£12m contract for RSC's education specialists sounds like brokerage

Janet Downs's picture
 12

How 'open' was the open competition for education advisers appointed to help Regional Schools Commissioners (RSCs) in their work? I asked that question yesterday when I wrote about shadowy inspectors entering schools after governors at Oasis Academy Wintringham said a visit from one of these had been a terrible experience. Six of the seven strong governing 'council' later resigned and the head, Dr Chris Rolph, also left the academy.

Barry Wise, who regularly posts comments on this site, provided an answer. He found an advert for up to twenty Education Advisers for Academies and Free Schools. The deadline was 3 February 2014 and the contract was to last 13 months. It's likely the advisor who visited Oasis Academy Wintringham was employed on this contract.

Barry’s lead led me to the 'Contracts Finder Archive'. I searched for Education Adviser and found several contracts advertised but they were for checking vocational qualifications. However, I found an advert for Education Specialists. These are 'contractors to support the Academies and Free Schools Programme and help deliver the Department’s aim to ensure high educational standards in academies and free schools and to secure sponsorship arrangements for maintained schools moving to academy status'. The advert was dated 2 August 2015, deadline 21 September 2015, start date 02 November 2015 and end date 31 October 2017. The value of the contract was £12 million.

The Information to Tender letter (downloadable at the foot of the advert) gives the purpose of the expected work. It includes visiting and/or speaking to academies and their trusts where RSCs have concerns about performance, assess the academy’s capacity to improve and make recommendations to RSCs. This appears to sidetrack both Ofsted and local authority school improvement services which are still held ultimately responsible for area results even when a large number of schools are academies.

These specialists are also required to secure ‘suitable sponsor solutions for relevant maintained schools’. This sounds very like the work done by academy brokers. Academy brokers gained a reputation for bullying and coercion. They were described in a March 2013 House of Commons debate into enforced academy conversion as using tactics from the 'Vito Corleone textbook'.

A Parliamentary Written Answer dated 19 November 2015 said the Department for Education no longer had 'dedicated academy brokers' but it appears the responsibility for brokerage has been shifted to these education specialists. But if these specialists use the same tactics employed by some brokers or leave governors and school leaders feeling they've been through a terrible experience, then questions will need answering about their authority, responsibilities and remit. I'd like to thank Barry for his help.

NOTE: This post was originally an update to yesterday's article. The update has now been removed as it warranted a separate post.

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Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 12/12/2015 - 08:39

Guest - see my reply to Barry 11/12.15 at 10.56 am. These specialists work for RSCs who have an interest in increasing the number of academies. It follows that the likely 'solution' to improvement would be academization with a sponsor or joining a MAT if they're stand-alone academies. That's despite the NAO finding that informal intervention such as local support was more effective than formal intervention such as academization.

Your comparison with LA or academy chains school improvement doesn't work. The schools improvement services have (or should have) a wider remit than just going into schools where results are low. They provide (or should provide) continuing professional development.

There is a difference between LA support and academy chain support, though. LA maintained schools can purchase their CPD from any source but academies in chains will be expected to use that supplied by the academy trust (thereby reducing head's freedom to choose what's most appropriate for their schools).

Barry Wise's picture
Sat, 12/12/2015 - 09:49

Janet

I fear you are flogging a dead horse here. The script is already written. The outcome is known. All schools are due to be academies by 2020, which is less than five years away.

No ambitious educationalists will be applying for jobs at LAs anymore and many LAs are already putting the word out to their own children's services department not to recruit on continuing contracts for school standards or school improvement jobs, so they can save on redundancy payments three/four years down the track. In fact, in some LAs the cuts will actually be loaded on to education departments because they know that as 'doomed' departments the whole accountability thing will be blurred anyway.

Most of what used to be done by LAs will be done by the MATs themselves, or bought in. The RSC and these advisers will police the system doing quality assurance. There will no doubt be soft cops offering support and hard cops using macho language about 'retribution' and 'ending the culture of impunity'.

It's probably more useful now to focus on getting the RSC system to work optimally rather than regurgitating the arguments over whether it should exist at all.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 12/12/2015 - 11:16

Barry - 'The script is already written. The outcome is known'. Chilling.

So all non-academies will be academies by 2020? That can't be achieved without a great deal of arm-twisting. There is still a sizeable proportion of secondary schools which are not academies (nearly 40%). 12,804 primary schools who filed KS2 results in 2015 are non academies. That's 86% of state-funded mainstream primary schools. Are these schools to be forced to become academies regardless of their Ofsted judgement or their results?

And the proper response to this is to roll over and support the RSC system and their DfE selected 'specialists' to 'police' (telling choice of word) the system? I don't think so.



Barry Wise's picture
Sat, 12/12/2015 - 11:48

Janet -

Like you I think it far-fetched that there will be 100% academisation by 2020, but Cameron's 'I want every school to be an academy' speech in August had the feel of more than just a vague statement of aspiration.

The logic surely is that conversion will reach a tipping point after which LAs will be accused of wasting money if they keep staff and services for only a few surviving maintained schools.

By 2020 we could have seen a version of Circular 10/65 'requesting' conversion plans.

The tipping point for secondary schools cannot be far off now. The tipping point for primaries may never be reached, with the long term situation perhaps being one where LAs maintain primaries only. Though if the big faith groups bail and convert all their VA schools in one big spasm, then the tipping point for primaries might be reached after all.

