The former TES journalist writes for NAHT on current education issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of NAHT
Regional school commissioners: how the new system will operate
How will England’s academies and free schools operate now that a new “middle tier” system of oversight is being put into place with the introduction of regional school commissioners?
The answer to this question also has implications for all other state-funded schools in England because, as should become clear in this blog, the new regional schools commissioners (RSCs) are also getting powers to get involved should any school find itself eligible for “intervention” by the Department for Education.
Yet very little information has been put in the public domain by the DfE as to how the new RSC structure will work. What will be the RSCs’ responsibilities? What powers will they have? In what aspects of education will they not get involved?
I’ve seen very detailed information which gives some answers to these questions. I wanted, then, to put this in the public domain for readers of this blog.
The main source for what follows is a 40-page internal DfE policy paper on the new RSC system, which has formed the basis for stories to which I contributed in the Observer http://bit.ly/1q61MtE and the Guardian http://bit.ly/1g6y3Mr, and now to coverage in the “Speed read” education diary column I write for the Guardian http://bit.ly/1tBAY94.
There is much in this paper which has yet to be reported on, even in the above stories, so I wanted to offer that factual detail, in terms of how the new system will operate here. (Note 1)
So, the paper sets out the powers of the new RSCs under several headings, which I list below. These cover the way the system of academies and free schools, and academy sponsorship, will work once the RSCs come into existence in September.
The RSCs will operate across England in eight regions, are being appointed by ministers and will report to a “headteacher board”,
The first heading, in terms of an RSC power, is “tackling underperformance in academies”.
The paper says that, under this heading, the minister will set the overall “intervention” framework; ie the rules governing how “underperformance” in the academies sector is addressed.
Whitehall-based civil servants will then recommend any “action to be taken on underperforming academies”, with the Regional Schools Commissioner in each area, working with his or her headteacher board, then “challenging or approving” these recommendations.
Civil servants will then conduct school visits, with unspecified “education advisers”, and recommend any action to be taken. RSCs could also conduct these visits, says the paper, before the RSC and headteacher boards decide on any further action to be taken, with its decisions then implemented in schools by the DfE itself.
It is unclear exactly what intervention actions will be taken in this context, but the paper does give a flavour, saying, perhaps quite weakly, that these could include “further visits, re-brokerage [ie the academy being transferred to another sponsor]” or a public warning notice. (Note2) As a final option, the Secretary of State could close the academy, the paper warns, though adding that this option would only, of course, be pursued “in extremis”.
Second, under “Sponsor role: approval and recruitment”, the paper highlights how the RSC would get involved in this area of, seemingly, increasingly important DfE activity.
Again, it says, the minister sets the “framework and criteria for sponsor approval”. It would then be up to the RSC and headteacher board (HTB) to “recruit sponsors” through “events, meetings, correspondence”.
Sponsors would still apply to the DfE, with civil servants then making recommendations as to which would be approved or rejected, and then the RSC/HTB taking final decisions on that.
The paper says that “sponsors [will] need RSC approval to operate in each new region”, ie any organisation setting up to sponsor schools in a particular region for the first time would need approval from the RSC, even if they already sponsor in other regions.
Third, under “Sponsor Performance Management”, the document sets out how the RSCs will influence the development – or not – of academy sponsors. (In other words, explaining their powers in relation to actions pertaining to academy chains, as well as in individual schools)
Again, the minister will set “criteria for sponsor quality and capacity grading”. (Note 3) Civil servants then do a “results analysis” of sponsors, with the RSC/HTB then “reviewing academy performance and identify[ing] sponsors to pause immediately”. In other words, it looks as if the RSC/HTB are being given the power to stop the expansion of academy chains, currently held by ministers. This was in the press recently. (see http://bit.ly/1ij5Q8B).
The RSC would then “lead discussions with sponsors about their performance (HTB may also be involved)”, before reviewing the internal grading of that sponsor and, if they are adjudged a success “encouraging well-performing sponsors to grow”.
