School Governing : policy, politics and practices

School governance FC


What impact have the unprecedented and rapid changes to the structure of education in England had on
school governors and policy makers? And what effect has the intensifying media and regulatory focus had
on the volunteers who take on the job?

Jacqueline Baxter takes the 2014 ‘Trojan Horse’ scandal, in which it was alleged that governors at 25 Birmingham schools were involved in the ‘Islamisation’ of secular state schools, as a focus point to examine the pressures and challenges in the current system. Informed by her twenty years’ experience as a school governor, she considers both media analysis and policy as well as the implications for the future of a
democratic system of education in England.

“Brings new insight into how and why governors are
positioned within society and how shifting attitudes to the
purpose of school have shaped the future of governance.”


“Expertly explores the key issues surrounding modern school governance. A stimulating and informative
read for anyone interested in school governance and leadership.”

Ellie Cotgrave, National Governors’
March 2016

“A succinct, and fascinating, document on the many
challenges we have faced as ‘Hidden Givers’ over the last
few years.”

Jane Owens, National Leader of Governance,

For 35% discount on all Policy Press
books subscribe to our newsletter:
Blog: Policy Press
@policypress Sign up for our e-newsletter at

Crafting strategy : school boards, systems or command and control approach?

Strategic leadership: board members in areas of high deprivation ‘deliverololgy or systems approach?’

Department of Public Leadership and Social Enterprise, The Open University Business School, England, UK)

Rapid and intense changes to the English education system, particularly since 2010 have created a quasi-market operating environment for schools. Research into other areas of the public services reveals that the ability of boards to create externally facing effective strategy, is vital for their survival and ongoing improvement, yet in education we know little about how school boards and the 300,000 volunteer board members within them understand, create and develop strategic direction for their schools or how important it is to school survival and improvement in the current climate. This blog post focuses on a paper to be presented at the American Educational Research Association Conference 2016- Washington DC and which examines exactly these questions.

Research tells us that across the public sector board approaches to strategy are linked to notions of public value and are extremely influential in determining the shape and form of organisations and how they respond to service users, yet in terms of English education the role of strategy is underexplored.

Command and Control or deliverology?

It is certainly true that in the English quasi-marketised system of education, increasing emphasis is being placed on board members’ ability to set, monitor and evaluate strategic direction, not only in terms of school capabilities, but perhaps equally as importantly, in terms of the shape and form of schools within the context of the wider system. Research has shown that in areas of high deprivation, school boards are particularly cognizant of the need to serve their communities, but what is not known is how they articulate this need in terms of strategy: how they draw on particular sources of information to craft strategic direction as an evolving and learning process (Baxter 2016a, Baxter and Hult 2016).

Command and control approaches to strategy, made popular by the Audit Commission and Blair’s Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit, placed a great deal of emphasis on targets, performance management and delivery outputs in order to effect public service improvement (Campbell-Smith 2008). Since then researchers and organisations that do not believe that this set of ideas creates real improvement in public services have been exploring other routes – particularly in relation to strategy (Alimo-Metcalfe and Alban-Metcalfe 2004). One such set of ideas is articulated under the broad banner ‘systems thinking’ and draws on theories that vision strategy in terms of a whole system approach.

How do school board members understand strategy?

Examining how school board members articulate their understandings of strategy in this study draws on a sample from multi-academy trusts in areas of high socio economic deprivation. Exploring how governors approaches to strategy fit within existing models the study looks at whether these approaches are discursively underpinned by command and control or systems thinking (Seddon 2008, Graham 1999). As the findings reveal, many board members although they aspire to a systems approach, feel ill equipped to operationalise this in their handling of strategy. This appears to be founded in the belief that either they lack the knowledge necessary for this work, or they are more comfortable with monitoring and evaluating strategy that is developed by the head and senior leadership team. Governors, for the most part did have a deep and committed relationship with communities in which their schools were located. Yet in spite of this, still appeared to lack confidence in terms of translating this knowledge into setting the strategic direction of the school (Baxter 2016b).

