"Dramatic differences" in regional school performance

DRAMATIC differences exist in regional school performance, presenting potentially serious challenges for Regional School Commissioners, according to a new report.

Analysis by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) shows that two of the eight areas overseen by RSCs - Lancashire & West Yorkshire and the East Midlands & the Humber - have more than 500 underperforming schools, as well as the most schools in immediate need of attention. In contrast, the North of England has less than half this number.

The research found that while there is capacity at a national level among existing multi-academy trusts to provide support to the worst performing schools, at a regional level there are "stark" differences.

Lancashire & West Yorkshire faces the most serious shortfall in available academy sponsors, although the report warned that most other RSCs could also face problems in matching schools in need to available capacity.

In September 2016, nearly 17 per cent of academies and local authority-maintained schools across England could be classed as underperforming because they were judged by Ofsted as Inadequate or Requiring Improvement, they were below the Government's floor standard, they met the criteria of a coasting school, or a combination of these factors.

The NFER said that while the number of underperforming schools has fallen since RSCs were introduced in September 2014, it is not clear if this is due to the actions of the commissioners or a result of other factors.

The Department for Education has said RSCs take "swift and targeted action" to tackle underperformance, rather than schools being left to "stagnate" under local authority control.

But councils have argued that commissioners lack the capacity and local knowledge to effectively oversee a large, diverse and remote range of schools. The Local Government Association has called for the return of powers for local authorities to intervene in any type of school, not just those they directly maintain.

MPs have also raised concerns about RSCs. In January 2016, the Education Select Committee said the commissioners have an increasingly powerful position but their roles are so poorly defined that they are unclear to even key players in the education system.

The cross-party panel described RSCs as a product of the DfE's "acting first, thinking later" approach to major changes in schools, which have left the oversight system confused, fragmented and lacking transparency.

Lesley Duff, the NFER's director of research, said: "What is becoming evident at a regional level, as at other levels within the school system, is that reforms take time to feed through and for the full implications and impact of their implementation to become clear.

"The Government should be circumspect about introducing further change and any proposals for change should be based firmly on available evidence."