of the community of learners as well. And it's this kind of evidence that I think we need to support a direction of travel so we're not jumping to a solution based on intuition, or instinct, or because it's popular.

Alex Wallace:
I suppose it boils back down to that database decision making, and that should be at the core of our decision-making processes within schools. And after we look at the grand scheme, we can't just like I said, jump into it on intuition. It needs to be supported in data.

Stephen Morales:
Yeah, I think so. I mean, data evidence, case studies. And I think that we need to do more to shine a spotlight on good practice. And I'm always inspired and encouraged when I hear school leaders talk me through the changes that they've made, and the impact that it's had. So when I can see the journey that they've travelled, warts and by the end of this strategic change journey, restructuring, deployment of talent, whatever it might be, if you can see the impact, because in the end, it everything else is kind of irrelevant, really, isn't it? If children's life chances aren't improving as a result of any kind of measure that's taken, then we've gone we've achieved nothing really. But when you see school leaders talk through the journey, and can demonstrate the impact and can say, “this is where we were three years ago and this is the wonderful experience that children are having now as a consequence of the strategic plans that we've implemented, and the changes that we've made to our operating model”, then that needs to be celebrated. And I don't think we do enough of that part by the way so yes, you're right data, evidence, case studies robust research and then I think we can make informed decisions.

Alex Wallace:
Great thank you.