11.Lord Nash, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools, summarised the role of Regional Schools Commissioners as being “to oversee improvement in performance of maintained schools and academy schools that are underperforming, to generate new sponsors, to look at converter academies, to look at free school applications and maybe help generate some free school applications”. More specifically, the responsibilities of RSCs were initially to:
Their responsibilities were extended from 1 July 2015 to include responsibility for “identifying underperforming local authority maintained schools that should become academies and matching them with an appropriate academy sponsor”. The specifics of their work can also be understood through their Key Performance Indicators, which are discussed in chapter six.
12.The DfE also clarified some of the limits of the RSCs’ role:
13.Further expansion of the role of RSCs has been proposed in the Education and Adoption Bill currently before Parliament. The Bill introduces a new category of “coasting” schools which will be eligible for intervention by the RSCs; such interventions may include replacing the governing body with an interim executive board, or issuing an academy order. Corresponding guidance for local authorities and RSCs in the context of the expected passage of the Bill was issued in draft for consultation on 21 October 2015. The guidance explains that the role will include judging the quality of a coasting school’s improvement plans:
RSCs have discretion to decide which schools within the definition of coasting have a sufficient plan and sufficient capacity to improve, which schools will need additional support and challenge in order to improve, and in which schools it will be necessary for the RSC to intervene.
If implemented, these proposals further increase the significance of the work of RSCs. Some witnesses described the evolution of RSC responsibilities as “mission creep”, but it is clear that the Government’s view of how RSCs can best be used to support school improvement is still being developed.
14.The eight RSCs are line managed by the national Schools Commissioner, currently Frank Green. The Government’s website describes the role of the national Schools Commissioner as “external facing”, with responsibility for:
15.Jon Coles, Chief Executive of United Learning, argued that there was a need for the Schools Commissioner to be responsible for sharing best practice between RSCs, since “you are not going to get consistency and learning across regions simply by just relying on a network of ace individuals to compare practice. You have to have that properly organised”. More broadly, United Learning suggested to us that the Schools Commissioner’s role should include:
16.Lord Nash explained that “The role of the national Schools Commissioner now is to provide strategic direction, promote the overall academies and free school programme through events, meeting with stakeholders and to manage the Regional Schools Commissioners providing support, oversight and challenge […] they have this monthly meeting where they look at the effectiveness of different practices and co-ordinate the practices, holding RSCs to account for their KPIs, their performance objectives”. Frank Green summarised that his role was “very much that of overseeing the new system that we are creating”.
17.The Government announced in December 2015 that Frank Green will be succeeded as Schools Commissioner by Sir David Carter, the current RSC for the South West. Sir David is due to take up this role on 2 February 2016.
18.The existing description of the role of the national Schools Commissioner is nebulous and does not make clear what is required from the position. We recommend that the Government sets out more clearly the role of the national Schools Commissioner and how it relates to the expanding role of the RSCs. Given the significance of the role of the national Schools Commissioner, we would expect to hold a hearing with the new appointee at an early date. The Government should discuss with us adding the position to the list of public appointments subject to pre-appointment hearings.
Figure 1: School oversight structures
Source: National Audit Office analysis
19.The Public Accounts Committee concluded in January 2015 that the DfE “presides over a complex and confused system of external oversight”.Figure 1 demonstrates the current complexity of the landscape.
20.The Government’s response to the Public Accounts Committee’s call for greater clarity claimed that the recommendation had been implemented:
The department has set out its role and the respective responsibilities of Regional Schools Commissioners (RSCs), local authorities and the EFA [Education Funding Agency] in the revised Accountability System Statement published on 20 January 2015.
Nevertheless, witnesses told us that there was still a lack of clarity over how the RSCs’ functions related to those carried out by the various other bodies featured in Figure 1. Ian Bauckham, a member of the Headteacher Board for the South East and South London region, told us that “greater clarity should be achieved, as the new school landscape matures, about where responsibility lies for school improvement on the one hand, and regulatory and oversight roles on the other, and how these are appropriately distributed between RSCs, Ofsted, LAs and academy trusts. The current system is seen as confusing by many in the system”.
