Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Free schools – policy and September 2011 numbers

Will the Coalition's policy of free schools fly? An early measure of success – or failure – will be numbers. Later the researchers will study the effectiveness of free schools in improving attainment – but they will need some schools to put under the microscope.

September 2011 will be a key date. The government is apparently working on the assumption of 20 free schools opening in 2011. (As this number is barely whispered, it cannot really be called a target.)

Will there be 20? Maybe, perhaps not. But the numbers are affecting policy around the edges.

On Friday the website building.co.uk reported that as few as five “free” schools might open in September 2011. There was also the suggestion that the government might approach firms on the academies’ project management framework to get the schools set up, rather than allowing school groups to recruit their own project managers

Earlier in the week the Financial Times reported that “a dozen” free schools might open in 2011. It also indicated that several high-profile projects, including the proposed Bolingbroke Academy in Wandsworth and Toby Young’s West London Free School, are now facing delays.

At the weekend the FT also suggested that Michael Gove might give faith schools and independent fee-paying schools more “leeway” to join the 2011 cohort of free schools.

We will have to watch this space.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The NAO on staff costs in "a period of spending reduction"

Last week the National Audit Office published A framework for managing staff costs in a period of spending reduction. Its a timely guide - less than two months until the Spending Review on October reveals where the axe will fall in terms of Whitehall departments. The NAO suggests that the guide is relevant to the "wider public sector" beyond the central government departments who are the primary audience of the NAO.

I have only had a quick scan of the report but I noticed that the "context" warns:

In their planning assumptions, departments have been asked to produce plans of what budget reductions of up to 40 per cent would entail. We expect departments to need to explore the more radical strategic and sustainable cost reduction options ... in order to deliver savings on this scale.

It goes on:

however, delivering cost reduction of this nature usually demands higher implementation costs and longer timescales. This increases risk and therefore requires a clear strategy from the outset, as well as strong project management and control if expected savings are to be delivered.

The report identifies the challenges in conducting staff cost reduction activity. It also stresses the key elements required including high quality management information and robust data analysis.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Private sector interest in free schools

This weekend the BBC reported the high level of private sector interest in free schools.

Of course, for-profit companies cannot launched their own free schools. Michael Gove has stated that a not-for-profit governing body must always oversee a school even if for-profit company runs things on a day-to-day basis.

I would prefer free schools (and many other public services) to be run a mutual not-for-profit basis. Mutuals involve their customers, motivate their staff, build trust when there are conflicting interests and/information inequalities. However, I do think that the ban on for-profits is unfortunate. It will, to a greater or lesser extent, reduce the choice offered to parents.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Informed analysis on public policy: the NHS reforms and other changes

With so much change swirling around public services it’s useful to have a place to go for informed analysis. Today I stumbled on the LSE's British Politics and Policy blog which features a wide range of academics. Some of the bloggers, such as Tony Travers, are found in publications like CIPFA's Public Finance; others are more elusive (I cannot remember reading anything by Nicholas Barr since studying public sector economics at university sometime ago.)

This morning I read with interest Julian Le Grand’s thoughts on the Coalition’s plans to overhaul the NHS. Le Grand is a former advisor to Tony Blair on public service reform. He describes Andrew Lansley’s proposals as “impressive” with “their origin in policy reforms initiated by John Major’s Conservative government in the 1990s and subsequently developed by Tony Blair’s Labour government”. Similar sentiments were expressed last month by another advisor to Tony Blair – Simon Stevens wrote in the Financial Times that the Coalition’s plans take forward earlier reforms blocked by “internal opposition”.

Friday, August 06, 2010

The Big Society, charities and reserves: money too tight to mention?

Today’s Financial Times quotes research from the National Council for Voluntary Organisations which found that 36% of charities are operating hand-to-mouth without any cash reserves.

The FT suggests that this raises “profound doubts about whether [these charities] can survive the imminent cull of Whitehall budgets and help deliver David Cameron’s “big society”.

The article notes the current squeeze on contracts and grants. It also observes that some funders are wary of supporting charities with significant reserves and that funding sometimes only covers costs. Of course, some trustees may also bear some responsibility for failing to address the issue of reserves and setting a reserves policy for maintaining financial viability.

Academies, crisis management and risk management

Last week the website Children & Young People Now carried an article about changes to the academies funding agreement. Various duties have been erased – how these deletions are interpreted depends on your perspective.

One of the requirements struck out was the duty to have a crisis management plan in place before an academy opens. While I am all for reduced bureaucracy for academies (and other schools too), I do hope that academies do still have appropriate arrangements in place before opening.

Crisis management plans are is basic risk management – and it’s not too difficult either. There are plenty of templates on the internet. For example, here, here and here. Have a look; take your pick; tailor to your organisation; and be prepared for the unexpected.

There is no need for lots of consultancy from people like myself – although my rates are very reasonable!

For guidance on risk management more generally, the Academies Financial Handbook is a wealth of information. The Handbook includes templates for risk registers, although I do believe that a simpler methodology may be more user-friendly and manageable for academies. (There is a revised Handbook in the pipeline so there may be amended guidance and templates when that arrives.)

With academies - and organisations generally - it is vital that risk management becomes a continuous thread through governance, management and operations rather than a ritual that is "done" periodically.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Academies and free schools: useful resources

The whirlwind progress of the Academies Bill through Parliament and the controversy that the subject of schools reform attracts, may leave one or two heads being scratched. Thankfully, there is an excellent summary of the new legislation on the Montrose42 blog.

Another new resource is the Free Schools Resource group on LinkedIn. Its only been up and running a few days but its growing fast. It offers a forum for sharing news, views and queries as well as networking.