Regional Schools Commissioners (RSCs), and the Head Teacher Boards (HTBs) that support their work, are an unnecessary and unaccountable bureaucratic structure.
The eight appointed RSC posts were created in 2014. Their original remit was to oversee the growing number of academy and free schools which are outside the democratic system of accountability provided by local authorities.
But in June 2015 their remit was increased to include new powers over maintained schools – specifically the power to decide on the sponsor and levels of funding for schools deemed to be underperforming.
The Education and Adoption Act 2016 increased their powers still further, including the power to issue an academy order for so-called ‘failing’ or ‘coasting’ schools.
The increasing powers of the RSCs represent a dramatic change in the educational landscape, especially since there are no democratic structures for education at a regional level. They now wield considerable power over all state schools in their regions, undermining the role of democratically elected local authorities in education.
The eight RSCs have HTBs to advise them. Former editor of Schools Week Laura McInerney described the HTB’s as “the most baffling and stupid part of the schools system. They are also corrupt, self-serving and secretive.”
The HTBs made up of four elected members and two members appointed by the RSC. HTBs also have the option of co-opting up to two further members. Only academy leaders are eligible to vote in the HTB elections even though RSCs oversee all schools. Some of the appointees and co-optees to HTBs have no background in education.
RSCs and HTBs do not operate transparently. There is very limited public information on the Government website about RSCs and HTBs. Brief ‘Records of meetings’ listing decisions taken are available but there is no record of the discussions which led to these decisions.
There is huge scope for conflicts of interest with both RSCs and HTBs.
RSCs are measured against performance indicators which include increasing the number and proportion of schools that become academies within their Region. There is a conflict of interest in simultaneously rewarding RSCs for turning schools into academies at the same time as tasking them with identifying schools for academisation.
Furthermore there is a revolving door developing with RSCs drawn from the ranks of academy trusts and often moving on to become the CEO of academy trusts when they leave office.
HTB members are taking decisions that may benefit the academy chains that employ them – for example, whether to open a new free school, award sponsorship of a maintained school to an academy chain or provide school improvement funds to academies. Laughably, this is dealt with by requiring members with a conflict of interest to ‘step outside of the room’ whilst the decision is made.
In 2016 the Education Select Committee published a report following a six month inquiry which pointed to a number of fundamental problems with the system.
Recognising the conflicts of interest inherent in the system, the Committee recommended that: “The impact of RSCs should be measured in terms of improvements in outcomes for young people, rather than merely the volume of activity.”
The Committee said that: “There is a paucity of useful information available online about the work of Headteacher Boards” and recommended that the DfE publish “decision-making frameworks for RSCs to aid consistency of approach and transparency”.
It said that the Government should “ensure that the KPIs do not prejudice the decisions made on academisation and changes of sponsor” and said that the KPI relating to the proportion of schools that are academies “should be removed on the grounds that it constitutes a conflict of interest.”
Unfortunately, the Government rejected or failed to address most of the recommendations in the Select Committee’s report.
These new undemocratic structures are costing the taxpayer dear. Since their introduction the budget for the RSCs has increased more than six-fold, from £4.7 million in their first full year of operation to an estimated £31.2 million in 2016-17. Despite this, the DfE is unable to say how many people work for the RSCs.
In 2015 it emerged that the Government had also appointed 93 advisers sharing a £12 million contract over two years to advise the RSCs.
The NEU believes that education should be governed democratically through accountable local authorities with oversight over all state-funded schools in their locality.