Multi Academy Trusts in England , are they really accountable ?

This article first appeared on Discover Society at :https://discoversociety.org/2018/08/01/multi-academy-trusts-in-england-are-they-really-accountable/

 

Since the 1988 Education Act changed the educational landscape in England, heralding a new era of school self-management, the changes to English education have continued at a pace that is without precedent within other developed democracies. This has led many to describe it as ‘the lab of Europe.’ One of the most profound changes to take place has been the introduction of the academies programme in which schools, formerly overseen by Local Education Authorities (LEAs), have converted (or been coerced to convert following poor performance at an Ofsted inspection) to become semi-autonomous state subsidised schools in the form of Academies.

Operational drivers, such as the need to combine in order to cost effectively buy in services once provided by LEAs, combined with research that implies that inter school collaboration contributes positively to student progress, (Chapman et al 2009; NCTL, 2013), have also resulted in the creation of Academy Chains, Multi Academy Trusts and other less formal forms of collaboration between schools. As the literature on multi-level governance in the public and third sector reveals, (Foss et al, 2010), providing effective governance and accountability for complex collaborative organizations, which may also be widely geographically dispersed, creates a number of accountability challenges for organizations and the governance of such organizations.

Accountability past and present
Until 1988 the system of Educational accountability in England was focused on the LEA combined with an inspection system known as HMI – Her Majesty’s Inspectorate. The LEA combined their monitoring role with one which included both educational and pedagogic support with supply of back office services. Specialist advisers, very often subject specific, would work with schools and teachers to improve performance. HMI carried out regular inspections of schools, both general and thematic, in order to evaluate the quality of teaching and learning.  This changed in 1992 when, prompted by John Major’s Citizen Charter, and accompanied by broader international trends premised on the rationale of public choice theory, Ofsted – The (then) Office for Standards in Education replaced the collegiality of HMI with a high stakes form of inspection and regulation. The system also introduced use of school league tables to evaluate the quality of schools. This too formed part of a broader educational trend that has become known as ‘Governing by numbers’.

A changing system
The introduction of the academies programme under the Blair administration, originally offered freedom from LEA control (both financial and curricular), for failing schools in the London region. The programme was so successful that it was extended to other schools, at first on a meritocratic basis- only successful schools could apply to convert – but following the Academies Act in 2010, the programme was intensified and schools were offered substantial financial incentives to convert. Over time this began to radically change the educational landscape as more schools were either incentivised, or in the case of failing schools, were coerced into conversion, following unfavourable judgements by Ofsted. Ofsted’s remit was increased to incorporate inspection of whole Education Authorities (LEAs), a good number of which, were found to be failing.

This also coincided with a dramatic reduction in LEA funding, justified by austerity policies, which effectively undermined their capacity to offer its former wide range of services to schools remaining under LEA control. Although, in response to widespread protest, the government subsequently did a u-turn in terms of turning the plans into legislation, (Whittaker, 2016); there is little doubt that, in practice, they have not deviated from their plans and the number of schools joining MATs continues to rise. In November 2017 there were over 20,100 state funded schools in England, of these 6100 were academies with 1668 standalone academies and 4,432 MATs. MATs may have anything from 2 to over 100 schools.

The accountability maze
Since then the system of accountability has become increasingly complex, diluted and fragmented as figure 1 illustrates.

MATs are regulated financially by the EFA (Education funding Agency), their expansion is overseen by 8 regional schools commissioners and their schools are inspected by Ofsted. However, Ofsted are not permitted to inspect MATs as a whole. This means that they cannot inspect /monitor boards at the apex of the organization- trust boards and their CEOs. In addition to this, their regions (and regional directorates) do not coincide with the RSC regions, thus, there is little joined up approach between them. This has been widely criticised by both the Education Select Committee (Parliament, 2017), and in numerous press reports, particularly in light of the increasing number of MAT failures.

The pressure on good MATs to expand is enormous. Regional Schools Commissioners are under a great deal of pressure to re-broker (find a new sponsor) for poor schools, and as LEAs are increasingly unable to cope with the many demands placed on them, schools turn to MATS for support (J.  Baxter, 2018). In addition to this, due to the complex multi-level governance structures within MATs, they are having to work very hard and creatively to ensure that they are in touch with their school communities (Baxter, 2018). A recent report by the Education Select Committee questioned the rationale behind MAT expansion in light of the numerous MAT failures that have recently been in the press (see Baxter, 2018).

