Meet Tim Coulson - who may become the most influential player in Norfolk education
09:52 07 August 2014
Tim Coulson may become the most influential person in Norfolk education. Martin George talks to the first regional schools commissioner for North East London and East of England.
‘Decisions made more locally’
For Dame Rachel de Souza, chief executive of the Inspiration Trust of Norfolk academies, the new system will bring decisions closer to the ground, and bring educationalists into the decision making process.
She said: “From my perspective, what you will have is far stronger local and regional decision making. I think parents will feel that the people making decisions about the schools and the performance of academies have got real top-quality local experts to make that happen, someone who really knows the patch.”
Asked whether the real role of the regional commissioner is to increase academy numbers, she said: “I think you could not be further from reality. I think this commissioner is about working together and improving the outcomes for all of Norfolk. I think this commissioner has a strong school improvement and collaboration agenda.”
She said the fact members of the head teachers board are from within the academy system did not mean they would not hold academies to account, but would make informed decisions.
Q: Do you see yourself having a role promoting academies and persuading schools to become academies?
A: Yes, where it is appropriate for a school. I don’t see the role as being an evangelist, and it is the only show in town and every school should become an academy.
However, I do see it as a role of advocating the benefits of becoming an academy and helping schools to see those benefits and to consider whether they are appropriate to them.
‘Another tier of bureaucracy’
Ian Clayton, principal of Thorpe St Andrew School, a non-academy which Ofsted judged to be “outstanding” in April, said he was sceptical about the regional school commissioner system.
He described the mechanism as like the local authority system, but on a regional scale.
He said: “We are not looking at local solutions to the issues. We are looking as if the only answer is academies.”
He added: “I am concerned about another tier of bureaucracy that is there, and another drop in education resources. This is taking money away from the classroom.”
He said there could be a conflict between two aims of the new system: raising standards and promoting academies, and said: “Academies are not necessarily the answer to raising standards in schools, as a blanket agenda. Thorpe St Andrew proves that. There are alternatives. In some cases, becoming an academy may solve the problem, and some may not.”
He also said the head teacher boards, whose elected members are drawn from the leaders of the top-performing academies, neglected experienced headteachers who had not gone down the academy route.
Q: Should schools be forced to become academies if the consultation says the parents and the community don’t want it?
A: There are two competing issues to take into account. One is the views of the local community, which are important, but I can see circumstances when, despite what the local community thinks, there would be a need to act in a way that would be different from that, for those who are responsible for making decisions judging it’s in the greater good of the school to make a change.
That’s obviously a very contentious issue, and you need people when making those judgement not to have a one-size-fits-all view.
But for me, I can imagine circumstances like Cavell when one could come to each of the two possible decisions when you make a view of ‘no, the local community is so opposed to this we need to find an alternative solution’, or, ‘despite the local view, the solution we have come up with to transform what is going on at the school does require a decision that will be unpopular locally’.
Q: Do you have a target for what percentage of schools in Norfolk should become academies over the next five years?
A: No, I have no sense of percentages. What is really crucial is that what Norfolk and other areas across the region see is a substantial rise in standards. It seems to me the aim that every child goes to a ‘good’ school would be a much more important aim than a target of how many schools become academies.
Where there are schools doing well and they don’t see what’s in it for them as an academy, I don’t see my mission as to persuade those schools to become an academy.
For those schools that are ‘outstanding’, I would be encouraging them to become part of the system and do greater good and come and work with others.
Q: There have been some academies which have done very well and there are others which have had much worse performance. Do you already have in mind changes you would like to see made to some of those schools, or are you looking at schools having new sponsors?
A: Yes. This summer’s results will be crucial. There are schools colleagues have already shown me we have concerns about.
In just a few weeks time we will have results which will confirm, or not, anxieties, but if I talk about academies which have a poor inspection, we are very clear where an academy does poorly we will be very clear about changes needed.
Q: Will you be encouraging stand-alone academies to join bigger organisations?
