‘It's hardly surprising that most people have never heard of RSCs and even those who have are unclear about their role,’ Neil Carmichael, Chair of the Education Select Committee told the BBC.
He was commenting on the work of Regional Schools Commissioners (RSCs), the officials appointed as an afterthought when it became clear there needed to be a tier between academies and the Department for Education (DfE).
‘RSCs are a product of the Department's “acting first, thinking later” approach when it comes to big changes in the schools landscape,’ Carmichael added. This chimes with my remarks here.
Carmichael’s comments heralded today’s publication of the Select Committee’s report into RSCs.
The introduction of RSCs had been a ‘pragmatic approach’ to the difficulties of overseeing academies, the Committee said. However, the role of the national Schools Commissioner to whom RSCs were accountable was ‘nebulous’. It recommended the Government clarifies the Commissioner’s work and how it relates to RSCs.
It’s unclear how the responsibilities of RSCs link with other bodies, the Committee found. It was difficult for those involved in education, especially parents, to untangle the web of ‘oversight, intervention, inspection and accountability’. These comments follow recent concerns by Sir Michael Wilshaw, Chief HMI, about the ‘confusing and ill-defined system of oversight and intervention’. Fiona Millar, writing in the Guardian, described the system of overseeing schools as a ‘busy place [where] RSCs jostle with local authorities, the Education Funding Agency, academy chains (which cut across RSC regions), other trusts, voluntary aided and church foundations, and Ofsted.’
The Committee has recognised this crowded landscape and advised the Government to clarify the different, often overlapping, responsibilities of RSCs, local authorities (LAs) and Ofsted. I would go further and say this should have been considered before LA stewardship was eroded. Dismantling a system without plans in place to replace it was short-sighted and reckless.
There was too much variability in the way RSCs approached their work. The Committee said the Government must make sure RSCs’ work is consistent. Responsibility for ensuring this should be in the national Schools Commissioner’s job description.
RSC regions didn’t match those of Ofsted. This caused problems particularly in London. Dividing responsibility for the capital between three RSCs was ‘unnecessarily disruptive’. The Government should ensure RSC regions covered the same areas as Ofsted’s, the Committee recommended.
The Committee thought the role of ‘specialist contractors’ in helping RSCs was important but there needed to be more transparency about their ‘identity, appointment, work, monitoring and impact’.
There was confusion about the function of the Headteacher Boards elected or appointed to assist RSCs. Were they decision-making or advisory bodies? The Committee said it should be made clear their role was to provide advice. Membership of the Boards should not be restricted to academy heads, the Committee advised, but should be open to heads of LA schools and individuals with an ‘explicit skills profile’.
The Committee said Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for RSCs, currently being reviewed, should not ‘prejudice’ RSC’s decisions about academization or sponsor changes. It particularly recommended the KPI judging RSCs on the proportion of schools which were academies should be removed because it was a conflict of interest.
RSCs’ impact should not be judged solely on how many schools became academies or how many free schools are set up. Quality, rather than quantity, should be the focus. RSCs should be judged in a way that would ‘mirror’ the way LAs were measured - for example, by giving the number of pupils attending schools which were Good or better.
Confidence in the work of RSCs would be increased if a ‘formal complaint and whistleblowing procedure’ were established. This would allow decisions to be questioned.
There should be a clear distinction between Ofsted inspection and RSC visits. This would avoid the perception that RSC school visits constituted a “shadow inspection regime’, the Committee said*.
The Committee reminded the Secretary of State that she was ultimately responsible for decisions made by RSCs. She and her Ministers could expect to appear before the Select Committee to be held responsible for RSCs’ decisions, the Committee warned.
*For an example of a shadowy inspection undertaken by an ‘advisor’ (aka ‘specialist contractor’) hired by an RSC see here.