THE new requirement for Regional Schools Commissioners (RSCs) to act on behalf of the Secretary of State for Education was established in 2014. Each RSC is supported by a regional Headteacher Board made up of experienced academy head teachers, all from schools judged by OFSTED to be outstanding, and other sector leaders, including the heads of Church of England schools.
RSCs have wide responsibilities. We must take action where academies and free schools are under-performing, ensuring improvement by providing them with support from a strong sponsor. We decide on applications from local-authority-maintained schools to convert to academy status. We are also responsible for encouraging and deciding on applications from sponsors to operate in a region, and we advise on proposals for new free schools.
All RSCs are recruited from the school sector. I was previously a head teacher, the National Director of the Government’s National Numeracy Strategy, and Director of Education for Essex Council, one of the large local authorities.
IN MY position as an RSC, I work across the east of England, and east and north-east London, and consider it to be the best region I could possibly work with. There are many church schools, and I work closely with all the Church of England dioceses in the region. All of them have now established academy trusts. Diocesan schools, like schools generally, are a mixture of those that have changed to academy status, and those that are still maintained by their local authority.
The academy trust established by the diocese of London has the distinction of appearing in performance tables as one of the most effective sponsors. Those established by the dioceses of Norwich and Ely are the first and second largest trusts in terms of numbers of schools across the whole region. Whereas the very large majority of academy trusts in the region are made up of fewer than five schools, diocesan trusts generally have quickly grown to be substantial, even by national standards.
The part played by a sponsor is to take on under-performing schools and to provide the leadership and governance necessary to bring about rapid improvement. Diocesan trusts generally ensure that they include good and strong schools as well as under-performing schools, so that weaker members can draw on a reserve of strong, effective practice. Almost all schools in diocesan trusts at the moment are primary schools. They are developing particular expertise in sponsoring small schools, for whom there will always be some financial risk. Effective sponsors, however, bring not only school improvement where it is needed, but also economies of scale.
THE Government first introduced free schools in 2011. About 250 were open by the 2015 election. It is now committed to opening a further 500 by 2020. Any organisation can apply to open a free school, but the bar for a successful application is set high: the expectation is that, from a standing start, the new school will develop enough to be judged “Good” by OFSTED when inspected during its third year.
Effective trust sponsors are increasingly seeking not only to transform under-performing schools but to establish new free schools. The Church of England dioceses see this as an opportunity, and faith-based organisations are putting in successful applications. The final announcement of the previous Prime Minister was the approval of further free schools, one of which is Ermine Street Church Academy, in the Huntingdon area, to be established by the diocese of Ely’s academy trust.
Dioceses have long experience in running church schools, but responsibility for overseeing standards and school improvement was the job of the local authority. The effectiveness of local authorities now varies considerably, but all are affected by reduced funding and changing responsibilities. It is clear that dioceses are embracing the opportunity to play a much greater part in the monitoring of standards in church schools, and, where these are not good enough, ensuring long-term sustainable improvement.
Dr Tim Coulson is Regional Schools Commissioner for the East of England and North East and East London.