117.The Academies Enterprise Trust told us that the role of the RSC was “essentially about fostering and building relationships with all who can support the school improvement process”, and our inquiry explored issues relating to the RSCs’ interaction with local authorities (LAs), Ofsted, multi-academy trusts and local communities.
118.The challenge of interacting with LAs is substantial for some RSCs; the South Central England and North West London region encompasses 27 local authority areas. The DfE told us that:
Wherever possible, RSCs work proactively with local authorities and ensure that information is shared and the necessary action is taken particularly where there are concerns that cut across their responsibilities. Where the local authority has a concern about academy performance, including governance, they are able to raise this information with the relevant RSC. Many local authorities are also sharing information about need for new school places with the relevant RSC.
119.ASCL was positive about existing relationships, and told the Committee that “strategic relationships” between the RSCs and Ofsted regional directors, local authority directors of children’s services, and/or directors of education were in place. Some local authorities emphasised their willingness to work with the RSC and said that their relationships with them were functioning. However, NAHT presented a more mixed picture; “some work well together, some collude to bully [into academisation], some have no relationship at all”.
120.Kent County Council argued that partnership between the LA and the RSC should be “underpinned by a formal protocol”, and that there was “a need for a shared understanding about respective roles and accountabilities which could be achieved through clear codification”. Nottingham City Council agreed that there was a need to “establish protocols for working more closely together with the RSC”, noting that “intervention from the RSC locally has been done without any communication with the LA”. Similarly, the Academies Enterprise Trust (AET) told us that “relationships should be governed by codes of conduct and agreed criteria and should not be personalised” and that “there should be a published code of conduct”. NASUWT warned that:
[…] without clear protocols for RSCs in relation to their interaction with local authorities, there is a genuine risk that conflicts and policy incoherence will emerge at local level.
121.Several submissions also raised data sharing as a concern. ADCS told us that delayed and incomplete data returns from academies and free schools were inhibiting the discharge of the LA’s statutory duties. Northamptonshire County Council suggested that:
It would be helpful for all concerned […] if there was clarity about what, when and how information should be shared about schools, including performance data […] we rely on [academies’] good will to inform us of their performance data and outcomes […] as it stands, the DfE, RSC and Ofsted will be party to that information long before the county council, which undermines our credibility and accountable role.
122.The Government should publish a protocol for interaction between RSCs and local authorities to ensure that there is a shared understanding of roles. This should also set out expectations for information-sharing between RSCs, local authorities, and MATs.
123.The DfE told us that:
Ofsted inspection results and accountability measures based on school performance data underpin the RSCs’ intervention activity in relation to underperforming academies. The RSCs have established effective relationships with the relevant Ofsted Regional Directors to ensure that information is shared as appropriate.
Nevertheless, Ofsted told us that while it had been “proactive in engaging with RSCs”, there has been “limited engagement” with some of them. Tellingly, we also heard that Ofsted’s Regional Directors meet regularly “with those RSCs with whom good working relationships have been established”.
125.We learned during the inquiry that for each major academy chain that spans multiple regions a “lead” RSC is nominated to coordinate interaction between the Commissioners and the Trust. Details of these were supplied to us by the Department. Lord Nash explained that this provided “one main point of contact” for the trust, and that “that is much better than them having four different Regional Schools Commissioners to deal with”.
126.We asked Frank Green whether this relationship could lead to RSC decisions being more favourable to the trusts with whom they had regular interaction. He told us that “the opposite was probably true. As you have that relationship, you are harder and harsher. They have to cross the bar of being allowed to do it with tougher criteria than another trust”.
127.Malcolm Trobe reported that ASCL had “virtually no casework emerging from the work that the RSCs were doing, and Lord Nash told us that there had not been any complaints made about RSC decisions. He argued that “we have plenty of judicial review proceedings going on in relation to the academy system, which is one method of complaining, so I don’t think people are slow in coming forward if they don’t feel that the decisions are right”.
128.Nevertheless, there is a theoretical risk that some individuals or organisations may be reluctant to criticise an RSC decision, given the power that the Commissioner has over future decisions on sponsors, academisation and free school proposals in the area.
