102.Regional Schools Commissioners are employed as civil servants, appointed generally on five-year fixed-term contracts. Employment on this basis effectively defines their existing accountability mechanism; the Cabinet Manual states that “Civil servants are accountable to Ministers, who in turn are accountable to Parliament”. This principle is referred to as the Haldane model. The DfE described the intermediate reporting arrangements within the Department as follows:
The RSCs report through Frank Green CBE, the Schools Commissioner, and Andrew McCully, Director General of Infrastructure and Funding, to Lord Nash, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools […] The RSCs provide regular updates to the minister, together and individually, on specific cases.
103.The merits of altering the accountability regime for civil servants were considered as part of a 2013 report by the Public Administration Committee, which noted that:
Much has changed since the Haldane model of ministerial accountability became established nearly a century ago, not least the size, role and complexity of departments for which ministers are accountable […] a comprehensive reassessment of how the Haldane doctrine can operate in today’s world is long overdue […] Ministers tend to blame failures in defence procurement or the Borders Agency on civil servants or previous governments and we believe that Civil Servants may attribute such failures to inexperienced ministers with party political agendas. Either way, few ministers or officials seem to be held accountable when things go wrong. More importantly, there is a risk that an atmosphere of blame overshadows acknowledgement of excellent work. The need to address this may not invalidate the traditional doctrine of ministerial responsibility, but it needs to be redefined and adapted in order to serve good process and effective government in the modern context.
104.Many witnesses queried whether RSC accountability via Ministers was sufficient, given the power that RSCs hold. The ATL said that “as RSCs do not answer to the electorate, and cannot be removed by them, there is no democratic accountability”.
105.While we recognise that there are strong reasons for Regional Schools Commissioners to have been appointed as civil servants, they have responsibilities and powers that extend beyond the scope of many other civil service roles. We believe their level of operational autonomy makes them a candidate for a more direct form of accountability than would be the case for other senior civil servants, and we recommend that the Government consider further what forms that accountability might take. In doing so, the Government should define the extent of the operational autonomy that RSCs have.
106.We also recognise the ultimate responsibility of the Secretary of State and her ministers for work carried out in the Department’s name. As the House of Commons Education Committee, we form part of the mechanism for holding Ministers to account. As a result, Ministers should also expect to appear before us to be held responsible for the decisions RSCs make in their name.
107.A register of interests for all RSCs and HTB members is published online. The DfE told us that “robust protocols and procedures” were in place to manage potential conflicts of interest in Headteacher Board meetings, and that “where a HTB member has an interest they do not receive the papers associated with the decision and leave the room when it is discussed”.
108.Despite these measures, the National Governors’ Association (NGA) said that there were:
…significant conflicts of interests where members of the Headteacher Boards are employed by MATs which may be potential sponsors of schools, or are headteachers of schools that may be directly or indirectly affected by RSC decisions. […] the reality is that simply excluding the individual from the discussion and the formal decision making process, does not mean they do not unconsciously or consciously affect the decision. Their underlying influence as a member of the HTB will still be felt and it is difficult to argue that the other board members’ consideration was not affected by their knowledge of the excluded individual.
109.Russell Hobby agreed that it was “easy” to remove people from the room in some specific cases, but argued that potential conflicts were much harder to manage in other circumstances:
[…] what if you are the CEO of an academy chain that is expanding across the region? The general policy of the Headteacher Board may be of great interest to you. If the Headteacher Board and the RSC adopts a position that we should actively encourage more and more academies to take over failing schools, that is acting within your interests more generally and there is no way that you can remove yourself from any specific decision being made in that sense […].
He argued that this underlined the need for improved transparency of operation, “so that we can judge whether these decisions are being made and feel right because there is an evidence base behind them, or whether it is personal interests”.
110.Transparency of operation was a significant concern for many witnesses. Malcolm Trobe told us that “a number of things related to the RSC role” were “clouded in elements in secrecy”, and it was clear that a lack of transparency amplified concerns about managing conflicts of interest. Kent County Council noted that the information available online about Headteacher Boards was “minimal” and that there was a need for “a comprehensive document detailing their role, remit, boundaries, accountabilities and future plans”.
111.Pamela Birch told us that there was “a tremendous amount of integrity” to Headteacher Board discussions, and that “if we possibly just communicated better how those decisions were being made then people would feel more comfortable and more reassured […] I am quite proud for people to know the extent of thought that goes into decisions that are made and to understand that process”.
112.The minutes of Headteacher Board meetings were a particular focus for transparency concerns. The DfE told us that it publishes online monthly a record of HTB meetings, which includes “discussion points and decisions made”, but several witnesses were critical of the amount of information contained in these documents.
113.Pamela Birch argued that “you cannot have those open and frank discussions if everything is going to be minuted. It is right that the decisions are minuted but part of the job of the board is to bring local knowledge”. Nevertheless, she accepted that minutes “could be clearer” and that this “would offer reassurance”. Pank Patel confirmed that there were plans for Headteacher Board meeting minutes to have “a greater degree of transparency in them […] and more detail”. We welcome this, although we agree with Frank Green that Headteacher Boards “need to be able to give confidential, frank advice without fear or favour”.
114.The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) noted that “the framework under which decisions are made by RSCs is not published. This is not helpful, contributes to the confusion about their role and powers and is not in the interests of a transparent system”. Emma Knights said that some NGA members were “deeply frustrated because they cannot get an explanation for why their preferred sponsor is not good enough”. Russell Hobby (General Secretary, NAHT) told us that “what we need is a consistent set of decision-making guidelines for how [the coasting schools measures] will be applied”.
115.Russell Hobby said that “the more we know [about] how they will make the decisions, the fairer they will seem and the less fear that will be generated as a result of that”. Malcolm Trobe added that the benefits of transparency extended beyond accountability and confidence in the system: “If we can understand what they think makes a good school and a good sponsor, then we can act pre-emptively. Heads can look at that and say, ‘Oh that is what they are looking for. I am going to do that before I am asked’”.
116.There is a paucity of useful information available online about the work of Headteacher Boards, and this undermines a promising component of the RSC system. We welcome the DfE’s commitment to publishing more detailed minutes of Board meetings, in order to provide confidence in the nature of the advice given and to minimise the risk of impropriety. We further recommend that the DfE publish decision-making frameworks for RSCs to aid consistency of approach and transparency. This will allow RSC decisions to be made and recorded in a transparent way, with a rationale for each provided in reference to the published decision-making framework.
172 Department for Education () para 24
173 Department for Education () para 32; Dominic Herrington retained his permanent contract as an existing civil servant at the Department for Education.
175 Department for Education () para 25
176 Public Administration Select Committee, Eighth Report of Session 2013–14, Truth to power: how civil service reform can succeed, HC 74, para 17
177 ATL () para 6
179 Department for Education () para 18
180 National Governors’ Association () para 2.4
184 Kent County Council () para 5.5
186 Department for Education () para 19
187 For example, National Association of School Business Management () para 2.4, Association of Colleges () para 3, Church of England Education Office () para 10.
192 ASCL () para 2i
Prepared 18 January 2016