There’s something familiar about education’s new world order…

Debate within the DfE about how to fulfil the school-improvement function once carried out by local authorities could, ironically, lead us full circle

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Questions over that pesky middle tier – or lack of – just won’t go away.

How do you make sense of an education system that has evolved largely unplanned? How do you bring some rationale to the current, confusing system of accountability? Who should decide when someone – anyone – should intervene in a school if it is reckoned to be in danger of failing?

These questions, and more, are the subject of fierce debate within the Department for Education. In the department, there are few ministers or senior civil servants left who have personal or professional collateral invested in the current education system – including the DfE’s leader, Justine Greening, who was appointed only last year. In political terms, therefore, there is little to stop them changing it.

National schools commissioner Sir David Carter has skin in the game (he can, after all, be credited as the architect of England’s multi-academy trust system), as does the new schools minister, Sir Theodore Agnew, the long-term chair of a chain of academies.

But other than these two, there are few who would lose face if there were structural changes – and there are many who are less than keen on the risky, even murky, way that things get done in the current model.

'Mushrooming MATs'

This latter group, including Emran Mian, the DfE’s increasingly influential director of strategy and social mobility, is presumably taking its lead from Greening, who is said to be risk-averse. It wants to bring a modicum of sense to Michael Gove’s thousand flowering academies and Nicky Morgan’s mushrooming MATs.

It is in this context that the spotlight has fallen upon regional schools commissioners, their headteacher boards and the new “sub-regional improvement boards”. These RSCs, whose role was conceived on the back of a policy fag packet, are charged with identifying failing schools and then “brokering” or “rebrokering” their sponsorship by a MAT.

That their remit has grown since their inception is no great secret – but it will come as a surprise to some that there are those who would like them to become even more powerful. Questions being asked in the DfE include: should RSCs involve themselves in school improvement? Should they identify schools before they “fail”, and intervene?

The RSCs already have their people on the ground visiting schools (not as inspectors, mind), but should this be beefed up? It would, after all, fill some of the “middle-tier” vacuum that opened up with the emasculation of local authority education departments.

But how would this work in parallel with Ofsted? And wouldn’t there be a risk, with such mission creep, that the RSCs and their offices of officials could become bloated, undemocratic bureaucracies? Some in the DfE do understand these potential problems.

However, there is another danger in this strategy. For all the murkiness associated with MATs (too many controversies), there is a lot of good work being done, and very many heads and teachers are volunteering to step up within the so-called school-led system. Given how embryonic this model still is, there’s every chance such progress could be undermined by more top-down intervention. It would be much better if change – and it is undoubtedly needed – were to come from within the new system: it needs to prove it can self-police and self-regulate.

Everything is up for grabs, but one thing is certain: when Gove and his merry band set out seven years ago to reimagine the education system, it’s unlikely they expected it would culminate with something you might describe as Regional Education Authorities.


@Ed_Dorrell

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