It could be set to music by Rimsky-Korsakov, but the “flight of the RSCs”, as it has been dubbed, demands a more sombre score.
The regional schools commissioners, brought in less than three years ago to oversee a new dawn of academies, free schools and multi-academy trusts, are fast disappearing into the sunset. Rebecca Clark, in the South West of England, is the latest to announce her departure.
All these resignations are raising a number of concerns – over the job itself, the mission and both conflicts of interest and the appearance of conflicts of interest.
The role was hastily drawn up in 2013 by former education secretary Michael Gove in response to the entirely valid criticism that the growing number of academies and free schools could not be run by a single department in Whitehall. It is that haste and concomitant lack of foresight and thought that has created a number of crucial issues.
RSCs are privy to a wealth of private information about academy trusts, local authorities and the Department for Education itself. That makes them a very attractive proposition. It beggars belief that they have nothing written into their contracts to prevent an immediate move into a plum job, especially in their own region.
With no cooling-off period, from the moment they take office, their value clocks up in direct proportion to the amount of knowledge they accumulate. If nothing is done to remedy this, the RSCs’ office runs the real danger of becoming just a training ground for MAT CEOs.
Another problem lies in their being civil servants, which seems to give them a convenient cloak to hide behind and limit their engagement with the community they serve. It sometimes feels that the only time we ever get to hear from an RSC is when they resign. And it’s not as though their boss, the national schools commissioner, Sir David Carter, doesn’t model good behaviour. He is constantly at conferences and in the media explaining his vision for the wider system. The RSCs should be mirroring that regionally.
Transparency is vital
It is vital to the integrity of that system that there is transparency about how decisions that affect communities and children are made. But in a list of over 600 RSC appointments obtained by Tes, there were none with parents or with the media or any public meetings – a situation rightly described as “crazy” by Robert Hill, an education consultant and former adviser to Tony Blair. “Education is not a private fiefdom of the DfE – it belongs to all of us,” he says.
Another problem that sounds trite but is important is that the role is just plain bureaucratic and boring. As one former Whitehall insider points out, it pretends to be a mini secretary of state when in reality it’s a mini permanent secretary. That’s not going to lure the big beasts needed to do the job.
With the latest departure, the prospect of a new government and elections due this summer to the headteacher boards that advise the RSCs, this is the perfect time for an overhaul of the role and responsibilities.
The education system has grown ever more fragmented in recent years. Different reforms have pulled it in different directions, with organisations overlapping in some areas and no one taking strategic oversight in others. The RSCs have a crucial role to play in drawing it all together, with school improvement and performance at the heart of this.
That will be music to the ears of Sir David Carter, but although he may be holding the baton, he will need significant changes to enable him to keep his orchestra in time with the beat of the sector’s drum.