Dr Mary Bousted, the General Secretary of the ATL, writes in response to the Education Select Committee’s report into the role of Regional School Commissioners, just published, and says there are reasons for ‘grave concern’.
Education ministers have been slow to recognise that they had a problem with managing and holding to account the rapidly growing number of academies. Their hand was forced by the embarrassing number of scandals concerning academy finances and governance which led the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), in its 2015 report on ‘School oversight and intervention’, to conclude that: ‘there are significant gaps in the Department’s knowledge of performance in individual schools’. The PAC recommended that the Department for Education (DfE) ‘clarify’ its own role, the role of Regional Schools Commissioners (RSCs) and the Education Funding Agency, and specify how they should work together, and that ‘clear and explicit expectations for RSCs to ensure that they make effective use of local authorities’ relationships with and local knowledge about schools and academies in their area.’
Today, one year later, Education Select Committee’s report into the role of Regional Schools Commissioners is published. Just how seriously have government ministers taken the PACs conclusions?
Not seriously enough according to the Education Select Committee which does not pull its punches when it concludes that the RSC network lacks coordination and that RSCs lack a clear understanding of their role and purpose leading, the committee concludes, to ‘too much variation in the approach that RSCs take to their work and the standards they apply’. Equally concerning is the Committee’s conclusion that the Head teacher boards, which should hold RSCs to account, themselves suffer from an accountability deficit. Their minutes are written to divulge as little information as possible, and there are worrying potential conflicts of interest (for example, the potential for a Chief Executive of a multi academy trust to be given first pick of the potential local authority schools subject to forced academisation).
One fact gives vivid testimony to the committee’s conclusions: It took the DfE nearly a year to provide the committee with each Regional School Director’s performance against their key performance indicators (KPIs), and even after this inordinate delay, the DfE could provide no information at all, presumably because it did not exist, on three of the eight KPIs which should determine the success, or otherwise, of each RSC’s work.
Nor is the failure to inform stakeholders about the role and purpose of RSCs limited to the DfE. Some RSCs publish their vision, work plan and priorities for their region. Others don’t – leaving academy leaders in the unenviable position of having to guess the answer inside someone else’s head.
The roll call of system failures in the design and operation of the RSC network should be a huge embarrassment to government ministers and the DfE. Schools are operating, the committee concludes in a ‘complex and difficult landscape where competing systems of oversight, inspection and accountability is now complex and difficult for many involved in education … to navigate.’ School leaders in some areas are given contradictory advice from Ofsted and from the RSC. For schools already operating under the immense stress of external accountability systems, this is a monumental waste of time and energy.
And despite all the government’s pronounced intentions on safeguarding, the committee concludes that it is still the case that children can fall through the cracks between the work of the local authority, the Education Funding Agency (with whom the agreement between the school and the government about safeguarding expectations is signed), Ofsted and RSCs. Parents lack information about the role of RSCs and their role – many do not know that RSCs exist, and they are left confused about how and to whom they should report concerns about their child’s school.
None of the Education Select Committee’s conclusions and recommendation are surprising. It has been obvious to anyone who is at all interested in education that a network of eight Regional School Commissioners is too weak and insubstantial a structure to oversee the over 5,000 open academies in England. Worrying reports kept surfacing, throughout last year, about the decisions made by some RSCs, too often without open consultation with legitimate stakeholders, including parents. School leaders’ complaints that they did not know which accountability tune to dance to – Ofsted, the EFA or the RSC, should have sounded alarm bells in the DfE.
It should have been blindingly obvious to all that you cannot set Chief Executives of Multi Academy Trusts free without having proper and effective accountability mechanisms which hold them to account for the educational, safeguarding and financial decisions they make. Freedom and autonomy come with ties. Schools are funded by the public purse, and the public have a wholly legitimate right to know how their money is being spent, how children are being protected, and how educational standards are being maintained and improved.
Last year The National Audit Office (NAO) issued its first “adverse opinion” in a decade on the Department for Education’s accounts, stating there was a significant level of “error and uncertainty” in their financial statements and warned the DfE that its accounts did not give a “true and fair” reflection of its financial activity. Chris Wormauld, the DfE’s outgoing Permanent Secretary, has admitted that he fully expects the DfE’s accounts this year to be given another adverse opinion. The problem is that the DfE has failed to provide accurate figures for academies spending.
So, there you have it. The DfE has no robust means to account for academy spending, to monitor academy performance, or to monitor children’s safeguarding. RSCs have added yet another layer to a deeply confusing network of bodies paradoxically who hold schools to account whilst letting fundamental issues, such as safeguarding, slip through the net. All of which should be of grave concern to all involved in the English education system.
Dr Mary Bousted is general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL)
You can follow her on twitter @MaryBoustedATL
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