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In this article from Leader magazine, National Schools Commissioner Sir David Carter talks to Julie Nightingale about his role in promoting the benefits of academies and why he thinks more schools will come round to his view that they offer the best model for improving children’s education opportunities.
Sir David Carter taught music and maths at a north London comprehensive in the 1980s and was known for wearing a tracksuit, whether he was being Sporty Sir on the football pitch or Scholarly Sir at the whiteboard.
“It made a noticeable difference to my classroom management,” he says. “People thought I was a PE teacher in a music room. Once I’d cottoned on that that made life easier, some days I wore the tracksuit when I wasn’t teaching PE.”
These days, in his role as National Schools Commissioner with responsibilities including promoting academies and multi-academy trusts (MATs), he is more likely to be moving between meetings with the Secretary of State for Education and Lord Nash, Schools Minister, or talking to the regional schools commissioners (RSCs) he oversees, as well as visiting schools.
He hasn’t yet had to dust off the tracksuit, although it and a referee’s whistle might yet come in handy as debate over academisation and the role and power of MATs continues. Witness the outcry in March when the government announced plans to compel all schools to become academies, a plan since toned down. David himself is a firm believer in the academy system as a model for improving the life chances of all children. His philosophy was honed as principal of the outstanding John Cabot City Technology College (now John Cabot Academy), then CEO of the Cabot Learning Federation in Bristol, an early MAT. He was knighted for services to education in the Queen’s birthday honours in 2013, and in 2014 was the first regional schools commissioner for the South-West before taking the national role in February 2016.
He thinks that more heads and governors who have resisted in the past are opening up to the idea of academy status.
“The ambition, as far as I’m concerned is that every school in the system will become an academy,” he says. “What’s happened since the change in Secretary of State and Prime Minister is that we are no longer talking about compulsion and we’ve taken a date away from it, so we’re no longer talking about 2022.
“As a consequence, more school leaders are recognising that that is the direction of travel but that they can have the conversation more on their own terms now.
“I think it’s like all things in life. If you tell someone they have to do something, they will question it. If you say it’s my choice and I can have some control over the decision, then they will have a much more intelligent debate about it.”
The capacity of MATs
If MATs are to grow, it’s important, he says, that their capacity to support all schools under their control is not diluted as that could thwart the drive to raise standards. He and the RSCs have devised a health check that will enable MATs to do a self-audit of whether they are ready to grow.
“I think it will really help the system be clearer about what we are looking for and when the right time to make that strategic growth might be,” he says. “Those two key strategies around building capacity in the system and improving the system are very closely linked.”
Role of the RSCs
He oversees eight RSCs, who monitor academy performance, approve schools that want to convert to become academies and approve new sponsors and new MATS to set up.
There was criticism in March 2016 by MPs of the system in which RSCs operate for its confusion and lack of transparency. In response, the DfE appointed deputy directors in the regions to provide more capacity and support for each commissioner. The RSC role is wide-ranging but it is focused on improving the education of children wherever they attend school. “I get asked a lot how RSCs can oversee so many schools – there are 6,000 academies – but we are not trying to do that. We are trying to oversee the ones we are worried about, are in trouble. So the role around intervention around academies that are under-performing gives us a very clear remit to make this a school improvement role.”
Is autonomy under threat?
One of the keystones of the academy programme has been individual school autonomy. Yet as the system has matured and more and more schools are joining MATs, there are some fears that that autonomy is under threat. In particular, the influence that MAT chief executives have over pedagogy in some trusts appears far greater than that wielded by a director of education in a local authority.
The strongest trusts have the balance right between a tight structure and autonomy that allows schools to be creative within it, Sir David says. But it’s not right either, he adds, that all schools, outstanding and in a category, should enjoy the same level of autonomy, which is happening in places where some of the systems and methodologies aren’t working.
“In a model where I’m holding chairs and chief execs to account for what they claim they are going to do with their funding agreement, then you’d expect them to exert some influence over the practice. So yes, trust CEOs may be more directive than directors of education but they are accountable in a very different way as well and the level of expectation means that they take their eye off that ball at their peril.”
He is against local authorities being permitted to start their own MATs.
“The idea that county councils are going to be able to set up MATs and run the numbers of schools they’ve had under their auspices in the past is illogical. The size of MATs is one of the things that we keep a really close eye on. The reality is that if a large local authority was going to set up MATs for all of its schools, it could mean going to groups of 40 or 50 overnight and that just wouldn’t be practical.”
People who rise in the profession often regret the loss of their teaching time and being in front of children. Does he ever miss the classroom?
“Yes, some days. I saw the most amazing music in a school in Croydon recently and it reminded me what a joyous job it was to teach music to young people.” And he doesn’t subscribe to the view that the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) with its focus on traditional academic subjects will marginalise teaching of music and other arts. “If the question is, ‘Is the EBacc ringing the death knell for drama, art, dance and music?’ I’m not seeing that. The school I saw in Croydon had high proportions doing both the EBacc and doing GCSE music. The arts are the pulse of successful schools and leaders who believe passionately in the arts will make sure they are protected.”
David himself is still a keen piano player and music is “a massive stress buster for me, a real outlet. It’s a massive part of my life whether I’m teaching it or just enjoying it. So I play quite a lot of classical stuff but I also like some jazz and rock stuff. Just busk away.”
And though he likes a challenging Bach prelude you won’t catch him playing the blues.
“No, not The Rolling Stones or Miles Davis. I’m more of a Level 42 man.”
ASCL Annual Conference 2016, 10-11 March at the ICC in Birmingham
Sir David Carter is a keynote speaker at our annual conference next year. The conference is a highlight of the educational calendar. Whether you’re an established or aspiring school leader, member or non-member, we look forward to welcoming you to another inspiring and informative event.
Find out more online: www.ascl.org.uk/annualconference