Return oversight of schools to local people, says Sir Michael Wilshaw

Local oversight of school standards is “just as patchy” under the government’s regional schools commissioners as it was under local authorities and should be returned to local politicians, the former Ofsted boss Sir Michael Wilshaw has said.

Speaking to The Guardian as part of a debate about Labour’s plans for a National Education Service, Wilshaw said the “massive expansion of the academies and free schools programme” has “marginalised local authorities and the role of local politicians”.

Though he said he was “no fan of local authorities”, Wilshaw said local politicians, and in particular England’s new network of metropolitan mayors, needed to “champion their schools and know what’s going on in their area”.

Wilshaw, a former academy headteacher who served as chief inspector of schools between 2012 and 2016, was broadly supportive of the academies programme during his tenure, often praising high-performing academies and trusts.

But in more recent years, he has become more critical of the system, expressing concerns about excessive executive pay and a lack of accountability. In his later years as chief inspector, Wilshaw demanded powers to inspect multi-academy trusts, something his successor Amanda Spielman has also called-for.

Wilshaw has also made no secret of tensions between Ofsted and the government’s network of regional schools commissioners, who until recently would also conduct inspections of schools, and were seen to be trying to replicate the inspectorate’s school improvement role.

Today, Wilshaw launched another attack on the schools commissioners, claiming they “seem to come and go with worrying frequency”. Several former RSCs are now in charge of multi-academy trusts, and these moves have prompted concerns about a “revolving door” between the Department for Education and academies sector.

“I’m no fan of local authorities because many of them didn’t sufficiently support and challenge schools when they had full control of the system,” Wilshaw told The Guardian. “My concern now is that local oversight of standards is just as patchy under the newly created regional schools commissioners, who seem to come and go with worrying frequency.

“We need local politicians, particularly the new mayors, to champion their schools and know what’s going on in their area.”

A DfE spokesperson said: “Regional schools commissioners play a key role in helping academies and free schools to deliver a high quality education – working constructively and professionally with local authorities and Ofsted to ensure local systems work effectively.”

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  1. Mark Watson

    Yes, but Michael Wilshaw didn’t say “return oversight of schools to local people” did he?
    He said “We need local politicians, particularly the new mayors, to champion their schools and know what’s going on in their area”.
    He doesn’t say they should be responsible for oversight though.
    If he had done of course it would have been complete nonsense. First of all, there are only 23 directly-elected mayors in England, covering a tiny proportion of the country. So that’s pointless.
    Secondly, does anyone really think it’s a good idea for MPs to take on responsibility for schools in their areas? Most of them are overburdened as it stands, and probably wouldn’t know what to do anyway. Plus this straightaway makes it hyper-politicised – how would a Labour MP’s concerns for schools in his constituency be treated by a Conservative government as opposed to a Conservative MP (and vice versa).
    Sounds to me that all we’re seeing here is the disgruntled rumblings of someone who had a beef with Regional Schools Commissioners back when he had a proper job and can’t now let it go …

    • Mark – I understood Wilshaw to be referring to local politicians such as councillors. However, his remarks are ambiguous and, as you say, most of the country doesn’t have directly-elected mayors.

      Regional Schools Commissioners can’t ‘challenge’ all schools in their areas because the areas are so large. Their remit was unclear when they first began (some may think their remit is still hazy). And it could be viewed as dodgy practice for former RSCs to join academy trusts (as directors or governors) – trusts which they may have helped during their tenure. Former RSC Tim Coulson becoming chair of governors at an Inspiration Trust academy is one such example.

      • Mark Watson

        With regards to your suspicion of Tim Coulson and the like, I can understand the instinctive scepticism, but what is it you think is the risk here?
        Tim Coulson is the Chair of Governors of a local governing body within Inspiration Trust. He’s not even on the Board of Trustees or a Member. He can’t take any money out of the Trust, be paid any bonus or receive any benefit. He is giving up his time as a volunteer to help a particular school.
        I would humbly suggest this is a positive thing. We hear constantly about ‘the elite’ only lining their pockets and thinking of themselves. If more people with detailed knowledge of the education system gave back by volunteering in this way it would surely be helpful.
        What exactly do you think is “dodgy” about this?

  2. Mark Watson

    What Wilshaw actually said about local politicians is that he wanted them to “champion their schools and know what’s going on in their area”. You could argue this is something they should be doing now anyway.
    When it comes to oversight and challenge he presumably wasn’t meaning this should be for councillors – he said “I’m no fan of local authorities because many of them didn’t sufficiently support and challenge schools when they had full control of the system”.
    I understand your point about the areas RSCs cover being large, but that is why they have Head Teacher Boards with the regions being broken down into smaller areas and individual members of the HTB taking day-to-day responsibility for such an area.
    The ‘problem’ we have in any education system is that we have 24,000-odd schools – in order to have really proper oversight and challenge we would need an absolute army of middle-management and higher-management and this just isn’t feasible.

  3. Jon O’Connor

    I seem to recall SW reporting that Tim Coulson left the role of RSC in order to become CEO of Samuel Ward Academy Trust
    I believe this would be a paid role, in addition to any other voluntary positions or public service activity.

    • Mark Watson

      Good point – I’d say that was different. (A little searching and I can see Tim Coulson is CEO of Unity School Partnership, which is the MAT behind Samuel Ward).
      In this instance there absolutely is the potential for conflict of interest – if an RSC showered favours on a MAT allowing it to grow, which usually means the CEO has a bigger role meaning higher pay, and the RSC then becomes the CEO this could be seen as being out of step with Nolan Principles.
      I genuinely have no idea what the particular details are regarding Tim Coulson and USP. I also don’t think it would be appropriate to have a blanket ban on RSCs moving into executive roles. What would seem sensible is to either have a moratorium on RSCs taking paid roles within MATs after they leave office, or to have an independent panel review the proposed appointment.
      (I think it’s also relevant if the MAT operates in the same or a different area to that covered by the RSC.)