If you were in any doubt about how complex and opaque the education system in England has become, a new report by MPs has outlined it in no uncertain terms. The report by the House of Commons education select committee into Regional Schools Commissioners (RSCs) raises a number of concerns about the role and function of the people charged with overseeing the growing number of academy schools in England.
The report questions the role and function of England’s eight RSCs and the whole area of democratic accountability in education, particularly in light of proposals to expand the academies programme contained in the Education and Adoption bill making its way through parliament. Combined with reports that over 500,000 primary school children are now being taught in super-size classes and that we are facing a chronic shortage of teachers, the whole area of the government’s strategic planning in education is called into question.
A sticking plaster approach
As parliament’s public accounts committee pointed out in January 2015: “The DfE [Department for Education] presides over a complex and confused system of external oversight.” This confused system is made up of state schools that continue to be maintained by Local Education Authorities (LEAs), as well as academies and free schools, which are free from LEA control.
RSCs were introduced as “a pragmatic approach to academy oversight”, a sticking plaster over what has become such a convoluted form of accountability that not even those working in schools can understand it – not to mention parents. According to PTA UK, a charity that helps parent-teacher associations, just one in ten parents know what role RSCs play in their child’s education, leading to confusion when it comes to deciding where and who should address any problems.
Yet as the boundaries between public and private become increasingly blurred, this planning becomes ever more complex. Reforms of the English school system that have intensified since 2010 have produced a hybrid system of accountability in which numerous bodies compete and collaborate to provide educational governance. These reforms have also led to a serious planning deficit in terms of school places.
This lack of strategic foresight is all the more concerning given that none of these issues have come out of the blue. Researchers have been predicting a teacher shortage for some time now, and the number of children entering reception classes has been rising in relation to population over a number of years.
The ability to plan locally has been severely compromised by the undermining of resource and statutory powers of local authorities, not least in the areas of school planning. This led the Local Government Association (LGA) to urge the government to expand academy schools to meet demand for school places, or else to give back powers to councils to open new state-maintained schools, something they currently are not permitted to do.
Patchy solutions to big issues
The government response to the places shortfall has largely been to advocate the opening of new free schools. The prime minister, David Cameron speaking in March 2015, committed his party to providing another 270,000 school places in free schools, if re-elected, by 2020.
Since 2010, free schools have taken a disproportionate amount of funding compared to state-maintained schools. But they have also compounded the places problem by opening in areas where there is already a surplus of places.
And even when they do open in areas of need, they often don’t immediately operate at full capacity, but admit just one year group and build up to a full complement of pupils over a number of years.
A survey by the LGA published in August 2014 found councils had spent more than £1 billion in attempting to make up the shortfall. This was based on data which revealed that 66 of the 152 council areas with responsibility for schools would have more primary-age pupils than places for them in 2016-17, rising to 85 areas in 2017-18 and 94 areas in 2018-19.
The government response to the accountability gap – which has already led to issues such as the Trojan Horse affair in Birmingham – has been to implement the system of regional commissioners. But as the education committee’s new report points out, the flaws inherent within the reach and remit of the role are wide-ranging, affecting crucial areas of safeguarding, inspection, school improvement, democratic accountability and variation in standards between regions. The committee also points out that conflicts of interest need to be addressed far more cohesively, along with the thorny issue of who exactly holds these increasingly powerful individuals to account.
An uncertain future
The Education and Adoption bill stands to place further pressure on what education scholar Martin Lawn describes as a “systemless system" of education. This is one in which strategic planning is almost impossible given the number and overlapping remit of organisations involved in the governance of English education.
Jon Coles, chief executive of academy chain United Learning, giving evidence to the select committee, suggested that the whole area of education needed a “back to basics” approach, stating:
I think we are reaching a point where we need a new settlement. We have not had a settlement that has been national, clear and comprehensive since the 1944 [Education] Act … there has been a progressive erosion of some people’s roles, development of new roles, changes to the key functions of key actors in the system the landscape has changed hugely I think we just need to have a fresh look.
The government assures us that it does have a vision for education: “A world class education system in which all schools are academised.
Yet it is becoming harder and harder to buy into this “vision” when viewed through the prism of the issues that currently beset education in England. No doubt the parents of those pupils being taught in a portacabin by the fifth supply teacher in as many weeks, and who have little idea as to where to address complaints, may have problems buying into that “vision” too.