The future independence of English education

Whenever Sir Michael Wilshaw, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education, gives evidence to the Education Select Committee, it generates headlines. And yesterday’s session was no different.

The main headline grabber was Wilshaw’s call for the creation of a national system to identify, train and nurture school leaders. But dig a little further into his evidence, and a far bigger, longer term story emerges.

Wilshaw was asked by the Committee if he thought that Regional School Commissioners (RSCs) would eventually render Ofsted inspectors redundant.

For context, Sir David Carter, the National Schools Commissioner who oversees the work of RSCs, last week claimed that his commissioners offered a broader and more significant view of schools than inspectors.

Wilshaw’s response to the Committee was predictably bullish. He described RSCs as faceless, non-independent and unable to provide Parliament with a national picture of education standards in the UK.

And he’s right……at the moment.

RSCs have responsibility for promoting and monitoring academies and free schools. Their other main role, as described on the DfE website, is to “intervene in underperforming academies and free schools in their area….on behalf of the Secretary of State for Education.” This brings, as of February 2016, 5,516 schools into their remit.

Ofsted inspectors, on the other hand, are active in 20,000 schools across the country. Clearly, if you wanted a national picture of schools, there is but one choice.

But times are changing; will Wilshaw’s observations still hold true in 5, 10 or 15 years’ time?

The Education and Adoption Bill, recently passed, gives the Secretary of State powers, to be exercised through RSCs, to turn ‘coasting’ schools into academies. This process will gradually take control of schools out of the hands of Local Authorities and into those of RSCs.

Crucially, it is RSCs, not Ofsted, who determine if a school is coasting (based on data), help the school implement a plan to try to turn around its fortunes and eventually determine if the school has done enough or needs to be taken over by an academy sponsor.

This is part of a wider, now explicit, effort by this Government to reduce and eventually end the role of Local Authorities in education. In a speech last week, Nicky Morgan, the Secretary of State for Education, stated, “……we have committed to ending the role of the local authority in our schools.”

So, it is reasonable to surmise that over the next few years, we will see a sharp increase in the number of schools that RSCs have direct control over. And with that, an increase in their ability to provide a national picture of educational standards.

Although not an independent one.

And that’s where, in many people’s eyes, lies the problem.

RSCs are akin to mini Secretaries of States in their region. But their powers will always emanate from the actual Secretary of State. He or she will always be their ultimate boss and they will be acting to implement policy devised by a politician.

Their judgments, on success and failure of schools, will never be independent in the way that Ofsted inspectors make independent judgements.

So, in 10 years, RSCs may be able to provide MPs with a national picture of school performance. But the more pertinent question will become, will they provide MPs with an independent national picture of school performance?

The answer to that, it would appear, will remain a resounding no.