21.PTA UK told us that “just one in ten parents know what role Regional Schools Commissioners play in their child’s education”, and several other witnesses were concerned that parents were confused about whom to contact to discuss concerns about a school. The Local Government Association told us that the “current two-tier system of accountability is extremely confusing for parents, with many not knowing if they should report an issue to their council or the DfE”. Similarly, Northamptonshire County Council said that “parents and the community still look to the local authority when they have concerns and they do not understand why we can’t take action, but have to refer them to another body”. Kent County Council found that parents were “either unaware or confused about the role of the RSC” and that they “tend to raise concerns with locally elected members irrespective of whether the school is [LA-] maintained or an academy”.
22.However, Lord Nash told us that the role of RSCs was “nearly fully understood”. There were “areas where there is still some confusion” but he was optimistic that “within a little bit more time it will be completely understood”.
23.RSCs occupy an increasingly powerful position in the education system, but their responsibilities in relation to other components of the system remain unclear to many of our witnesses. The landscape of oversight, intervention, inspection and accountability is now complex and difficult for many of those involved in education, not least parents, to navigate. We recommend that the Government reflect on the need to improve understanding of the role of the RSCs.
24.Our predecessor committee recommended that the DfE clarify the respective roles of local authorities and RSCs in relation to academies as “a matter of urgency”. Similarly, the Public Accounts Committee found in January 2015 that “lack of clarity in the Department’s guidance has contributed to a situation where some local authorities do not understand their safeguarding duties towards pupils in academies”, and we were concerned to find that confusion on this point in particular persists one year on.
25.The DfE told us that “Local authorities continue to have responsibility for […] safeguarding of pupils in all schools—maintained schools and academies”. Nevertheless, Northamptonshire County Council told us that confusion stemmed from the fact that managing an academy’s compliance with its funding agreement was the responsibility of the Education Funding Agency (EFA), and that it was this agreement which specified the relevant safeguarding expectations. It described this as “dangerous and nonsensical”, explaining that when a concern about practice in a school is referred to the EFA there is “no mechanism for informing the RSC, local authority or local community of the outcome and resolution of any concerns”.
26.Debbie Barnes, representing the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, told us that protocols in relation to child protection were clear, but that a lack of “clear, crisp national guidance” in relation to handling wider safeguarding concerns such as “concerns about robustness of risk assessments” in academies meant that such issues were being addressed in an ad hoc way through meetings with RSCs. She also explained that Local Safeguarding Children Boards do not have “investigative powers to actually go in to an academy and undertake any form of safeguarding investigation”, and that this placed a limit on the extent to which local authorities can address concerns other than through working with the RSC.
27.The Government should clarify the division of responsibilities between RSCs, local authorities, and Ofsted—including in relation to safeguarding—in a way that is comprehensible to schools and parents.
28.The DfE told us that “the regional approach means that RSCs are able to tailor their ways of working to meet local needs and priorities”. Jon Coles recalled that “it was quite evident, almost from week one at the beginning of last year, that people were going to approach this in very different ways. Some of that just reflects the different backgrounds of the RSCs and the different ways they want to work. Some of them want to be personally out in schools all of the time. Others are using their teams a lot”. However, some witnesses reported that this lack of consistency of approach was problematic for organisations that spanned several regions, such as multi-academy trusts and dioceses. The Church of England Education Office told us that diocesan directors can find themselves dealing with as many as three different RSCs, and that differences in their approaches were noticeable:
[…] one Diocese has been told both that it must have a contractual partner to support it in sponsoring a school that is graded by Ofsted as having ‘Significant Weaknesses’ but also that no support is required for the same Diocese to sponsor a far more challenging school graded as requiring ‘Special Measures’ (i.e. the lowest possible judgment). Another Diocese has been told that the RSC will not allow it to sponsor a Church of England school with the assistance of a contractual partner in any event because such arrangements are not deemed to be sufficiently robust.