A: Yes, particularly where a school is not doing very well. Where a school is doing well our mandate is to leave it alone. But where a school is inadequate we will absolutely expect it. Where a school is requiring improvement we would encourage it.
Q: Do you see yourself having a wider role in the Norfolk education landscape?
A: In terms of a formal role, no. The formal role is very clear that the role of the regional school commissioner is to work with academies, and schools thinking of becoming academies.
However, I am keen to work with everyone else in the education system: local authorities, maintained schools, diocese, teaching school alliances, in saying ‘how do we collectively use our energy, weight, authority, passion to raise standards across Norfolk?’ Certainly, I would expect to be a very close partner with the local authority, with other schools that have way of looking at what it means to raise standards.
So certainly, in terms of being one of the players in the education world, I’m really keen not to be stuck out in our office in Cambridge just doing the paperwork of our decision making, but for people to know we want to be a serious partner in what does it mean to improve things for children across our region.
Q: What views have you formed about how education in Norfolk is doing?
A: I suppose my sense is that, not just in Norfolk, but across the eastern region, there is some great education. I have visited some great schools in Swaffham, Great Yarmouth and Norwich.
However, my sense is there is far too much mediocre education. ‘Requires improvement’ bedevils hundreds of schools.
That does not mean the schools are terrible, but it means they’re nothing like good enough in terms of what they are offering children.
In terms of Norfolk, ‘requires improvement’ is the biggest challenge.
• A POWERFUL PLAYER IN REGIONAL EDUCATION
He may be the most important figure in education in our region for the next five years, with powers over schools which educate nearly two-thirds of Norfolk secondary school pupils.
Yet Tim Coulson was little known in Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire when the Department for Education appointed him as the civil servant who will oversee academies in our area.
Since taking up the post as the first regional schools commissioner for North East London and the East of England last month, Dr Coulson has visited academies across the patch to familiarise himself with local issues.
His role is a major one, as most Norfolk children will attend an academy during their school years.
By the end of the autumn term, more than 30,000 secondary school pupils in Norfolk will be studying at one, as well as 9,000 primary school pupils.
However, Dr Coulson said he also aimed to become a player across the wider education landscape, working with councils, dioceses and others to improve standards.
The structure of eight commissioners across England, under national commissioner Frank Green, was created to address concerns about the accountability of thousands of academies which, having moved out of the local authority realm, became directly answerable to Whitehall.
Dr Coulson, a former headteacher in Islington and, until last month, director of education at Essex County Council, said he has four main areas of responsibility:
• intervening in under-performing academies;
• approving applications for school to become academies;
• ensuring there are enough high-quality academy sponsors;
• approving major changes to existing academies.
The first role could see him make significant changes to academies with poor Ofsted reports or exam results, such as removing governing bodies, forcing schools to join an academy chain, or changing their sponsor.
The second will see him step into the world of non-academies, and some of the most controversial local decisions in education – the fate of non-academies that run into difficulty.
The third role will see him encourage top-performing schools and other organisations to become academy sponsors and bring others schools under their umbrella.
The fourth could see him decide issues such as whether an academy opens a sixth form.
Dr Coulson will be advised and held to account by a head teachers board, which includes four principals of top-rated academies, elected by headteachers of all academies in the region.
A total of 18 heads stood, including three from Norfolk, three from Suffolk and two from Cambridgeshire.
Of the four elected, three were from Essex and one from Cambridgeshire.
But Dr Coulson said Norfolk and Suffolk would not be disadvantaged by a lack of representation, because one of the first priorities of the board would be “a couple of other appointments that the criteria will be a good working knowledge of Norfolk and Suffolk”.
The post is paid up to £140,000, and the National Union of Teachers has called the new system a “confusing, expensive and bureaucratic arrangement of school accountability”.
It may not take long to see how Dr Coulson uses his powers, with this month’s exam results set to shine the spotlight on any under-performing academies.