Looking for ways to integrate community needs into strategy

The considerable evidence that board members were working towards translating this knowledge into strategically relevant data was illustrated by the ways in which they were looking to new ways to engage with parents; using focus groups and community groups to inform their knowledge and provide tangible evidence to inform strategy. It also revealed that although in many cases they appear keen to learn about their work in relation to the wider system, they were conditioned to thinking in command and control ways about their particular remit. This is an important insight for future board development and implies that there is a need for development that places boards and their members in the wider political and socio-cultural contexts of their work. Investigation of sub themes arising as part of the coding process, revealed training events to be largely focused on particular areas of monitoring work, for example: budgets, safeguarding, counter extremism, behavior rather than focusing on ‘the bigger picture’ in relation to the situation of their schools within the wider system

This is supported by governor interpretations of what strategy is: even governors that appeared comfortable with strategy within their own professional lives often appeared at sea when interpreting this in terms of a public service/schools context.

Analysis of documentation relating to inspection processes was instrumental in identifying expectations of board understandings of strategy. These documents were peppered with command and control terminology which concomitantly appeared in board member narratives. Again this points to the need for inspection processes to reflect a systems approach, if indeed this is the way that both government and inspectorate wish to see the system develop and improve, as evidence from policy documents, press releases and media reports suggest they do.

In spite of a plethora of research investigating board approaches to strategy in the private and not-for profit sector, there is little in terms of education. This may well be due to the speed at which the current wave of marketization has occurred: According to the DfE since 2010 4, 000 academies opened in England – almost 20 times as many as there were in May 2010, when all 203 academies were sponsored secondary schools of these 87% of academies support other schools in some way (DfE 2014). It is clear from this case study that this area is becoming increasingly important as one for research if the notion of a self-improving education system is ever to maximise its potential and come fully to fruition.



Alimo-Metcalfe, Beverly, and John Alban-Metcalfe. 2004. “Leadership in public sector organisations.”  Leadership in Organizations 174.

Baxter, J. 2016a. School governing : politics, policy and practice. Bristol: Policy Press.

Baxter, J. . 2016b. “Strategic leadership: board members in areas of high deprivation ‘deliverololgy or systems approach?’.” AERA _ The American Educational Research Association Conference 2016, Washington DC, 080416.

Baxter, J. , and A. Hult. 2016. “School inspectors in Sweden and England: the impact of changing policy on practices. .” In School inspectors: operational challendges in National Policy Contexts edited by Baxter.J. London: Springer. .

Campbell-Smith, Duncan. 2008. Follow the Money: A History of the Audit Commission: Penguin UK.

Graham, P. 1999. “Critical Systems Theory: A Political Economy of Language, Thought and Technology.”  Communication Research 26 (4):482-507.

Seddon, J. 2008. Systems Thinking in the Public Sector. Axminster: Triarchy Press.



The Government ‘Vision’ for Education : where are we now ?

The government’s vision for education is difficult to swallow – here’s why

Jacqueline Baxter, The Open University

If you were in any doubt about how complex and opaque the education system in England has become, a new report by MPs has outlined it in no uncertain terms. The report by the House of Commons education select committee into Regional Schools Commissioners (RSCs) raises a number of concerns about the role and function of the people charged with overseeing the growing number of academy schools in England.

The report questions the role and function of England’s eight RSCs and the whole area of democratic accountability in education, particularly in light of proposals to expand the academies programme contained in the Education and Adoption bill making its way through parliament. Combined with reports that over 500,000 primary school children are now being taught in super-size classes and that we are facing a chronic shortage of teachers, the whole area of the government’s strategic planning in education is called into question.

A sticking plaster approach

As parliament’s public accounts committee pointed out in January 2015: “The DfE [Department for Education] presides over a complex and confused system of external oversight.” This confused system is made up of state schools that continue to be maintained by Local Education Authorities (LEAs), as well as academies and free schools, which are free from LEA control.

RSCs were introduced as “a pragmatic approach to academy oversight”, a sticking plaster over what has become such a convoluted form of accountability that not even those working in schools can understand it – not to mention parents. According to PTA UK, a charity that helps parent-teacher associations, just one in ten parents know what role RSCs play in their child’s education, leading to confusion when it comes to deciding where and who should address any problems.

Effective strategic planning is recognised as one of the cornerstones of effective public services, as a number of research projects have highlighted.

