45.The eight RSC regions divide England as follows:
Figure 3: The RSC regions
46.The previous Education Committee highlighted concerns that RSC regions may be too large for the Commissioners to be “sufficiently in touch with local information”. Dr Tim Coulson, the RSC for the East of England and North East London, conceded that “You cannot start by having huge knowledge of the whole region”, but argued that the RSCs’ relationships with “local authorities, diocesan boards, multi-academy trusts and Headteacher Board members, in particular”, had “accelerated” their understanding of the region. He told us that:
We just about manage, through our Headteacher Board, to have people who know enough about the region for us to begin to get a handle on it. Where we don’t understand enough about the region, we go and find out more. For instance, this week we have had an issue about pupil referral units in Ipswich. We did not know enough about that, so we deferred a decision until we went and did some more visits really to understand that better.
47.Russell Hobby, the General Secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, told us that “The territory is too large. The point of transferring these powers form the Secretary of State to a commissioner is to put local knowledge and insight into the framework so that we are not just relying on raw data. These are large territories and they are getting larger because more schools are coming under their purview […] I don’t think eight [RSCs] is enough […] I am not sure what the right number is but it is somewhat larger than eight”. In contrast, Ben Durbin argued that “a region that is made too small would constrain the ability of a commissioner to bring in new sponsors from different parts of the country”.
48.The DfE told us that the regions had been chosen so that each represented “a broadly balanced set of responsibilities for RSCs”. However, Ben Durbin observed that:
Some of the commissioners have substantially larger jobs to do than others when it comes to not only the numbers of underperforming school in their areas that they need to tackle, but the capacity within the system in their areas to tackle those schools. You have this catch-22 whereby if you already have some underperforming sponsors or underperforming schools in the area then, by the same notion, you do not have the capacity in the area to turn them around.
The National Foundation for Educational Research provided some quantification of these differences between the regions, including:
49.The DfE told us that “as the role of the RSCs is further embedded and developed, resourcing and workloads will be constantly reviewed to ensure that they are able to provide sufficient oversight and take swift and decisive action”.
50.Many witnesses were concerned that the shape of the RSC regions did not match other existing regional divisions and structures. Cllr Richard Watts, representing the Local Government Association, explained that:
There are all sort of networks already established on the ground and having geographies for Regional Schools Commissioners that do not fit any other bit of geography within government makes it unhelpful. So, whether it is coalitions of local authorities, coalitions of Directors of Children’s Services, a network like London Councils or East Midlands Councils, or whatever it is that still exist on the ground already […] it would be far more effective for Regional Schools Commissioner to fit in to those existing networks […].
51.The difference between RSC regions and Ofsted’s structure was a source of particular concern, including for Ofsted itself. Sir Michael Wilshaw, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills, told us that it was a “disappointment” that the RSC regions were not coterminous with the Ofsted regions, and Ofsted’s submission to the inquiry said that the difference had “in some cases hindered engagement”. Sean Harford described these as “logistical issues” for the inspectorate. In contrast, Ian Bauckham, a member of the HTB for the South East and South London region, suggested that “in some ways it is helpful that the Ofsted regional directors’ regions do not coincide with the RSC regions because it helps guard against too ‘cosy’ a relationship developing between the two”.
52.Analysis of the current setup reveals that there are examples of a single Ofsted regional director needing to work with three different RSCs, and one example of a single RSC interacting with up to four different Ofsted officials whose remit intersects with their area. Confusion also arises from similar naming for regions that have different boundaries; for instance, Cheshire and Chester are part of the West Midlands according to the RSC region system, but not part of the West Midlands from the perspective of Ofsted.
