Who is responsible for the shortcomings of the academy system when it comes to helping our most disadvantaged children?
A major analysis, published by the Sutton Trust today, which shows that two-thirds of academy chains are below the national average performance for pupil premium children, criticises the impact of the regional schools commissioners (RSCs).
It says there is “little to suggest” that they are having any success in improving the academy chains where children eligible for the pupil premium consistency perform worse.
The wording may sound mild, but this rebuke is damning.
After all, since its foundation, the academy programme’s moral purpose has been improving the life chances of these very children.
According to the report, the RSCs “must act more firmly with chains that do not deliver improvement over time”.
But how fair is it to blame the RSCs? They are certainly important players in the system.
The Department for Education introduced the eight RSCs in 2014 to make key decisions about schools in their area, including which become academies, who runs them and what happens when things go wrong.
Focusing on school improvement
But from the start it was clear that they had limited capacity to oversee in detail the academy system they presided over.
The average RSC now has more than 1,000 academies on their patch – far more than any single local authority – but even though their resources have grown, they do not have the capacity councils once had to monitor, advise and intervene.
Moreover, in the first years of their operation, the RSCs' biggest priority was simply converting schools to academy status, rather than the quality of education academies were offering.
The proportion of schools that are academies has doubled from 18 per cent in 2013-14 to 36 per cent today. It is a workload that academy leaders have said left the RSCs little space for detailed improvement work with their hundreds of schools.
So when the Sutton Trust suggests that “the long-term underperformance of some chains may indicate the limited capacity of the present system – including the RSC structure”, it is not wrong.
But could change be underway?
Paradoxically, reforms introduced by education secretary Damian Hinds that have clipped the wings of the RSCs may actually allow them to concentrate more on standards over structures.
Most notably, the RSCs can no longer force schools with poor performance data to become academies. Instead, they can simply offer support to those that are either below the floor standard or classed as coasting.
And the context in which the RSCs operate is very different to when they first appeared, with mass academisation no longer the DfE’s priority.
All of this should help to refocus the RSCs’ attention on quality of education, and the Sutton Trust report hints at another reason for optimism.
Now that so many schools are academies, a lot more of the RSCs’ work centres on working out what to do when they run into difficulties.
A key tool in their arsenal is to rebroker academies from one trust to another. The number of academies that moved trusts has grown twelvefold in the space of five years, from 21 in the financial year 2013-14 to 255 in 2017-18.
It can be a costly and time-consuming business, but the Sutton Trust report says “the early results show that this may be effective”.
So the RSCs now have more time and more tools to ensure that disadvantaged pupils are well served by academy chains. Next year's Sutton Trust report should tell us if it has been enough.