DfE sets up ‘middle tier’ to cope with academies

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A leaked DfE communication outlines the creation of a new academy oversight group to take on regional intervention work. The document also hints at areas on which DfE will cease to focus. Read Warwick Mansell's exclusive report in SecEd.

The Department for Education (DfE) is taking charge of school intervention work traditionally performed by local authorities as ministers respond to concerns about how they can possibly supervise thousands of newly independent academies.

The DfE quietly set up last month what could be seen as a “middle tier” of officials and consultants, who are now monitoring the performance of both academies and non-academy maintained schools in nine regions across England, an internal departmental newsletter seen by SecEd reveals.

The aim is to intervene in “failing schools”, in a system which has been set up to dovetail with Ofsted’s own regional inspection work, which was unveiled last year. 

The DfE is making the move as the academies system moves from a “cottage industry” to an “industrial process”, senior departmental staff have been told, with nearly 3,000 schools now operating outside the auspices of their local authority.

But while many back the idea that schools need some kind of supervisory “middle tier” – between national policy-making in government on the one hand and individual schools on the other – the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) suggests this is not a good model. 

“I think we need a middle tier, but this looks like a middle tier without all the benefits, such as detailed local knowledge and routes into the community, which the best local authorities have provided,” said Russell Hobby, NAHT general secretary.

The newsletter, sent to staff in the DfE’s Infrastructure and Funding division, talks about the amalgamation of separate offices within the DfE – the Office of the Schools Commissioner and the Academies Delivery Group – into one overarching academies group.

“(This) will … create new responsibilities for regional school underperformance,” says the newsletter. “The functions will be split across three divisions: the North … Central … and South … with small units within that structure focusing on the nine government regions. 

“Each division will be responsible for monitoring and intervening in underperforming schools in their region, whether they be maintained schools to be brokered for an academy solution with a sponsor, or an open academy.”

The work was due to start last month (April 8). 

Academies have not been immune to pressure from the DfE in recent months, with reports in March of six individual academies and an academy trust being sent letters about poor performance. 

In a line which is likely to be seized upon by critics who argue that the DfE and Ofsted are working too closely together as England’s schools system becomes more academy-based, the newsletter explicitly draws a link with the inspectorate’s recent move towards a regional focus. It also mentions plans to recruit a new schools commissioner to replace Liz Sidwell, who retired last month, as the DfE tries to boost the role of academy sponsors.

Ofsted now has its own regional structure, with eight regional directors overseeing standards in their areas. The newsletter continues: “We will (also) create a national (academy) sponsor function … looking at relationships and the future sponsor market. Later in the year we expect to be recruiting a new schools commissioner to further support the work of identifying and encouraging the sponsors of the future.

“These changes help the academies group align itself with the new regional structures in Ofsted and the (Education Funding Agency), ensuring a more coherent view of local issues with better intelligence about schools and sponsors.”

The Education Funding Agency, which finances academies, also has regional divisions, being split into North, South, East and West, its business plan reveals. 

Senior departmental staff are bullish about the continued expansion of the academies programme, with internal predictions that a quarter of schools overall will be academies by the time of the next general election in 2015. 

Latest figures show that 2,886 secondary, primary, all-through and special schools are academies, which is 13 per cent of England’s 22,000 schools. Among secondaries, 50 per cent are now academies, with a further eight per cent “in the pipeline”, academies minister Lord Nash said last month.

The expansion comes despite the DfE going through a review which has recommended a 

50 per cent real-terms reduction in the department’s spending on administration between 2010 and 2016. 

The DfE’s ability to continue to manage the academies system as it does now beyond 2015, if even greater numbers take on the status, is thought to be under question within the department.

In February, the DfE undertook another move to support academy sponsors, setting up an internal “academies board” under Theodore Agnew – a DfE non-executive director and Conservative Party donor who is himself an academy sponsor – to link academy sponsors with schools and encourage more sponsorship (see http://bit.ly/103vI1F).

The DfE has been under pressure to focus its overall work down to ministerial priorities, with some areas of policy activity stopping altogether. There is no published list of what policy areas the department will cease focusing on, but the newsletter gives hints.

The undated internal newsletter to staff in Andrew McCully’s Infrastructure and Funding division, signed “Andrew”, says: “We need to publish the ‘stop list’ (of policy activity) in a way that helps people understand what it means. Because I know some will take the ‘stop list’ to mean we will never think again in the department about any of the issues on the list, whether they be youth services or school transport. 

“That’s clearly not going to be the case. It’s rather a question of no longer maintaining standing and fixed resource for those subjects, but maintaining systems of knowledge management so that when something does come up … we are able to deploy resources through project planning … and then move on.”

Mr Hobby said there were concerns about intervention work and the academies programme swallowing up DfE resources. He added: “This large infrastructure for managing underperformance is taking even more resources from other activities that the department might have been pursuing.”

Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “I am not entirely surprised, as we are already aware of the DfE intervening in schools in different areas. The question will be whether it is possible to manage the entire education service from Westminster in this way.”

When approached by SecEd, a DfE spokesperson said: “Our reorganisation will allow us to work with underperforming schools on the ground to bring them up to the standards of the best. By splitting into regional teams we can help both council-run schools and academies in each part of the country in a more efficient and effective way. This is not a ‘middle tier’. This is about helping to improve all schools that are underperforming.”

Asked about the changing policy priorities, they added: “As part of the DfE review we are making sure that time and resources are focused clearly on ministers’ priorities. During the review we identified areas of work that are about to or will conclude. A more flexible approach means we will have teams who can pick up policy issues as and when needed.

“We have looked at every area of the department to make sure we are working efficiently towards achieving our ambitious reform agenda and meeting the department’s commitment to making savings, while being creative and responsive enough to react to potential demands.

“We are not in a position to share this information as it is under development and key discussions are still underway.”


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