'The regional schools commissioner system is a national disgrace'

The system of academy oversight needs serious reform, if not outright replacement, writes one investigative journalist

Warwick Mansell

The wife of a suspended headteacher condemns the lack of support for school leaders

Imagine you are a parent at a school which is due to academise and then be handed to an incoming sponsor with a very distinctive “ethos”. 

A couple of years ago, you had chosen that school for your child based on an understanding that it would be run in a certain way.

Now you are told that not only do you have no choice about the incoming academy sponsor, which might want to run things very differently, you also have no right to be consulted meaningfully by the people taking that decision. You have no formal mechanism to ask questions of them; and no right even to see decision-making papers or attend any meetings at which the choice of sponsor might be made. Indeed, it is not even clear there is any formal decision-making methodology.

Not only that, but neither parents, teachers or pupils of the school in question, nor local taxpayers and citizens, have representation on any decision-making forum affecting the future of this school.

A civil servant seems to be in charge of decisions. But he or she is advised by a board, while also reporting to a minister. So where does the buck stop? And who is actually deciding? It is not clear.

Welcome to the odd, hastily drawn-up, paternalistic world of regional schools commissioners, where the “little people”, otherwise known as the users and funders of public services, are kept very much at arm's length. This is the mechanism by which community assets valued at many millions of pounds are now being parcelled out and shared around between various quasi-private academy organisations.

The scenario described above is exactly that faced by parents at Easingwold School, a local authority comprehensive in North Yorkshire now in the midst of a protracted, and controversial, possible transfer to an incoming academy trust.

Meanwhile, at The Baverstock Academy in Birmingham, which faces closure despite a community campaign, parents were written to last month by the RSC and briefly informed after the event that: “A number of high-profile sponsors considered taking over the academy but thought the financial and educational issues affecting it were too complex to guarantee the improvements needed.”

'Behind-closed-doors' decision-making

Those interested were invited to share their views, and even to attend meetings, but the latter were to discuss the “impact this decision may have” rather than the decision itself, it seemed.

This remote, behind-closed-doors decision-making is very different from my experience on first encountering a local authority school reorganisation plan, as a local reporter in Cambridge in the late 1990s.

Officials proposing to close a school did so on the basis of detailed discussion papers, with recommendations which were then subject to protracted debate at public meetings. Elected councillors could approve or reject them. They, unlike Westminster ministers, were subjected to meaningful, and often forceful, local comeback. For all that local authorities are not perfect, there did seem to be some tradition of openness and due process on which significant changes such as this were built.

The RSC system is also in contrast with that operating in the United States, where school reorganisation plans, including those affecting charter schools which are similar to academies, can be subject to very detailed public discussion.

Whitehall’s RSC system, plans for which I revealed in 2013, was drawn up very quickly by civil servants – fittingly, in private, with no public consultation, and building on no great civil service tradition of openness – after Michael Gove became concerned by complaints that the academies system lacked a “middle tier”.

Perhaps if the RSCs’ judgements were perfect then the sidelining of openness and even clear accountability in this process might be justified. But the record of academisation continues to be mixed-going-on-non-existent, with some spectacular failures.

Is this just an issue for parents, rather than teachers? The number of tip-offs I get from teachers worried about changes brought about by incoming academy sponsors would suggest not.

There does not even seem to be a clear set of rules governing the basic operations of this new structure. Nearly one in six of the 32 headteachers elected in 2014 on three-year terms for the “headteacher boards”, which advise the RSCs, have quietly stood down early. But there seems no method for replacing them mid-term.

And there has been a very high turnover of the RSCs themselves; the unpredictability perhaps best summed up by Friday’s revelation that one of them, Vicky Beer, who had announced she was moving on, actually now is not.

This all feeds into a sense that the overall direction of travel for English schools reform is one of chronic instability, as a politically driven scheme is expanded far too quickly.

The RSC structure itself is an affront to our democratic traditions. It needs serious reform, if not outright replacement by something which is connected to the communities on whose decisions it impacts.

Warwick Mansell is a freelance education journalist and author of Education by Numbers. You can read his back catalogue here

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Warwick Mansell

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