November 30, 2015

Why are Unique Reference Numbers (URN) important for schools?

The real importance of a school’s Unique Reference Number only came to light for me when I was working as one of Her Majesty’s Inspectors. I had been asked to undertake work on a project called Consistent Financial Reporting (CFR). This work would allow schools to compare their income and expenditure with similar schools around the country. The idea was that headteachers and governors would begin to question some of the financial decisions they were making against schools with similar circumstances but where pupils achieved much better.

At the heart of this work was the URN. The identification mark for all schools. In DfE terms it is the school’s birth certificate and is central to the Edubase system.

But, the URN and Edubase are not only used for CFR, but are used across government including by Ofsted for determining whether a school is due for inspection or not. Basically the Ofsted system identifies schools by their URN and Edubase and this is why the system is so good at picking up the correct school for inspection or not. It is not faultless but when I worked for Ofsted I would regularly receive telephone calls from headteachers convinced that Ofsted had missed their inspection anniversary. Invariably they were wrong and the Edubase system was correct

But what happens if a new school is given the wrong URN or if a school merges with another and an old URN is used? This can be quite catastrophic because in effect the old school remains on the system and the education history continues. This means that direct comparisons are wrongly made with a school that no longer exists. Parents can get confused about the school and falsely compare its past performance when in fact the school no longer exists.

So headteachers and governors need to consider the implications of their URN very carefully. It can result in much earlier inspections than they anticipated and cause some parents to go elsewhere especially if they are not comparing like with like.