Should you be afraid of Sir David Carter?

26th February 2016 at 00:00
The new national schools commissioner is on a mission to improve schools – and he won’t let anyone stand in his way. In an exclusive interview, Richard Vaughan asks what his rise to power means for the heads and teachers on the ground

Sir David Carter doesn’t look like he would be much use in a fight. England’s newly crowned national schools commissioner (NSC) cuts a confident figure, bullish even, but he’s not a scrapper – he’s too friendly, too softly spoken, too…well…nice.

Yet when asked about how the role of regional schools commissioner (RSC) will work in relation to Ofsted’s inspectors, it is a fight that he seems to be looking to pick.

“The role of an inspector and what an HMI does is fundamentally different to an RSC,” he explains. “And I think, in some respects, the all-encompassing role of the RSC is a more significant one than the HMI.

“Our job is to look at a much broader picture than just the Ofsted inspection. I think if we base the success of an academised system purely on Ofsted judgements, then we miss a real opportunity here because a good school is often more than the sum of its Ofsted parts.”

It’s a measure of Carter’s chutzpah that only 18 months ago, he was just another chief executive of a medium-sized multi-academy trust (MAT) in the South West. Today, the Welshman has direct control of every academy and free school in the country, as well as potentially thousands of underperforming maintained schools. If he wants to start a fight with Ofsted, then he believes he has the power base from which to launch an offensive.

The Department for Education certainly believes that a fight is in the offing. The battle between Sir David and his fellow knight Sir Michael Wilshaw has already been billed as “King David versus King Michael” by one senior insider at the DfE. And there is little doubt who ministers see as their champion.

As a symbol of his new-found importance, Carter is accompanied to the interview with TES by not one, not two, but three minders – including one of education secretary Nicky Morgan’s own special advisers.

Gunning for a war with Wilshaw and Ofsted is, some would say, ill-advised. In contrast to Carter’s role as untried challenger, Wilshaw is a long-time heavyweight champion – with the scars to prove it.

That Wilshaw is edging ever closer to stepping down does not necessarily make him weaker, either, as he will be desperate to avoid his legacy being the man who ceded the powers of the chief inspector’s role.

Carter, though, is well backed, so schools need to start thinking about the future and what an education sector patrolled by him will look like.

A self-made man

You could argue that the position Carter now holds has been mostly of his own creation.

The role of the RSC was hastily established back in 2013 under then education secretary Michael Gove, in response to growing criticism that the rapidly expanding number of academies and free schools could not be run by a government department in Whitehall. Unsurprisingly, the creation of an entirely new layer of school accountability, essentially on the back of a fag packet, was not immediately successful.

Having been one of the first to be appointed as an RSC in the South West, Carter saw first-hand how the role could be improved under clearer leadership.

Sources say that he penned a dossier spelling out how he believed the newly created layer of oversight for academies and free schools should function. This was sent directly to schools minister Lord Nash and was very well received. Within months, Carter was announced as the new NSC, replacing Frank Green who had been in post for just two years. The role was then considerably beefed up in time for his arrival.

Talking through his “vision”, as he calls it (see box, opposite), Carter appears very much at ease with his new-found authority. Perhaps it is the music teacher in him, but he has the well-rehearsed gestures of someone who enjoys being the centre of attention.

The overarching theme of his new regime is for each of his commissioners to be one of the central players in a school-led improvement system. Here, immediately, you can see why there is a clash with Ofsted – and Carter does not try to hide it.

“The influence that Ofsted has is profound, isn’t it? It has become a verb. It drives so much of a school’s thinking. Whether that is a positive influence, whether that is conducive to a school-led system I think is debatable,” he says, plainly. “I think there is an imbalance between the influence of the inspection system and where schools are at. And I don’t think schools see commissioners in that way at all.”

Carter describes the argument put forward by Wilshaw that Ofsted has a role to play in school improvement as “valid” but essentially misguided. As he sees it, Ofsted – or an “inspection service”, at least – should function purely as a regulatory body.