Yet as the boundaries between public and private become increasingly blurred, this planning becomes ever more complex. Reforms of the English school system that have intensified since 2010 have produced a hybrid system of accountability in which numerous bodies compete and collaborate to provide educational governance. These reforms have also led to a serious planning deficit in terms of school places.

This lack of strategic foresight is all the more concerning given that none of these issues have come out of the blue. Researchers have been predicting a teacher shortage for some time now, and the number of children entering reception classes has been rising in relation to population over a number of years.

The ability to plan locally has been severely compromised by the undermining of resource and statutory powers of local authorities, not least in the areas of school planning. This led the Local Government Association (LGA) to urge the government to expand academy schools to meet demand for school places, or else to give back powers to councils to open new state-maintained schools, something they currently are not permitted to do.

Patchy solutions to big issues

The government response to the places shortfall has largely been to advocate the opening of new free schools. The prime minister, David Cameron speaking in March 2015, committed his party to providing another 270,000 school places in free schools, if re-elected, by 2020.

Since 2010, free schools have taken a disproportionate amount of funding compared to state-maintained schools. But they have also compounded the places problem by opening in areas where there is already a surplus of places.

Crammed in.

And even when they do open in areas of need, they often don’t immediately operate at full capacity, but admit just one year group and build up to a full complement of pupils over a number of years.

A survey by the LGA published in August 2014 found councils had spent more than £1 billion in attempting to make up the shortfall. This was based on data which revealed that 66 of the 152 council areas with responsibility for schools would have more primary-age pupils than places for them in 2016-17, rising to 85 areas in 2017-18 and 94 areas in 2018-19.

The government response to the accountability gap – which has already led to issues such as the Trojan Horse affair in Birmingham – has been to implement the system of regional commissioners. But as the education committee’s new report points out, the flaws inherent within the reach and remit of the role are wide-ranging, affecting crucial areas of safeguarding, inspection, school improvement, democratic accountability and variation in standards between regions. The committee also points out that conflicts of interest need to be addressed far more cohesively, along with the thorny issue of who exactly holds these increasingly powerful individuals to account.

An uncertain future

The Education and Adoption bill stands to place further pressure on what education scholar Martin Lawn describes as a “systemless system” of education. This is one in which strategic planning is almost impossible given the number and overlapping remit of organisations involved in the governance of English education.

Jon Coles, chief executive of academy chain United Learning, giving evidence to the select committee, suggested that the whole area of education needed a “back to basics” approach, stating:

I think we are reaching a point where we need a new settlement. We have not had a settlement that has been national, clear and comprehensive since the 1944 [Education] Act … there has been a progressive erosion of some people’s roles, development of new roles, changes to the key functions of key actors in the system the landscape has changed hugely I think we just need to have a fresh look.

The government assures us that it does have a vision for education: “A world class education system in which all schools are academised.

Yet it is becoming harder and harder to buy into this “vision” when viewed through the prism of the issues that currently beset education in England. No doubt the parents of those pupils being taught in a portacabin by the fifth supply teacher in as many weeks, and who have little idea as to where to address complaints, may have problems buying into that “vision” too.

The Conversation

Jacqueline Baxter, Lecturer in Public Policy and Management , The Open University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Ode to 2015

An ode to 2015.
By jacquelinebphotografie.

Goodbye 15 it’s time to go
So take a bow and don’t be slow,
You started well, all credit due,
And there’ve been highs (though they were few).

So as the chimes ring out tonight
Please just bow out without a fight
As Jools on his piano plays, let’s raise a glass to better days.
To clearer paths amid the haze.

Of war, and fighting, floods and pain
Terrorism and personal gain,
Corrupt regimes and ideologues,
Sensationalist press and media dogs.

And let’s look back on two one five,
Be thankful we came out alive,
And raise a glass to two one six,
To peace and health, a better mix.


Where are all of the women on public service boards ?

Source: Where are all of the women on public service boards ?

Where are all of the women on public service boards ?

More women on company boards, but what about the public sector?

Jacqueline Baxter, The Open University

There are now no all-male boards in FTSE 100 companies, marking a watershed in women’s representation, according to the launch of the Female FTSE Board Report 2015. Since the Davies Report set a target of 25% of women serving on boards of FTSE 100 companies four years ago, women’s representation has almost doubled.

