The role of Regional Schools Commissioners Contents



1.In September 2014, eight Regional Schools Commissioners (RSCs), formally appointed as civil servants in the Department for Education, were given responsibility for intervening in underperforming academies in their region and approving new free schools.1 Frank Green, the national Schools Commissioner, described this as a “shift in emphasis from decision-making in Whitehall to more involvement by schools at a regional level”.2 Their role was expanded from 1 July 2015 to include responsibility for approving the conversion of underperforming maintained schools into academies and deciding on their sponsors,3 and further expansion is proposed in Education and Adoption Bill currently before Parliament.4 The budgeted running costs for RSC offices in 2015–16 are approximately £6m.5

2.Our predecessor committee considered the responsibilities of the RSCs as part of a wider inquiry into academies and free schools, noting that there was “some confusion over their role and scope”.6 The Committee outlined a number of concerns, and recommended that the Government:7

The Government’s response touched only briefly on these points.8 The growing significance of the work of RSCs, the increasing number of academies, and the passing of the first year of the RSCs’ work prompted us to return to the developing role of the Regional Schools Commissioners in greater detail, and to make this the subject of our first report of the 2015 Parliament.

Our inquiry

3.We launched our inquiry on 20 July 2015 with a call for written evidence in respect of the following issues:

4.We received over 40 written submissions during our inquiry. We took oral evidence on four occasions, hearing direct from four of the eight RSCs, from Frank Green as the national Schools Commissioner,9 and from Lord Nash as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools. We visited Coventry on 17 November 2015 in order to study the West Midlands in greater detail as an example of an RSC region, and to meet a larger group of the RSC’s key partners including headteachers, local authority representatives, Ofsted, and RSC staff.10 We took oral evidence at Sidney Stringer Academy as part of the visit, and are grateful to the staff there for accommodating us. During this inquiry we also benefitted from the advice of Professor Becky Francis, our standing adviser on education issues.11

A “missing middle”? A brief history of the case for intermediate structures

5.A leading thinker on intermediate structures in education in England is Robert Hill, a visiting senior research fellow at King’s College London. His 2012 report for the RSA,12 The missing middle: The case for school commissioners, presented an overview of the history of intermediate structures between central government and individual schools, referring to this as the “middle tier” in education.13 The report noted that this role had previously been the preserve of the Local Authority (LA) for all schools in the area, but that by 2012 the growth of the academies programme, and a “distrust and frustration with the performance of local government”, had led central government to take on “a substantial middle tier role” itself.14 However, his analysis of the international evidence was that “the impact of individual policies aimed at improving school and student performance” would be more effective if they were “coordinated and steered at a sub-regional level”, and he therefore proposed that a system of school commissioners be developed to provide “the missing middle”.15

6.Robert Hill told us that the system of Regional Schools Commissioners subsequently introduced by the DfE was “not exactly in line with” the model for which he had argued, but that nevertheless it “should in principle be seen as a progressive reform”.16 He explained that:

The advent of RSCs was a recognition by the Department for Education (DfE) that it was unrealistic to centrally monitor, manage and, where necessary, intervene on all academies and academy trusts as the numbers continued to grow […]17

7.In contrast, the Academies Commission concluded in 2013 that the Government’s (then) proposals for introducing RSCs risked creating an additional layer of bureaucracy and a “democratic deficit”.18 David Blunkett’s education policy review for the Labour Party in 2014 argued that:19

a regional tier overseeing only academies and Free Schools fails to deliver the local oversight necessary to ensure standards stay high in all schools or to deal with the divided system we have at present whereby schools of different structures are accountable to and overseen by different bodies.

8.Nevertheless, our predecessors in the 2010 Parliament concluded that an intermediate structure between Whitehall and individual schools was necessary,20 and it is clear to us that the continuing expansion of the academies sector further underlines this need; there are now over 5,000 open academies in England, including over half of all secondary schools. The Public Accounts Committee has described the RSCs as “a welcome recognition of the need to provide more local intelligence and oversight for the growing number of academies”.21

9.We asked witnesses to consider whether the RSC model was a sustainable ‘middle tier’ for the future, or whether it was primarily a response to the current blend of academies and LA-maintained schools and therefore a temporary solution. Jon Coles, Chief Executive of United Learning, suggested that a comprehensive reassessment may be required soon: 22

I think we are reaching a point where we need a new settlement. We have not had a settlement that has been national, clear and comprehensive since the 1944 Act […] there has been a progressive erosion of some people’s roles, development of new roles, changes to the key functions of key actors in the system […] local authorities have the same duties as they used to have but […] the landscape has changed hugely […] I think we just need to have a fresh look.

10.It is clear to us that RSCs were introduced as a response to the need to ensure appropriate oversight for the growing number of academies, and that the schools landscape is continuing to evolve. As such, oversight will need to develop further with it. For now our starting point is that the introduction of RSCs is a pragmatic approach to managing the growing task of overseeing academies. Once the mix of school structures becomes more stable a fundamental reassessment will be required.

1 Department for Education, Regional Schools Commissioners to Oversee Academies, 23 December 2013

4 For further details see paragraph 13.

5 PQ HL2858, 4 November 2015

6 Education Committee, Fourth report of session 2014–15, Academies and free schools, HC 258, para 74

7 Education Committee, Fourth report of session 2014–15, Academies and free schools, HC 258, paras 98–103

8 Education Committee, Fourth Special Report of Session 2014–15, Academies and free schools: Government Response to the Committee’s Fourth Report of Session 2014–15, HC 1137

10 See Annex 1 for further details.

11 Professor Becky Francis, Professor of Education and Social Justice, King’s College London, declared interests as a member of the Labour Party, a governor of Hinchley Wood School, a Trustee of Impetus-PEF, and a Trustee of The Girls Network.

12 The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce

16 Robert Hill (RSC 1) para 1

17 Robert Hill (RSC 1) para 2

18 Academies Commission, Unleashing greatness: Getting the best from an academised system, January 2013, p93

20 Education Committee, Fourth report of session 2014–15, Academies and free schools, HC 258, para 9

21 Committee of Public Accounts, Thirty-second report of session 2014–15, School oversight and intervention, HC 735, para 2

22 Q53

© Parliamentary copyright 2015

Prepared 18 January 2016