After more than a year of waiting, Schools Week was finally given an interview with Dominic Herrington. Here, the not-so-new national schools commissioner discusses the future of the RSC programme, the way we talk about academy leaders and the parent voice.
Has the door been closed to school leaders to become regional schools commissioners?
Not at all. If an RSC vacancy comes up, I will always want a fantastically talented shortlist.
It’s got a bit overplayed, if I’m honest. From September, half of my RSC team will be ex-civil servants and half from the sector. I’ll always want a balance and diversity in my team. There’s a set of skills you need, and it can come from a school leader or civil servants who are committed to education and passionate about it.
Education secretary Damian Hinds has suggested ditching the terms multi-academy trust (MAT) and chief executive (CEO) to detoxify the academy brand. Do you agree?
I think he’s got a really good point. Some people have interpreted it that there’s some sort of hidden privatisation – it is CEO language that is dominating.
The overwhelming majority of academy trusts do a really good job – rates of failure are low. When it happens, you and yours [the press] rightly report on them.
If we can reframe the language and ensure parents understand that, then great.
So what’s a better term for ‘CEO’?
“Trust leader” or “executive leader”. But it won’t be for me to mandate that – that’s not in the spirit of the programme.
The big promise to academies was autonomy. We are seeing a different approach under academies minister Lord Agnew with, for instance, trusts told how many finance meetings they should have per year. Where do you stand on this?
We have one of the most autonomous school systems in the world. If you ask people why they want to become an academy, or part of a trust, there’s a mixture of autonomy and collaboration. But the clue is in the language – these are state schools. We have a responsibility to ensure money is spent appropriately and effectively. I don’t think they [the two approaches] are in conflict – you can do both.
Should Ofsted inspect academies?
The department’s view is that Ofsted has a really important role in summary evaluations [of trusts] and inspection report judgments. Trusts are also held to account by RSCs, the Education Skills and Funding Agency, local authority safeguarding, MAT performance tables. It’s a really interesting idea about a framework for trusts – we’ve been developing one in the South West regional team, so we’ll see whether that might be part of the solution.
There have been lots of reports concerning the loss of parents’ voices in academisation. How do you resolve that issue?
I understand how difficult it is sometimes for communities and parents, particularly if they thought the school was in a good place and it’s not. Change can be difficult. Our job is to implement the law to secure a strong sponsor and ensure they speak to the community.
In most cases, the trusts are local. The image that it’s a distant [MAT] board from miles away is a really unfair characterisation. National sponsors have really strong local routes. The job for us and trusts is to explain this is the process, this is what’s going on, these are the legal provisions. Our job is to get a fresh start for this school.
So you don’t think there’s an issue with the voice of parents being heard?
The more communication to parents the better. The responsibility for that is with the trust. The examples [of this] are quite rare – most conversations are voluntary and parents are included.
It’s not a systematic problem, but it is a good idea for us and trusts to be redoubling our communications at all time with parents.
What are your biggest priorities over the next 12 months?
Three things. How do we build capacity in academy trusts? Some of that is us helping, but more is trusts helping themselves and the sector helping them. We’re keen to ensure trusts can learn from each other – which they are doing more and more.
How can I be the best leader and manager for the RSCs? They are a great bunch of people and I want to help them to be as good as they can be about their jobs.
The third thing will always be around difficult schools. We’ve made real progress this year. Lots done, more to do.
So the “untouchable” schools and those classed as “stuck” – what progress has been made, and what more are you doing?
The language we use here is really important, it has to be respectful. These schools have professionals working in them, who are working really hard.
What we’ve done is had a high degree of single-issue fanaticism on this. When I started there were 219 “inadequate” maintained schools in procession of conversion, now there are 157 – our job is to get that number down as low as possible.
It’s painstaking work and goes on behind the scenes. RSCs are having conversations with trusts, sponsors, local authorities and dioceses to try and bring local coalitions together to get a plan for the school and give it a fresh start with a trust.
I won’t rest until we’ve got plans for every single one of those schools and we’ve got sponsors for those schools.
The narrative is that no one wants to take such schools on, but the issue [in the most severe cases] is normally complicated land issues. Why haven’t they been sorted out yet?
I’m glad you identify that the problem isn’t the number of sponsors. We’ve got over 1,100 sponsors now. In some parts of the country we have more sponsors than schools that want it.
In that really small number of cases [where there are land issues], the conversations that we have with the local authority are painstaking and at times difficult. We will collaborate as intensively as we can in that situation. But the important thing is not to lose sight of the fact that the school has to have an improvement plan and headteachers. The Hanson School [a school in Bradford waiting seven years for a takeover] has improved – and that’s really important we keep up that progress. At the same time we’re working through all those issues… we redouble our efforts and never stop talking the LA to find ways through all those cases.
We all know who the big trusts are, but who are the next system leaders?
The fastest growth in trusts has been that group with between five and 15 schools. I’m keen they are developed as system leaders; trusts like the STEP Academy Trust, Tenax Schools Trust, WISE Academies, the Flying High Trust – those that have built themselves carefully and gradually, and brought in challenging schools to their trust.
The sector is maturing more now. There was a lot of rapid growth at the start. Now we have a group of trusts that have understood that and want to develop themselves. That group has enormous potential in the sector.
Good governance seems to be a government focus, but there are inconsistencies in the system. Some trusts still don’t meet the DfE’s own guidance. What are you doing about this?
The materials we put out [academy and governance handbooks] are much tighter and clearer about what the rules are, and these are used by RSCs in making decisions about schools joining trusts. We’re funding I think £5 million over a number of years to help organisations explain what the rules are. We’re getting a lot more chairs of trusts coming together themselves, and RSCs are facilitating that. The sector is maturing in that area – there are a lot more reports and studies about what’s going on in the sector, I really welcome those. These are signs of a sector that’s keen to learn more about how it’s developing.
Is 100% academisation the ideal system?
That’s a bigger question that is way above my pay grade. My job is to ensure the academy sector delivers great things for young children – which, in the vast majority of cases, it does.