OBSTACLES TO FREE SCHOOLS EXPANSION
Buildings a big problem but new proposals might help
The Think Tank Policy Exchange published a report in 2010 ‘ Blocking the Best Obstacles to new, independent state schools ,co -authored by Rachel Wolf.
This report accurately examines the changes required to make an expanded programme of genuinely independent state schools a reality. The ﬁrst part examines the barriers which prevent new providers entering the system, including a ponderous approval process and overly restrictive planning and building procedures. The second part looks at restrictions on academy independence which curb innovation, including bureaucratic and poorly-focused accountability mechanisms and interference by central and local government. The third part looks at interventions in cases of school failure.
There are two major constraints to the expansion of the Free schools initiative. First, a shortage of capital. Second, a shortage of appropriate buildings for these new schools. Some parents and charities looking to set up free schools have long complained that suitable buildings are proving to be scarce, raising fears that Michael Gove’s revolution may lose more momentum. (For example Katherine Birbalsinghs Free school bid in south London failed to find a suitable property and was delayed for a year). But the other side of this coin is restrictive building regulations and planning laws that make setting up a new school something of a bureaucratic nightmare. This report found that many of the building requirements which apply to schools are an unnecessary block on innovation and should be lifted from all schools. However, the authors said there is a key difference between the expectations of schools which children have to attend and the expectations of schools where parents make an active choice. In the former case, some basic minimum standards need to be mandated because parents cannot alter what is happening in any other way. In the latter case, if parents are happy with the conditions of a building (beyond basic health and safety) then that should be sufﬁcient. Schools which replace existing supply should be free from space and design regulations, but should still meet minimum requirements on acoustics, ventilation and lighting, the report concluded.
Eric Pickles,the Communities and Local Government Secretary has just announced (25 January 2013 ) that Free schools will be able to open in offices, hotels and warehouses without planning permission that will allow proposed free schools to speed through red tape.This will include rewriting planning laws to allow schools to open before they have received council permission to occupy their new buildings. They will have 12 months’ grace before requiring change-of-use approval.
Ministers argue that final planning permission is almost always granted but that too many would-be free schools — the Government’s signature education reform — are being snarled up in the lengthy application process. Mr Pickles will also loosen the rules on the type of building that free schools can convert, to include office buildings, hotels, theatres, hostels, shops and warehouses.
One issue, though, that might remain an obstacle is that Councils can object to a new school on the grounds of the effect it will have on local traffic. This is a sensible caveat but could be used by Councils opposed to Free schools as a blocking measure.
The process of finding a site for a Free School has already, according to the government, been sped up by the drive to cut red tape in the planning system. The following improvements are already in place:
Appeals from schools are treated as a priority.
National planning guidance has been slashed from thousands of pages to just 47.
Councils must give priority to the need for new school developments when considering planning applications.
These earlier measures were supposed to free up the process of finding suitable property, but clearly havent had the desired effect, otherwise these new measures would not have been necessary.
The Secretary of State said in a statement (interalia) on 28 January:
It is my intention to include within the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995 (as amended):
‘a permitted development right allow for the temporary change of use to a new state-funded school from any other use class along with minor associated physical development. This will be for a single year which would cover the first academic year. It will provide certainty that a school opening will not be delayed by an outstanding planning application, but will not replace the need to secure planning permission for the use beyond that first year; and a permitted development right to allow change of use to a new state-funded school from offices (B1); hotels (C1); residential institutions (C2); secure residential institutions (C2A); and assembly and leisure (D2). Any subsequent change from a new state-funded school to other uses in non residential institution class (D1) will not be permitted. These changes will be subject to a prior approval process to mitigate any adverse transport and noise impacts.’
Separately a new estate agency-style website listing surplus Government properties, has been set up to make it easier for people who want to set up a Free School to search for and find sites. It launched today and shows more than 600 properties to rent and more than 140 to buy. The list will be updated as more properties become available or are claimed.
Plenty of evidence that good schools affect local house prices
Paying for primary education through housing is still a cheaper option than paying for private education.
