Whispers from Westminster

15th January 2016 at 00:00
Sir David has a huge task in growing academies

At the end of this month, Sir David Carter will take up a new position as national schools commissioner (NSC). Sir David is an outstanding school leader, and former executive principal and regional schools commissioner, who has (as his TES article made clear – see bit.ly/SirDavidCarter) a strong vision for his new role.

All in all, the last thing he needs, therefore, are any thoughts from me. So here are some.

The NSC role has grown significantly in recent years as the number of academies has increased and as the eight new regional schools commissioners (RSCs) have bedded in. The remit will continue to expand – not least if the government requires schools to become academies, given that only 23 per cent currently are.

To be effective, the NSC needs to be a policy adviser to ministers and a delivery agent to the system; in both these areas, the pre-eminent voice in school improvement. The role needs three main functions: overseeing and improving the RSC team; expanding and improving performance of key academy sponsors and trusts; and building capacity within the system. What might that look like?

On the first function, it is likely that the forthcoming select committee report will criticise variable performance levels between the eight RSC teams.

Variation is inevitable in a new function with an unclear remit, but the NSC must standardise the approach – especially if the RSC teams expand or break into sub-teams in the future. Sir David must ensure greater consistency over the performance of the RSCs themselves, the actions of the headteacher boards that advise them, the transparency of decisions made, and the standards of schools under the RSCs’ remit.

Secondly, the NSC ought to take greater responsibility for managing relationships with some of the biggest multi-academy trusts (MATs). It is a source of frustration for some of these, which cover several regions, to have different relationships with RSCs. As the Cabinet Office plays a role across government in managing relations with the government’s big ICT suppliers, the NSC should be the point of contact with large, multi-region trusts.

This doesn’t mean treating them softly, it means a standardised approach, including swift action if they underperform.

The third function should be to grow the number of MATs, and to expand carefully the most successful. There is a case for more transparently ranking trusts’ capacity to improve and making decisions on that basis. The NSC could have specific responsibility for growing what we might call “system-leader trusts” – those that wish to grow beyond 25 schools. The NSC could also help to broker increasing levels of funding and responsibility down to those trusts.

I expect the Department for Education, in the coming months, to flesh out more details as to what the next stage of school system oversight looks like. To be successful, Sir David needs to be at the heart of these proposals.

Jonathan Simons is a former head of education in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit under Gordon Brown and David Cameron

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