Regional Schools Commissioners 'must be more transparent'

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Photo: iStock

In a hard-hitting report, the Education Select Committee has called on ministers to improve the transparency and accountability of England’s eight government-appointed Regional Schools Commissioners.

More needs to be done to improve the “transparency, accountability and the working relationships” of England’s eight Regional Schools Commissioners (RSCs), MPs have said.

A report from the Education Select Committee warns that an increasingly complicated system of education oversight, accountability and inspection has led to a system that is “confused, fragmented, and lacking in transparency”.

Committee chairman, Neil Carmichael, said that RSCs are a product of the Department for Education’s (DfE) “acting first, thinking later” approach to big changes in the school system and urged ministers to design a “more coherent system”.

The report states: “The schools landscape – and the role of the RSCs – is continuing to evolve, and the RSCs now form part of an increasingly complicated system of oversight, accountability and inspection. A more fundamental reassessment of accountability and oversight for all schools will be required in the future to provide coherence.”

The eight regional RSCs were appointed by the DfE in response to a need to oversee the growing number of academy schools in England. Since September 2014, the eight have been responsible for key decisions about academies in their regions, including applications from maintained schools wanting to convert and organisations wanting to become sponsors.

The RSCs play a key role in monitoring standards and tackling underperformance and under new government proposals will also be involved in deciding whether schools designated as “coasting” have the capacity to improve.

The MPs on the committee acknowledged a “clear need for an intermediate structure” between Whitehall and individual academies.

However, with more than 5,000 academies now in existence, RSCs have an increasingly powerful position – beyond the scope of many others within the civil service.

Despite this, MPs found that their role is still “unclear” to many, even key partners within the education sector.

The report also warns of a “lack of transparency in the way the RSCs operate”, with MPs hearing concerns that “a number of things related to the RSC role” were “clouded in elements in secrecy”.

There are further concerns about the role of the RSCs’ headteacher boards – groups of six to eight members who advise RSCs’ decision-making. MPs reported a “paucity” of information available online about the work of the boards.

To tackle this, the report calls for all RSC decision-making frameworks to be published and for the role of the headteacher boards to be more clearly defined. RSCs should also publish their vision, workplans and priorities for their regions, and “seek input and buy-in to them from all relevant stakeholders”.

MPs also urge the RSCs to do more to develop their working relationships with schools, local authorities, Ofsted and local communities.

The report adds: “Without attention to these issues, the RSC system will be seen as undemocratic and opaque, and the government must ensure that such concerns are acted on.”

On accountability, MPs said that in spite of claims from the DfE that the impact of RSCs is being monitored and that RSCs are being held to account internally, they are concerned that the DfE “struggled” to provide the committee with data on the eight key performance indicators (KPIs) for the RSCs.

The report states: “Despite extensive discussion of the KPIs during the evidence sessions for our inquiry and references … to the DfE using these KPIs to hold the commissioners to account, the DfE struggled to provide information on RSC performance against their KPIs within five weeks of our requesting it.”

Eventually the DfE did provide information on five of the eight KPIs, but it was not able to provide the committee with “current data” in relation to the rest.

MPs said that the government needs to “re-examine” the accountability of the RSCs themselves and should publish an annual report on the work of RSCs – showing their performance against their KPIs.

The report also recommends that the impact of RSCs be considered in terms of the improvement in education and outcomes, rather than the volume of academy conversions – MPs said that this performance indicator “risked an assumption of academisation and a conflict of interest”.

The change would also mirror how the effectiveness of local authorities is measured, such as by the number of children attending “good” or “outstanding” schools.

MP conclude that changing the RSCs’ regions to mirror the administrative regions of Ofsted would also be a good idea – not least because it would lead to one RSC for London, rather than London being split between three regions as it is currently.

Neil Carmichael, chairman of the Education Select Committee, said: “For too long, and under all parties, the DfE has made changes to structures without setting out the big picture. Regional Schools Commissioners were introduced as a pragmatic response to a problem – the growing number of academies and the need for oversight of them. They’re doing a necessary job, but the oversight system is now confused, fragmented, and lacking in transparency.

“It’s hardly surprising that most people have never heard of RSCs, and even those who have are unclear about their role. RSCs are a product of the DfE’s ‘acting first, thinking later’ approach when it comes to big changes in the schools landscape.

“The DfE needs to take a long hard look at this picture once the number of academies stabilises, and design a more coherent system for the future which ensures proper accountability for schools.”

To download the full report, visit http://bit.ly/1V1EiGk


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