This story by William Stewart in TES on 27th April 2018

The departing national schools commissioner says he has achieved what he set out to and suggests there is a positive side to the school funding crisis

So “King David” is off. The government’s academies tsar is departing for pastures new this summer and he says he’s quite happy about it.

“It’s been the most incredible leadership journey,” a relaxed-looking Sir David Carter says as he sits down to talk to Tes. “But I set out a number of things I wanted to do in this job and I think I’ve done most of those.

“I think the time is right for me to step back and let somebody else come into the role.”

So there will be a replacement national schools commissioner – the job advert goes up this morning – but Sir David’s departure surely signals the end of an era in education.

It was an era when the Department for Education (DfE) was hoping its new schools’ figurehead could help it cut down to size the then Ofsted chief inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw.

And it was an era when the fallout from the Wild West gold rush-style expansion of multi-academy trusts (MATs) was just starting to settle and Sir David was travelling the country with presentations full of five, seven and 11-point plans about how to steady the ship.

Today he believes he has been successful. He says he has got regional schools commissioners (RSCs) to work better together; helped MATs meet expectations on governance, school improvement and leadership; and ensured there are more checks on MATs before they expand.

“I am really proud that the role I am leaving is a substantive role in the system now, which has a clear definition around school improvement,” Sir David says.

But of course, there are some very high-profile problems that people can quickly point to to suggest that our academised schools system is not in a healthy state at all, not least the case of the Wakefield City Academies Trust, which collapsed and had to hand back 21 schools.

He says he was expecting the question – and points out that every WCAT school now has a new sponsor. “That gives you some idea of the agility that my team has been able to work at,” he says. “That is a good story, that is a positive.”

Sir David is in a very positive mood – later he almost attempts to frame the current funding crisis as a good news story for schools.

On WCAT, he accepts the case shows that the speed of MAT growth does matter, but says trusts are now scrutinised about their capacity to expand, “which I think mitigates against the risk of some failing again.”

So the system could now prevent a repeat of the WCAT debacle? “I think the answer is yes,” Sir David says after a pause. “But I think it is really hard to sit and say there won’t be failure.

“There is always a potential risk that things can go wrong and it would be really naïve to say otherwise.”

News of Sir David’s departure did not come as a complete surprise at Tes towers. There have been rumours floating around for weeks that the national schools commissioner was on his way out and was not entirely happy with his role, or at least frustrated by it.

Not so, he insists. It’s not only that he’s achieved his goals, he wants to spend more time with his family and have a “better balance” in life.

But the announcement comes less than three months after Sir David revealed that RSCs were to dramatically reduce what came to be termed as “shadow” school inspections, acknowledging that had been an overlap between Ofsted and his commissioners.

The change was seen as a major battle in the “turf war” between the two great powers in the schools system, with Sir David and the DfE on the losing side. Was that really not a factor?

“It really isn’t that. Of course I would say that wouldn’t I? But no it’s not,” he says. “I understand people will draw that connection. But I want to be able to present the real reasons out of respect and loyalty to the people I work with who know absolutely it’s not that – and the reasons I have given you were the right ones.

“If I was in a position where something was making me so unhappy I was thinking about leaving I would talk to somebody about it. But that is absolutely not the case.”

In fact, Sir David sees the current relationship between schools commissioners and Ofsted as another positive. “It is at its best at the moment,” he says.

“Amanda [Spielman, Ofsted chief inspector] and I have worked really hard to build a real synergy between our teams. We have made some real progress in that.”

He also rejects any notion that leaving after two-and-a-half years represents an early departure from a role he had pretty much written the job description for (having told the department what was needed as an RSC).

“I think one of the things I have learned here is that the pace of change in politics is different to the pace of change in schools,” he explains. “The equivalent of a five-year headship in some ways is equivalent of a three-year tenure as NSC given how I have done the job.”

It has been “gruelling”, he admits. “But I brought that on myself. Nobody said I had to be on the road two days a week. I recognised when I got the role that if I was going to really support the RSCs and be the leader of their team I couldn’t do that by email or by phone.

“I have seen stations in parts of England I never knew existed. But heads really appreciate when people come to them.”

He estimates he has done 180 conference presentations in just over two years. They have invariably come with numbered bullet points on where the system needs to go next.

Sir David is nothing if not clear. He even has a three-point plan for his successor: ensure that small MATs are successful, increase collaboration between MATs, and build further on the improved relationship with Ofsted.

For his own part, Sir David intends to do something to support and coach academy trust chief executives as his next project, as well doing voluntary work with the Transformation Trust to help disadvantaged pupils.

But the next national schools commissioner may find they have a little more than Sir David’s three points to work on, not least the funding crisis now engulfing the system.

Asked if he views funding as a problem, Sir David says: “My answer wouldn’t be credible if I said there was plenty of money in the system. But my job as NSC is to help people to make sense of it.

“I think there are some positives around it in a way – you might think that is a bit bizarre to say. But it has created a sense amongst many school leaders that they have to take a completely fresh look at their finances, they can’t just take a little bit of this budget and a little bit of that budget.

“The national fair funding formula is a really brave thing for the department to have done this time. The system is fairer, the NFF is a great piece of work.”

He is less positive about the schools, sometimes labelled as “untouchables”, that have been failed by Ofsted and are supposed to be academised, but that no sponsor will take on.

“If I had any regrets about things I hadn’t done, then one of the regrets would be that there are some children who have been left in schools that have failed for too long.

“All my instincts and best endeavours haven’t enabled us to move quickly enough to resolve that. Lack of a sponsor isn’t the only problem. There is also the state of the buildings and whether the roll has fallen away.”

Then there is transparency. When asked why the academies system is so secretive, Sir David visibly twitches. “I do understand the challenge of the question, and I am on the record about the need to be transparent,” he begins.

He then stresses that the Headteacher Boards – much criticised for having closed meetings with scant minutes – do not actually take decisions and merely advise. But of course, they are the nearest we come to forums where these decisions, taken by RSCs, are actually discussed.

“What I see when I am in those board meetings is really good intelligent debate…but the system doesn’t get a chance to see how good that is,” he concedes.

But, he hints, there may be good news around the corner: “I know that this secretary of state is very keen that we are more transparent. Quite how that plays out is for other people to determine. But I think it is something they will return to take a look at.”

If Sir David has had a weak spot, then a recognition of just why transparency is needed might be it. When Tes tackled the academies tsar on this in September, he focused on the need for more information for academy trusts, but parents who used the schools almost seemed to be an afterthought. His latest comments on school funding may not go down brilliantly either.

But they are uncharacteristic blips from a man who clearly cares about what he is doing and genuinely wants to make things better. It may have been a DfE desire to put Ofsted in its place that helped make Sir David the new monarch of the schools system – “King David”, as department insiders dubbed him.

And once he got there he found himself trying to sort out a messy and quickly evolving system, created through sweeping political decisions, rather than any thought-through plan. But Sir David has fought to make sense of it and the central tenant of his original vision still stands up today: schools should lead the system through collaboration, and even the best can learn from each other.

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