93 ‘educational specialist contractors’ have been chosen by the Department for Education (DfE) to support the academies and free schools programmes, written evidence to the Education Select Committee reveals. They will focus on three areas: underperforming open academies, the matching of maintained schools with appropriate sponsors and supporting the development and delivery of free schools. They will be available to Regional Schools Commissioners to help with their work.
These advisers replace academy brokers which the DfE says it no longer employs. But nine contracts for these educational specialists have gone to former brokers. Eight* provide just a single adviser but one, Veredus, part of Capita, has 37 available for mobilisation. The written evidence sounds an encouraging note. It says: ‘Where appropriate, an RSC may encourage academies to access support from Teaching School Alliances, National Leaders of Education and other sector-led school improvement in their region as a means to school improvement.’ But statements by RSCs describe their main role as ‘developing academy sponsorship and MATs… opening excellent new provision and by challenging underperformance.’ School-to-school support is mentioned but support appears more often in the context of existing sponsors, MAT expansion, the Government’s ‘ambition’ to open 500 free schools before the next election and encouraging non-academies in a ‘category’ to convert with support of a sponsor.
We have already seen what this support looks like in action. Tim Coulson, RSC for the East of England and North London sent warning letters to seven academies in Norfolk and Suffolk about their GCSE results. None was in an Ofsted category – four had been judged Good. I asked at the time, why bother with Ofsted if results alone are what matters?
This raises another question: is there a conflict of interest when the heads on RSCs’ headteacher boards also represent academy trusts especially if these were appointed and not elected by other heads? Dame Rachel de Souza is an appointee on Tim Coulson’s headteacher board. She is also Chief Executive of Inspiration Trust, an academy chain which runs academies in Norfolk including the Hewett School where the takeover by Inspiration caused controversy. The Guardian found an email by Dame Rachel in which she told Sir Theodore Agnew, Tory donor and chairman of Inspiration, that the Good rating given to Hewett in 2013 had made her feel ‘sick’. Hewett’s downgrading in 2014 paved the way for the school to be taken over by Inspiration. Steven Lancashire, chief executive of Reach2, a rapidly growing trust with 49 primary academies, is also an appointee on the same board. Teachers gathering at Schools Week coffee stand at the SSAT conference (3-4 December) voiced concerns about heads on headteacher boards acting in their own interests. They were also worried RSCs were acting as a ‘shadow Ofsted’ – school leaders were becoming increasingly wary of them. Schools Week admitted their concerns could seem like a ‘ludicrous conspiracy theory’. But it concluded it was ‘impossible to disprove’: ‘The lack of transparency about decisions is irking everyone and blocking trust in the new super-officials’.
SURPRISE APPOINTMENT Lilac Sky Schools Ltd appears on the list of education specialist contractors. The Invitation to Tender document said: ‘Bidders will be high-calibre-contractors with a proven track record in developing and leading outstanding schools and/or multi academy trusts, or those who are able to demonstrate how they have effected rapid and sustainable school improvement’ But Tabor Academy was judged Inadequate when it was sponsored by Lilac Sky who then relinquished control. Lilac Sky’s sponsorship of a new primary school was handed to another trust before it opened in September. The local paper said it was because of Lilac Sky’s ‘poor performance’ elsewhere.
NOTES *These are: School Improvement Solutions Ltd Robert Briscoe Associates PM Impact MG Ions Consulting Kmigisborne Associates Gena Merrett Associates AVT Associates Alan Hewitt Associates