The Education Committee met to discuss the role of Regional Schools Commissioners (RSCs) and what lessons can be learnt from recent high-profile problems with a handful of Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs), including how parents can make their voices heard in the running of their child’s school.
The witnesses were:
- Sir David Carter, National Schools Commissioner
- Lord Agnew, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State
- Vicky Beer, Regional Schools Commissioner for Lancashire and West Yorkshire
- John Edwards, Regional Schools Commissioner for East Midlands and the Humber, Department for Education
Value for money?
Robert Halfon MP, the chair of the Education Committee, opened by asking about whether or not RSCs represented value for money to the taxpayer, since costs had risen by 55%. Lord Agnew said that costs had increased, but in line with the expansion of academies. Sir David Carter suggested that costs should now plateau. Robert Halfon suggested that more money was needed on the front line for academy schools rather than spending it on bureaucracy.
Is there a revolving door?
Ian Mearns MP asked if there was a conflict of interest when RSCs leave their positions to run MATs. Sir David Carter said that he is pleased with the quality of his RSC team, and that many are motivated by school improvement and wish to make a valuable contribution in leadership roles with MATs. They try to minimise conflict of interest, and he saw the salary of MAT CEOs as commensurate with the challenges of the position.
Parents and children left shocked by MAT failure
Lucy Powell MP brought up the issue of the failure of Wakefield City Academies Trust, where parents discovered a fortnight into a new academic year that their child’s school was not being overseen adequately, and faced an uncertain future. Vicky Beer responded that such news is initially destabilising, but claimed that they had listened to parents and others while identifying other trusts that could take over the affected academies. She admitted that Wakefield City Academies Trust didn’t have the capacity to meet the needs of all of its schools. Sir David Carter suggested that lessons had been learned and the mistake would not be repeated by another MAT. Too many schools had been taken on too quickly, without a clear school improvement plan, and too many were already in special measures. In future, RSCs would make sure too many schools weren’t given to a trust unless they were sure there was capacity.
What about the views of parents?
Lucy Powell pressed the point on how MATs are accountable to local people, especially parents. RSC John Edwards said that MATs are good at listening to community views and that there are processes to engage with parents, citing that MATs hold surgeries across schools, especially when talking to parents about what it will mean for their child’s school to join a trust. When Lucy Powell suggested it took too long to rebroker Whitehaven Academy (a school in Cumbria that hit headlines for seeking a new trust), Sir David Carter said that the example was one of “a perfect storm” where a combination of factors, such as its initial MAT being based in a different part of the country, had created an unfortunate but unusual situation. Lucy Powell insisted that there was a lack of accountability at MAT level to parents, and that the Whitehaven parents weren’t believed when they had expressed their concerns, and couldn’t get through to anyone on the MAT board to talk to. Sir David Carter regretted the frustration of parents.
Parents hearing late in the day
Robert Halfon brought up the issue that Trudy Harrison MP, a member of the Education Committee, was alleged to have been forcibly escorted from the premises after visiting Whitehaven Academy. Sir David Carter said that his priority was to ensure that the academy secures a new sponsor. Lucy Powell said that the last people to know the outcomes of rebrokering discussions are parents, teachers, staff, and even local MPs, suggesting that rebrokering processes are too slow.
Is small beautiful?
Robert Halfon asked why MATs are considered the best structure for school improvement. Lord Agnew responded that most MATs have fewer than five academies under them, and that the system is working because overall, school standards are improving. He pointed to “dealing with defeatism” among staff, children and parents in the most damaged schools.
When do MAT boards engage with parents?
Thelma Walker MP asked the question, wondering if parents are made aware of financial irregularities. John Edwards said that they had a strong engagement process with parents, and MATs support parents to know how they can help their child’s learning at home. It was his belief that a good trust listens to the concerns of parents.
SEND pupils leaving the care of MAT academies
Emma Hardy MP spoke about having heard children with special educational needs or disabilities (SEND) were being encouraged to take their child out of schools, and that trusts should not allow this to happen. Sir David Carter answered that it was an oversight process, which involved looking at attendance and exclusion rates. He was concerned that some parents of SEND children feel disenfranchised, and said parents are a priority. Where children are in need of specialist teaching, the RSC should be asking questions of trusts. There should be alignment with Ofsted to see what impact decisions have on children’s outcomes.
Parents need more rights when it comes to SEND
Robert Halfon said that parents have little say on what kind of trust takes over a school, but that there is an additional layer of concern when it came to SEND because of the need for specialist training for teachers. Sir David Carter said a parental role in selecting future sponsors is a conversation that should occur, and he agreed that this should be a parental right. If a school has a specialism, it should be not just governors, but a majority of parents who have a say in its future, Robert Halfon suggested. Sir David Carter promised to take the suggestion away with him.
Should Ofsted inspect MATs?
William Wragg MP raised the fact that Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s Chief Inspector, had suggested to the Education Committee that they should inspect MATs as well as schools, and asked if the witnesses agreed. Lord Agnew said that the current process for Ofsted was to speak to the trust’s CEO and chair to understand the relationship between the trust and the school under inspection, but felt that the inspection of MATs would cause confusion. Sir David Carter said that Ofsted can see from inspection if a school is performing better under an MAT. He doesn’t think Ofsted should inspect MATs yet, because of lack of capacity rather than expertise, but anything they can tell parents about school performance has to be a good thing. Lord Agnew said that he would meet with Amanda Spielman to discuss her ideas further.
Are trusts providing the public with value for money?
Lucy Powell spoke about defining the relationship between MATs and the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA), suggesting a separation between financial probity of an MAT and educational standards oversight. Lord Agnew replied that academies have to have their accounts audited every year. Lucy Powell said that before the collapse of the Wakefield City Academies Trust, sums of money were transferred from school budgets to the trust, which was of no value to the schools. She suggested a lack of transparency and accountability on how trust money is used because the EAFA, Ofsted and RSCs are acting separately. Thelma Walker said that individual schools are the hub of a community, and that parents were shocked to learn money had been siphoned off before the trust failed. One school is said to have raised £200,000 through the action of parents, which was for a specific community, and not for a MAT. Lord Agnew regretted that there would always be bad practice because there are bad people, but good practice guidelines have been written for MATs, and insisted RSCs and the EFSA are starting to work closer together.
Are the salaries of chief executives of MATs too high?
Robert Halfon asked the question, suggesting pay be linked to performance of MATs. Sir David Carter and Lord Agnew agreed that rises of 141% in the current climate are difficult to defend.
What measures are taken to prevent the collapse of a trust?
Sir David Carter said he expects trust boards to work closely with his RSCs and produce viable plans. They will intervene to strengthen leadership if they have to. Rebrokering schools to another trust is a final step in the process.
How are parents involved in the rebrokering process?
Sir David Carter responded to Trudy Harrison saying that there is a complaints procedure for parents on academies’ websites. They can also complain directly to RSCs through the government website, which requires improvement to make it easier for parents to navigate.
Dealing with teacher recruitment
The Social Mobility Commission report suggested RSCs had a role to play, but Sir David Carter doubted the practicality without further resources, but saw the role as observing how academies treat teachers.
Summing up, Robert Halfon said that many good academies are raising educational standards, but checks and balances were needed to ensure appropriate action when things go wrong. Parental rights when schools become academies is something he would like the witnesses to consider.
Watch the full Education Committee meeting.
Image of Trudy Harrison MP by Chris McAndrew, via Wikimedia Commons.