Academies

Academy commissioner costs soar by 40% after restructure

Teams now cost more than £3,000 for each of England’s academies

Teams now cost more than £3,000 for each of England’s academies

19 Apr 2024, 5:00

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Investigation

The cost of expanding academy commissioner teams has rocketed by 40 per cent in just 12 months. They now cost more than £3,000 for each of England’s academies.

Union bosses are demanding a review of the effectiveness of the regional director teams.

Dubbed the new “middle tier”, these civil servants decide on new free schools, trust mergers and intervene in underperforming primaries and secondaries.

But sector leaders warn that the teams may need to grow even further to keep pace as more schools become academies. Schools Week investigates…

Spend up to £34m

The cost of the teams leapt by almost 40 per cent from £24.35 million in 2021-22 to £33.9 million last year.

A restructure in 2022 saw the eight regions expanded into nine and a new “broader remit” introduced that includes the delivery of SEND provision and children’s social care improvement.

Munira Wilson
Munira Wilson

They were also given new powers to intervene where schools have been given several Ofsted grades that are less than ‘good’.

As of February, the expected cost of the teams was £32.7 million, with 571 staff employed – an average of £3,041 for each of England’s academies.

Despite this, there is big regional variation, from £2,521 per academy in the east of England to £4,413 in the north-west.

The overall costs have also risen sharply, from just over £19 million in 2016-17 when the teams were known as regional school commissioners.

Munira Wilson, the Liberal Democrats education spokesperson, said: “Schools are in crisis, but this Conservative government has chosen to spend more money on regional group teams rather than spending it on pupils. They have failed our children.”

However, a Department for Education spokesperson said the academy average analysis was “completely misleading” as the groups now work across wider areas.

“The regions group resources its regional teams relative to the share of our operations work they carry, so cost per academy is not a fair reflection of all of its work.”

Rise despite growth cap

EDSK think tank boss Tom Richmond, a former DfE adviser, said it is no surprise that the government is footing an increasing bill “given the scale of the tasks regional directors and their teams are expected to deliver”.

However, the DfE is also cutting spending to make expected savings of £1 billion-plus to fund its contribution to teacher pay increases.

Ministers are also exerting pressure on departments to “modernise” and “reduce the size of the state”. In October, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced a cap on civil service headcounts. 

The number of full-time equivalent staff in the regional director teams has risen by 40 per cent since 2016-17, from 402.6 to 571.7.

Our analysis suggests there were 21 senior civil servants – the highest-ranking Whitehall grade, paid at least £75,000 – working across the teams last year.  A further 175 officials were grades 6 or 7, the rank below, with a salary of at least £58,000.

Julie McCulloch, director of policy for school leaders’ union ASCL, said: “At a time when school and college leaders are dealing with very tight budgets, we would expect the [DfE] to also be scrutinising its own spending just as closely.”

The DfE said reorganisations of the teams meant that costs are not directly comparable.

‘Logjam’ of decisions

Trust leaders have also raised concerns over perceived overlaps between the roles of regional groups and local authorities. Both now have responsibilities relating to SEND and children’s social care, for instance.

Sir David Carter
Sir David Carter

The CEO of one MAT, who did not want to be named, gave the example of getting letters from both the regions group and local authority after a parent lodged a safeguarding complaint.

Despite the bigger teams, there is wider discontent in the sector over the consistency of decision-making.

Speaking on a recent EDSK podcast, former national schools commissioner Sir David Carter said there was currently a “logjam”, as “everything has to go back through DfE for decision-making, for funding, for approval”.

He added: “You have a general dissatisfaction both, I think, from the DfE thinking ‘we’ve lost our grip a bit on this’ to schools saying ‘who do I talk to?

Leora Cruddas
Leora Cruddas

“There’s a school down the road saying they want to join us. If you’re saying it’s going to take 18 months, then it’s not going to happen.’”

Confederation of School Trusts CEO Leora Cruddas, whose organisation is the sector body for academies, said her members wanted to see “decisions being made quickly, robustly and consistently”.

‘We’ve reached an impasse’

McCulloch has demanded a review of the regions group structure to ensure they are providing support “in an effective – and cost-effective – way”.

Both CST and EDSK have called for the teams to be spun off into a new independent regulator. Richmond said doing this would allow the sector “to agree on [the regulator’s] responsibilities [and] set a budget for their work”.

Julie McCulloch
Julie McCulloch

But Carter thinks such a regulator would have to be split across about “30 sub-regions to make it work”. Without this, there would be “an enormous workload and you will never get to the heart of the challenges”.

Even if regional teams did get more cash, it would not “solve the underlying problem that they are too close to ministers and too detached from local communities”, Richmond added.

EDSK has proposed having public hearing and local consultations on academy decisions to improve this.

Carter added: “I think we’ve reached an impasse where there’s an important decision for a government to take later this year about how that middle tier of support has worked.”

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