Summing up, then, the RSCs and HTBs are getting powers to decide which academy chains in their region grow, and which do not. Inevitably, the paper had to address the issue of potential conflicts of interest: it notes that “HTB members will need to absent themselves from any decision-making where they have a conflict of interest”, which presumably would cover a headteacher working for an academy chain whose expansion was being considered for “pausing”. (Note 4)
The fourth heading covering RSC powers is “recommending sponsor matches for new sponsored academies (brokerage)”. This is, of course, highly relevant to anyone affected by the government’s forced academy process, which has turned schools into sponsored academies even in the face of overwhelming opposition from staff and the local community.
Again, says the paper, the “minister determines strategy for intervention in maintained schools”, with the DfE’s Academies Group civil servants then “identifying schools in scope to become sponsored academies”.
Once these schools have been identified (this may strike some readers as quite a top-down process), the RSC/HTB will recommend a sponsor, says the paper. This is then communicated with the school, and the school decides whether or not to become a sponsored academy.
If the school says “yes”, suggests the diagram in the document, all is fine and the minister approves the “match” between school and sponsor and issues an academies order
But if it says “no”, the DfE/minister decides “next steps”, adding, ominously, “eg whether to use formal powers”. As if to underscore, it seems, the frustration of communities who have tried to fight this process, the diagram in the document then says the process just reverts back to civil servants communicating the sponsorship decision to the school.
The document also implies that some sponsors have had additional funding for taking on schools, at the discretion of the minister. It says: “Sometimes sponsors request further funding after the academy order has been issued – these decisions would come back to the Minister.”
Fifth, under “converter academies”, the document says that, again, the minister sets the criteria for approving schools’ bid to convert to academy status.
In quite a revealing, but sadly not surprising, next section, the document adds that civil servants in the DfE’s “regional academies division encourage schools to convert” to academy status, with the “RSC/HTB support[ing this] advocacy work”.
In other words, the RSC will be part of the system of pushing for more schools to convert to academy status.
Having been approached by the DfE and encouraged to academise – interestingly, the document does not include a scenario where the school chose to do so entirely itself – the paper then says the school would decide to convert and then this is approved or rejected by the RSC/HTB, following a recommendation from civil servants. The RSC would also make the final decision that the government enters the funding agreement with the school which is effectively the contract governing the operation of the school as an academy.
This latter decision obviously commits the DfE to funding the school in future years and could, says the document, therefore “occasionally involve RSCs in contentious issues with local authorities”.
Sixth, the RSCs are getting powers in relation to “significant changes to open academies”. These are cases where an academy, already open and therefore having already signed a funding agreement with the DfE which sets out how it will operate, wants to vary one or more of those conditions.
Examples, says the document, could include changes to the age-range of the school; adding or removing a sixth form; changing its gender composition; enlarging the capacity of a special academy; transferring to another site; or gaining a faith designation. (Note 5)
The RSCs and HTBs would take decisions in these areas following recommendations and advice from the DfE’s Education Funding Agency, which funds and monitors the finances of academies, in these cases, says the paper.
Finally, on free schools, the powers of RSCs seem to be a bit less extensive, partly because the DfE seems nervous about devolving powers too much away from Whitehall in relation to them, at least in their initial period after opening. This was the subject of the front-page story in the Observer on April 6th: http://bit.ly/1q61MtE.
From the document, it seems that the RSCs’ role on free schools at the application stage will be mainly to discuss recommendations being made to approve bids by ministers and the DfE, rather than deciding themselves which ones would be approved.