We all know that if there is a good school in an area that the house prices rise in that area , often significantly.The influence of school quality on house prices also feeds back into school admissions – the so-called ‘selection by mortgage’ of the richest and brightest children into the best schools. (with its corollary- the most disadvantaged pupils tend to end up in the worst schools). Rather smug middle class parents can then say they support state schools.
This process ,according to Stephen Gibbons of CEP, serves to reinforce school segregation and inequalities in performance and achievement, and reduces social mobility across the generations. (the latter, remember, a key government priority).
Once we know that the quality of state schools raises house prices, (which we do- ‘A link between better schools and higher house prices is one of the most stable empirical regularities worldwide’-CEP) an obvious question is how these costs compare with the costs of a private education. Is it better to pay a premium on your house price or to fork out fees for your childs primary education -ie which option has a better return?
Research evidence from Gibbons of CEP shows that paying for state education in England through housing is still a cheaper option than paying for private education. But the gap is not as big as you might think. Gibbons says ‘Our calculations imply that getting a child into a state primary that delivers in the top 10% of achievement (assuming you could find such a school) would set you back about £26,000 at 2006 prices. That’s about £3,000 a year if you decided to pay that amount off over the seven years of primary schooling on a 5% mortgage interest rate (Gibbons et al, 2012). By comparison, seven years of private schooling at the time would have cost an average of £3,800 per term or nearly £80,000. So, state primary schools still look like a good deal for parents.’
If there is a moral issue here, which is a moot point , I dont believe for a second that those parents who invest in property to secure a good education for their child are in a better position, morally, than those who pay fees (which is more transparent after all) as both seek to secure the same outcome, through investment .
According to Stephen Gibbons, based on his research, parents ‟ judgement of school quality is dominated by school average test scores, over and above other school characteristics. This is true for parents from different backgrounds and with children of all abilities.” So parents really dont spend too much time working out whether the school has a happy learning environment , promotes well -being or is a community hub. . Small wonder then that teachers worry so much about test scores and are encouraged to teach to the test.
Other Sources on this issue:
Sandra Black (1999) ‘Do Better Schools Matter? Parental Valuation of Elementary Education’, Quarterly Journal of Economics 114: 578-99. Sandra Black and Stephen Machin (2010) ‘Housing Valuations of School Performance’, in Handbook of the Economics of Education, Volume 3 edited by Eric Hanushek, Stephen Machin and Ludger Woessmann, North Holland. Gabrielle Fack and Julien Grenet (2010)
‘When Do Better Schools Raise Housing Prices? Evidence from Paris Public and Private Schools’, Journal of Public Economics 94(1-2): 59-77 (earlier version available here:
Stephen Gibbons and Stephen Machin (2003) ‘Valuing English Primary Schools’, Journal of Urban Economics 53: 197-219 (earlier version available here:
Steve Gibbons is research director of the Spatial Economics Research Centre (SERC), a reader in economic geography at LSE and a research associate in CEP’s education and skills programme.
PRIORITY SCHOOLS PROGRAMME
Worst off get priority in centrally procured school building programme
The Department for Education has launched a privately financed programme to provide school facilities. The programme is intended to address those schools in the worst condition. Ministers may also take into account pressing cases of basic need (the requirement for additional school places) and other ministerial priorities. The programme is likely to include a mix of primary schools, secondary schools, special schools, sixth form colleges and alternative provision. Maintained schools, voluntary aided schools, academies and sixth form colleges are eligible to apply for funding under the Priority Schools Programme. The programme is being procured centrally to secure best value for money. What is interesting is that the programme is about making schools fit for purpose and not about the doctrine behind the BSF, now regarded as overpriced, which was that building new schools would improve teaching and learning, a doctrine unsupported by evidence.