“I think there will always be a need for parents and taxpayers to have some independent regulatory body that tells them how good their school is,” he says. “I just think that the inspection system needs to catch up with where we are in the education system and be less high-stakes in terms of its accountability.”

It is an argument that resonates strongly through Whitehall. The Conservatives’ manifesto committed the party to “further reduce the burden of Ofsted inspections”. And there are loud rumblings that the DfE is growing tired of both Ofsted and its boss – a man once heralded as a “hero” by Gove.

It is understood that ministers and senior civil servants have become increasingly frustrated by Wilshaw’s interventions and musings on government policy. Reports are growing, such as in The Times newspaper last month, that Morgan is looking to appoint someone who is less of a maverick to run the inspectorate after Wilshaw steps down in December. More recently, there have even been claims in The Sunday Times that the new chief inspector could be an American with experience taking on the teaching unions.


The rumours follow a piece for TES in January, in which Tom Richmond, a teacher and former policy adviser at the DfE, wrote that the “Ofsted dragon should be slayed” and replaced with Carter and his commissioners (

According to one seasoned observer, Carter has found considerable favour among the powers that be, and it will ultimately mean that he gets what he wants.

“Sir Michael Wilshaw thinks Ofsted has a role in school improvement, but it doesn’t. The DfE is clear that Ofsted is not a school improvement body,” the insider says. “Sir David Carter will be clear that he is the man to make the decisions and he has the backing of the DfE.

“It doesn’t matter what your job title is, the DfE is like a feudal court – what matters is that you have the trust and backing of the department. If they do trust you, then your role will grow. And Carter has more trust than Wilshaw does right now.”

Quite what this means for schools remains to be seen, but Carter is keen to be a friendlier face of accountability than the one that Ofsted adopts. He says that there will be no confrontational, life-or-death interactions.

“I think the difference between what an inspector and a commissioner would do is an inspector inspects and says, ‘That’s what’s wrong with the school,’” he explains. “My conversation starts with that and says, ‘What’s your response to this? What do you think your outcomes will be this year?’ And most importantly, ‘What can I do to help?’ That’s the difference between an inspection visit and a commissioner visit.

“I don’t want to be, and the commissioner shouldn’t be, the person who tells the school what’s wrong. We have to take the job from where the school is and help it get better.”

He is confident, he adds, that most of the more than 90 schools he went to during his tenure as RSC for the South West would have viewed his visit as “a very positive one, because I left them with something to look forward to”.

If true, that may be less to do with what Carter says and more about how he is. According to those who have worked closely with him, Carter has great people skills and it is these that have helped him to navigate his way to the inner sanctum of the DfE. If Wilshaw is the grimacing Dirty Harry of education, then Carter is its smiling Lewis – the erstwhile sidekick to Inspector Morse.

“People make assumptions about the person he is,” explains Steve Taylor, the chief executive of the Cabot Learning Federation, which Carter started seven years ago. Having been hired by Carter as a principal when the federation was established, Taylor knows the new commissioner better than most.

“It’s because of the success he has had in a short period of time. They ascribe what he must be like and are usually taken aback by how nice and how people-focused he is,” Taylor says. “People are supportive when they realise the values he stands for are entirely authentic. When he talks about his moral purpose and his commitment to finding greater equity for the less advantaged, he really means it.”

A standout characteristic of Carter is his ability to remember people, Taylor adds.

“He has this amazing memory. As a sort of memory game, I would name a school and he would be able to tell me who the headteacher was instantly. He has this encyclopaedic knowledge.”

Another attribute that stands in his favour is authenticity: he can hold academy chains to account because he knows what it is like to run one. After graduating as a music teacher in 1983, he secured his first headship in 1997. In 2004, he became principal of the former John Cabot city technical college (CTC) in Bristol – a move that speaks volumes about his philosophy on education. CTCs were introduced in the late 1980s by then education secretary Kenneth Baker, and were effectively proto-academies, granting schools independence and freedom from their respective local authorities.

