Former national schools commissioner Sir David Carter tells editor John Dickens his biggest regret in government, insists he didn’t lose the battle for education with Ofsted, and admits academy autonomy is waning.
The four academy issues that need tackling NOW
Sir David Carter said the system needs to improve in four areas “right now”, which will be the focus under his new role as executive director of system leadership at the Ambition School Leadership charity.
That will include looking at “another level” for chief executive training, such as establishing a masters of business administration (MBA). Governance training also needs a “major bit of work”, Carter said.
“It isn’t systemically awful, but when it goes wrong, it really goes wrong.”
Another focus will be introducing a reincarnation of his health checks for multi-academy trusts (MATs) and Carter plans to assess five boards as part of a new pilot to help drive improvement.
Finally, Carter said the system needs to improve on identifying effective practice that’s driving up results, and sharing that among trusts. He wants to build up an evidence base, and create benchmarks to help trusts compare, for instance, their spending.
Solving the LA-maintained/academy landscape is ‘too difficult at the moment’
Carter said former education secretary Nicky Morgan’s plan to academise all schools would have been a “real struggle”, adding it “divided opinion and was pretty toxic in places”.
“But it was a plan,” he added. “Like it or not, people knew what the plan was. We’ve a much more egalitarian model at the moment. The system will continue to be quite complex, but that’s part of the evolution.”
He said tackling this is in the “spreadsheet column for ‘too difficult at the moment’”.
Academy autonomy is waning
Carter admitted that autonomy for academies is “probably not the same” as it was for the early converters.
However, he said there was good reason. The first was that trusts are now much more aware what being the “chief accounting officer” actually means.
“If you’re a CEO and let all schools have autonomy, you have to be sure you have great people running the schools,” he said. “If it goes wrong, it will come back on your ability to run the organisation.”
Carter said the second was an inequality issue: “A lot of CEOs have woken up to the reality that the strongest practice in a trust needs to be trust-wide – by definition, that gets in the way of autonomy. The proof is in outcomes.”
But he said the risk with a “standardised trust” was that it would put off ‘outstanding’ schools from joining.
Trusts should produce annual reports to boost parent relations
When asked if trusts are doing enough to engage with their schools’ communities, Carter said it was an area of “real uncertainty”.
He suggested trusts consider an “annual report” to parents – which he compared to an annual report companies send to their shareholders.
“Parents have the right to know who the person running that trust is. What’s the vision? Who’s the board? The school also contributes to central costs – what do they get back for that?”
He said while problems with parents normally only surface when things “start going wrong”, trusts need to be able to articulate an answer for all parents on “is my child’s school better off being run by you in your MAT”.
“If you can’t answer that, you’ve got a problem,” he added.
Carter accepts he strayed into Ofsted’s territory, but didn’t lose the battle for education
The former NSC said he had to accept that his masterplan to run “health checks” as part of a MAT review process “could be perceived to be inspectorial”.
Was this an admission he had lost the battle for the education landscape against Ofsted? “No, I don’t think so,” Carter said.
“The battle was never about all the schools,” he added, saying this was the part that “got muddied”.
He said the job of RSCs was to start a conversation and intervention, if required, on the back of an Ofsted report only for those failing schools.
‘Now you can only intervene when a school falls over. Personally, I don’t agree’
He said this got blurred when a school was, for example, due for an inspection next May, but results are “so bad in the summer, you know what’s going to happen”.
Carter said he commissioned education advisors to visit some schools to “reassure me this is OK and isn’t going to fall through the floor before Ofsted inspects”.
Carter said while there’s now “no question” that you can only intervene and act when a school has “fallen over”, he said: “Personally, I don’t agree.
“It clears up the system and makes everyone understand it, but that’s six months of kids in a poor school.
“Had we gone in earlier, we could have done something about it. I struggle with that a bit, but I understand the political thinking.”
Ofsted’s desire to inspect MATs risks heaping more burden on trusts
Chief inspector Amanda Spielman told Schools Week this month the watchdog still wants to inspect the governance of trusts.
But Carter said this risks creating “more of a burden” and was worried it would become a “pass/fail” grading.
He said if Ofsted was to do it right, Spielman would need to ensure the quality of inspectors across the system, could recruit a former CEO or trust chair to help her spearhead such inspections, and consider ditching the current batch inspection of MAT schools.
More MAT clones can help tackle sponsor shortage
Much has been made of the government’s struggles to find good sponsors to takeover failing schools.
Rather than finding “untested new sponsors”, Carter said the thinking had moved to “how do I grow offshoots of trusts I know already work”.
Highlighting Delta Academies Trust, set up by Paul Tarn, former deputy chief executive of Outwood Grange Academies Trust, and the spin-off Reach2 trusts, Carter said the model works “really effectively”.
He also said setting up spin-off trusts could stop established trusts growing too large.
Extra RSC scrutiny will lessen chance of academy scandals
The former chief executive of the Bristol-based Cabot Learning Federation trust added a common factor is such failures was bad governance.
This included a generic lack of accountability for what happens, with boards too quick to sign off executive decisions without proper scrutiny. Another failing is trusts having “too many bean counters” who go in and monitor school improvement, but not enough people who can actually fix the problems.
However, he said the level of RSC scrutiny of academy transfers is now on a “different scale”, highlighting the added knowledge from more sub-regional staff.
The academies minister is right to tackle CEO pay
Theodore Agnew has been meeting with trust chairs demanding they justify how much they pay their chief executives.
Agnew’s view was that there wasn’t enough evidence or benchmarking for some pay decisions, Carter said, which the former national schools commissioner described as “a fair one” and “absolutely right to do because it’s taxpayers’ money being spent”.
Carter said the approach is working because some trusts have “reset their salary”, and pointed to the Co-Operative trust’s model of using a CEO-pay cap linked to a trust’s lowest earner as a “really good idea”.
However, he said there is “plenty of room” for trusts to justify their CEO’s pay if they can prove its delivering great outcomes for pupils.
RSC decisions need to be more transparent
Carter said he “did more than anyone else” to unveil the secrecy over RSC decisions, even though there “wasn’t much cover” to do it [presumably a nod to a lack of backing from ministers].
But he said there “needs to be more” in headteacher board minutes than the “very functionary” statements that reveal little about how decisions are made.
When he left office, Carter said minutes were about to include “far more annotated narratives of the conversations that took place”. However, this hasn’t filtered through to published minutes yet.
He said transparency had been a problem for academies because it breeds suspicion over “all sorts of things” and means people can fill the space with subjectivity. “Headteacher boards are good people, doing a good job.”
His biggest success was…
Carter said he came into the job “unsure whether I could make it about school improvement, and I think I did”, adding: “I proved you can come from being a music teacher to NSC and still talk about school improvement.”
And his biggest failure…
Carter said he should have moved faster to get trusts they were concerned about to give up schools or improve quicker. “The reality of the scale of the role was sometimes you gave people one more chance, and I think that’s ok. But there’s a couple in my heart I probably knew weren’t going to do it, and I should have worked quicker”.