After a free school application has been approved, however, the RSCs, working with civil servants, would take control of the process, with the exception of three aspects: they would not get the power to defer or cancel a free school project “until ministers are confident that delegating this wouldn’t have an impact on numbers and momentum of the overall programme or parts of the programme, eg types of free school” (Note 6); they would not be able to approve free school capital budgets above a certain level “because of the need for budgetary controls”; and in relation to “extremism (because of the sensitivity of the issues involved)”. (Note 7)
After a free school had opened, in the early stages it would be treated as a special case, separately from other open academies (note 8), says the document, because newly-opened free schools often face a range of problems “that are often not educational in origin”. “These often include”, says the document:
“Operating in temporary sites without a clear permanent home; new, inexperienced and often isolated trusts needing to up-skill themselves to run a school for the first time [a remarkable admission, this]; [and] instability in principal appointments and senior leadership teams.”
So, from September, the DfE will conduct “termly updates on open free school performance with RSCs. RSCs will be strongly engaged in thinking about how we address the performance of open free schools and sharing local intelligence” says the paper, with ministers continuing to take decisions on any schools judged inadequate by Ofsted as “the political ramifications of any more free schools being judged inadequate are very high”.
Once the free school has “had its first Ofsted visit and secured a permanent site”, though, says the paper, it would then be treated like any other academy and the RSC’s powers would thus be as above, in relation to academies, where, says the paper, the RSC is the “key decision maker”.
There are a couple of extra points of detail. The paper gives indications as to where two of the eight RSCs will be based, suggesting that the South West RSC will have an office in Bristol while the one for the curious region of “North East London and East” – with the RSC for this area covering both inner London boroughs such as Hackney and rural Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire – will be sited in Cambridge.
At one stage late last year, the DfE was considering siting these offices in schools. I have not heard much of that suggestion recently; it will be interesting to see whether it has survived.
On the composition of the headteacher boards, four members of these will be the heads of Ofsted-outstanding academies or free schools in each region, elected by “their peers”. Exactly who gets to vote is not yet clear to me. A further two members of the HTB will be appointed by the RSC, with the HTBs themselves then “co-opting” new members (“on approval that co-option is necessary by the Secretary of State”, says the paper.
Finally, the line management of the new RSCs looks complicated. Clearly, they will have to report to the part-elected HTBs, as a corporate chief executive would report to his or her board. But the paper also says each RSC will be “line-managed” by the national Schools Commissioner. This is different from what happens in the corporate world, where no-one “line-manages” the CEO in that sense: they are the single accountable manager in the organisation, and meant to answer for their decisions to the board. So who will the HTB really be holding to account: the RSC or his line-manager, the national Schools Commissioner?
In summary, then, if this paper’s system is being implemented, the powers of the RSCs will be to:
- Encourage would-be academy sponsors to come forward.
- Approve or reject organisations’ applications to become academy sponsors in the RSC’s region.
- Decide which existing academy sponsor in each region should expand, and which should not.
- Decide on actions to be taken in relation to underperforming academies, short of deciding to close a school.
- Recommend a sponsor for a particular school which the DfE has targeted for turning into a sponsored academy.
- Seemingly support the process whereby the DfE encourages non-academy schools - successful schools, that is, not at risk of forced academisation – to convert to academy status.
- Approve the funding agreement setting up the academy when this happens.
- Approve significant changes to open academies, such as changes to the age range of their pupils.
- Discuss with the DfE applications to set up free schools, and oversee approved free schools prior to, and in the initial phase after, opening.
Quite a list, then.
I do wonder, surveying this again, whether the duality of the new RSC role, in both, seemingly, acting as cheerleaders for the academies programme as a whole, including encouraging new sponsors to come forward, and being tough on “underperforming” academies, will be manageable. It is not hard to think of possible conflicts of interest here.
And how much public legitimacy will the RSCs have? If, for example, these are the figures signing off on controversial plans to force a local school into academy status under a particular sponsor, will the sense of public accountability be even further reduced now if this process is centring on an official appointed by Whitehall, rather than a minister – Lord Nash, even if he himself is unelected – as happens now. After all, these RSCs will have no connection whatsoever with the local electorate. If members of the public are unhappy with a major school re-organisation decision, to whom do they turn? No-one, it would seem.
