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20.01.16

‘Confused and fragmented’ school governance must be redesigned – MPs

School governance arrangements must be redesigned and re-examined to reflect the growing number of academies in the country, the Education Committee has said.

In a report into regional schools commissioners (RCSs), responsible for approving and monitoring academies and free schools in their region, the Committee warned that their role remains unclear – despite RSCs occupying an “increasingly powerful position” in the education system.

Given the increasingly complicated system of oversight, accountability and inspection in the education system, the Committee said, there must be a fundamental reassessment of school governance.

RSCs themselves must do more to develop their working relationships with councils, schools, Ofsted and local communities to ensure the current model can deliver improvements, but there are more deep-seated issues in the model itself.

For example, the Committee identified a lack of transparency in the way the governance works, recommending that the commissioners publish decision-making frameworks and set out the role of their advisory boards more clearly.

The current design of the RSC regions is also “a barrier to effective operation” in itself, such as in London, where dividing it between three regions “creates more problems than benefits”.

The Committee recommended that central government introduces a single London RSC, but also that other RSC regions across England match current Ofsted regions. Any devolution in the future, such as in Greater Manchester, may also require a dedicated RSC, it said.

Oversight system 'confused, fragmented and lacking in transparency'

The LGA welcomed the report, with its children and young people board chairman, Cllr Roy Perry, saying councils “remain concerned that RSCs still lack the capacity and local knowledge to have oversight of such a large, diverse and remote range of schools”.

“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,” Perry added.

"With more than 80% of council maintained schools rated as either good or outstanding by Ofsted, councils want to be regarded as improvement partners and support commissioners. Across the country, hundreds of schools, often in disadvantaged areas, are already being turned around thanks to the intervention of councils to deliver and maintain strong leadership and outstanding classroom teaching and appoint effective support staff and governors.

“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.”

Importantly, the Committee also said the impact of RSCs must be considered in terms of improvement in education and outcomes, rather than “merely the volume of academy conversions”.

The Committee’s chair, Neil Carmichael, added: “For too long, and under all parties, the Department for Education has made changes to structures without setting out the big picture. RSCs 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 Department’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.”

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, added that the DfE has “failed to address basic and fundamental questions” about how RSCs operate.

“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,” she said.

A DfE spokesman said the department would carefully consider the report, but defended the effectiveness of RSCs.

“RSCs are using their local knowledge to hold schools to account and thanks to that expertise, and the support of head teacher boards, they are able to take swift and targeted action to tackle underperformance rather than schools being left to stagnate under local authority control,” he added.

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