Regional Schools Commissioners - a force for good?

The Education Select Committee, chaired by Conservative MP Neil Carmichael, has published the report of its inquiry into the role of Regional Schools Commissioners (RSCs).

In September 2014, the DfE appointed eight RSCs to intervene in underperforming academies and approve new free schools (including University Technical Colleges and studio schools) in their region, decentralising – to some extent – decision-making around such schools. In July 2015 they were given further powers to approve the conversion of underperforming maintained schools into academies and decide on their sponsors. The Education & Adoption Bill currently before Parliament will extend their powers still further, to decide what should happen to a school that is deemed to be ‘coasting’.

A thorough inquiry by the Committee involved 40 written submissions, four oral evidence sessions and a visit to Coventry to talk to headteachers, local authority representatives, Ofsted and RSC staff. They Committee also took advice from Professor Becky Francis of King’s College London, their standing adviser on education issues.

The Committee came to the following conclusions:

  • There is clearly a need for an intermediate structure between Whitehall and individual schools, and RSCs are a pragmatic approach to managing the growing task of overseeing academies and free schools. However, they are part of an increasingly complicated system of oversight, accountability and inspection, which will need to be fundamentally reassessed if it is to be more coherent.
  • RSCs’ relationships with local authorities, Ofsted, teaching schools, parents and local communities are critical to school improvement, but are made problematic by the lack of clarity around the RSC role. There is also confusion about the role of Headteacher Boards – and little information available on their work – and around that of the National Schools Commissioner (now Sir David Carter, former RSC for the South West, who was appointed after the inquiry closed).
  • Although RSCs are working hard to improve schools, this lack of transparency and direct accountability is causing a lack of confidence and will result in the RSC system being seen as undemocratic and opaque. The Government needs to set out the responsibilities of the different agents in the system in a way that is understood by schools and parents.
  • At the same time, there is a great deal of variation in the approach different RSCs take to their work and the standards they apply. Ensuring co-ordination and consistency of standards should be part of the job description of the National Schools Commissioner.
  • The RSCs need to articulate a ‘vision’ for their region – one that is shared with key players, so that they can steer a coherent and sustained approach to school improvement. Such statements do exist but haven’t always been communicated with their area. It would also help if the RSC regions matched the Ofsted regions, including a single region covering London.
  • The RSC workload is already high and set to increase in the future. Rather than increasing expenditure on their offices, they need to work through others to secure school improvement.
  • The focus to date has been on growing the academies market and taking action where it is most needed. Their Key Performance Indicators cover measures such as the volume of academies and free schools, availability of sponsors and the percentages of schools that are under-performing. The first of these KPIs in particular is seen as potentially inappropriate, particularly given the new powers RSCs are about to be given, as it assumes academisation is the best outcome. The Government has promised to review the KPIs and the Committee recommends that their impact be measured in improved outcomes for young people.

Overall, the Select Committee considers the RSCs to have the potential to be a force for good, offering critical regional leadership across a range of partners. But this will only be realised if their work is made more transparent and accountable and built on strong relationships.