The role of Regional Schools Commissioners Contents

3The RSC regions

Size of the regions and access to local knowledge

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”.78 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.79 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.80

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”.81 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”.82

Variation in challenge

48.The DfE told us that the regions had been chosen so that each represented “a broadly balanced set of responsibilities for RSCs”.83 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.84

The National Foundation for Educational Research provided some quantification of these differences between the regions, including:85

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”.87

The design of the regions

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 […].88

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,89 and Ofsted’s submission to the inquiry said that the difference had “in some cases hindered engagement”.90 Sean Harford described these as “logistical issues” for the inspectorate.91 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”.92

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

The division of London between three regions

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”.93 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: 94

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.95

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.96 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”,97 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”.98

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”.99 The GLA also noted an administrative inconsistency in dividing London between three regions:100

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”.101 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”.

Devolution

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”.102 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?’”103

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

We visited Coventry as part of our inquiry, as the RSC’s base for the West Midlands. We met Pank Patel, the Regional Schools Commissioner, and a selection of staff supporting his work. We held roundtable discussions with key partners for the RSC, including Ofsted, local authorities, members of the Headteacher Board, other headteachers from LA-maintained schools, and the Teaching Schools Council.

The West Midlands comprises the following areas:

  • Birmingham
  • Cheshire East
  • Cheshire West and Chester
  • Coventry
  • Dudley
  • Herefordshire
  • Sandwell
  • Shropshire
  • Solihull
  • Staffordshire
  • Stoke-on-Trent
  • Telford and Wrekin
  • Walsall
  • Warwickshire
  • Wolverhampton
  • Worcestershire

The West Midlands RSC region is not identical to the Ofsted region of the same name; the RSC region includes Cheshire and Chester, which is in the North West according to Ofsted. This means that the RSC must work with the Ofsted Director for the West Midlands on almost all parts of his region, but with a separate Ofsted Director for Cheshire and Chester.

As an RSC region, the West Midlands is of average size, with 2,657 open state schools at 1 August 2015.104 The proportion of schools that are academies105 is comparable to the national average, at around 25%. Data provided for our visit show that the region has a high number of schools rated inadequate by Ofsted—a total of 38 academies and 51 LA-maintained schools at October 2015. NFER estimates that the West Midlands has the highest number of ‘coasting’ secondary academies, but will be less burdened by growth in pupil numbers than other areas.106

DfE data on the first 11 months of RSC operations (from 1 September 2014 to 1 August 2015) show that in the West Midlands the RSC has been very successful in convincing schools to convert to academy status and in soliciting good free school applications, but much less active in intervening in underperforming academies and only moderately successful in identifying new sponsors. In the West Midlands by 1 August:107

  • Three academies/free schools had changed sponsor or trust (joint lowest of the RSC regions, with the highest at 12);
  • Three pre-warning and warning notices had been issued to academies/free schools (second lowest, with the highest at 16);
  • 16 new sponsor applications had been generated, with 11 new sponsors approved (slightly below average, and less than half of the 23 approved in the East of England and North East London);
  • 120 converter and sponsored academies had been opened (the highest of all the regions, albeit largely from converters rather than sponsored);
  • 16 free schools had been opened (the highest of all the regions, albeit from a smaller number of applications–that is, a higher success rate).

The RSC’s office confirmed that there were 101 active sponsors in the region, and that 355 academies were sponsored.

Pank Patel told us that “the biggest priority” for the West Midlands RSC region was “to look at growing high quality school leaders and high quality multi-academy trust leaders so that we can drive the system forward”.108

Mirroring the reflections of other RSCs, Mr Patel explained that “All our regions are different and even within my region of the West Midlands I have sub-regions that are different. I have to make my decisions work according to those regions and that may not necessarily come across as 100% consistent with what has happened somewhere else, but we need to take into account that regional perspective”.109

We heard that the RSC and the Ofsted Regional Director for the West Midlands meet “frequently” to discuss schools of joint concern, and that they also “talk about those schools that are outstanding or good that can also support the system within the region”.110

Pank Patel told us that the West Midlands Headteacher Board “bring their own knowledge, their own experience, their intelligence about the area, about the system, and bring a very realistic, down to earth, everyday perspective to those sorts of decisions”.111

We were aware of local concerns about some decisions made and consultation processes used. The National Middle Schools’ Forum (NMSF) was highly critical of decisions taken by Pank Patel in relation to requests from academies in Redditch and Evesham for a change of age range. The NSMF told us that the effect of these decisions on other LA-maintained schools had not been taken into account and that the views of the community had been disregarded:112

The current closed RSC decision-making process is ill-suited to the consideration of proposals from schools in three tier systems which necessarily affect the viability of neighbouring schools with implications [for] the provision of school places and the views of the local communities these schools serve. […] Others schools and the local community are shut out of the process. This cannot be right.

The Forum also highlighted shortcomings in consultation processes:113

Recent experience in Worcestershire has frustrated local communities and schools affected by these proposals who have not even been informed when decisions will be made, and have received no explanation for the basis of the decisions taken. Letters to the Regional Schools Commissioner raising important issues in relation to the failure of schools to follow the School Organisation Guidance have received no response or acknowledgement.

Similar concerns were raised by Sharon Harvey, a local parent who works with a large group of other parents in Redditch:114

[…] as parents we felt that the RSC was reluctant to respond or engage with us […] We feel he fails to be accountable for this decision by refusing to allow us access to minutes, or by telling us what other evidence he considered [….] the refusal to explain the rationale behind the decision destroys public confidence in the RSC, and therefore in the DfE. Decisions should be transparent and shown to be justified […] The success of one school should not be pursued at the detriment of another.

Notwithstanding the points made in this case, and disagreement in relation to controversial decisions, we were impressed during our visit by the general support for the work of the RSC in the West Midlands. Headteachers we met were highly complimentary of his approach, and we believe that the RSC’s work was well received in general.




78 Education Committee, Fourth report of session 2014–15, Academies and free schools, HC 258, Para 99

79 Q96

80 Q96

81 Q10

82 Q128

83 Department for Education (RSC 28) para 11

84 Q146

85 NFER (RSC 20)

86 Department for Education (RSC 28) Annex A

87 Department for Education (RSC 28) para 5

88 Q59

89 Oral evidence taken on 16 September 2015, HC (2014–15) 400, Q3

90 Ofsted (RSC 25)

91 Q144

92 Ian Bauckham (RSC 8) para 4.1

93 Oral evidence taken on 13 May 2014, HC (2014–15) 981, Q583

94 Q107

95 Q97

96 Greater London Authority (RSC 31) para 3

97 Q53

98 Q110

99 Greater London Authority (RSC 31) para 3

100 Greater London Authority (RSC 31) para 13

101 Q110

102 Q59

103 Q61

104 Department for Education (RSC 28) Annex A1

105 Including Free Schools, University Technical Colleges and Studio Schools

106 National Foundation for Educational Research, A Guide to Regional Schools Commissioners, p19

107 Department for Education (RSC 28) Figures 2–5

108 Q191

109 Q244

110 Q199 [Lorna Fitzjohn]

111 Q206

112 National Middle Schools Forum (RSC 18) paras 3, 11

113 National Middle Schools Forum (RSC 18) para 12a

114 Sharon Harvey (RSC 5) paras 2.3, 4.2, 6




© Parliamentary copyright 2015

Prepared 18 January 2016