Viewpoint: Accountability, regulation and leadership in our school system – exploring a ten-year vision

pencil-and-books

The rapid expansion of the academies programme in 2010 has had a significant effect on our school system with the inevitable knock on effect of many strands of accountability and regulation that are in place and seemingly with even more on the horizon, writes Nick MacKenzie.

At a roundtable hosted by Browne Jacobson in the summer attended by key education sector stakeholders including John Fowler of LGiU there was a debate about the system of accountability we will need in our school system in the medium term, together with what the sector needs to do to support the development of a next generation of leaders who are fit for purpose to lead our system in a post-Brexit world.

Out of the discussions there was a real feeling that the regulatory system schools face “is not joined up at the moment”. With over 6,000 academies, many of them within multi-academy trusts (MATs), it is imperative that there is joined up regulation of the effectiveness of the MATs – both educationally and organisationally.

Many in the sector are concerned about the number and pace of reforms and this concern is understandable. That said, there is perhaps one reform that is urgently needed to be included in the next education White Paper – the introduction of a co-ordinated inspection regime for school groups and multi-academy trusts that assesses the effectiveness of the group both educationally and organisationally. This is one of the key recommendations from the report produced following the roundtable hosted by Browne Jacobson.

MATs have to contend with amongst others the oversight of Ofsted, Regional School Commissioners (RSCs) and the Education Funding Agency (EFA). Ofsted is a non-ministerial department that reports directly to Parliament. It inspects schools against a common inspection framework which is currently based on the inspection of a school and not MATs. RSCs act on behalf of the Secretary of State for Education (SoS) and through the National Schools Commissioner are accountable to the SoS. RSCs do not intervene directly in MATs but do decide whether intervention is necessary based on Ofsted’s inspection results and accountability measures for school performance (which is more flexible and open to change and influence by government). The EFA is an executive agency of the Department for Education responsible for managing school funding.

With the growth in MATs it is critical for the effectiveness of the school system that they are effectively regulated to ensure they:

  • are effectively governed and managed;
  • provide value for money for the public purse; and
  • deliver good or better educational outcomes.

There are strong arguments in favour of bringing all three of these under the remit of a single independent regulator for MATs. In order to ensure public and professional confidence in the system any single regulator would need to be independent and held properly to account for its judgements. At the roundtable there were many that were in favour of that single regulator to be an expanded and developed Ofsted.

There were a number of other key elements, which were discussed at the roundtable, where there are strong grounds for ensuring they are present in any system of accountability going forward. These include:

  • even-handed accountability (regardless of type of school, geography, size)
  • clarity of roles between the different “actors” within the framework
  • a body that checks the effectiveness and efficacy of government policy in the way it is implemented in schools
  • ability to understand and effectively regulate for vulnerable groups (eg SEN)
  • a body or bodies that have demonstrable consistency of ability to make judgements.
  • a body that resists both a “one size fits all approach” and “compliance model”: the body should be sophisticated enough to be able to look at, understand and judge the effectiveness of different approaches.

Interestingly, there were reports in the media around the last Conservative party conference that the DfE was in discussions about potentially mirroring the approach used in the work of council ‘health scrutiny boards’ to provide additional scrutiny on MATs. Whilst there has been no comment from the DfE on the substance of any such proposals and whilst some may also argue it is based on a misunderstanding of local government the sentiment does at least appear to also recognise the challenge. However, would any such proposals deliver the co-ordination that is needed? It does also raise some interesting questions as to what additional powers of scrutiny a local authority may need to have. For example, should a local authority have power to require certain information from an academy trust over and above that which is publicly available currently, or could be found by way of a freedom of information request in order to allow it to discharge its statutory duties?

Without a change of government direction, the default model for the school system is likely to be ‘schools operating within MATs’. Whilst, initially the Government may wish to retain a direct oversight of MATs it may find over time that communities, staff and governors may have more confidence in the school system if the reform proposed above were delivered by a single independent regulator for MATs with the three core regulated areas listed above. Additionally these reforms, by increasing confidence in the accountability system, may also provide welcome additional support to the current efforts in the sector to do more to ensure that teaching is seen as a high-status profession.

Nick MacKenzie is a partner in the education team at law firm Browne Jacobson

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