29.We also heard that these differences were having an effect on which schools were selected for intervention by an RSC—that is, a difference in standards, as well as approaches. Jon Coles said that:
The thresholds are different in different regions. We found in one region—I will not name names—an RSC wanting to visit a school that they were worried about but we were not. In another region we found RSCs not really interested in visiting a school that we were quite worried about. It was evident to us that the bar was being drawn at a different level in different regions reflecting the level of different challenge in the regions.
Similarly, the Academies Enterprise Trust (AET) wrote that there was “too much variability in the way RSCs exercise their roles”, and that “expectations and targets for schools seem unclear and at the whim of an individual RSC.” Ian Comfort, Chief Executive of AET, told us that consistency was now beginning to improve, but that differences remained.
30.Dominic Herrington, the RSC for South East England and South London, argued that “There is a lot more consistency in our decisions than inconsistency […] There may be slightly different approaches for different means and different circumstances, but there is a similar menu and the most important thing is whether we are making a difference for children”. He explained that “because so many of our decisions are based on national data, frameworks and published guidance, the risk that a region would suddenly set another bar, or that another bar would suddenly creep in, is managed”.
31.Frank Green told us that the appropriate balance between consistency and local flexibility in the way an RSC works was “about 80:20. It is certainly the kind of number that I work with in my head, in terms of 80% being set down in statute, rules and regulations, and 20% being how the regional commissioner builds his or her region to get the flair and the distinctiveness that gets people feeling they belong to the region”.
32.Lord Nash confirmed it was the responsibility of the national Schools Commissioner to ensure that there was a consistency of standards across the RSCs, although this is absent from the role description in paragraph 14. He told us that “the bar should be the same […] it is easy to draw conclusions that there is much more inconsistency than there is”. Lord Nash acknowledged that there was nevertheless a need to improve consistency of approach:
we do want to see as much consistency as is possible, bearing in mind obviously the Regional Schools Commissioners are human beings, not robots, and they will each have a slightly different approach […] we will be looking more at the consistency of approach and what we think is the best practice to see whether we can make things more consistent.
33.We have received evidence that there is too much variation in the approach that RSCs take to their work and the standards they apply. RSCs should be identifying local challenges that impede school improvement so that these issues can be addressed; they must not demand or expect different standards in different regions.
34.We recommend that the Government ensure a greater level of consistency in the work of RSCs, and explicitly include responsibility for co-ordination and consistency of standards in the job description for the national Schools Commissioner. We expect the national Schools Commissioner to report to us on how a greater level of consistency will be achieved.
35.A number of witnesses called for the RSCs to articulate a “vision” for their region. Kent County Council (KCC) told the Committee that:
Both the RSC and KCC have high aspirations for school improvement, but the school improvement system is fragmented at present, so rewarding the RSC to help articulate a shared vision for education improvement and steer a powerful, coherent and sustained approach to school improvement with LAs and Academy Trusts / Chains would be welcome.
The Church of England Education Office argued that “understanding the RSC’s strategic vision for any area and their commitment to improving schools for the benefit of children will be important in helping to defuse suspicion in communities that have a negative view of academies and academy sponsors”.
36.The DfE confirmed that vision statements exist for each RSC region and provided us with copies, but acknowledged that there was some variability in how and whether these had been communicated within their area:
In the South East and South London region, the RSC, Dominic Herrington, has sent his vision document to all open academies, free schools and sponsors and local authorities in the region. In other regions, for example, in East England and North East London and North West London and South Central the document itself has not been shared externally, but its content and themes has been used as the basis of other communications activities, such as speaking events.
