New concerns about potential conflicts of interest in the way that regional schools commissioners (RSCs) operate have been sparked by a Tes analysis.
It has emerged that three RSCs who later went on to take up jobs with academy trusts had, during their time as RSCs, made key decisions that involved those trusts.
There is no suggestion that the RSCs behaved improperly or broke any rules, but one union leader suggested that there would be “outrage” if the same thing happened in the private sector.
According to published minutes of headteacher boards, which record decisions made by RSCs, Pank Patel, with advice from the West Midlands Headteacher Board, approved funding agreements for Packmoor Primary and Sandon Business and Enterprise College to join Ormiston Academies Trust when he was RSC for the West Midlands.
In May 2016, it emerged that Mr Patel was standing down as RSC to become headteacher of George Salter Academy, which is sponsored by Ormiston.
In May 2016, Vicky Beer, RSC for Lancashire and West Yorkshire, approved an application for Parrs Wood High School to join the Greater Manchester Learning Trust.
And between July 2015 and November 2016, Tim Coulson, the RSC for East of England and North-East London, approved applications for five schools to join the Samuel Ward Academy Trust, and for it to sponsor new secondary provision in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. Last month, Mr Coulson announced plans to resign as RSC, and become chief executive of Samuel Ward.
Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL teaching union, said that if a similar situation occurred with other high-ranking public sector officials moving to private sector companies, it would spark “outrage”.
“I don’t think RSCs are consciously [giving academies to their future employers], but I think they are put in a very invidious situation,” she says. “They are working with these academy trusts, and getting to know them and then get jobs with them.
“They are given huge powers over academies and multi-academy trusts, and get very close working relationships with them, and then become gamekeepers-turned-poachers.”
In a January 2016 report about RSCs, the Commons Education Select Committee wrote: “Transparency of operation was a significant concern for many witnesses. Malcolm Trobe told us that ‘a number of things related to the RSC role’ were ‘clouded in elements in secrecy’, and it was clear that a lack of transparency amplified concerns about managing conflicts of interest.”
The DfE publishes an online register of interests for all RSCs and HTB members, and the department told the committee “robust protocols and procedures” were in place to manage potential conflicts of interest in HTB meetings. There is no suggestion these procedures were not complied with in the above cases, but the committee recommended that the government consider further forms of accountability.
One former Westminster adviser, who asked not to be named, says restrictions should be placed on RSCs moving to MATs, and suggests a “cooling-off period” before they are allowed to take such jobs.
An Ormiston spokesperson said: “The academy orders for both schools and the Department for Education’s decisions that the two schools should join the trust were made in March 2015 – over a year before Pank was appointed.
“Sandon has not joined the trust. Packmoor has now joined the trust… The trust has never been party to any discussions of the headteacher board, or its decision-making.
“Pank was appointed as a principal within the trust, following a transparent national education campaign, because he was the best person for the job.”
Jon Ward, acting chair of Samuel Ward Academy Trust, said: “We advertised for the role of new chief executive in March and Dr Tim Coulson was appointed following a very stringent and competitive recruitment process, which saw us interview four exceptional candidates over two days in April.
“During this period, we understand that Dr Coulson played no role in decisions taken on applications from schools wishing to join the Samuel Ward Academy Trust.”
Coulson told colleagues in an email that he expects to move to the new role over the summer, adding he is working with the national schools commissioner Sir David Carter to ensure there are no conflict of interests over decisions he is responsible for.
A spokesperson for the Greater Manchester Learning Trust said: "The best candidate for the job was chosen following a rigorous interview process that followed the vacancy being advertised nationally in Tes.
"The position had become vacant as a result of the existing post-holder getting a new job."
To read about why so many RSCs are leaving what is supposed to be one of education's key roles see the 9 June edition of Tes. This week's Tes magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here.