The government is to make a major change to the role of the regional schools commissioners appointed to oversee England's increasingly academised school system, TES has learned.
Department for Education sources have revealed that the eight RSCs will no longer be judged according to how many schools in their area become academies. The rethink has been prompted by fears that a conflict of interest will develop when commissioners are given powers to force schools to become academies.
The news comes amid claims that RSCs are having to seek advice on improving schools from the very local authorities whose oversight role they were expected to replace. The burden on commissioners is likely to grow as more schools are converted to academy status and taken out of council control.
This week, prime minister David Cameron restated the government's ambition for a system comprised entirely of academies. Education ministers originally envisaged RSCs as key instigators of academisation. Their performance is currently assessed on the basis of how many schools in their area become academies.
But TES has learned that this will be revised because the Education and Adoption Bill, which is currently going through Parliament, will give RSCs the power to force schools to convert to academy status.
`We can't believe it'
Tony Draper, president of the NAHT headteachers' union, said he was unconvinced by the department's offer to change how commissioners' performance would be judged. "Until we see something concrete, we can't believe it," he added. "We need it to be there in black and white, in their contracts, in the public domain."
DfE sources have acknowledged that it would lead to a conflict of interest if the current performance measures were left in place when RSCs gained the power to compel some schools to become academies.
They said that it would be "really easy" for a commissioner to increase the number of academies once they could force schools to convert, so the performance measures would have to be revised. Details of the new measures have not yet been decided, they added.
Both the NAHT and NUT unions have previously warned of a potential conflict. Mr Draper said last month that it was wrong to suggest that RSCs could "objectively judge" whether schools were coasting, because their incentive to support academisation meant "their decisions can never be unbiased".
This week, he told TES that he wanted to see commissioners held to account over how effectively they found "the right type of support" for schools, including measures that did not involve academisation.
Meanwhile, local authorities are raising concerns that RSCs, whose role has existed since September 2014, are becoming increasingly reliant on cash-strapped councils for support in dealing with struggling academies, even though many councils have cut back on their education function.
David Simmonds, chair of the Local Government Association's children and young people board, told TES: "It's becoming clear that [commissioners] generally phone the council and say, `I've got this problem at this school - how can I fix it?' "
As RSCs remit covered large areas, they tended to lack local knowledge, the Conservative councillor said. He added that they had sought help from councils in areas including pairing struggling academies with more successful local schools and handling allegations about academy staff.
Kevin Courtney, deputy general secretary of the NUT, said that the union's "greatest fear" about RSCs was that they "cover huge geographical areas and have no effective systems to support schools".
"It would be much more transparent for the democratically accountable local authority to have the responsibility for this support that they're being asked to provide anyway," he added.
A DfE spokesman said it would be "ludicrous" for the commissioners not to use councils' "expertise" to help them make informed decisions.