By 2007, Carter had established the CTC as the linchpin within a federation of schools in the South Gloucestershire area. The arrival of Gove and his academies programme was the spark that allowed Carter to create one of the first MATs in the country.

“I hope that one of the things I bring to this is that if I make a statement I can back it up, having done that job,” he says. “And I know exactly what the strengths and weaknesses of an MAT are from living and breathing it for seven years before becoming an RSC.”

The MAT is one of the cornerstones in Carter’s vision of how he sees a self-improving school system working. It will act as the vehicle, he says, for schools to work with each other and improve one another.

The MATs themselves will be held accountable to Carter’s team of RSCs, but the biggest academy chains – what Carter calls the “system leader trusts”, such as the Harris Federation, Ark and the Reach2 Academy Trust – will come directly under his remit.

The prospect of a more powerful national schools commissioner holding the country’s most prominent academy providers to account is not something that is being welcomed by every academy chief executive.

The head of one high-profile chain told TES that they weren’t relishing the appointment of Carter – an “added layer of bureaucracy” – and would prefer a return to a system that was governed from the DfE’s offices in Westminster.

King of accountability

It is not surprising that academy chains may not approve of a new high king of accountability. After all, Carter and his commissioners now have powers that make them essentially de facto secretaries of state in their regions.

Carter’s RSCs can issue academies with warning notices if their standards slip. They can also dictate which sponsors take on which schools, and take schools away from underperforming sponsors. They even have the power to approve free-school applications, rather than just recommend them.

But this doesn’t stop at academies and free schools. Under plans contained within the Education and Adoption Bill, which is soon to be passed into law, Carter will also have the power to intervene in state-maintained schools and convert them into academies if they are judged as “coasting”.

Estimates of how many schools could be classed as coasting range from several hundred to more than a thousand. This is on top of the approximately 1,000 schools that will be automatically converted into academies having been judged “inadequate” by Ofsted.

All will fall within the NSC’s domain. In light of this, perhaps heads should be more afraid of Carter wandering down their corridors than Wilshaw.

“The word afraid is a strange one in the context,” Carter muses. “I mean, the role has influence, but of course it has to have influence because it has to do good. If it were an ambassadorial role, or a figurehead role, then I wouldn’t be doing it.”

Carter is under no illusion that his is currently a smaller role than Wilshaw’s, but both he and the DfE have a clear ambition to change that.

“If you were to poll the system, there are more people who would know about the chief inspector of schools than the national schools commissioner. I have no complaints about that,” he admits. “But I think in terms of our remits, they are very different. I am trying to define mine to give it a role in the system so it can have a real impact in schools for children.”

So will he, as national schools commissioner, have more power than Ofsted eventually? His inability to give a straight answer suggests that he thinks he might.

“Power used inappropriately is dangerous, isn’t it?” he asks. “But power that is informed by intelligent data, intelligent accountability, by knowing the schools like the RSCs do, I think is a different opportunity.”

That’s a bold criticism of the reigning power. But Carter, with his new-found influence, would do well to take heed of Wilshaw, for his is a cautionary tale. If the NSC begins to allow the power to get the better of him – if he questions government policy publicly or steps beyond his remit – then it won’t be a fight for superiority he will be involved in; it will be a fight for his career.

Carter’s vision

Sir David Carter says that there are three core elements to his vision for the regional schools commissioners:

1. A belief in schools leading the system

“My view will be that, in future, every school in the country will be a giver and a receiver of support,” he says. “If you were to compile the top 20 best schools in the country, they won’t be the best schools at everything. My vision is that fundamentally everybody needs some help and can give some help.”

2. The multi-academy trust (MAT) as the formal vehicle for sustained school improvement

“The MAT structure, whether it is through the chief executive or the board, has the authority to make decisions that will give children a better education – and then be held to account for them.”

