Reporter’s take: Why more civil servants overseeing academies could empower heads

Martin George asks what effects a big change in the world of regional schools commissioners could have on schools

Martin George

The rise of the civil servant regional schools commissioners could empower school leaders.

Happy birthday to the regional schools commissioners!

It is now five years since the Department for Education (DfE) set up the RSC system to oversee academies and, like any five-year-old, it has undergone many changes since it was first born.

At the moment, the system is undergoing its biggest transformation yet, with RSC posts that were often held by former school leaders now increasingly filled by career civil servants.

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Why is this change happening?

It is, perhaps, a sign of the system settling down after years of flux, and the DfE arriving at a more coherent vision of what they want the regional schools commissioner role to be.

In the years since 2014, their powers and influence first grew and then went into retreat, but there was always a tension between the bureaucratic side of the job (matching schools to academy trusts) and the educational side of the job (looking at things like school improvement).

The bureaucratic element of the job was often put forward as a reason why so many former school leaders who became RSCs left early to work for academy trusts.

Now, the RSCs and their staff are becoming something akin to branch offices of the DfE, delivering in the regions a wider range of work that had previously been done by civil servants in Whitehall.

It was a therefore little surprise that Dominic Herrington, who has not led a school, is replacing Sir David Carter, who has, as national schools commissioner overseeing the RSCs.

And this week, two civil servants were appointed to vacant RSC positions.

So what are the implications for schools and academy trusts?

Privately, some senior figures in the academy sector fear it will mean RSCs will now have a less school-facing role, and will do less to rally and inspire the academies movement.

The changes also mean that the people that academy leaders are answerable to at the DfE are not ones who have personal experience of what it is like to run a school or academy trust. When discussions turn to questions of school performance, it will no longer be a dialogue between two professionals, but between a professional and a civil servant.

For Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, this is not necessarily a bad thing.

He likens it to the relationship between a school leader and their chair of governors – a person from the outside who will come at issues from directions an educationalist may not have thought of.

The shift towards non-educationalists being RSCs may also increase the importance of the headteacher boards that advise them.

These bodies, which are largely composed of leaders of successful local academies, are part of the original architecture of the RSC system, and have direct experience of how schools actually work.

If the RSCs do indeed have to rely more on the expertise of these boards, it will be more important than ever that they are properly transparent and accountable.

But Barton believes the bureaucratisation of the RSC role also offers a space for school leaders to assert their own roles more strongly.

“This could well be an opportunity for us to be more confident about what our roles are,” he says.

“We should be bolder as leaders saying ‘here’s what I’m doing, here’s action I’m taking, here’s what I want you to see and to celebrate’, and for us to be able to shape that agenda with somebody who isn’t going to be looking through things from the point of view of ‘I wouldn’t have run my school or trust like this’.”

It would be ironic, although not unwelcome, if the removal of school leaders from a key role in our education system actually ended up enhancing the role of school leadership.

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Martin George

Martin George

Martin George is a reporter at Tes

Find me on Twitter @geomr

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