Avoiding the truth

A couple of weeks ago I described how the chairman of the schools and learning (S and L) scrutiny committee, Cllr John Davies, had scuppered my attempt to question officers about the deeply flawed calculations behind the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between PCC and Pembrokeshire College on future ‘A’ level provision.

This was a pity because we were denied an explanation as to how the highly misleading Appendix 4 (below) came to be part of the report to the extraordinary meeting on August 14 last year where members voted 25-24 to approve the MoU.

This document contained a calculation showing 26 as the minimum number of pupils for a viable ‘A’ level class – a figure that has been reduced to 15 (a 42% reduction) after I put down a Notice of Motion calling for a full audit of the calculations.

In addition, it showed a deficit of £1.8 million on current ‘A’ level provision (see calculation at foot of Appendix D below) which it was claimed had to be made good by raiding the funds for GCSE teaching.

After a full audit that figure has been reduced by a cool £1.1 million.

[If you compare the total cost of ‘A’ level provision in Appendix 4 below (£5.5 million) which came before council in August 2017 with the audited figure that was presented to the scrutiny committee in April 2017 (£2.5m + £1.9m = £4.4m) see bottom RH corner of Appendix A.]

However, thanks to the chairman closing down the debate, what is missing from the public record is any coherent explanation as to how such huge errors came to appear in such an important report.

Regular readers will recall that the MoU appeared out of the blue at the council meeting last July.

Its most controversial feature was to set the minimum size for a school ‘A’ level classes at 18 pupils.

Those members who favoured the retention of school sixth forms could smell a rat because if classes with fewer than 18 pupils were ruled out of court, schools would have difficulty in maintaining their sixth forms and post-16 education would gravitate to Pembrokeshire College by default.

However the cabinet member for education, Cllr David Lloyd, argued that the current situation was untenable because small sixth form classes i.e. those with fewer than 18 students, had to be subsidised from the general school budget.

It should be explained that there are separate funding regimes for 11-16 and 16-19 education with the latter being funded directly by Welsh Government on a strictly per pupil per course basis.

So, if there are insufficient ‘A’ level students to cover the cost of teaching and overheads, the money has to come from somewhere else.

And somewhere else is the rest of the school budget which means that funds are taken from Key Stages 3 and 4 (11-16) and standards suffer accordingly.

That, at least, was Cllr Lloyd’s line of attack at the meeting on 20 July 2017 when he told members:

“Unremitting reductions in ‘A’ level funding by government means we are being forced to take money out of Key Stage 4 – delivery of GCSE – to pay for an increasing number of ‘A’ level subjects.”

And:

“We’re lagging 16th out of 22 authorities in Wales for GCSE. At least part of that poor performance is due to the fact that Key Stage 4 funding is being robbed for ‘A’ level delivery.”

At that point there was no information to show how 18 had been arrived at, so council decided to ask the scrutiny committee to take a closer look.

Unfortunately, the scrutiny committee failed to live up to its name and when the matter came back to an extraordinary meeting of council on 14 August members were very little the wiser.

However it wasn’t a complete washout because included among the reports to the subsequent extraordinary meeting was Appendix 4 (below) which gave some idea of how the costs of running an ‘A’ level course had been calculated.

What bothered some of the more numerate members was the figure of 76% for management and overheads on top of teachers’ salary costs as we couldn’t quite reconcile that with previous statements that salaries made up 80+% of schools’ budgets.

Despite our concerns, after Cllr Lloyd told the extraordinary meeting: “Every day that passes when we don’t correct this situation we continue to impoverish Key Stage 4. Let me remind you that we are taking £1.8 million out of Key Stage 4 to pay for our ‘A’ level delivery” members voted 25 – 24 to approve the MoU.

Much as I support the retention of sixth forms in schools it is not an easy case to make when faced with figures such as those at the foot of Appendix 4 which shows that the 11-16 section of Tenby’s Greenhill school (third from left) appears to be “subsidising” ‘A’ levels to the tune of £425,000 a year (roughly eight grand a week) and several other schools are forking out in excess of £200,000 annually for the privilege of having a sixth form.

However, what is now clear is that Appendix 4 which formed the basis for the 25-24 vote contained some very serious errors and it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that if members had been presented with the true picture the 25-24 vote might well have been reversed.

What should have given officers pause for thought is that, at £425,223, Greenhill’s “subsidy” (see foot of Appendix 4 below) is roughly double that of the other schools.

There are two possible reasons for this wide discrepancy: that Greenhill is grossly inefficient compared to its peers, or that there is a flaw in the figures.

Several months later I learned that this huge divergence in costs between Greenhill and the rest was due to a misplaced decimal point that transformed £45,000 into £450,000 – an error that would surely have been spotted if someone in county hall had made even a cursory check.

Another thing to be noted is that, according to these calculations, the number of students for a viable ‘A’ level class “Option 2” is 26, not 18.

So those of us objecting that 18 was too high had the ground cut from underneath us because it turned out that 18 was soft-pedalling the issue and if PCC insisted on minimum class sizes of 26 it really would spell the end of sixth form education in schools.

This figure of 26 came from dividing the total cost of an ‘A’ level course (£20,428) by the income per student (£774) = 26.39 (see Appendix 4 below).

In fact I was told some time later that the denominator should have been £1,119, which brings the viable class size down to the original 18 (£20,428/£1,119 = 18).

Or, as the principal auditor Richard Edwards explained to the scrutiny committee in April:

“Previously he [Old Grumpy] had two sets of figures – one with 26 and the 18 that was actually used.

In the calculation of the 26 the funding basis – that wasn’t anything to do with the schools’ calculation that was the formula funding in that 26 was incorrect and the methodology for that was incorrect – that was why the figure of 18 had the right funding levels shown in that calculation.”

So that’s clear, then!

What Mr Edwards failed to explain was why, if the correct figure was 18, Appendix 4 which stipulated 26 as the minimum class size appeared in the report to council.

And, I’m afraid, Mr Edwards was mistaken when he told the scrutiny meeting in April 2018 that I had seen a document similar to Appendix 4 showing 18 as the size of a viable ‘A’ level class.

Shortly after the extraordinary council meeting on 14 August 2017 I went to see the deputy director of education to discuss my concerns regarding these figures.

He provided me with several calculation sheets and when I examined them later, I discovered two calculations for the size of a viable ‘A’ level class.

One concluded that 23 was the viability threshold and the other 26.

The difference was that the latter included TLR (Teaching and Learning responsibility allowances) in addition to the teacher’s salary – hence the higher cost and the higher number of students required to cover it.

As the document containing the 26 calculation was part of the reports to the extraordinary meeting on August 14 [Appendix 4 below] I assumed that was the more up to date version.

The information provided by the deputy director did not include any document showing 18 as the viable number.

Indeed, the first time I set eyes on such a document was when I was handed a copy during a meeting with Mr Edwards on 27 April 2018 to discuss the points of disagreement that had arisen at the recent scrutiny committee meeting.

It is interesting that this document is dated August 2017 while the MoU, which first came before council on 20 July, is dated May 2017.

The final result at the extraordinary meeting was 25-24 in favour of PCC signing the MoU.

It is very possible, indeed likely, that had members been provided with accurate figures the vote would have gone the other way.

I think what we have here is a case of what psychologists refer to as confirmation bias.

Had the errors been in the other direction and 10 emerged as the viable number, I suspect someone might have checked the calculations.

As it was, the figure of 18 (26 actually) was in line with preconceptions, so it was accepted without question.

And, as we now know, when all the errors and inconsistencies are removed the number arrived at is in fact 15.