- Regional Schools Commissioners (RSCs), and the Head Teacher Boards (HTBs) that support their work, are undemocratic and unaccountable education structures.
- The Government announced the creation of eight RSC posts in early 2014. Appointees took up their positions in September that year. Originally their powers were conceived as one of oversight over the growing number of academy and free schools which are outside the democratic system of accountability provided by local authorities. However, they now wield considerable power over all state schools in the regions in which they operate, undermining the role of democratically elected local authorities in education.
- The first advertisement for RSCs stated that: “The role of local authorities will be unchanged.”1 In order words, local authorities would continue to exercise oversight over maintained schools in their locality.
- However, the powers of RSCs were dramatically expanded just nine months after the first post holders took up these positions. On 15 June 2015, the then Schools Minister, Lord Nash, wrote to local authority Directors of Children’s Services to announce new powers for RSCs over maintained schools.2 His letter stated: “This change represents the next step to creating a more regionalised system.” This move represented a dramatic change in the educational landscape, especially since there are no democratic structures for education at a regional level.
- The Education and Adoption Act 2016 increased the powers of RSCs still further. 3 The Act gave extensive powers of intervention to RSCs, including powers to issue an academy order and identify a sponsor for so-called ‘failing’ or ‘coasting’ schools. This is despite the fact that there is no evidence base to support the view that academy status can itself raise attainment or improve schools.4
- RSCs also have access to a pot of money to procure school improvement services, leading some critics to argue that they are operating as reinvented local authorities. Robert Hill, a former government policy adviser has asked: “Are RSCs the regulator, or a school improvement co-ordinator? The two can be combined, but RSCs should draw the line at being involved in commissioning support. That must be for the trust [or local authority].”5
- The eight RSCs have HTBs to advise them. Schools Week has described these Head Teacher Boards as, “the most baffling and stupid part of the schools system. They are also corrupt, self-serving and secretive.”6
- The HTBs are made up largely of heads of academies and representatives of academy sponsors within the region. Some are elected by other regional academy heads but others are appointed or co-opted and some of these appointees and co-optees have no background in education. The heads of maintained schools are not represented on these bodies.
- RSCs and HTBs do not operate transparently. Whereas every school is required to have a website containing certain specified information, there is very limited public information on the Government website about RSCs and HTBs.7 The main Government page provides the names of all RSCs and HTBs and brief ‘Records of meetings’ listing decisions taken.8 However, there is no record of the discussions which led to these decisions.
- There is huge scope for conflicts of interest with both RSCs and HTBs.
- RSCs are measured against performance indicators which include increasing the number of schools that become academies within their Region.9 There is a conflict of interest in simultaneously rewarding RSCs for turning schools into academies at the same time as tasking them with identifying schools for academisation.
- Furthermore there is a revolving door developing with RSCs drawn from the ranks of academy trusts and often moving on to become the CEO of academy trusts when they leave office. 10
- HTB members are taking decisions that may benefit the academy chains that employ them – for example, whether to open a new free school, award sponsorship of a maintained school to an academy chain or provide school improvement funds to academies. Laughably, this is dealt with by requiring members with a conflict of interest to ‘step outside of the room’ whilst the decision is made.
- These new undemocratic structures are costing the taxpayer dear. RSCs have been appointed on salaries which in some cases are over £140,000 a year. Staffing costs in each office are up to £260,000. Payments for academy heads serving on the HTBs are £500 per day and head teachers are expected to spend at least half to one day per week on the role. In 2016 it was calculated that the overall budget for all eight RSCs excluding office costs was more than £5.2million. 11
- In August 2015, a DfE advertisement appeared for ‘Education Specialists to support the academies and free school programme’.12 The total worth of the contract was £12 million over two years for consultants who, according to the job description, would support the Regional Schools Commissioners.
- The Education Select Committee conducted a six-month inquiry into RSCs, publishing its report in January 2016. In relation to RSCs, it argued that “there is a need to improve confidence in their work in several ways. The level of operational autonomy of RSCs necessitates a more direct form of accountability than would otherwise be the case for Senior Civil Servants. There is also a lack of transparency in the way the RSCs operate, and decision making frameworks need to be published to address this.”13
- In relation to the HTBs it added: “We welcome the Government’s plans to increase the amount of information provided in Headteacher Board minutes, but there is currently confusion about the role of the Board itself, and this must be addressed. Without attention to these issues, the RSC system will be seen as undemocratic and opaque, and the Government must ensure that such concerns are acted on.”14
- Recognising the conflicts of interest inherent in the system, the Select Committee also recommended that: “The impact of RSCs should be measured in terms of improvements in outcomes for young people, rather than merely the volume of activity. We welcome the Government’s intention to review the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for the RSCs. This should be done to ensure that potential conflicts of interest are eliminated, and to provide assurance that RSC decisions are made in the interests of school improvement rather than to fulfil specific targets for the number of academies. We recommend that the Government report regularly on the performance of RSCs against the new KPIs.”15
- Unfortunately, the Government rejected or failed to address most of the recommendations in the Select Committee’s report.
- The NUT believes that education should be governed democratically and that the role of accountable local authorities must be restored so that they have oversight over all state-funded schools in their locality.
1 Advert places in Sunday Times, 8 December 2013. Available at: http://appointments.thesundaytimes.co.uk/job/438779/regional-schools-commissioners/
2 Letter from Lord Nash to Directors of Children’s Services (16 June 2015). Available at: www.gov.uk/government/publications/regional-schools-commissioners-responsibilities-letter
3 See: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2016/6/contents/enacted/data.htm
4Academy Status, Pupil Attainment and School Improvement, NUT EduFact. Available at: https://www.teachers.org.uk/edufacts/academy-status-and-school-improvement
5 John Dickens, RSCs under fire after ordering interventions in coasting schools
Schools Week, (5 May 2017) page 3. Available at: http://schoolsweek.co.uk/rscs-under-fire-after-ordering-interventions-in-coasting-schools/
6 Laura McInernery, Headteacher boards are corrupt, self-serving and secretive, Schools Week Editorial (5 May 2017), page 10.Available at: http://schoolsweek.co.uk/headteacher-boards-are-corrupt-self-serving-and-secretive/
7 See Schools Commissioners Group website at: www.gov.uk/government/organisations/schools-commissioners-group/about/our-governance
9 Philip Nye, Commissioners must convert schools, Schools Week (19 December 2014). Available at: http://schoolsweek.co.uk/commissioners-must-convert-schools/
10 See, for example: John Dickens, RSC Tim Coulson resigns to head Samuel Ward Academy Trust, Schools Week ( 21 April 2017). Available at: http://schoolsweek.co.uk/rsc-tim-coulson-resigns-to-head-academy-trust/
11 Fredddie Whittaker, Regional schools commissioner budgets ‘going through the roof’,Schools Week (28 February 2016). Available at: http://schoolsweek.co.uk/regional-schools-commissioner-budgets-going-through-the-roof/
12 DfE, Education Specialists to support the academies and free school programme (12 August 2015). Available at: https://www.contractsfinder.service.gov.uk/Notice/fcbd797d-c613-47f5-8853-79f2ad7d74a9
13 House of Commons Education Select Committee, The Role of Regional Schools Commissioners, January 2016. Summary of report available at: https://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201516/cmselect/cmeduc/401/40103.htm#_idTextAnchor008