DFE expects construction costs to be about 20% cheaper per square metre than under BSF. Lowest price is likely to be of greater importance in the tender process than under BSF. The Department for Education (DfE) and Partnerships for Schools (PfS) expect to announce the outcome of applications in December 2011. Those applications will then ‘be considered further in light of value for money requirements.’ DFE anticipates that the programme will support building or rebuilding the equivalent of 100 secondary schools. Depending on the mix of schools (primary, secondary, SEN, sixth form colleges) it expects between 100 and 300 schools to be in the programme. Applications are made electronically by local authorities on a schools’ behalf, along with (where relevant) dioceses/faith bodies and sixth form colleges/academies/academy chains. The deadline for receipt of applications was 14 October 2011. The DfE and PfS are considering the applications against a number of criteria. . If you wish your School to be included DFE suggests the school contact, first off, its local authority to see if it is being considered. If not the DFE will speak to them on the schools behalf. If the local authority will not consider a schools inclusion then DFE says it will accept a response from the governing body of the School with DFEs prior agreement via email@example.com DfE is clear that the Schools in the worst condition are those that require investment New maintenance strategies will deal with the future upkeep of schools. ICT infrastructure and buildings management systems will be procured as part of the buildings. Other ICT ‘kit’ will not be provided through the programme. The programme is split into groups of schools, with each group making up approximately 20% of the whole. Within each group there will be a number of batched schools projects. The schools in the first group will commence procurement in the second quarter 2012 and will open in the academic year 2014-2015. Delivery of the second group is expected to follow in the subsequent academic year, with the other groups following at yearly intervals. Bidders are likely to have to name their supply chain when they submit a response to the Pre-Qualification Questionnaire. The PQQ will be issued following responses to the OJEU notice. DFE expects to publish the OJEU notice for the first group of schools in the second quarter of 2012.
So what are the criteria for selection of schools into the programme?
The DfE’s first priority is to deal with schools in the worst condition and so poor condition is the prime criterion. Shortcomings in the accommodation such as temperature and health and safety will then be taken into account and finally suitability for inclusion in a privately financed programme will be considered. Schools must also demonstrate sufficient long term pupil demand. Deliverability issues will be taken into account when selecting projects for each annual group.
How long will it take?
It is expected that centralised procurement and targeted dialogue will lead to shorter procurement times. DFE is expecting procurement times (i.e. from issue of OJEU to financial close) of approximately one year. Limiting the design work during procurement will also help. Unlike the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme there will be no joint partnership vehicle such as a Local Education Partnership (LEP). This will remove the need for some contractual documentation, again saving on negotiating time. It will also save the costs of setting up the LEP investment structure.
What about revenue funding?
Revenue funding contributions will be agreed with each School and will be made annually, subject to inflationary adjustments, for the duration of the contract period, i.e. approximately 25 years. As a rough guide Schools should be prepared to contribute between £50 and £60 for facilities management costs (including maintenance and cleaning) and between £10 and £20 for utilities, in each case per square metre, per year and excluding VAT. The mechanism for covering these costs has yet to be considered.
The programme is open to free schools and, as we have said, to academies too. This means that local authorities should co-operate with schools now outside their control which could present a challenge. The basic challenge for the private sector is to build at half the cost spent on BSF schools. This may serve to further expose just how costly the BSF scheme was (ie taxpayers might have been ripped- off on more than a few occasions!). New schools will be needed well into the future of course . By 2015 there will be 153,000 more primary school children and so between 2,500 and 5,000 classrooms will need to be built in the next three and a half years.