Figure 4: Comparison of RSC and Ofsted regions
Source: Internal analysis
53.A frequently-discussed consequence of the design of the regions was that London has been divided between three different RSCs. Frank Green told our predecessors in May 2014 that the rationale for this was “to spread the expertise of London further out”, in the hope that expertise within the capital can be spread “to the east coast and to Lowestoft and to Yarmouth”. To explore this further we took oral evidence from the three RSCs between whom responsibility for London had been divided. Dr Tim Coulson (RSC, East of England and North East London) explained that:
There is an oversupply of sponsors in London and of schools who would like to make a difference. At the moment, there are not enough schools for them to go and make a difference in, so we are finding sponsors in London work to do outside London, where we don’t have enough good sponsors […] We had a terrible school in Braintree in Essex and there was no good sponsor there. We have a fantastic school in Redbridge, which was looking to expand its multi-academy trust. The trust is doing a great job and because Redbridge is in the same region, it helped to make it easier for us to take that sponsor into Braintree.
54.The Greater London Authority’s (GLA) view was that “educationally, dividing London creates more problem than it solves” and that the division complicated coordination between the Commissioners and other educational bodies in London. The GLA described the current setup as “inexpedient”, and “unsustainable”, creating “complication and confusion”. Cllr Richard Watts agreed that “the fact that Islington and Hackney as next door boroughs sit in different regions makes life a lot more complicated for us”, and Munira Mirza, London’s Deputy Major for Education and Culture, described this arrangement as missing “a real opportunity for those schools to work together”.
55.The GLA argued that London should be a region of its own, on the basis that “place-based identity” was “a crucial component of school improvement” and that splitting London disrupted this. According to the GLA, “overlooking the importance of shared context in driving school improvement risks impairing it for no practical gain”. The GLA also noted an administrative inconsistency in dividing London between three regions:
London is treated as a region by the Department [for Education] for grant funding and performance reporting. It is treated as a region by the Education Funding Agency. It is treated as a region by the National College for Teaching and Leadership. And it is treated as a region by the Teaching Schools Council.
56.For Munira Mirza, the DfE’s line of argument was based on a “worrying complacency about London and the assumption that London is doing all right and that, therefore, these Headteacher Boards and Regional Schools Commissioners don’t really need to worry about addressing London’s problems”. She noted that “most of the elected heads advising on Commissioners’ work to improve underperforming schools in London are from non-London schools with significantly lower proportions of pupil premium children compared with London schools”.
57.Councillor Watts observed that the Government’s move towards devolving more power to city regions was potentially at odds with the setup of the RSCs: “If the stress of government policy in England is to move towards sub-regional identities for cities, so Greater Manchester being the thing, I think this has to fit in with that”. Conversely, Jon Coles, the Chief Executive of United Learning, argued that “if we organise around the city regions, there are a lot of people who do not live in the city regions. You have to think, ‘Is it right then that we organise our schooling for people who don’t live in cities in a way which denies them access to what makes our cities great?’”
58.The division of London between three RSCs is unnecessarily disruptive. Good sponsors and expertise can be spread to other regions through co-ordination and co-operation between RSCs, and does not require dividing London in this way.
59.The Government should redesign the RSC regions so that they are coterminous with Ofsted regions, which itself is based on the previous system of nine Government Office Regions. This will include creating an RSC for London, and therefore increasing the number of RSCs by one. This will help with capacity in the short term. For the longer term, the Government should keep the design of the regions under review as the system develops, in order to take account of further growth of the academy sector and any future devolution to areas such as Greater Manchester, which may also require a dedicated RSC in due course.
Box 1: Case Study: The West Midlands
83 Department for Education () para 11
85 NFER ()
86 Department for Education () Annex A
87 Department for Education () para 5
89 Oral evidence taken on 16 September 2015, , Q3
90 Ofsted ()
92 Ian Bauckham () para 4.1
93 Oral evidence taken on 13 May 2014, , Q583
96 Greater London Authority () para 3
99 Greater London Authority () para 3
100 Greater London Authority () para 13
104 Department for Education () Annex A1
105 Including Free Schools, University Technical Colleges and Studio Schools
107 Department for Education () Figures 2–5
110 Q199 [Lorna Fitzjohn]
112 National Middle Schools Forum () paras 3, 11
113 National Middle Schools Forum () para 12a
114 Sharon Harvey () paras 2.3, 4.2, 6
Prepared 18 January 2016