The pressure of accountability emanates from a number of sources: from the high stakes inspection system that considers schools within MATs in a fragmented way; Regional Schools Commissioners, keen to add failing schools to MAT portfolios and from the Education Funding Agency, who monitor MAT finances. Unfortunately, the unrelenting pressures on MATs to prove that their model is the best one, is a key pressure within the highly marketized system of English education. And leading to lack of collaboration between MATs, as one MAT CEO put it: ‘MATs don’t share, they compete against each other.’

Managing and governing collaborative organizations is no mean feat, as the literature on collaborative advantage illustrates (see for example, Vangen, Hayes, & Cornforth, 2015). Even when all of the collaborating organizations are keen for it to work, the challenges of factors such as: the creation of a coherent organizational identity; ensuring that the tension between conformity and autonomy of organizations within the group is well managed, and, ensuring that internal as well as external accountability is clear and productive- i.e. that it works towards the organizational mission and not against it; are demanding of the most able management and leadership teams.

The English system of education after 30 years of government tinkering, is in a very difficult place. Support and accountability systems provided by the LEA are in many cases either gone or so deprived of funding, due to cuts and academy conversions that they have little or no capacity to support or provide local accountability. Ofsted, for so many years the schools’ ‘watchdog’, no longer has the capacity or the skills to inspect these new structures. The vast cash injection it would take in order to train up inspectors to oversee MAT boards with budgets of millions, is unlikely to be forthcoming under present government policy.

Where do we go from here?
So where do we go from here? Well a good place to start would be to join up the existing accountability mechanisms so that Ofsted’s educational expertise , the EFA’s financial oversight and Regional Commissioner’s growing local knowledge , could provide a 360 picture of, not only what is going on in MATs but equally, provide some sense of impending and serious failings.

Any such system should also have some way of measuring exactly how and to what extent these large organizations are serving the communities in which they are situated. Only then could the public be reassured that we have anything remotely resembling a democratic system of Education in England.

References:
Baxter, J. (2018). Engaging with local communities: the challenge of board engagement with school communities in multi- academy trusts. Under review.
Baxter, J. (2018). MAT Accountability : Challenges and Opportunities for Inspectors and school Leaders. . Keynote speech presented at the ‘Raising Standards through MAT inspection’ Conference ,19th June. London, Holborn .
Chapman, C., Collins, A., Sammons, P., Armstrong, P., & Muijs, D. (2009). The impact of federations on student outcomes.
Foss, N. J., Husted, K., & Michailova, S. (2010). Governing knowledge sharing in organizations: Levels of analysis, governance mechanisms, and research directions. Journal of Management Studies, 47(3), 455-482.
NCTL. (2013). Governance in Multi Academy Trusts. London: National College for Teaching and Leadership.
Parliament, U. (2017). Multi-Academy Trusts: Seventh Report of Sesssion 2016-17. In H. o. C. E. Committee (Ed.). London: House of Commons .
Vangen, S., Hayes, J. P., & Cornforth, C. (2015). Governing cross-sector, inter-organizational collaborations. Public Management Review, 17(9), 1237-1260.

 

Jacqueline Baxter is Senior Lecturer /Associate Professor in Public Policy and Management , based in The Department of Public Leadership and Social Enterprise at the Open University Business school. Her research interests lie in the area of public service governance, accountability and trust. This article is part of a current funded project. She is Editor in Chief for the Sage publication Management in Education, and tweets at @drjacquebaxter. The author gratefully acknowledges funding received by The British Academy Lever Hulme Trust grant number SG161312

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.”

Ian
Usher, ModernGovernor.com

“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’
Association
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,
Wirral

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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.

 

References

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.
Smiltena/www.shutterstock.com

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 ?

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/www.shutterstock.com

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.

Evolving models of governance in public services

A recent paper written with Prof Catherine Farrell of The University of South Wales, investigated changing models of governance within four public services in England and Wales : Fire; health; policing and education.

The paper, which was given a the Policy and Politics Conference in Bristol (Sept 14-15 2015)  investigated the theories underpinning public service governance models and how far each could be said to be ‘democratic’.

What came through very strongly in the research was that Wales, in contrast to England, still focused largely on democratic modes of governance in services that were devolved : education and health. Whereas in England the marketised approach , particularly in education and health has led to adoption of very different modes of governance . For example-

The Health and Social Care Act 2012 introduced more changes in the way that the NHS is organised in England. These reforms, implemented on in April 2013 included a move to clinically led commissioning groups, (CCGs), responsible for planning and purchasing health care services for local populations and now responsible for 60% of the NHS budget. There are 121 of these groups and they have replaced the 152 Primary Care Trusts (PCTs).  The CCGs operate under ‘NHS England’ which is an independent organisation which in common with many networked governance structures, operates at ‘arm’s length’ from the government (see for example Burnham, 2001; Clarke and Newman, 1997). NHS England’s role is to provide national leadership in health, to oversee and allocate resources to the CCGs, and to commission specialist services.

