Coalition Regional Commissioners vs. Labour School Directors – Who Wins?

30th April 2014

Today the Labour Party announced their vision for ‘Directors of School Standards’. This is hot on the heels of the Coalition’s ‘Regional Schools Commissioners’. And both are allegedly answers to The Big Middle Tier Problem (aka “who should watch over schools to make sure they aren’t rubbish?”)

I’ve been asked to write about Middle-Tier-Problem umpteen times but declined because I found it too boring to commit to paper until I was involved in a heated email exchange with my genius friend, Matt Hood. Exasperated, I drew the model on paper and sent it to him with a narrative of its benefits. Having (mostly) convinced him, we refined the model and began trying to convince politicians, thinktanks, and advisers of its merits

Today this blog compares the Labour Directors with Coalition Commissioners. Then tomorrow, we’ll reveal our own model.

But first, why is everyone so het up about a ‘middle tier’ anyway?

Well, it’s because having ‘freed’ many schools from local oversight through the process of ‘academisation’, the government suddenly realised it had caused some problems.

Three big ones include :

1.       Trying to run the world from London – Academies are laws unto themselves, with only the Secretary of State able to intervene. After so many schools converted, the DfE appointed Lord Nash as grand over-seer. But this means he must now desperately monitor and manage 3000+ academies from his London office without any clear rule book. It’s unsustainable, inconsistent and remote. The job needed breaking up.

2.       The freezing out of good local authorities from managing schools – Local authorities can no longer open new schools or take-over failing ones (except in extreme circumstances). This is silly. There are some brilliant authorities, often in places with few quality academy trusts. We need the best provider regardless of who they are.

3.       Local ‘accountability’. Neither Matt nor I buy the idea that because local councillors are elected they are the right people to oversee schools. But the other extreme of having a Conservative-donor appointed into the Lords and then overseeing 3000+ schools is not great either. There needs to be room for local people’s views in the system but also a recognition that elected officials, looking to curry favour, might not always want to take tough decisions – e.g. closing a school – even when it is the right thing to do.

Finally, there’s the thorny issue of ‘school improvement’. Gove has always claimed academisation is a ‘self-improving’ system. But how does freedom mean people will suddenly get better? And who is helping the weaker schools do well?

The Coalition Plan: Regional School Commissioners

Earlier this month the Coalition revealed its new Regional School Commissioners (RSCs). Appointed by the DfE, the Commissioners operate as ‘devolved’ Secretaries of State – able to review school performance, decide on providers for new schools, and intervene or close failing ones.

But, crucially, they only do this for academies. Which is enormously divisive.

They will work across 8 geographically weird areas (who has ever put Cromer and West Ham in the same region before?). And – in an odd twist – each Commissioner has selected their own office and staffing structure, somewhat forgetting that RSCs will move on and that knowing who to contact in each place for information is going to be tough if they are all very different.

The 8 commissioners will likely struggle to implement their devolved powers consistently given the lack of processes for opening, monitoring and closing schools. A good cover for this inconsistency will be the HeadTeachers Boards’ (HTBs) set to advise each Commissioner. HTBs are mostly elected – (love that mostly!) – with four of the six elected by local academy heads. The other two are appointed. We don’t know if they are fixed term or disbanded when an RSC leaves.

The HTBs are expected to give ½ to 1 whole days per week on their RSC-guidance role. It’s not entirely clear what that will involve, but probably going into struggling schools. cough(and probably snaffling them for their own academy chains) cough.

Does this solve ‘academisation’ problems?

Some of them. It makes opening, monitoring and closing schools more manageable. Academies, ultimately, are ‘schools-by-contract’. People hate hearing that, but it’s true, and it’s probably sensible. It means schools are run by entities independent from those who oversee them, and if there are problems with quality it is much easier for a Commissioner to quickly step in than it is for local authorities who often want to defend the turnaround work they have been doing (even if it isn’t working).

RSCs don’t help the good local authorities thrive, nor does it aim to do much about mediocre local authority schools. They are simply ignored. Which feels like a missed opportunity.

There’s also no influence for local people in the RSC system. It doesn’t sound as if place planning will be strategically looked at, and no requirement for consultation with local people.  The cosiness of the Commissioner and their two-mates-plus-four team also smacks of favourtism.

he Labour Plan: Directors of School Standards

Today Labour announced plans for Directors of School Standards, which sound  like Regional School Commissioners but with a worse acronym (DoSS).

A big difference to the Coalition plan is that there will be loads of them. The presumed area is a ‘local authority’ (of which there are over a hundred), though Labour has stated they want the number to be about 40-80 because authorities will work together in appointing someone.

I am deeply skeptical of this approach. My hometown became a unitary council largely because it wanted to separate its education services. Why would it undo that? Yet it’s not big enough to warrant the expense of a DSS (who will bear the cost of DSS’ is an interesting and unclear point).

Still, assuming 40-80 are appointed, in contrast to RSCs Labour wants them selected by the local authority from a list approved by the DfE – melding ‘local accountability’ with central government, but leaves academies out in the cold. Directors will have fixed 5 year terms, unlike the ambiguous RSCs, and because of this Labour says they are ‘independent’ from the local authority (even though appointed by them).

Beyond that it sounds like the Director would, like RSCs, approve plans for new schools and intervene in failing schools (though the language is more ‘collaborationy’ than turnaround, which could translate into ‘endless useless turnaround’ if we’re not careful).

There are a few other exciting points:

  • Good quality local authorities would be encouraged to set up ‘Community Trusts’ which would be arms-length academy trusts, so that there’s no conflict between the local authority being involved in strategic oversight and the management of school. Matt and I have been pushing for this for quite a long time, though we think too much LA influence on Directors could mean there’s still a conflict.
  • Transparency – a commitment to make the school opening and closing process open to FOI. This would be nice. But politicians always promise transparency when they’re in opposition….
  • There would be a duty on schools to collaborate regardless of their type when it comes to other children’s services. I know the ‘bureaucracy freers’ roll their eyes at this. But health, families, crime, etc, all matter – especially in regions with multiple deprivations. Labour are right to push this.
  • Schools would be able to move from one chain to another. How this will happen needs hammering out more.

Does it solve ‘academisation’ problems?

Some. Last night on Twitter I said it solved none, on reflection that was hasty. (It was based on the news articles not the report).

Like the Coalition plan, Labour have made the job smaller and puts one person directly in charge of opening, monitoring and closing/intervening schools in an area. It is a huge leap forward.

The plan does give local authorities an option to manage schools and compete on the same terms as academies. This is good.  On the downside, I’m unconvinced local authorities selecting the Directors really re-introduces a valuable ‘democractic accountability’. A more exciting step is that parents/teachers could force a change of academy trusts. But I still think more should be done on this.

The biggest concern though is sprawl. Forty to eighty directors is the predicted number, but it could be more. That’s unwieldy. It makes for big variations in policies and a headache of implementation, especially for academy chains operating across reasonably small geographic areas that might nevertheless cover several local authorities.

There’s also no clear process for making these decisions about how many Directors there will be or how they will be paid for. And I wonder about capacity. If the Coalition could only fill 6 Commissioner roles after five months of searching and a £140k price tag, are there really 80 Directors of School Standards evenly spread all across the country with the capacity to take this job on? It’s a nail-biter.

What’s our plan? ….

Tomorrow Matt and I shall reveal what we developed at the end of last year and which we think addresses some of the problems not yet addressed. Feel free to leave comments about your Middle-Tier gripes and we’ll try and include answers to them tomorrow.