Create system of ‘school boards’ and a new regulator, says think tank

Ex-DfE adviser calls for an end to 'centralisation and political interference' in the school system

Ex-DfE adviser calls for an end to 'centralisation and political interference' in the school system

29 Jan 2024, 0:01

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The government should create a system of “school boards” and a new regulator to reverse “centralisation and political interference” in the sector, a think tank has said.

The EDSK think tank, run by former Department for Education adviser Tom Richmond, also called for strict pay scales for executive leaders and local authority oversight of all schools’ admissions.

The organisation warned in a report today that the current school system is “blighted by secrecy and opacity”.

Tom Richmond
Tom Richmond

The report called for a raft of changes to be introduced through a new bill, dubbed the Education Act 2025, to improve transparency and remove decision-making powers from government.  

Richmond said ministers must “press reset on the school system”.

“The goal should be to replace the centralisation and political interference seen in recent years with a stable and coherent approach to running and funding state schools that prioritises the best interests of pupils, particularly the most vulnerable and disadvantaged.”

Here’s what you need to know…

1. Introduce a ‘school boards’ system

The report proposes all state-funded primaries and secondaries should be run by one of three types “school board”.

Single school boards (SSBs) would only run one school, local school boards (LSBs) would be overseen by local authorities and independent school boards (ISBs) would be collections of schools that operate outside council control.

They will act as the “legal entity” and oversee the operations of their primary and secondary schools.

According to the study, the formation of LSBs would represent “the biggest change from the current system”.

Boards “should initially only be permitted to accept schools within their existing geographical boundaries”, the report added.

In future, schools in SSBs and ISBs “would then be able to ‘return’ to the LSB should they need to be rebrokered to a new operator due to poor performance, while schools in the LSB will continue to be handed to new operators should they underperform”.

2. Form new schools regulator ‘OFCOE’

Richmond and his co-author, Eleanor Regan, added that a new independent regulator, called the Office for Capability and Oversight in Education (OFCOE), should be launched.

Under the plans, it would be handed intervention powers, oversight of finance and governance arrangements, and the ability to close and open schools. It would also hold “public hearings and local consultations” on all major decisions.

Regional directors currently hold meetings on important academy decisions with their advisory boards behind closed doors.

The writers said OFCOE would therefore be given many of the regulatory functions of regional directors and the Education and Skills Funding Agency.  

They would also be handed additional powers, like determining which school boards “are the most appropriate and efficient operators” in each area.

“This will give OFCOE the ability to appropriately shape local provision (e.g. consolidating or splitting ISBs to improve their viability) to make sure the school system as a whole operates effectively.”

Richmond and Reagan want OFCOE to operate across areas with between 600 and 700 schools. Regional directors are said to have responsibility for as many as 2,500.

3. Pay scales to combat excessive wages

Some multi-academy trusts “appear unable to show restraint when it comes to setting executive pay”, Richmond and Reagan warned.

The DfE should “immediately legislate to force all school boards to follow a newly expanded version of the existing headteacher pay scales that will determine what counts as a reasonable and justifiable salary for each leader”.

This would apply to the heads of single schools or those in charge of groups of schools, such as trust chief executives.

The model would cap the maximum salary for all senior leaders based on pupil numbers, suggesting a cap of £263,000.

The report also proposed handing out “severe financial penalties” to any school board that fails to follow the pay scales.

Schools Week analysis last year showed 50 of 277 MATs (18 per cent) paid their CEOs at least 15 per cent above the average, even among similar-sized trusts under scrutiny over high pay.  

4. Hard funding formula and ‘GAG pooling’ ban

The researchers recommended school boards be funded directly by the DfE to ensure “stakeholders can see how public money is being spent”.

They identified “significant weaknesses in terms of financial transparency due to the inability of government, Parliament or parents to monitor how funding is calculated and distributed within MATs”.

At the same time, trusts and local authorities can “both override (or simply ignore) the DfE’s national funding formula when they distribute” cash.

Instead, the report suggested school boards should be made to pass the total allocation received for each school on to headteachers “without amending” it.

LSBs and ISBs would still be entitled to “top slice” funding for central services.

But GAG pooling – where trusts collect schools’ total budgets and dish out funding based on their own formula – would be banned.

5. Put councils in charge of all admissions

With academies able to act as their own admissions authorities, some “appear to use their freedoms… as a way of selecting which pupils to admit, with vulnerable learners most at risk” of not being picked.

Richmond and Reagan believe councils “should be granted full responsibility for admissions once more”.

“Every state school would have the right to propose an admissions policy that identifies their over-subscription criteria [and] that supports the character of their school, whether religious or otherwise.

“The LA will then translate the wishes of individual schools into a formal set of arrangements.”

The report added the Office of the Schools Adjudicator would continue to police the admissions system, but its decisions should alter arrangements directly. This would ensure “any required changes to admissions policies are implemented without delay”.

6. All schools should publish annual accounts

Under the plans, all state schools would also be required to annually publish a “full financial breakdown on their website”.

This will show the school’s income, expenditure and balance for the year, as well as staffing levels. The names and job titles “of any member of staff receiving a total remuneration package worth more than £60,000” would also be displayed.

The study said “greater consistency could also be achieved by placing limits on the total amount that could legitimately be top-sliced from school funding allocations for central functions”.

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