When regional schools commissioners were first introduced, they were viewed as a pragmatic response to a logistical problem.
In the two years since then, the job of the RSC has grown to such an extent that it is now being billed as one of the biggest roles in education – not least by the Department for Education itself.
But questions have started to emerge over whether the position of RSC is really as powerful as has been suggested, and whether the DfE will be able to attract top academy chief executives to do the job at a time when they will have more power than ever before.
Last month, Pank Patel, RSC for the West Midlands, stepped down to lead George Salter Academy in West Bromwich, saying that he “missed being a headteacher”. This followed the resignation in September of Paul Smith, RSC for Lancashire and West Yorkshire, who left to head up Future Academies, the chain established by junior schools minister Lord Nash.
The two departures – a quarter of the RSC team – will prompt difficult questions for the national schools commissioner Sir David Carter as he tries to attract the best leaders to take on the role.
Sir David told MPs this month that he had received 22 applications for the vacant West Midlands RSC role – filled this week by Christine Quinn, chief executive of the Ninestiles Academy Trust in Birmingham. This was an improvement on the previous two openings – when Mr Smith left and when Sir David was promoted to NSC.
He has repeatedly said that he wants to RSCs who have “come from the system” – ideally with senior-level experience working in a multi-academy trust (MAT) – to then go back into the system. But it is unlikely that he anticipated the turnaround would be quite so quick.
The departures of come at a potential time of plenty for executive heads and chief executives of academy chains, as England begins a rapid transition towards a largely MAT-led schools system.
As one source who works closely with a MAT told TES, the prospect of becoming a “gamekeeper” is off-putting, particularly at a time when “poachers” stand to gain so much.
“There’s a question of how you get those successful people in, and why – as a successful CEO of a MAT, which can be a substantial organisation – you would leave that to become an RSC,” the source said.
Part of the attraction of becoming a chief executive of a growing academy chain was the entrepreneurial potential this offered, and the prospect of being the boss of a multimillion-pound organisation, they added.
“Urging people who are fairly entrepreneurial to become an RSC – you are putting them into a very claustrophobic environment,” the source said. “They may find there is much more opportunity and excitement to be had as a chief executive of a MAT.”
Turning gamekeeper would also lead to a significant drop in pay for many chief executives. It is one thing for the leaders of the biggest MATs to consider taking a salary cut to become, say, Ofsted chief inspector, with all the cachet of that role. It is another thing to do it to become an RSC.
But Ian Bauckham, headteacher of Bennett Memorial Diocesan School in Kent, argues that the job of RSC presents a significant opportunity to learn from what is still a new addition to the system.
“I would say that becoming an RSC would be a huge advantage to anyone interested in expanding their experience and taking it back into the system,” said Mr Bauckham, who also sits on the headteacher board that supports Dominic Herrington, RSC for South East England and South London. “There is a tremendous advantage to being able to monitor a wider region, with all of its complexities such as the difficulties facing rural and coastal schools.”
The knowledge gleaned from such a role would prove invaluable to any leader returning to headship or taking over a MAT, he added.
Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT headteachers’ union, said that because the role was still very new, it would take time to attract high numbers of applicants.
“You always get a slightly higher turnover in new jobs because the people don’t know what the job entails,” he added. “It’s a bit too early to tell if people are satisfied with the demands of the job, their remit and their scope to deliver.”
The level of those demands is only just dawning on officials within the DfE and the RSCs themselves. Ofsted chief inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, argued last month that the task of rebrokering – moving an underperforming school from one MAT to another – would be a substantial one for RSCs.
Appearing alongside Sir David in front of the Commons Education Select Committee, Sir Michael warned that among more than 900 MATs, his inspectorate could find just “half a dozen” that were “high-performing”.
Rebrokering ‘mediocre’ trusts
If RSCs come to a similar conclusion, then they will have their work cut out rebrokering schools, let alone providing sufficient oversight and school improvement for every academy in their region.
“There are a lot of mediocre trusts,” Sir Michael told MPs. “And the more rebrokering taking place, the more David will find it really difficult to find good trusts to take them on.”
The DfE has created a new role of deputy director to help RSCs with this expanding workload. Each commissioner will have two deputies: one with an education background and the other from the civil service.
But Mr Hobby believes that this is the wrong solution. “I would have preferred to have seen more commissioners with smaller areas, rather than deputies, because all you are doing is creating another bureaucracy,” he said. “There’s a good argument for having a single figurehead who is approachable in the regions.”
We can expect more changes to the role of RSC, according to Matthew Wolton, partner at Clark Holt, a solicitors’ firm that specialises in academy conversions.
He believes that the RSCs’ remit will expand further still. And he thinks that the concept of rebrokering is likely to be the key driver as it is changed to allow academies to proactively request a move from one MAT to another.
“The two deputy directors that each RSC will be provided with by the DfE is unlikely to be the end of the growth in the RSCs’ teams,” Mr Wolton said.
RSCs: the story so far
Regional schools commissioners were introduced in 2014 in response to growing concerns that officials within the Department for Education would not be able keep tabs on schools after mass conversions to academy status.
Michael Gove, the education secretary at the time, was reluctant to introduce what he regarded as “another layer of bureaucracy”.
But despite his objections and thanks in no small part to lobbying by coalition partners the Liberal Democrats, the job of RSC was created.
The eight commissioners started work in September 2014. Their remit quickly grew alongside the expansion of the academies programme. The role is often referred to as an education secretary in the regions, as the RSCs have some devolved powers from the secretary of state, such as the ability to recommend a free-school bid for approval.