Hold open tenders for school takeovers to boost RSC transparency, think tank urges

An open bidding process should be introduced for school takeovers to combat the secrecy and occasionally poor choices made by schools commissioners, a new report has urged.

Currently regional schools commissioners and their headteacher boards decide behind closed doors which sponsors should takeover a failing school.

While minutes of the meetings are published, they do not include detailed information about why sponsors were chosen.

But a new report published by the Centre for Education Economics (CfEE) today – to mark its name change from the Centre for the Market Reform of Education – has called for the system to be replaced by an “open tendering framework”.

Sponsors would have to make a formal bid, which would be published in the public domain, and should be allowed to suggest tailored funding agreements and performance targets so more trusts are encouraged to work in the most challenging areas.

The CfEE said “too great trust” is placed in the judgment of “too few individuals” under the current academy system.

Too great a trust is placed in the judgment of too few individuals

James Croft, author of the report and director of the CfEE, added “no one knows how the conversations with the RSCs” about sponsorship agreements go, and headteacher board minutes don’t state if other offers were made.

The report follows several investigations by Schools Week on the lack of transparency within headteacher boards.

Current brokering models do not encourage trusts to compete with each other to produce strong bids, and so “profoundly run the risk of poor sponsor fit”, the report stated.

READ MORE: Why headteacher boards are not corrupt

Meanwhile, CfEE said incentives for academy trusts to take on schools in poorer areas are “nowhere near adequate”. This could be improved by allowing bidders to “come up with a performance metric that is more appropriate”, and to also suggest the resources they would need to hit them, Croft told Schools Week.

Currently, pupil progress is compared against a national average, which critics have previously said discourages trusts from taking on challenging schools for fear of performing poorly in league tables.

Croft also stated the Office of the Schools Commissioner (OSC), which RSCs belong to, was “too close to politics”. He said it should instead become a non-ministerial department like Ofsted to make sure it was technically accountable to Parliament but independent of the Department for Education (DfE).

This arrangement would make headteacher boards less likely just to “pick winners” and move to a “more transparent and less political reform process.

But Robert Hill, an education consultant and former government advisor, said tendering only really worked if there was a “surfeit of people” wanting to take on ‘inadequate’ schools, but currently “no one was queuing to do it”.

Tendering was also often a lengthy process, which could be a problem when failing schools needed speedy takeovers for the “sake of pupils”, he added.

Some sponsors might also be the most obvious natural fit to take over or open a new school because of a strong local presence or particular expertise, rendering a tendering process unnecessary.

The CfEE isn’t the first to call for an open tendering process.

Bill Watkins, chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, said the group had proposed competitive tendering process in its general election manifesto.

Some sponsors might be the most obvious natural fit

“The whole process at the moment is a ring-fenced discussion within the headteacher boards, and opportunities to open new sixth forms are not made available to all.”

Following the Education and Inspections Act in 2006, local authorities ran open tendering processes when a new academy or voluntary-aided school was set to open – occasionally taking the contract itself if the offers were deemed inadequate.

This practice was “fairly transparent and open,” said John Fowler, policy manager at think tank the Local Government Information Unit.

But open tenders gradually dropped off as the academies policy picked up pace from 2010, with RSCs and their headteacher boards introduced in September 2013 to make the decisions.

A DfE spokesperson said the current set-up was a “key part of our school led-system that gives education professionals the freedom to improve schools through collaboration and sharing best practice”

“Decisions on sponsor takeovers are based on an understanding of the specific nature of each case, including detailed analysis of potential sponsors.”

The added minutes of meetings, and register of interests, are published online.

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  1. The privatisation of the state school system has gone so far that we are not surprised that schools (including their communities) could be auctioned to the highest bidder.

    We are just arguing over whether it has been a good idea for an unelected jobsworth to give a school and its assets to one of their mates, in secret.

    Whichever way the carve-up is done, have we neglected to involve the main stakeholders? I cannot imagine Eton being transferred or auctioned to new owners without asking the parents for input.

    • Mark Watson

      Another good conspiracy rant that assumes everyone involved in the process is crooked and self-serving. Not really worthy of a response.
      However I would pick up this idea that somehow the parents are the best people to make a decision about the future of the school. Whilst I absolutely agree their opinions are important it needs to be remembered that they are only the CURRENT parents. Whoever is making such a decision needs to be making it for the current cohort of children AND all the future cohorts looking forward many years.
      I’m a parent, and if I was asked to make a decision about my son’s school and there were two choices where: Option A was better for the long-term success of the school but involved a difficult first few years, and Option B meant maximum benefit for the next 5 years (which covered the period my son was there) but thereafter the long-term future would be at risk, then I would be slightly embarrassed to say I would probably choose Option B. And when it came to it I would think most parents would do the same. I don’t think that makes me the best person to make such a decision.

    • Mark Watson

      Why should it be assumed that local authorities would be (a) capable of taking on the failing school or (b) the best choice?
      Equally however I don’t see why it should be assumed that they’re not capable.
      So I can certainly see the logic in considering a transfer back into the stewardship of the local authority when it comes to a rebrokering – whoever makes the decision should be looking to get the best result for that school and every option should be open for consideration.

      • Mark – there was no assumption implied. It should be one of the options. But at the moment it is forbidden. Once a school has left LA stewardship there’s no going back. And academy transfer fees are mounting up but the DfE, as Schools Week and my research have found, is dragging its feet and appearing to keep the cost hidden.

        • Mark Watson

          As I said, I agree it should be an option.
          But I would respectfully suggest that a transfer to a local authority would involve a similar approach to transfer fees.
          The principle is the same – an organisation (be it another MAT or an LA) is asked to take on a school that comes with a serious financial liability, be that a deficit, unsafe buildings etc. Why should that organisation take on such a financial burden, which of course it had no part in incurring, especially when any money it has it would want to spend on teaching/learning to bring the school out of the problems it is currently in.
          I can’t see a local authority agreeing to take on a failing school and as part of that agreeing to take on a £100,000 deficit or have to immediately spend £1,000,000 on building renovation. I can imagine local tax payers having something to say about it too.
          So yes, I agree it should be an option, but don’t think it would mean the end of transfer fees …