Morgan slaps down commissioner who told council not to talk to academies

Nicky Morgan has overruled one of her regional schools commissioners who told a council boss not to meet with academy heads over standards in their schools.

The education secretary told gathered members of the County Councils Network this morning that they should continue to talk to academies if it’s “something you feel is appropriate”, after leading local politicians complained of mixed messages from the government and Ofsted.

Morgan used her speech to announce the launch of a review of the local authority role in schools and children’s social care, which will be chaired by former Hackney children’s services boss Alan Wood.

But John Peck, who chairs Nottinghamshire County Council’s children and young people committee told Morgan that east midlands schools commissioner Jennifer Bexon-Smith had “refused to meet” with his board and had written to him asking him not to meet with academy leaders.

“On the one hand, Sir Michael Wilshaw, soon not to be the head of Ofsted, berates local authorities for results and standards, and on the other hand, our RSC wrote to me and told me I should not be having my annual meeting with headteachers of academy schools that fell below floor targets,” he said.

“So there are mixed messages between the two departments. When the GCSE results come out every year, who is it that local media want to come and talk to? It’s me, not the regional schools commissioner. I think there is some work to be done between Ofsted and your department and where we fit into that.”

Morgan said she had made it “very clear” that commissioners and councils “must work together”, and offered to work with councils to educate local journalists about who was responsible for school standards in the changing system.

She also directly overruled Bexon-Smith on the issue of communication with academies, adding: “Certainly, you should continue to meet with headteachers if that’s something that as a local authority you feel is appropriate. You have a relationship with those schools in other ways, so why wouldn’t you continue to have that relationship with them?”

It is not the first time education leaders have complained of an apparent lack of joined-up thinking between the government, its commissioners and other organisations such as Ofsted and local authorities.

Wilshaw, the outgoing chief inspector of schools, spoke of a “tense” relationship between his organisation and the commissioners, while others pointed out a difference in opinion between Morgan and national commissioner Sir David Carter on whether councils should be allowed to establish their own multi-academy trusts. Carter recently told the education select committee he didn’t want to stand in the way of councils wanting to set up trusts.

Paul Carter, the leader of Kent County Council and chair of the County Councils Network told Schools Week he was disappointed that Morgan’s speech – perhaps her last as education secretary – did not offer more certainty over the issue.

“I think it is the only solution to get local government schools into local government-sponsored academy trusts with the normal academies so that everybody is on a level playing field,” he said.

“The schools commissioner Sir David Carter is going around the country suggesting that local government-sponsored academy trusts are the solution, so there are mixed messages coming. We need absolute clarity on that.

“I think Nicky Morgan was saying this morning that she won’t rule it in and she won’t rule it out, but I think we need to establish whether or not it is an option.”

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  1. There appears to be a turf war between Ofsted and Regional Schools Commissioners. Lorna Fitzjohn, HMI, Ofsted Regional Director for West Midlands, in a letter dated 13 July 2016, has criticised Black Country local authorities and the West Midlands RSC for appearing ‘to have been unwilling to formally challenge secondary schools to improve low standards.’
    Who exactly is responsible for ‘holding schools to account? Is it the LA? Difficult when schools are academies. Is it local RSCs or Ofsted or both treading on each other’s toes? The system’s a farce with RSCs and Ofsted appearing to try and outdo each other with toughness and ‘rigour’.