Regional Schools Commissioners: Lifting the veil

Written by: Brian Rossiter | Published:
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The world of Regional Schools Commissioners and Headteacher Boards has long seemed opaque. Brian Rossiter looks at how the system has evolved and advises on how school leaders can best engage with their RSC

There is a certain degree of mystery surrounding the workings of the Schools Commissioner office. This is not helpful. It allows rumours and half-truths to abound about the organisation and the accountability of schools and academies.

The decisions made by this office have modified and created the academy, free school, studio school and UTC landscape we have today. This body, set up in 2014, has a central National Schools Commissioner and eight Regional Schools Commissioners (RSCs) offices around England.

Why should we, as teachers across all age ranges, be interested in this organisation? Because they are hugely influential in defining educational structure and educational delivery across the country. The more we know the better we can understand what is happening around us and to us.

We continually read about academy conversions. Teachers in classrooms are often unaware of the discussions that have taken place before conversion. Those meetings have been mostly brokered and concluded by the RSC, distant from the schools they are discussing.

Occasionally conversions are problematic and in the very contentious cases the minister of state, currently Lord Agnew, is called upon to make the ultimate decision as to the future of a school. This has a direct effect on teachers, staff in schools and local communities.

RSCs act on behalf of the secretary of state and are accountable to the National Schools Commissioner. Each RSC is supported by a headteacher board (HTB). These boards are in turn responsible for advising and challenging RSCs on academy-related decisions.

The Department for Education (DfE) defines the RSCs’ main responsibilities as including:

  1. Taking action where academies and free schools are underperforming, including mandating academisation for Ofsted category 4 schools, often via sponsorship from a multi-academy trust (MAT), and offering non-compulsory brokerage of support for those schools whose outcomes fall below “floor standards” (although the DfE recently launched a consultation (January 2019) setting out proposals to make an Ofsted “requires improvement” judgement the sole trigger for school support and to scrap the floor and coasting standards).
  2. Intervening in academies where governance is inadequate (arising from local “intelligence”, Ofsted reports and working in partnership with the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) regarding the financial health of trusts).
  3. Deciding on applications from local authority maintained schools to convert to academy status, thus changing their status.
  4. Improving underperforming maintained schools by providing them with support from a strong sponsor. Brokering support for individual schools short of academisation.
  5. Encouraging and deciding on applications from sponsors to operate in a region. Ensuring the sponsor market meets local need.
  6. Taking action to improve poorly performing sponsors. Holding sponsors/MATs to account with a final option to rebroker academies away from an underperforming MAT.
  7. Advising on proposals for new free schools and advising on whether to cancel, defer or enter into funding agreements with free school projects (to the secretary of state who makes the final decision).
  8. Deciding on applications to make significant changes to academies and free schools, for example, to increase the pupil admissions number.

The RSCs work with a number of partners, including education leaders, Ofsted, local authorities and local dioceses. They don’t intervene directly, rather they commission organisations, such as MATs, to improve what they term to be “underperforming schools”.

The RSCs primarily decide whether intervention is necessary based on Ofsted’s inspection results and on accountability measures such as “floor standards” for school performance (again, the current DfE consultation may change these criteria).

In 2018, a primary school would be below the floor if less than 65 per cent of pupils met the expected standard in reading, writing and maths at key stage 2, or if it does not achieve “sufficient progress scores” in all three subjects.

Most secondary schools are considered to be below the floor standard if their Progress 8 score is below -0.5. There are further statistical calculations attached to this final measure by the DfE. Falling “below the floor” can currently lead to RSC intervention.

The RSCs will only mandate academy conversion, leadership change or rebrokerage of a school in relation to educational standards if Ofsted has judged it inadequate. It can compel a maintained school with an Ofsted grading of 4 (inadequate) to become a sponsored academy and to join an existing MAT to get the support it would need to move it to good or outstanding.

Across the publicly funded sector in England, RSCs exercise the secretary of state’s powers to intervene in maintained schools, occasionally bypassing local authorities. They take action in academies that are causing concern including transferring an academy to another trust.

Both local authorities and RSCs can issue a “warning notice” to maintained schools. RSCs can also issue them to academies. In the RSC case they will only issue a warning notice for two reasons. First, where there has been a serious breakdown in the way the school is managed or governed, threatening the quality of outcomes. Second, where the safety of pupils or staff at the school is threatened (whether by a breakdown of discipline or otherwise).