3. Ambition

“I don’t think the ambition should just be for a better education system. I think it has to be to make our system a world-class one, so our young people can compete globally.”

CV: Sir David Carter

1959 Born in Cardiff

1971-76 Attended Llanedeyrn High School, Cardiff

1976-78 Attended Cardiff High School

1978-79 Secured a pianoforte performance diploma

1979-82 Gained a BMus at Royal Holloway, University of London

1982-83 Secured a PGCE in music and PE at the Institute of Education

1986-88 Gained an MA in music education at the Institute of Education

1997-2003 Headteacher, Cirencester Deer Park School, Gloucestershire

2004-07 Principal of the former John Cabot City Technology College, Gloucestershire

2007-14 Chief executive of Cabot Learning Federation

2013 Knighted for services to education

2014-16 Became the regional schools commissioner for the South West of England

2016 Named as the national schools commissioner

The Carter plan

1. Hold the regional schools commissioners to account

2. Group multi-academy trusts into four separate categories:

Starter trust: new MATs with between one and five schools in one region.

Established trusts: providers with five to a dozen or 15 schools in a single region.

National trusts: made up of between 15 and 30 schools, and crossing regional borders.

System leader trusts: the country’s biggest academy sponsors of 30-plus schools.

There will be an assessment that an MAT must pass before it can move up to the next level

3. Intervene in the weakest schools

He will identify the 100 weakest schools in England and intervene to improve them.

4. Personally take charge of the biggest multi-academy trusts

He will bring the largest sponsors under his remit.

Everything you need to know about the Schools Commissioners Group

Who is the national schools commissioner?

In overall charge of the Schools Commissioners Group is the national schools commissioner (NSC), who is appointed by the government and answers to the Secretary of State for Education. Sir David Carter is reported to be paid between £140,000 and £144,999.

The Department for Education lists the duties of the NSC as follows:

promoting the benefits of the academies and free schools programme among school leaders, local authorities, parent groups and community organisations;

leading communications between the DfE and the education sector;

supporting brokerage of academy arrangements between those schools that would benefit most from an academy solution and established sponsors with a good track record of performance improvement;

encouraging and helping to nurture potential sponsors from schools and community sectors;

influencing school-to-school support and working closely with ministers to shape the future development of the academies and free-schools programme.

Who are the regional schools commissioners?

The NSC is in charge of eight regional schools commissioners (RSCs), who are directly appointed by the government and each supported directly by between six and seven other civil servants. The RSCs are paid between £110,000 and £144,999.

The responsibilities of RSCs were defined in January via the House of Commons Education Committee report on the role of Regional Schools Commissioners (First Report of Session 2015–16). It stated that RSCs are in place to:

monitor the performance of the academies, free schools, UTCs and studio schools in their area;

take action when an academy, free school, UTC or studio school is underperforming;

approve the conversion of maintained schools to academies and make the decision on the sponsor for new academies in areas where the local authority has identified a need for additional school places;

make recommendations to ministers about free-school applications and advise whether approved free-school projects are ready to open;

encourage organisations to become academy sponsors or to establish free schools, approve applications to become sponsors and help to build the capacity and capability of existing sponsors within their area;

approve changes to open academies, for example: changes to age ranges, mergers between academies, and changes to MAT arrangements;

identify underperforming local authority-maintained schools that should become academies and matching them with an appropriate sponsor.