38.The DfE told us that “The RSCs have been appointed for their extensive knowledge of the education sector within their regions”. Nevertheless, the National Governors’ Association questioned the knowledge level of RSCs in terms of governance structures:
We are aware of some RSCs stating that they hold headteachers or the Chief Executive of a trust to account. This seems to us a fundamental misunderstanding […] the accountable body is the trust board. This lack of understanding of precisely who they are supposed to be holding to account is of considerable concern to the NGA and indicates the underlying lack of knowledge of about governance […]
39.The background of the current RSCs varies; one was a senior civil servant within the DfE, while several others previously headteachers or CEOs of multi-academy trusts. Malcolm Trobe, Deputy General Secretary, Association of School and College Leaders, argued that “The most important thing here is the quality of the person that is doing the job”. Pamela Birch, a member of the Headteacher Board for Lancashire and West Yorkshire, told us that in looking for future RSCs “we are looking for superhuman individuals of great stature”.
40.The knowledge and skills needed to perform the role of RSC are considerable. The RSC system therefore relies heavily on identifying the right people to take on the role, and on the future supply of such system leaders. There is a need to nurture potential future RSCs to undertake the role.
41.Given the importance to school improvement of the supply of good teachers, we asked Frank Green whether in the future RSCs ought to have a role in commissioning teacher training. He told us that this was “ very much a national college function”, and that:
[…] our support of the college is what is required there, rather than for it to be part of the function of the national Schools Commissioner. I am not the teaching commissioner”.
42.Professor Robert Hill, an education consultant, and Visiting Senior Research Fellow at Kings College London, suggested that the role of RSCs could usefully be expanded “even within their current narrowish remit” by helping to build the capacity of multi-academy trusts. He said that “we have a lot of sponsors […] a lot of them are what I would call fledglings. Even a number of the so-called mature ones are struggling. Give [the RSCs] a role to support the development there”. Inconsistencies in performance between academy chains is supported by research evidence; the Sutton Trust’s Chain Effects 2015 report found that “the contrast between the best and worst chains” was increasing in terms of their outcomes for disadvantaged pupils. This suggests scope for targeted intervention, and United Learning called for RSCs to invest more strategically in growing sponsor capacity as a form of “talent management” of sponsors and future sponsors.
43.Lorna Fitzjohn, Ofsted’s Regional Director for the West Midlands, said that RSCs will also need to take “a more strategic approach to their work” in the future as the number of academies increases. Pank Patel speculated that this expansion could mean that in the future RSCs will be “holding multi-academy trusts to account and not individual schools”.
44.There has been a gradual expansion of the role of the RSC since September 2014, and it is the Government’s ambition for all schools to become academies. This implies a significant increase in the number of institutions for which RSCs are expected to have oversight, which will have implications for capacity and ways of working. The Government will need to monitor the situation closely as it develops, if the intention is for RSCs to become responsible for all schools.
24 Department for Education () para 6
25 Department for Education () para 9
26 Department for Education () para 7
27 Department for Education () para 8
29 [Bill 64 (2014–15)]
30 Department for Education, Schools causing concern: Intervening in failing, underperforming and coasting schools—Draft for consultation, 2015
31 Department for Education, Schools causing concern: Intervening in failing, underperforming and coasting schools—Draft for consultation, 2015, p10
32 National Association of Headteachers () para 3, Socialist Educational Association () para 4
34 , gov.uk, accessed 7 January 2016
36 United Learning ()
39 , Department for Education Press Release, 5 January 2016
41 HM Treasury, Treasury Minutes: Government responses on the Twenty Fifth to the Twenty Ninth, the Thirty First to the Thirty Second, the Thirty Fourth, the Thirty Sixth, and the Thirty Eighth to the Fortieth reports from the Committee of Public Accounts, Session 2014–15, CM 9033, March 2015, Para 2.2
42 Ian Bauckham () para H
43 PTA UK () para 6.1
44 Northamptonshire County Council () para 3.13
45 Kent County Council () para 5.3
49 Department for Education () para 34
50 Northamptonshire County Council () para 3.5
51 Northamptonshire County Council () para 3.5
54 Department for Education () para 10
56 Church of England Education Office () para 9
57 Q43 [Jon Coles]
59 Qq 99–100
65 Kent County Council () para 3.2
66 Church of England Education Office () para 22
67 See Appendix 1
68 Department for Education () para 2
69 Department for Education () para 3
75 United Learning ()
Prepared 18 January 2016