FUNDING AND FREE SCHOOLS
Shortage of funds remains a big issue and limits expansion
There was a significant moment, just after Michael Gove had delivered his recent speech at Policy Exchange(he was the think tanks first Chairman) when the FT’s Chris Cook asked the Education Secretary whether he could confirm that more than 100 free schools are due to open in September 2012 . Gove declined to do so. Though demand for Free schools is significant,if measured by the number of bids, relatively few, perhaps 10, or, so will open this September. But it is becoming pretty clear that a chronic shortage of funding is acting as major obstacle to expansion. The high attrition rate for bids that were rejected in the first round is explained away by the DFE in terms of bids failure to reach the high quality threshold. This is seen as an indication of how robust the vetting mechanism is. Certainly some iffy bids were submitted. But few close to this initiative believe that this is the full explanation. There are also a number of parents who have sweated blood to prepare their bids only to have them rejected at the eleventh hour. Finding the right building and local planning restrictions are compounding their problems. You have to look at the funding challenges to get a complete picture. As the Liberal Democrat commentator, Julian Astle, pointed out in the Telegraph last month the reason for Goves reticence becomes clear. Astle writes ‘Let’s assume that the average cost of opening a new school is £10 million (a significantly lower figure than the £25 million average cost of Labour’s architect-designed academies), with primary schools costing £6 million and secondaries £14 million. That’s a cool £1 billion to build 50 primaries and 50 secondaries – a big ask for a department that has seen its capital budget slashed by 60 per cent and which is facing an £8.5 billion repair bill in existing schools.’ Astle continues ’Little surprise then that the government is apparently considering using the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) to get these free schools off the ground. But PFI, as George Osborne knows, is very costly in the long run. If a private company borrows £14 million to build a secondary school at 2.2 per cent over gilts (a conservative estimate), assuming a standard 25 year repayment period, the school would need to pay it £1.1 million a year. For a primary, the cost would be just under half a million a year. Not only does this cost more than traditional capital but, assuming the money comes from the Department’s revenue budget, could have a real impact on schools’ running costs. Get a few hundred free schools established and you would need to raid the Dedicated Schools Grant for hundreds of millions of pounds, cancelling out the additional funds provided through the government’s flagship Pupil Premium to help the poorest pupils.’ The Government has yet to respond to the James Review on capital funding and the delay in responding is understandable given this backdrop. Ministers will have known the main findings of this review well before its publication so they have been thinking long and hard about it. And there is no easy solution indeed perhaps no solution at all without the help of the private sector. And if PFI has its limitations what are the alternatives? Tim Byles who used to head the Partnership for Schools said at a recent Policy Exchange event that a lack of funding is a big issue. He has created “Cornerstone” a mutual to deliver new public sector infrastructure. He will purchase surplus assets from the public sector, and invest in the development of local service delivery and make a commercial return for the investors. But most of Cornerstones initial focus ,perhaps significantly, will not be in education.
Before the election the Gove team decided not to rely on the private sector and the profit motive to drive education reform. Many within his own ranks criticised him for this- indeed this included the influential think tanks Policy Exchange, which he co-founded, and Reform who between them have been a major influence on Tory education thinking. So, Gove has to rely on public funding to support the FS initiative. And with this funding in such short supply, Free schools expansion, but also, to a degree Academies expansion, is under medium term threat. Schools converting to Academy status, of course, cost the Exchequer money and so for how much longer will this money be available. Will the Governments response to the James Review hold a few clues?
Conceivably there could be some leeway. Capital funding on schools hasn’t stopped by any means and despite the recent cuts is at 2007/8 levels according to Sebastian James. And those now involved in the programme seem to think that they can deliver schools at 30% less than under the BSF programme which may create some space.
However going back to Chris Cooks question to Gove. Will we see as many as 100 new Free schools opening up in September 2012. As things stand it is highly unlikely.
Seeks to rationalise and streamline Capital
School Planning system too complex and hostile
Sebastian James of Dixons has just completed the Review of Capital Funding for the Government
In July 2010, the Government launched a comprehensive review of all capital investment funded by the Department for Education (the James Review). The purpose of the Review was to consider, in the context of the Government’s fiscal consolidation plans and emerging policy, the Department for Education’s existing capital expenditure and make recommendations on the future delivery models for capital investment for 2011-12 onwards. The overall aim of the Review was to ensure that future capital investment will provide good value for money and strongly support the Government’s ambitions to reduce the deficit, raise standards, tackle disadvantage, address building condition and meet the requirement for school places resulting from an increase in the birth rate.