130.Ofsted warned that “care must be taken to ensure that the roles of RSCs and the inspectorate do not overlap to an extent that causes confusion and the unnecessary duplication of work for schools and trusts”. However, we heard that the approach to school visits being taken by some RSCs was being interpreted as a “shadow inspection regime”, Dominic Herrington explained that “Ofsted does two-day inspections, but it does not give ideas for improvement”, and Pank Patel told us that RSC visits were “not to inspect, but they are to hold to account and they are to advise”. Nevertheless, there have been reports of an RSC referring to inspection-style observations in a letter to a school. Sean Harford acknowledged that “sometimes schools that find themselves in a tailspin will be looking around and they will feel like they are being improved by, inspected by or overseen by a number of different people and I am sure it could be confusing to them”.
131.We also heard that there was an increase in demand on schools arising from a lack of coordination between RSCs and Ofsted. Nigel Genders told us that:
We end up with schools who are getting […] a visit from a Regional Schools Commissioner one day, a broker another and Ofsted another and they all say slightly different things. That just adds too much burden to the system when schools should be spending time getting on with delivering outcomes for children.
Similarly, Ian Comfort recalled that “over the last year we have had a number of situations where we have had Ofsted visit one of our academies and within a matter of a week or so we have had an education adviser conducting a visit and sometimes the two of them saying different things in the outcomes […] it creates an extra burden on the schools”.
132.We asked Lorna Fitzjohn and Pank Patel whether there was a need to improve coordination between Ofsted and RSCs in terms of their interaction with schools. Pank Patel told us that the two of them met regularly and exchanged information, but that:
If I or my team are visiting a school, most of time it is because we have concerns about the quality of what is happening there. Similarly, Ofsted would also have that same level of concern, so the expectation that Ofsted would visit would be pretty clear to those schools anyway. It would not be any surprise.
Naturally, both were cautious about sharing the specific dates of future RSC or Ofsted visits, but Pank Patel told us that where a school of joint concern was being discussed it would be normal for the RSC to highlight his intention to visit, or that a visit had just taken place. Meanwhile, Ofsted could be expected to undertake termly monitoring visits to schools of concern, and this made some visits predictable.
133.We recommend that Ofsted and the national Schools Commissioner consider further how they could ensure that RSC and Ofsted visits to schools are coordinated and do not create an unnecessary burden on schools. Further, they should ensure that schools are clear about the distinction between Ofsted inspections and RSC visits.
134.Ian Comfort described a variation in the level of consultation that RSCs undertake with local communities:
In some areas, there is considerable conversation on certain aspects and in other areas probably not enough consultation or no consultation at all […] there are times when I feel that consultation should be a bit broader; there are other times when consultation is more than adequate.
We heard that residents in the West Midlands were concerned about some of the decisions made there. United Learning warned that the RSCs should “resist any temptation to become public ‘parent champions’”, but suggested that “it is likely that local communities will want there to be a route through which they could contribute to, challenge and scrutinise decisions affecting, and to do so in a timely manner, enabling them to affect decisions”.
135.Pank Patel conceded that “a greater degree of consultation could be very fruitful”, but suggested that consultation was not a key part of the decision-making process:
We have to follow a national framework and we have to take that consultation into account, but we also have to be clear: consultation is consultation and we do not live in a world where every consultation is a referendum. We will need to take on board some of the considerations in the consultation, but it is not a determining factor in our decision-making.
136.The NGA acknowledged that local communities may not always agree with the decision taken by an RSC, but argued that communication was important to keep communities onside with controversial decisions:
NGA recognises that what is needed to provide good educational outcomes for pupils and what the local community wants is not always the same thing and that in some cases it will be necessary for RSCs to make difficult or unpopular decisions about the future of a school. In these circumstances it is vital that there is meaningful dialogue with the community through the process.
137.There is variation between regions in the level of meaningful consultation undertaken with local communities. We recommend that good practice is shared and standardised, to ensure that the effect of decision on a broad range of stakeholders is considered.
197 Academies Enterprise Trust () para 4.10
198 , gov.uk, accessed 7 January 2016
199 Department for Education () para 35
200 ASCL () para 32
201 For instance, Northamptonshire County Council () para 3.14
202 National Association of Head Teachers () para 6
203 Kent County Council () para 4.2
204 Nottingham City Council () para 4.2
205 Academies Enterprise Trust () para 4.3
206 NASUWT () para 12
207 Association of Directors of Children’s Services () para 5.3
208 Northamptonshire County Council () para 3.15
209 Ofsted ()
210 Department for Education () paras 22–27
214 Qq 320–321
215 Robert Hill () para 6 on p24
217 “”, Schools Week, 27 March 2015
226 See case study.
227 United Learning ()
230 Nation Governors’ Association () para 4.8
Prepared 18 January 2016