Exclusive interview with regional schools commissioner Tim Coulson: “I see more determination in Norfolk than anywhere”

Regional schools commissioner, Dr Tim Coulson, has a tour of City of Norwich School, an Ormiston Aca

Regional schools commissioner, Dr Tim Coulson, has a tour of City of Norwich School, an Ormiston Academy. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: copyright: Archant 2014

He is the man who holds the future of two Norfolk high schools in his hands. MARTIN GEORGE talks to Regional Schools Commissioner Tim Coulson, six months into his new role.

'Release schools from local authority control' often seems to be the rallying cry for the academies movement.

In fact, schools have had a high degree of autonomy since the late 1980s, but even when schools have converted to academy status, they still have to be accountable to someone.

Until last year, the buck stopped with Department for Education (DfE), but it proved increasingly hard for Whitehall to keep on top of the growing number of academies - now numbering more than 4,000. A new solution was needed.

Step forward a newly-created role: the regional schools commissioner. Installed last summer, the eight commissioners hold academies in their areas to account, and make key decisions about sponsors and new conversions.

Tim Coulson - previously director of education at Essex County Council - took the role for the east of England and north-east London on July 1.

Paid between £130,000 and £134,999, he will soon face his first big challenge locally - what happens to the Hewett School and Sewell Park College in Norwich.

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The Hewett and Sewell Park College

Dr Coulson will make his first mark on Norfolk when deciding the future of these two schools. Both are in special measures, which has almost invariably led to academy conversion under an outside sponsor.

However, Norfolk County Council is trying to convince the DfE to instead allow The Hewett to become a 'learning village', with a range of facilities on site for members of the local community.

Dr Coulson said his standard position was that when a school fails an inspection, it becomes a sponsored academy, and 'that is our working assumption in both those schools'.

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He added: 'If there's an alternative view we will have proper discussions about what an alternative view would be, and in a way stick to 'we're all determined to get the best for the Hewett children as quickly as is possible'.'

He added: 'There is likely to be a change of governors at Hewett and this will need to be confirmed before discussions about an academy.'

Ormiston Victory and Ormiston Venture Academies

Both these academies, in Costessey and Gorleston respectively, received Ofsted's top 'outstanding' rating in 2013, but last summer saw their GCSE results crash - Victory suffering a 30 percentage point drop in the proportion of students gaining the GCSE gold standard.

Dr Coulson said: 'When you read their Ofsted reports they both got great write ups, and obviously their results did not look anything like that.'

He has the power to intervene in failing academies, with a change of sponsor or leadership among the possibilities, but he expressed confidence in both schools' futures, having visited both and 'working closely with them'.

He said: 'In the end, it will be absolutely all about what the children achieve next summer, and we won't be doing anything at the moment with either of those schools given the confidence we have seen in what they are going this term, but we will be working with them to assess how well that progress is happening during this year, and at the moment we share their confidence about their results for next summer.'

Education in Norfolk

The state of education in Norfolk has been in the heavily criticised by the DfE and Ofsted over the past two years.

Dr Coulson came to the county with fresh eyes in July, and said the data was 'still not very good', but, 'overall, I feel very encouraged'.

He cited Norfolk County Council's support for school improvement being judged 'effective' over the summer, and described this summer's exam results as 'OK, not stunning, but OK'.

He said: 'My sense was when I first came to Norfolk that it did not look a very good picture. Having come to Norfolk, however, the mood, I have to say is very different. It feels to me very determined to change that data, and if anything I would say across the region I see more determination in Norfolk than I see anywhere else in the region to see improvement.'

He added: 'My sense is it's an education system where the data suggests things still need to be much better, but I think I see quite a lot of positive signs that, actually, it is going to make that step change.'

New academy sponsors

One key role the regional commissioners have been given is to increase the number of academy sponsors. There is a particular shortage of sponsors in Norfolk who have the capacity to take on schools.

Dr Coulson said he had invited all outstanding schools in his region to a conference and think about becoming an academy, with 19 expressing an interest.

Six front runners came to a workshop before Christmas, and he hopes to have further sponsors by spring.

However, whether any of those are ready to sponsor a school like Hewett or Sewell Park was 'a slightly different matter'.

He said both schools are 'fairly challenged schools at the moment in terms of where they are and so whether there are sponsors who are ready for them, it is too early to say'.

One challenge is encouraging organisations other than schools to become sponsors.

'At the moment, I think it's fair to say that almost all the people coming forward as new sponsors are schools, with the one exception being diocese', he said.

He said the Diocese of Norwich in particular, which has a large a large number of mainly small, rural primaries, could 'very quickly become one of the most significant players in the academy world'.

Dame Rachel de Souza

Perhaps Dr Coulson's most controversial move so far has been to appoint Dame Rachel de Souza, the chief executive of the Norfolk-based Inspiration Trust, to the headteacher board which advises him.

The decision was announced in September, before an Ofsted investigation into allegations that three schools connected to Dame Rachel received advance notice of Ofsted inspection dates had concluded.

He said: 'All of those discussions pre-dated any allegations coming out. Obviously we then decided to appoint Rachel and then the allegations came out. We made the appointment before we knew about the allegations.'

Having made the decision, he said 'we didn't see any reason' to put it on hold pending the investigation's outcome.

Dame Rachel has denied the allegations. The investigation found no evidence to support the claims, but that investigation is now being reviewed after new emails came to light.

Is there a target for academy conversions?

Last month Schools Week magazine revealed one of the eight performance indicators regional schools commissioners will be judged on is 'the percentage of schools that are academies or free schools'.

However, when asked whether he will try to convert as many schools as possible because he will be judged on this, Dr Coulson said he told schools 'just to become an academy for being an academy's sake isn't for me the be-all-and-end-all'.

He added: 'For me the most important indicator is how many children go to a really good school. For some schools, becoming an academy will assist their school becoming a good school, so I can see for a certain group of schools moving to become an academy - so overall that will mean there are more academies - will achieve the really important goal of there being more really good schools.'

• Do you have an education story? Email martin.george@archant.co.uk

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