Over the past 4 years I’ve read a lot of these reports. I can’t remember one this long and detailed.
School commissioners are surprisingly important: they oversee the quality of academies, close schools, change school intakes, change school leadership. Imbued with the secretary of state’s devolved powers, they are like angels sent into the world to do the Almighty’s work. Only in this case the Almighty is Nicky Morgan.
Why a report? Well, the RSCs were brought in quickly and a lot of things have gone wrong with their role. This report follows a number of evidence sessions from witnesses about these issues and recommends what should happen next.
A caveat! In the report itself – which is excellent and you should read if you have time – the ‘recommendations’ section has 27 numbered paragraphs. But not all of them really have recommendations, and some duplicate ideas. So I’ve shortened into 24. They’re all there, just some are truncated.
The responsibilities of Regional Schools Commissioners
1. There should be a clearer description of the national schools commissioner role. Frank Green was the first commissioner – he made it his mission to ‘promote’ academies. David Carter, previously a regional commissioner, has just taken over the role. He wants to do likewise. The committee are not convinced about the role, though. (I suspect because paying £140k per year for a PR-spokesperson isn’t great value for money). They want to meet the new one and get some clarity.
2. Clarify responsibilities between RSCs, local authorities, and Ofsted – including safeguarding. Councils are still responsible for the safety of all children in their area but they aren’t responsible for telling academies what to do – RSCs are. Ofsted usually tell schools if they’re rubbish, but now RSCs do that too: leading to the accusation that they are a ‘shadow Ofsted‘. The committee wants some clarity on who should do what.
3. Make the National Schools Commissioner responsible for co-ordinating the RSCs and making them work consistently. The RSCs don’t have a clear guidebook for how they should behave so they all do things differently. Many academy trust leaders find this annoying, especially if their schools are in several different areas, so are looked after by different commissioners. The NSC should be in charge of making them more consistent, the committee suggests.
4. RSCs should publish vision, workplan and priorities. Everyone else in a school does: why shouldn’t the RSCs? Most did publish them before Christmas for the first time – we summarised here. The committee also wants RSCs to seek “input and buy-in from all relevant stakeholders” – which I think means “check your plans with other people”.
5. Nurture potential RSCs to undertake the role. RSC graduate scheme anyone? (This is a flimsy proposal but there are some moves already underway to get a pipeline of ‘system leader’ talent).
The RSC regions
6. Redesign RSC regions so they are the same as the Ofsted regions. At the minute, the RSCs cover very odd regions. It’s certainly the only time I’ve ever seen West Ham put in the same region as Great Yarmouth. The committee reckons they should be changed to match Ofsted regions, which are based on local government regions, which are based on common sense. (They’re right). (Also Michael Wilshaw agrees).
7. Have an RSC for London. London is currently split up and shared across three regions. The committee suggests adding a ninth RSC for London, because that would make much more sense.
8. Keep reviewing if other areas need an RSC – such as a devolved Manchester. (Yup, the government is still pushing that).
Capacity to fulfil the role
9. Put more information into the public domain about the ‘specialist contractors’ appointed to support academies and free school programme. The ‘specialist contractors’ are replacing the old ‘brokers’ but there’s still not much info about them. The committee rightly says the secrecy causes mistrust, and recommends publishing details of their identity, appointment, work, monitoring and impact
10. Instead of giving more cash to RSC offices, consider if there are enough resources in school improvement partners expected to help failing academies – eg. Teaching Schools. RSCs are not a school improvement partner themselves but instead should point failing schools to places where they can get help. This recommendation, I think, is trying to point out that there may not be enough of these resources and RSCs can’t do their job without them – (beating up schools for failing when there’s no help available is a bit pointless) – so the government should shove cash their way. It’s one of the more optimistic (slash ‘unrealistic’) recommendations.
For the uninitiated: headteacher boards (HTBs) are the groups of school leaders (and other randoms) elected, appointed or co-opted to help advise RSCs. The ones who are elected are only elected by heads of academies in the region, and only heads of outstanding schools can stand. Appointments and co-opted members do not have to be heads and are chosen by the group or the RSC.
Some ministers have said this gives ‘democratic accountability’ to the RSC role. The education select committee seem distinctly unimpressed.
11. Re-name headteacher boards as RSC advisory boards. The report says the rename is “to make it clear that the role of the Board is to provide advice to inform RSC decisions, rather than a mechanism for local accountability or to make decisions itself”. Also because they’re not all headteachers.
12. Ensure guidelines on making and managing public appointments are followed. Obvs.
13. Let headteachers of high-performing LA schools be eligible for the board. Also obvs.
14. Ensure appointment terms for the headteacher boards are phased so that everyone isn’t all out at the same time. At the minute all HTB members were selected at the same time and so will finish after three years, all at the same time. Not ideal. There are plans to change.
15. Review RSC performance indicators so they do not prejudice decisions made by RSCs. Over a year ago we asked for the metrics on which the RSC would be evaluated, we got them, and published them. Since then the government keep saying they are freely available but fails to publish them. This is even mentioned in the report itself!
A problem of the metrics is that it includes the number of schools converted to academies. But RSCs are also supposed to be the ‘impartial’ judge of academy conversions. The committee wants this conflict of interest clearing up.
16. Produce an annual report on the work of RSCs showing the performance of each against the (revised) KPIs and publish online performance information as it is available. Everyone else has league tables after all.
17. Measure the impact of RSCs based on improvement in young people’s education and outcomes, not structural change, which would mirror the way local authorities are measured. This is quite radical. It would make RSCs responsible for the performance of pupils – probably through GCSE or Ofsted results – rather than just responsible for managing school contracts.
Accountability and transparency
18. Look at having elected RSCs. Okay, so the report doesn’t really say this. But it says that the “level of operational autonomy” means that RSCs should have “a more direct form of accountability than would be the case for other senior civil servants, and we recommend the Government consider further what forms that accountability might take”. Which is a long-winded way of saying ‘look at electing people’, no?
19. Ministers should expect to be held responsible at committee meetings for RSC decisions. Because it is their power devolved down. Simples.
20. The DfE should publish decision-making frameworks for RSCs, and decisions should be made and recorded in a transparent way, with a rationale for each provided. That eight people are running around making enormous, life-changing, million pound decisions without yet having to do this is astounding.
21. Publish expectations for interaction and information-sharing between RSCs, multi-academy trusts and local councils.
22. Create a formal complaints and whistleblowing procedure to challenge RSC decisions. At present, there’s no recourse. Not even if an RSC promises to speak to parents and then doesn’t.
23. RSCs and Ofsted should co-ordinate school visits and be clear about the distinction between the two. This will help avoid unnecessary burden on schools, and mean schools aren’t having to deal with Ofsted one minute saying one thing and the RSC saying something else in the next. (This happens a fair bit, I’ve seen the letters).
24. Share good practice about “meaningful consultation” and standardise it across RSCs. The subtext here is: some RSCs are good at speaking to local people, some are rubbish. Make the good ones teach the rubbish ones how to do it properly, and if they can’t learn it – then fire them.
Ultimately, it’s a good (if long) list of recommendations. If the government followed them it would be on the way to a decent academy system. We shall have to wait for the government’s response to this review to see which ones they are going to act on. (And that can take a while!)