My sense is that given all the other pressures on LAs, few will want to fight to the last on schools.

Guest's picture
Sat, 12/12/2015 - 12:17

Janet/Barry

Agreed on the script is not only written but WRIT LARGE on the highly politicsed academy agenda. It may even be that it is so party politicsed as to be undemocratic but I digress.

I question whether the tipping point for secondary schools is as close as you think. I suggest this because it is not simply the remaining 40% of secondaries but also the converter academies and smaller MATs that are in line of fire to be swallowed by RSC approved larger chains.

Another digression if I may. There was an unequivocal promotional article by Reach2 - a 50 strong chain - on LinkedIn this week. The thrust being that parents and headteachers shouldn't be frightened by academisation but rather take the opportunity to choose their academy (sponsor) family wisely. Quite shocking that the overtures are now so openly blatant.

Guest's picture
Sat, 12/12/2015 - 12:24

Janet - we will have to agree to disagree. The comparison is not as close as it might be for 100% direct read across but I essence they are broadly similar.

It also seems to me that in your model once all schools are academised the inspectors will become redundant, which I can't see happening. Rather their role will become even closer to the (at that stage former) LA consultant/improvement advisor function.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 12/12/2015 - 13:19

Guest - you're right to point out that the majority of secondary academies are NOT in MATs. The latest figures (which admittedly are already out-of-date) showed: 40% of secondary schools were LA maintained; 31% were stand-alone academies, 24% were in MATs and 5% were free schools, UTCs or studio schools.

It's clear the Government wants stand-alone academies to join MATs. The mood music suggests this. But stand-alone academies, just like LA maintained schools, stand to lose their autonomy if they join a MAT. It's unlikely stand-alone academies which are Good or better and which aren't 'coasting' will allow themselves to be swallowed up by a MAT without a fight. They might lose but widespread protests would be bad news for the Government. The alternative, of course, is for stand-alone academies to become MATs by scooping up a couple of other schools.

Barry Wise's picture
Fri, 11/12/2015 - 09:41

Personally, I have no objection in principle to DfE hiring dozens of ex-heads and ex-SIPs.

In fact, I think it is positively a good idea for DfE to have people with front line specialist SI experience driving improvement rather than generalists from Whitehall.

DfE has thousands of schools to look after in the academies sector nowadays and the more help it can get from good former school leaders the better.

What I fear though is that many of those deadbeat additional inspectors previously hired out by Tribal and other contractors whom Ofsted recently 'let go' will now get these jobs and go back to their old, power-trip ways under a new flag.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 11/12/2015 - 10:56

Barry - but are they 'driving improvement' or entering schools to judge them and ultimately recommend they become academies, join or change MATs if they're already academies?

The system isn't transparent - we don't know how these specialists operate or their rules of engagement. If RSCs are judged on the number of conversions, then is there a conflict of interest when their specialists enter schools?

LAs have school improvement services. And LAs are held responsible for an area's results even if they are a large number of academies (in some areas all secondary schools are academies). These improvement services should be available to academies as well as LA maintained schools. And the focus should be on improvement - it's unacceptable if specialists enter academies in the way one of the older type entered Oasis Academy Wintringham and, according to the Minutes of a governors' meeting, spoke of 'retribution' and left the academy thinking they'd had a terrible experience.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 11/12/2015 - 11:03

Barry - it was obvious from the start of the Coalition's academy programme pushed by Gove that the DfE wouldn't have the capacity to oversee thousands of academies. Yet academization was heavily promoted, by force if necessary, and continues to be so. It was (is) reckless.

Local authorities were in a unique position to oversee their schools. But their capability has been undermined. They've been portrayed as the problem not as part of the solution. That's not to say all LAs did this job well - some didn't. But LAs are closer to their schools than 8 Regional Schools Commissioners responsible for large areas with a tiny number of staff, a few head teachers and on-call specialists.

Guest's picture
Fri, 11/12/2015 - 15:51

Janet

"It includes visiting and/or speaking to academies and their trusts where RSCs have concerns about performance, assess the academy’s capacity to improve and make recommendations to RSCs. This appears to sidetrack both Ofsted and local authority school improvement services which are still held ultimately responsible for area results even when a large number of schools are academies."

I'm not sure what the problem is with this? LAs and Academy chain sponsors employ people in this type of role already and if the RSCs are to operate as regional equivalents of LAs then surely it as reasonable to for them to operate this function as it is for LAs?

Based on the Oasis experience what is not and never should be acceptable in for these inspectors to seek 'retribution' by Headteachers/Governors against colleagues. The latter is not the same as reviewing results by subjects and class groups and looking to accountability (including what can be learned during the process).

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 12/12/2015 - 08:50

Schools Week set up a coffee stand at the SSAT conference (3-4 December) and took note of teachers' concerns. One common issue was the 'rise' of RSCs. These, Schools Week wrote, have been called a 'shadow Ofsted' and reported that school leaders were becoming 'increasingly worried about them'. Concerns include:

1 Advice from heads on the RSCs' headteacher boards can be ignored by RSCs who would 'do what they want even against the advice'.

2 Worries that local heads on the headteacher boards might have to much influence and 'might purposely stop decisions that could help schools they see as competitors'.

Schools Week commented that these might seem like a 'ludicrous conspiracy theory' but added that it's 'impossible to disprove'. It concluded:

'The lack of transparency about decisions is irking everyone and blocking trust in the new super-officials.'



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