MPs urge overhaul of academy and free school governance

20 Jan 16

The government must design a new system of school governance to reflect the large increase in the number of academy and free schools, MPs have said.

In an examination of the role of regional school commissioners (RSCs), which are responsible for approving and monitoring academies and free schools in their region, MPs warned their role was unclear in the current system.

Committee chair Neil Carmichael said ministers must “take a long hard look” at the accountability regime once the number of academies has stabalised and then design a more coherent system.

His warnings to come after Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw said the current accountability regime for schools was “confused and inconsistent” and could undermine improvements to the education system.

Carmichael said that, for too long, and under all parties, the Department for Education has made changes to structures without setting out the big picture.

“Regionalised 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,” he stated.

“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 Department’s ‘acting first, thinking later’ approach when it comes to big changes in the schools landscape.”

The committee found the eight commissioners appointed in 2014 were increasingly powerful as there are now over 5,000 academies.

However, there is uncertainty about their role across the sector, including from local authorities, Ofsted and in local communities. In order to improve clarity, RSC’s decision-making frameworks should be published, MPs recommended, alongside information held by the Department for Education on commissioners’ performance.

In addition, the number of commissioners should be increased to nine and reorganised so that they match the nine regions used by Ofsted.

This would also end the current split of London between three commissions, which the report stated had created more problems than benefits.

Responding to the report, Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said planning and implementation of the RSC system had been deeply flawed and inadequate.

“It is clear that the DfE has failed to address basic and fundamental questions about the operation of RSCs,” she said.

“Schools are subject to multiple, overlapping and confusing accountability systems because Ofsted and the RSCs respective roles and responsibilities are unclear and uncoordinated. Parents are confused about who they should contact if they have concerns about their school, and most do not know that RSCs exist, or what their function is.

“The saying ‘you couldn’t make it up’ comes to mind. The problem is that the government has done just that when it comes to the work, the operation and the outcomes of Regional School Commissioners.”

The Local Government Association said councils were concerned that commissioners lack the capacity and local knowledge for oversight of such a large, diverse and remote range of schools

Children and young people board chair Roy Perry added: “Having their geographical boundaries set differently to Ofsted’s is also very confusing for parents, who still turn to their council for support and advice on their child's education.

“The LGA opposes significant powers relating to education being given to an unelected body with parents and residents unable to hold it to account at the ballot box.”

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