The most influential man in education? Tim Coulson on his first year as regional schools commissioner, and the year ahead
- Credit: Archant
He is fast becoming the most important player in education in our region. Martin George meets the civil servant with growing power over academies – and now non-academies, too
Back in March, Tim Coulson, the first regional schools commissioner (RSC) for the East of England and North-East London, told educationalists he did not know whether his role would be scrapped or expanded after the election.
It is now clear the position he took in July 2014 is not only here to stay, but is ever more powerful. Crucially, as well as holding academies to account, Dr Coulson will now decide whether non-academies defined as 'coasting' have to convert.
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What has he achieved so far?
Dr Coulson has been a visible presence since his appointment. From September to February, he visited 110 schools, issued warning notices to two academies, and found new sponsors for six others.
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One of his first steps was to issue a warning notice to City Academy Norwich, following a second year of 'disastrous' GCSE results. It was potentially the first stage in taking it away from its sponsor, the Transforming Education in Norfolk (TEN) group.
He said: 'I think it's a success story. In a sense, I'm holding my breath because we need to see the results in August. But they brought in an excellent headteacher.
'They had an inspection I think in July we would have predicted was heading to special measures. 'Requires improvement' is not great, but it was clearly a massive improvement.'
He has also taken the fledgling Thetford Alternative Provision Free School – now known as the Pinetree School – away from its original board, and linked it to the recently-formed Engage Trust, a specialist sponsor of alternative and special academies.
Dr Coulson said he hoped his biggest contribution had been building relationships between different bodies involved in education: councils, academy sponsors, headteachers' associations.
Has it made a difference? He said this summer's results will be the real test.
The search for sponsors
More schools are likely to become academies, but Dr Coulson wants them to be members of multi-academy trusts (MAT), rather than stand-alone, independent academies.
The problem is that there are not enough sponsors to run the number of MATs he will need.
He revealed that, as well as approving Reepham High School's application to become an academy sponsor, Hellesdon and Wymondham high schools are, or will soon become, approved sponsors.
He said the new wave of sponsors will be different to the most familiar current sponsors – such as Ormiston, ATT, TEN and the Inspiration Trust, some of whom 'were a bit brash, upset the apple cart a bit' – and aimed to be consensual, building on existing links with local primaries.
He expects the most movement to come in the primary sector, where he has seen a 'complete mood swing' since the election.
He said: 'We are setting up meetings for the autumn term when I would be very surprised if we don't get some primary heads and chairmen coming forward to say 'we would love to know about setting up multi-academy trusts'.'
What about highly-rated schools that have decided not to become academies, such as Aylsham High and Thorpe St Andrew School?
Dr Coulson said: 'I'll be knocking on their door' – but the decision would be entirely theirs.
A new role for non-academies?
Although Dr Coulson takes the final decisions, he is advised by a headteacher board (HTB), mostly made up of leaders of top-rated academies, and chosen by an electorate of academy principals. Dr Coulson said that, during his first year, he not taken a decision his HTB disagreed with.
But with his powers being extended to non-academies rated 'requires improvement' or 'coasting', shouldn't board members also be drawn from non-academies?
He said: 'Formally, the position is the department will continue to have HTBs as constituted. However, what our HTB has decided is it will continue to be an HTB across the region, but it will have three sub-regional groupings, because we think it's going to have lots more work to do.'
And the membership of these new committees could be drawn from a wider pool, including local authorities and non-academies.
A shadow local authority and inspectorate?
To some critics, regional school commissioners are gradually transforming into shadow local authorities and Ofsteds, but with less democratic accountability or openness.
Dr Coulson said there were 'shades' of what local authorities do – making judgment calls on schools - but councils deal with a much wider range of areas such as special needs and admissions. Instead, the RSC is the backstop if something goes wrong with academy trusts running schools.
Is the new structure also encroaching on Ofsted's territory, operating a shadow inspection regime, with results that remain secret?
Dr Coulson 'would say it very differently'.
The EDP has seen a letter from Dr Coulson following a civil servant's visit to Acle Academy, which included detailed comments on the school's buildings, results, teacher feedback, students' work and governance.
Dr Coulson said his team visits any academy where data suggests it might not be doing well, but rather than an inspection, it tended be a half-day visit to see if there was cause for concern.
He added that letters are then sent to schools with the findings, to help them, and they were not made public.
RSCs make key decisions about schools that educate thousands and thousands of children, but there has been concern about a lack of transparency about how they are made.
Published minutes record what was decided, but not why, and a Freedom of Information request by the EDP to see the background papers was refused, a decision the EDP has referred to the information commissioner.
For Dr Coulson, publishing information about rejected proposals made by schools could discourage them coming forward in the future.
But he added: 'We plan in the autumn to increase the amount we put in headteachers' minutes.'
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