Two further things are clear. First, this system has been drawn up very quickly. Indeed, as recently as January, another internal DfE document said that “there is a lot still to be worked out – at every level” about the new RSC system. (See reference here: http://bit.ly/1nGdyLu)
Second, there has been little, if any, public discussion of what seems to be a very significant new development in the management of England’s state-funded schools system. Indeed, the DfE did not even think it necessary to post a national press release setting out how its new regime would operate when it announced the identities of the first six RSCs to be appointed: the announcement of the identities of these new figures do not even seem to be available on an internet search, as there was no England-wide launch. (Note 9)
Will this new system, then, hastily put-together with virtually no transparency and discussion beyond civil servants and ministers who have, seemingly, an obsession with academy status as an end in itself, prove long-lasting? I wonder. Certainly, there would be much for an incoming Labour government to think about here.
Note 1: I should say, at the outset, that this was just a briefing paper, presented to Lord Nash at a meeting last month, and that there has been no public acknowledgement from the DfE that what is stated in the paper will definitely be taken forward.
But neither have I had any indication from the department, following any previous reporting, that the paper’s contents do not reflect government policy. So, in the absence of further detailed information I think it is fair to assume that this is the system that we will have.
Note 2: Interestingly, later on in the paper comes an admission from the DfE that, actually, “our intervention powers are pretty weak”, with civil servants seemingly worried that “more people will be aware of this”, which, it says, might mean more legislation to strengthen the intervention powers in the future.
Note 3: This grading system of academy sponsors seems already to be going on, by the way, according to a tantalising breakdown on this page saying that, in the North East London and East region of England – one of the RSC regions – 4 per cent of sponsors currently get the highest rating, A; 25 per cent get B; 63 per cent get C and eight per cent get D. We are not, told, of course, which sponsors are in each category and even the existence of this rating system seems to have been a secret.
Note 4: Presumably, that headteacher would also have an interest in the growth of any other academy chain (ie his or her chain’s interest, here, might be to prevent that happening) but how could they be absent from all these discussions?
Also, as I write here http://bit.ly/1tBAY94, it has already emerged that one of the newly-appointed RSCs is the chief executive of an academy chain operating in his region. He is relinquishing his CEO post before taking on the new role. But that still seems a strong association.
Note 5: The document says that, in the six months from September last year, eight requests for these changes were made by academies in the West Midlands, which was the highest number of any RSC region.
Note 6: This, of course, is an interesting aside in itself, in indicating a political pressure to push on and approve more free schools.
Note 7: The DfE seems concerned, then, that the free schools programme could be a target for extremist groups wanting to get involved in the running of schools and does not want to devolve decision-making powers – what action should be taken should concerns arise? – to the RSCs.
Note 8: Legally, all free schools are a type of academy.
Note 9: Just so you have it, then, the full list of RSCs appointed so far is:
- Paul Smith, currently executive head of Parbold Church of England academy and teaching school, a primary school near Wigan, who becomes RSC for Lancashire and West Yorkshire.
- Sir David Carter, chief executive of the Cabot Learning Federation, who will be RSC for the South West.
- Dominic Herrington, currently overseeing the entire academies policy within the DfE as director of the department’s “academies group”, who will be RSC for South London and the South East.
- Dr Tim Coulson, currently director of education at Essex County Council, a former head of William Tyndale school in Islington, north London whose cv also includes stints heading curriculum and assessment developments at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and as national director of the Labour government’s National Numeracy Strategy, who will be RSC for North East London and the East.
- Martin Post, headmaster of Watford Grammar School for Boys, who becomes RSC for “North West London and South Central”.
- Pank Patel, who is head of Wood Green Academy, an Ofsted-outstanding rated comprehensive in Wednesbury in Sandwell, west Midlands, and is also a serving Ofsted inspector, who will become RSC for the West Midlands.