Six months ago I sat in a room in Oxfordshire full of top school leaders – mostly chiefs of multi-academy trusts – and chaired a discussion where they could ask education policy experts questions.
To my surprise, the most popular questions were about regional schools commissioners (RSCs). What were they for? How much of a right do they have to intervene? How can anyone be sure they are making impartial decisions when the very headteachers who advise them could be threatened by an academy takeover of a local school?
These were, and still are, crucial questions.
Here at Schools Week we’ve always believed the commissioner role was vital. That’s why, from the very first day the roles began, we gave space to the commissioner’s views.
We promoted actions such as the Blackpool Challenge, started by former regional commissioner Paul Smith. However, we also agitated when the RSCs overstepped the mark. Was it right for east Midlands commissioner Jenny Bexon-Smith to tell a school their teachers should not have professional judgment in the format of their lesson plans? Why did West Midlands commissioner Pank Patel leave parents standing after promising to meet them?
We ask those questions because they reflect the concerns raised by those school leaders raised on that rainy day in Banbury.
It was with those questions in mind that last week, when the new national schools commissioner Sir David Carter wrote on social media that his vision for the future of the role was about to be revealed, I was thrilled. He ended his tweet with the words “#transparency”.
This was as it should be for a man who, when he started as a commissioner, said he wanted all votes on academy takeovers to be public (they’re still not) and told Radio 4 listeners that openness was one of his main objectives for the role.
Much of the plan is exciting and Sir David is a charismatic, dynamic man likely to pull much of it off.
But it was disappointing, yet again, to see nothing about conflict of interests, no plans for how anyone can appeal decisions, or contact the commissioners. All the worries that people have been raising for the past year, ignored.
The idea of having “system leaders” also seemed ill-thought out if based on their size (see our analysis on page 7 for reasons why) and any ad-hoc assessment for granting the status is only likely to increase charges of favouritism.
Sir David was, however, blocked from answering our questions. As a civil servant he must, under the Civil Service Code, pass all communications with us via the Department for Education press office. We approached them and were met with resistance regarding the idea we should be able to ask questions.
We were – quite literally – unable to hold to account for a lack of action on transparency the very man who on Radio 4 said he wanted to improve “accountability and transparency”. It is more than you could make up.
Sadly it is also emblematic of the way school leaders feel: alienated, unsure of the rules around approaching these new commissioner overlords, and unable to get many answers to their questions.
The worry is that this secrecy is how the government wants it. RSCs are, in the end, unelected senior civil servants sent to do the bidding of the secretary of state for education.
Unlike Ofqual and Ofsted’s leaders, the national commissioner is not independent and so will inevitably be constrained from speaking out publicly and standing up to ministers.
Even if transparency was something Sir David believed down to his very bones, he simply doesn’t have the power to make it so without the say so of ministers. He may be the public face of the academy movement, but for as long as the role is a civil service one there will always be people behind the scenes pulling the strings of his limbs and able to tape over his mouth.
As my interview this week with chief of Ofqual for the past five years, Glenys Stacey, revealed – there is a mis-trust in the sector that can ony be overcome by being seriously open and showing there are no dodgy deals going.
Visions are helpful for this. Well done to Sir David for setting one out. In the end, however, true transparency is about giving people the information they want, need and ask for. Everything else is just marketing.
If education secretary Nicky Morgan really wants the commissioner to become a true and trusted champion, she needs to clip his puppet strings.