Martin Post

RSC for South Central England and North West London

Joined in August 2014, former headteacher of Watford Grammar School for Boys

Number of schools 2,765

Number of students 932,733

Jennifer Bexon-Smith

RSC for East Midlands and the Humber

Joined in September 2014, former executive principal and chief executive of the Tudor Grange Academies Trust

Number of schools 2,521

Number of students 741,909

Pank Patel

RSC for West Midlands

Joined in September 2014, former headteacher at Wood Green Academy in Wednesbury, West Midlands

Number of schools 2,479

Number of students 782,185

Dr Tim Coulson

RSC for East of England

Joined in July 2014, former director of education at Essex county council

Number of schools 2,239

Number of students 751,663

Dominic Herrington

RSC for South East England and South London

Joined in July 2014. Former director of the Academies Group at the Department for Education

Number of schools 3,051

Number of students 1,068,425

Vicky Beer

RSC for Lancashire and West Yorkshire

Joined in November 2015, former executive principal of the West Trafford Learning Partnership

Number of schools 3,149

Number of students 1,016,543

Janet Renou

RSC for North of England

Joined in September 2014. Former headteacher of Skipton Girls’ High School

Number of schools 1,715

Number of students 420,210


RSC for South-West England

The DfE is seeking a replacement for Sir David Carter. He is currently doing the job alongside his NSC role

Number of schools 2,198

Number of students 592,827

Criticisms of the RSCs

The House of Commons Education Committee report on the role of RSCs (First Report of Session 2015–16) stated that there was still confusion of the role of RSCs in relation to other bodies such as Ofsted and the Education Funding Agency, and that parents largely had no idea what an RSC was for.

The report stated: “The landscape of oversight, intervention, inspection and accountability is now complex and difficult for many of those involved in education, not least parents, to navigate. We recommend that the government reflect on the need to improve understanding of the role of the RSCs.”

It added: “The government should clarify the division of responsibilities between RSCs, local authorities, and Ofsted – including in relation to safeguarding – in a way that is comprehensible to schools and parents.”

It also criticised a lack of consistency between regions: “We have received evidence that there is too much variation in the approach that RSCs take to their work and the standards they apply.”

Finally, the report expressed concern at how the “success” of the RSCs was measured. “It is troubling that the DfE struggled to provide us with data on the performance of RSCs, given that KPIs were referred to throughout our inquiry and the Department’s written evidence.”

An NFER research report in September 2015 suggested that some RSCs would have it easier than others. “There is a wide variation in the numbers of coasting and ‘below floor’ schools per region,” it said.

The NFER report also warned of the issues around academy sponsors: “RSCs’ abilities to tackle underperformance are primarily realised through academy sponsors. The regions which have the greatest need for high-quality sponsors to take on underperforming schools tend to be those with the smallest pool of existing sponsors with high potential for taking on additional schools. RSCs are therefore likely to need to look beyond their current pool of sponsors for support.”

Timeline: the Schools Commissioners Group

December 2013

The DfE announces that it will establish regional schools commissioners (RSCs).

February 2014

Frank Green is appointed national schools commissioner (NSC).

September 2014

The first eight RSCs are appointed.

June 2015

The role of the RSC is expanded, as stated in a letter from Lord Nash, Parliamentary under secretary of state for schools: “I have decided to delegate decision-making on tackling underperformance in maintained schools through sponsored academy arrangements to RSCs”.

The Education and Adoption Bill solidifies the new role – Nicky Morgan, introducing the second reading of the Bill, says that coasting schools would be tackled by RSCs who would decide the appropriate course of action.

Lord Nash suggests that, in time, there may need to be more RSCs.

August 2015

The DfE issues notice of a contract, valued at £12m over two years, for education specialists – who would be commissioned to support the work of the RSCs.

September 2015

The NFER releases a report highlighting several issues around the work of RSCs (

January 2016

The House of Commons Education Committee publishes a report on the role of RSCs (

February 2016

Sir David Carter is appointed as the new NSC.

Keeping the RSCs in check

Each RSC is ‘advised’ by a headteacher board (HTB). This board is made up of four elected academy headteachers and two members appointed by the RSC. HTBs can also invite (co-opt) up to two additional members.

Heads of academies could nominate themselves to stand for the board, and every headteacher of an academy in a region was able to vote for who, out of those standing, they wished to represent them on the HTB. For the original HTB in 2014, 164 headteachers applied to be part of their regional HTB.

The role of the HTB is to provide sector expertise and local knowledge to the RSC.

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