The main issues identified are:
i. The capital allocation process is complex, time consuming, expensive and opaque. In most cases, decisions are not based on objective criteria which are consistently applied and do not succeed in targeting money efficiently to where it is needed. There are too many different approaches across the various programmes and keynote programmes such as Building Schools for the Future had an approach that, with hindsight, was expensive and did not get to schools with the greatest need fast enough.
ii. The design and procurement process for the Building Schools for the Future programme (and other strategic programmes) was not designed to create either high and consistent quality or low cost. Procurement starts with a sum of money rather than with a specification, designs are far too bespoke, and there is no evidence of an effective way of learning from mistakes (or successes).
iii. A lack of expertise on the client side meant that there was little opportunity to improve building methods in order to lower costs over time, especially for very large and complex Building Schools for the Future projects. The main clients for contracting companies were Local Authorities and head teachers. As a result, despite many hundreds of schools being addressed by the Building Schools for the Future programme, central mechanisms to engineer better solutions were too weak and Partnerships for Schools did not have enough authority to make this happen effectively.
iv. Devolved funding processes did not deliver efficiently the objectives that they were established to achieve. Multiple funding streams diverted funds to those most adept at winning bids rather than necessarily to those in most need. There was little tracking of how money was spent and wide variations in outcome for the same money invested in similar projects.
v. Maintenance is critical to controlling the lifetime cost of schools and the quality of maintenance across the estate is extremely variable. This is exacerbated by the fact that no good quality data is collected on the condition of the estate.
vi. The regulatory and planning environment is far too complex and hostile for building schools. The individual nature of the buildings that have been built historically also meant that every project had to run the gauntlet of these regulations.
The report highlighted five key points
i. There should be a clear and agreed goal for capital expenditure in England: to create enough fit-for-purpose school places to meet the needs of every child. Currently there is considerable ambiguity as to the goals of capital spend.
ii. Capital allocation should be determined using objective information on need for pupil places and on the condition of the local estate. At a local level this notional budget should be turned into a light-touch local plan to achieve the overall goals of the investment. Currently, there is no information held centrally on the condition of the estate and different Responsible Bodies receive capital in different ways.
iii. New buildings should be based on a clear set of standardised drawings and specifications that will incorporate the latest thinking on educational requirements and the bulk of regulatory needs. This will allow for continuous learning to improve quality and reduce cost. Currently the bulk of new schools are designed from scratch with significant negative consequences on time, cost and quality.
iv. There must be a single, strong, expert, intelligent ‘client’ acting for the public sector in its relationships with the construction industry and responsible for both the design and the delivery of larger projects. This body must be accountable for the delivery of buildings on time and to the right budget and quality standards. This is a philosophical shift in approach as it would mean that the Department for Education will deliver not money, but rather a building to meet local needs. Currently, the Department for Education supplies money to the Responsible Body and the principal accountability for delivery lies with them.
v. Responsible Bodies should be accountable for the maintenance of the facilities they own and manage, as these facilities are their tools to use in support of education and the provision of services. That means they have a long-term responsibility to maintain their own facilities as well as to work together in a local area to ensure the education estate meets or exceeds the needs of local children. Currently there is no explicit obligation to maintain buildings and no agreed standard. Funds are wholly devolved to school level making it impossible for Responsible Bodies to prioritise their needs at a local level.
A Summary of the reports main recommendations are included in Appendix A of the report
Among its Recommendations
The review suggests that savings in both time and money of up to 30 per cent could be made in the schools capital funding process.
The review calls for a centralised approach to capital funding and an end to multiple funding streams of investment. It says that allocations should be based on objective facts and data, and that a single capital budget be allocated to local authorities on the basis of local need. These priorities should be agreed on the basis of a Local Investment Plan, which should be based on a template supplied by the Government. It also recommends that the process be significantly flexible to allow several local authorities to work together to create a Local Investment Plan.
Capital funding may be allocated directly to academy chains rather than to the local authority. It is recommended that devolved formula capital allocations are aggregated and given to local authorities or academy chains rather than individual schools, however, for individual academies (converting or not in a chain) funding would be devolved directly to the school.
If this recommendation was to be approved it would probably encourage even more schools to seek academy status as a way of ensuring future capital funding. For Free Schools, the review recommends that they are funded from the centre and that a centrally retained budget should be set aside for them. So funding will be handed out at the government’s discretion. It is unclear how much of the total DFE capital building budget will be allocated, for Free schools or indeed how the decisions to spend it will be taken.. A shortage of funding for Free schools is acting as a significant obstacle to their expansion.