But the successes of the FTSE 100 are not mirrored in the public sector. Despite a number of government interventions since 2010, representation of women, ethnic minorities and those with disabilities remains challenging to say the least.

In health, although women account for 77% of the NHS workforce they hold only 37% of board positions. A mere 30% reach the position of chair, compared to 70% of men.

In policing, the picture is even bleaker: the system of elected Police and Crime Commissioners (PCC) introduced in 2012 was driven by the need for greater transparency and public accountability. But the elections resulted in only six women PCCS compared with 35 men.

Combined with a total lack of representation of ethnic minorities this led to the system being described as a “monoculture”. And it makes the current government plans to extend the remit of PCCs to include all emergency services concerning, to say the least.

In spite of the fact that there are around 22,000 schools in England, governed by an estimated 300,000 volunteer governors, we have no idea how representative these boards are. No statistics have ever been kept.

Since September 1, 2015, schools have been required to post certain information regarding their governing body on their websites. The Department for Education is currently looking at ways that this can be made easier, but there is no indication of how this will be monitored or whether diversity data would be gathered at any point.

The government’s current emphasis on recruiting people with “business skills” as school governors runs the risk of creating exactly the same issues around diversity as have occurred in corporate public boards – the very same issue that the FTSE 100 project sought to eradicate.

In higher education the outlook appears to be more positive with a fifth of the boards of governing bodies in the UK possessing a 40-60% split between men and women members. Out of 166 higher education institutions in the UK, women make up 37% of all governing body members. But only 12% of chairs of these boards are women.

Quotas or no quotas?

The FTSE report is impressive, not least because it demonstrates what can be achieved without the introduction of quotas. But it also indicates that achieving diversity on boards doesn’t come without hard work and collaboration.

Lack of supply of qualified female candidates is often quoted as a reason for the lack of diversity on public sector boards. An important part of the FTSE 100 experience lay in encouraging and supporting the pipeline of women as potential leaders. It carries the additional benefit of encouraging women to fulfil their potential on merit rather than relying on quotas to do the job.

The substantial body of research into quotas – largely relating to their use in political appointments – has shown that although they act immediately, they also have the potential to reinforce the status quo. This is because they recruit a “particular type of candidate”, which then provides too much “group think”.

“Group think” is recognised by psychologists as being a strong desire for harmony or conformity within a group which can result in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making. In the worst case scenario, members go to extraordinary lengths to minimise conflict by suppressing dissenting viewpoints and isolating themselves from “outside influences”. In the case of boards, the phenomenon is found far more frequently in those that lack diversity in their membership.

Research suggests that there are also problems in the appointment process: organisations often employ a narrow definition of experience, essentially seeking candidates with prior board or executive experience. This restricts the access of qualified female candidates, whose backgrounds might not fit this narrow profile.

Interpersonal dynamics are often found to play a part, largely in terms of recruiters’ preference for similar candidates and narrow perceptions of who fits and who doesn’t. Social capital and relationships have also been found to be critical and organisations such as Women on Boards have been set up to provide formal and informal support through referencing and sponsorship.

Good for business.
Monkey Business Images/

The benefits of a diverse board

There is little doubt that diversity on boards is a good thing. A recent report by McKinsey argued that advancing womens’equality could add US$12 trillion to global growth.

Other evidence shows that companies with mixed boards outperform those with all male ones. There is also substantial evidence to support the fact that women also bring particular skills to the table.

So with the evidence that women on boards increase performance, it’s time the public sector woke up to the benefits of female representation and made a concerted effort to emulate their FTSE counterparts.

The Conversation

Jacqueline Baxter, Lecturer in Public Policy and Management , The Open University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

By extending the remit of PCCs, the government is playing with fire

By extending the remit of PCCs, the government is playing with fire

Jacqueline Baxter, The Open University

The UK government has proposed to extend the remit of Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) to cover other emergency services, including fire and rescue.

The system has been called a “failed experiment” by the Independent Police Commission, and has continued to attract criticism since its inception in 2012.

So why widen the remit of PCCs, in light of so much criticism? Looking back on issues surrounding the system gives some insight into challenges facing any extension.

