On the road with a regional schools commissioner

11th September 2015 at 01:00
Pep talks and policy: a day in the life of Sir David Carter

“Two years ago, Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool team finished second and nearly won the Premier League,” Sir David Carter says. “The following year, they came fifth. It shows that a good year has to be followed by an even better one.”

The regional schools commissioner (RSC) for the South West is offering advice to the teachers of the Nova Hreod Academy in Swindon. The school, housed in a vast airport-like building, has just posted an impressive 30 per cent increase in its GCSE results, with 60 per cent of students now getting five A*-Cs including English and maths.

Sir David is here to carry out the cheerleading side of his role, but a football manager seems an odd choice of analogy. Many headteachers these days talk of “football-manager syndrome”, and feel that one set of bad exam results is all it would take to make their jobs as endangered as those in the sport. It is all the more strange given that it is the RSC who could have a major say in who gets the chop.

Speaking in his Mercedes as he drives back to his office in Bristol, the Welshman says there is “no doubt that the stakes are higher now”.

“Heads are more accountable than they have been, certainly in the past 10 years or so,” he adds. “But I am certainly not in the camp that says if you have one year of failure, you need to change the head.”

Sir David is now very much part of that accountability. The former academy chief executive offered TES the chance to shadow him for part of his working day in a bid to understand just what the role of a RSC entails. Along with his fellow commissioners, he is keen to increase the position’s visibility in the system and to explode some of the many “myths” that exist around what the job involves.

The RSC position was hastily conceived by the Department for Education in 2013 after it became clear that the growing number of academies could not be monitored from a single Whitehall department. Eight commissioners were designated in 2014 to oversee all the free schools and academies in their appointed regions. But after just a year, their remit has been expanded, making them almost de facto secretaries of state in their local area.

As well as issuing academies with warning notices if their standards slip and brokering the conversion of schools into academies, RSCs now have the power to decide which sponsors take on a school. They also approve free-school applications rather than just recommend them.

But it doesn’t stop at academies and free schools. Under plans contained in the Education and Adoption Bill, RSCs will also have the power to intervene in state-maintained schools deemed to be “coasting”. It is a move Sir David “welcomes”.

“The role is expanding; it started to expand as soon as the election ended,” he admits. “It feels right to me, morally, that we should be trying to improve the life chances of every child, not just those who go to academies. We do need time to reflect on the coasting agenda and how we will manage that.”

Sir David is, however, eager to play down the idea that he and his colleagues are proxy education secretaries.

“I would use the word ‘influential’ rather than ‘powerful’,” he says. “I think you need to be careful how you use roles that are perceived to be powerful. I can see why you would describe us in that way but I think it would be very arrogant for us to say it.”

Despite his dislike of the comparison, it seems fitting. Sir David speaks like a secretary of state, saying he has visited more than 130 schools in the past year. His pep talk at Nova Hreod certainly had a red-carpet feel to it.

Given the influence of RSCs, there have been major concerns raised by teaching unions, not least the NUT, about how accountable they are as unelected officials.

But Sir David says: “You wouldn’t have changed the way I work if I was elected. I have a close relationship with my stakeholders. If you were elected, it would bring a political element to it. Would people become more like stakeholder representatives rather than educationalists? I don’t know.”

A foregone conclusion?

Back at his Bristol base, a spartan office staffed by just a handful of members, many of whom relocated from London, Sir David has a meeting with the head of a primary academy that is in the process of starting a multi-academy trust (MAT).

The group of more than 20 schools is a mixture of state-maintained and academy schools that currently operates as a soft federation. With the full backing of the council, there is a push to formalise the arrangement by establishing a MAT.

The representatives have been working for months on the proposal while on secondment from their current roles. Sir David is supportive of the bid, but is quick to point out the weaknesses. Making the finance director a member of the trust, for instance, is a big no-no, he says.

“You end up having people holding themselves to account. A finance director, as a member of the trust, might make accidental errors, or even deliberate errors, and you wouldn’t be able to tell in time,” he adds.

The applicant fastidiously takes notes – in fluorescent pink pen – and is told that she should work to have the MAT approved by April and operational by September 2016.

After the meeting, Sir David explains that if more people could see the work that he and the other RSCs were doing, they would be “reassured” by the checks and measures they provide.

And yet the conversation about the creation of the MAT always appeared a foregone conclusion, a fait accompli. It wasn’t a question of whether it should be started, but when.

“People believe I am very pro-multi academy trusts and pro-sponsorships; I do like them but they are not the only answer,” Sir David insists.

The heads and schools that he oversees may take some persuading, however.

On a warning

The National Audit Office has warned of an “inherent risk” of financial irregularities across the academies sector because of the number and variety of providers.

Some of the irregularities it fears could result from the unfamiliarity of “new academy accounting officers” with their responsibilities include:

Approval from the secretary of state not being sought for certain transactions where it is required.

Employment of relations not on an “arm’s-length” basis.

Fraud or misappropriation of funds.

An increasing risk that academies with long-standing deficits may become insolvent.

The Education Funding Agency’s website currently lists 15 ongoing investigations that have resulted in schools being given a warning notice to improve their financial management.

Read the full story on the TES website at bit.ly/AcademiesWatchdog

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