For future new build programmes the review recommends that a set of standardised drawings and specifications is used as a way of reducing costs, stating that it is their belief that best practice can be codified. It is recommended that these specifications are continuously improved through post occupancy evaluation. (not supported by RIBA)
The review also calls for the establishment of a Central Body for school procurement, who would be responsible for negotiating and monitoring contracts. The model would allow for other bodies, such as local authorities and academy chains to earn the ability to procure independently.
For ICT the review recommends that the Government ensures a clear broadband service for schools and says that their needs to be a clear ICT funding allocation model for new build or refurbishment projects. It suggests the use of an ICT Services Framework, the introduction of a web-based price comparison catalogue to enable “virtual aggregation” (which sounds similar to the former Government’s OPEN system) and that the Government should procure a central framework for school MIS.
BSF AND NEW SCHOOL BUILDINGS
Have new builds helped performance ?
The new Coalition government has brought to an end the BSF programme labelling it dysfunctional, bureaucratic, expensive and behind schedule. Tony Blair launched BSF in 2004, the first school opened in 2006, and 186 schools were completed by July this year, with many projects funded through private-finance initiatives. Those built from scratch cost an average of £24 million each, creating state-of-the-art, open-plan buildings and facilities.
We won’t see an end to all refurbishments and new builds but cuts overall of around 50% are in evidence and there is a question mark hanging over the longer term future of the Partnership for Schools quango, which has been overseeing the BSF programme. The Government is currently undertaking a Capital Review looking at the future of schools capital funding (running in parallel with a consultation on the proposed new pupil premium)
New research from NFER has found that pupils at BSF schools make, on average, less progress than other similar pupils in similar schools and that there is no significant difference in the levels of attendance between pupils in BSF schools and pupils in other schools. However, there is substantially less absence in a small number of schools which have a mixture of rebuild and refurbishment.
Previous NFER research found that in the first new school building to open pupil attitudes to school and the school environment improved substantially. The latest research is based on Partnerships for Schools’ list of completed BSF projects as of July 2010 and the latest available version of the National Pupil Database for 2009. The research compared pupils in 60 BSF schools to all pupils in England.
Attainment: despite rigorous analysis and controlling for a range of background characteristics, pupils at BSF schools make, on average, less progress than would be expected, based on their intake and past performance. Pupils at BSF schools attain a total GCSE points score on average 11 points lower than pupils at non-BSF schools, equivalent to almost two grades lower.
Attendance: despite rigorous analysis and controlling for a range of background characteristics there was no significant difference in the level of absence between BSF schools and non BSF schools for year 9 and 11 pupils. This finding was the same whether using authorised and unauthorised absence as the outcome. However, year 9 pupils in schools that had a mixture of rebuild and refurbishment had, on average, significantly less unauthorised absence.
The relationship between improved attendance and levels of attainment has been identified in a number of previous reports. This new research may indicate that although there is no evidence of better attainment yet, the fact that there is a possible improvement in attendance suggests that attainment may also improve in the future.
NFER’s Ben Durbin said: “There has been a lot of controversy and conjecture about the benefits of new schools and this independent research, based on Government data provides some hard facts. However, this study is based on a relatively limited dataset, and its findings should be considered in this context. We hope to carry out further work looking at more data.”
Durbin, B. and Yeshanew, T. (2010). BSF School report: B+ for Attendance but C- for Attainment. Slough: NFER.
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- THE FINANCIAL MANAGEMENT OF ACADEMIES-WHAT HAPPENS IF THERE ARE CONCERNS?
- PUBLIC ACCOUNTS COMMITTEE REPORT ON ACADEMIES-SOME CONCERNS OVER FINANCIAL MANAGEMENT
- CAIRNS OF BRIGHTON COLLEGE BACKS ACADEMIES
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- LEMOVS TEACH LIKE A CHAMPION -TOP TECHNIQUES USED BY THE BEST TEACHERS
- THE PUPIL PREMIUM AND SPECIAL SCHOOLS
- EDUCATION EXPORTS-NEW GOVERNMENT STRATEGY IN THE WINGS?
- INSPECTING ACADEMY CHAINS-ON THE AGENDA
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