To help the RSC make these all-important decisions they have an advisory group: the Headteacher Board (HTB). This board consists of eight school leaders from across the age ranges and different sectors of the system. Four members (academy leaders) are elected locally, the rest are co-opted.

These independent individuals take evidence and advise the RSC as to whether individual schools and academies can make fundamental changes to their nature, such as increasing their size or allowing them to be sponsored by a particular MAT. When advising, these members should have no “interest” in the final decision that is made – interest being any personal or business interest within the past five years which may be, or may be seen to be, influencing an HTB member’s judgement in performing their role. HTB members remove themselves from any decision involving themselves directly.

Now all this might seem bureaucratic and another layer separating government from schools. In a sense this may be true.

However, without the RSC system the ever-shrinking DfE and its academies section would not be able to control the “wild west” environment they created 10 years ago.

Big beasts were circulating and signing up schools to join their chains, aka MATs, regardless in some cases of the support they should be offering those schools. Some of those MATs abused their positions and well-known and well-publicised corrupt practices arose. Working together with the ESFA, the RSCs are imposing levels of responsibility and accountability to the system that previously did not exist.

Transparency is the buzz-word these days in RSC offices. They communicate regularly with education leaders in their region. There is a push to make the minutes of HTB meetings more open and complete. This is a real challenge in many senses. I would argue that anything that adds to the bland HTB minutes decision box published on the DfE website helps our understanding of the system. It may also dispel the perception of some decisions being made as a result of personal relationships between HTBs and others.

The RSCs lead an annual conference and trust networking meetings in sub-regional areas to communicate priorities and promote the sharing of best practice. These area meetings are particularly helpful to colleagues and if relevant to your role I would recommend you attend. Having attended several I have been able to directly challenge the RSC about government policy and also the DfE’s direction of travel.

John Edwards, the East Midlands and Humber RSC, talks about “sustainable improvements in schools (taking) time, without excuses”. When talking about MATs, he describes each as being “one team, one vision, many sites”. As such, he believes that the policy, practice and principles of a MAT should be “co-constructed across the organisation” so all “share common goals and a shared vision”.

Similarly, he emphasises the opportunity for staff to work together across a MAT. This RSC understands the work we are engaged in and wants to work with us for the benefit of learners.

Engaging with your RSC

So here are my top tips for school leaders, governors and MAT board trustees when working with your RSC.

  1. Know your RSC and their leadership team: Establish good relationships and contacts with those on your regional team. Similarly, establish relationships with RSC neighbouring area sub-teams. These sub-teams cover smaller areas, e.g. one for Sheffield and one for Derbyshire. Each trust in each of the eight regions has an identified trust development partner within the RSC team, who is the trust’s first point of contact. This person and other members of the RSC team work closely with trusts and schools, particularly around specific projects (e.g. an academy conversion, sponsorship of an inadequate school etc).
  2. Know your data and the context in which you are working: Data rules in the RSC world and in any argument with them you need to counter misperceptions – yes, they are allowed to have them, and they should be challenged – and be able to accurately describe the context in which you are effecting change. Context – not excuses!
  3. Know your local HTB: They advise the RSC. If you know who they are you may be able to frame your argument/request appropriately. Note: Items for HTB are only taken there if they have support from the team within the RSC office so the first point in this list is still the most important!
  4. Know and work collaboratively with schools in your area: RSCs are encouraged by, and encourage, this. Make sure the RSC knows you are doing this.
  5. Know who your local multi and single academy trusts are: As in the last point, benefit from working with other colleagues wherever possible. This will also give you an indication of who you might work more easily with should you wish to join or be rebrokered to a trust.
  6. Know the extent of support from any MAT chain that you are seeking to join: Do due diligence on the trust as well as having it done to you. Do their values and vision match yours? And keep the RSC in that particular loop.
  7. Most importantly: Define the destiny of your own school rather than having it defined for you by the RSC and/or others.

Conclusion

And what of the future? Any government change may decide that the RSC model is not the way forward. The return of local authorities is highly unlikely as the system has become so fragmented and local money so tight that the structure we knew in the 1990s is unlikely to be affordable or resurrected.
Understanding the RSC can help make sense of the occasional confusion we may feel. Working in collaboration with the RSC allows them to explore the sense of your arguments leading to mutually beneficial decisions being made.

  • Brian Rossiter is a former headteacher who now works as an education consultant and is chair of the L.E.A.P. MAT in Rotherham.

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