Chequered history

The PCCs replaced an old three-pronged system of police governance, which was comprised of the home secretary, the Local Police Authority and the local chief constable. It was hoped the new system would address accusations that these authorities were opaque, that their membership was largely hidden from public view and that they were far too distant from the communities they claimed to represent.

Under the new system, PCCs are elected by the general public and “held accountable” by police and crime panels, which are made up from all local authorities within the force area PCCs. Elected PCCs possess a great deal of power. Their many responsibilities include creating a police and crime plan, and setting the police precept – the share of council tax received by the police, commissioning victim and community safety services. Perhaps their most contentious power is to appoint and dismiss the chief constable for their area.

From the beginning, the system failed to make a favourable impression: the first PCC election was described as a “bungled” affair, after a voter turnout of just 15.1%. It was later revealed that 37% of those on the register said they failed to vote due to “lack of awareness” about the elections and the candidates who were running. To make things worse, the cost of this farcical election ran as high as £4m; pretty high considering the 2011 estimated total cost for holding mayoral referendums in 12 cities in 2011 was £2.58m.

The new model has also come under sustained criticism from both the Local Government Association (LGA) and The Home Affairs Select Committee, which have both voiced concerns over lack of democratic representation due to the spectacularly low voter turnout. The Stevens Report by the Independent Police Commission, published in November 2013 described “serious disquiet” over both concept and workings of the system, and called for a new system to put the structural defects of the present one to rights.

A flawed democracy

The “strong democratic mandate” promised by the new system has simply not happened, and not just because of low voter turnout. The problems since then have been many and varied.

One of the most troubling issues is the inability of the Police and Crime Panels to hold PCCs to account. According to research by the University of Leeds’ Dr Stuart Lister, this is largely due to the legislative weakness of the panels, which leave them without substantive powers to veto the decisions made by PCCs. Another problem Lister revealed is that 68% of panel members shared the same political affiliation as the PCC, leading to political partisanship in the system.

Adding to these concerns, a number of scandals have dogged the new system. These included the resignation and suspension of high profile chief constables, which became the subject of a critical report by the Home Affairs Select Committee. The report urged the government to bring in a range of amendments, to ensure that the panels had the information and authority necessary to fulfil their role. They also suggested that the Local Government Association take an in-depth look at the panels’ experience with handling complaints.

Image problems

Representation has also been a problem from the beginning. News stories ranged from accusations of cronyism to charges of ineptitude against the PCCs. Poor gender balance is another issue: of the 41 current commissioners, only six are women, while 15 out of 41 seats were contested by an all-male line up of candidates.

Vera Baird – PCC for Northumbria.
Policy Exchange/Flickr, CC BY

There is also a complete lack of representation of ethnic minorities. There were only 20 candidates from ethnic minorities, and none was elected. The Home Affairs Committee puts this down to the requirement for would-be candidates to provide 100 signatures supporting them, alongside a fee of £50,000, which are supposed to “discourage frivolous candidacies”.

To the rescue?

Under the government’s proposals, PCCs would take on responsibility for fire and rescues, where doing so would be “in the interests of economy, efficiency and effectiveness, or public safety”. The consultation also suggests that a single employer could take responsibility for both fire and policing, under the governance of the PCC.

A number of challenges would have to be overcome. The boundaries of several fire and police services do not currently align – changes would have to be made to bring coherent areas under the auspices of individual PCCs.

There is considerable concern from the unions that the culture and purpose of the two services are far too distinct to be brought together under one system of governance. Paul Embery, the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) regional secretary for London, has argued that the move is based on the government’s wish to get rid of “awkward”, locally-elected councillors who block its attempts to cut services.

Others feel that this is part of a plan to undermine the power of both police and fire professionals, in a similar vein to the project which replaced 15,000 police staff jobs with a “home guard of 9,000 unpaid police support volunteers”. According to UNISON – the biggest union for police staff – the project was never the subject of proper public debate or scrutiny.

In light of these issues, it seems ill-advised to roll out a clearly flawed system to encompass an even wider remit. If the proposals go ahead without a review of the existing system, then the government could be playing with fire. It certainly risks further undermining public confidence in accountability and governance of the British emergency services.

The Conversation

Jacqueline Baxter, Lecturer in Public Policy and Management , The Open University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.