In Wales , the original model of stakeholder representation is still operational, remaining relatively unchanged since the 1940s- this is also the case for education. Compared with the highly complex systems of governance in education and health in England, the stakeholder model appears relatively straightforward. Models of educational governance in England have been radically changed since the inception of the academies programme- a move that gave schools financial and curricular independence and removed many from LEA control. These schools have necessitated a very different approach to governance – an approach that largely reflects the weighty financial and other responsibilities that are now shouldered by governors.

The Trojan Horse affair in 2014 revealed just how far England had moved from the system of local accountability, based on Local Education Authority control. It also highlighted the gaping vacuum left by their demise, a factor that prompted the advent of a new innovation in local control. School commissioners , supported( and possibly but by no means probably) held to account by head teacher boards. There are to date just 8 Regional School Commissioners, whose mandate is to provide a local focus of accountability for academies in their region , unfortunately these individuals are also held to performance criteria, one of which is the opening of new academies on ‘their patch’.

The government have been slow to recognise this fundamental conflict of interest, only recently announcing their intention to look again at the role of RSCs: a forthcoming inquiry into their role and function, will no doubt reveal to what extent the system is functioning.

Investing power in a single person seems to be an increasingly common facet of public service accountability in England. Police and Crime Commissioners elected in 2012 have radically changed the whole area of police governance. Purportedly held to account by Police and Crime Panels, the system has suffered from considerably more than ‘teething problems’, as the Stevens report reflected.New proposals by the government that would enable PCCs to encompass fire and rescue services within their remit , will no doubt provoke considerable opposition by those who feel that the PCCs already wield too much power and are not in effect held to account by their PCPs due to the ‘toothless’ legislative powers that bind them. 

Prompted by an interest in exploring cross service learning, this is our first foray in looking across the public sector at governance and accountability. We will be following this up with a paper that examines the role of  public service inspection in England and Wales. We hope that this work will yield practical and theoretical insights to the complex and changing world of public service governance and democratic accountability.

You can find a full copy of the paper here

School Governor survey Please spare 10 Mins to take part

Please take 10 minutes to take part in a survey on school governing .

School governors can you spare 10 mins for an anonymous survey? I am researching school governor roles and identities

The Open University – A History by Daniel Weinbren- Reviewed by Jacqueline Baxter

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The Open University
A History
By Daniel Weinbren 2015
Manchester University Press

Review by Jacqueline Baxter
Lecturer in Social Policy – the Open University UK
Jacqueline.baxter@open.ac.uk

It is not the first time that someone has documented the exponential growth and development of The Open University UK (OU) – but this volume stands out as unique for a number of reasons. Dan Weinbren- the author not only has a long personal history with the OU but still works there. His perspective is unique drawing as it does not only from his own knowledge of the institution as it touched his family – but also from the unique and particular perspective of an insider- a member of staff who has, over the course of their career, taken a variety of roles within it.

These roles, alongside Weinbren’s Open University (OU) studies and extensive interviews with individuals whose involvement with the university- in some cases goes back to its inception – lend an incisive and energising quality to the account. In a volume which successfully combines the intense political intrigue which characterised the evolution of the OU alongside the myriad voices of staff and students in a vibrant medley, the book invites the reader to share the joys and frustrations that went into making up the OU experience.

Beginning with an account of the university’s early beginnings, based as they were on a corporate industrial model which reflected in many ways the national zeitgeist, the volume tracks the cultural and economic markers which so profoundly shaped its evolution. A particularly effective way that it does this is in drawing attention to the language which characterised the ways in which early staff referred to the university’s early educational offerings. Through terms such as ‘production of units’ of teaching materials and ‘lines of study’, we gain an insight of how ‘academic enquiry was combined with assembly line’ manufacturing techniques in order to create education for the masses, the like of which had not been seen up until this time.

This takes place against the backdrop of an era when internationally governments were manifesting a growing interest in the ways in which education could be employed to extend their global reach. An era during which the post war consensus on the state as moral agent was rapidly being replaced by neoliberal ideals of education as a market.

The Open University as it is today has become such an integral part of the national and international Higher Education (HE) landscape that it is difficult for us to imagine the extent of the political opposition that it encountered as the first ‘University of the Air.’ A university that fulfilled its unique promise in eradicating the entry requirements that characterised conventional universities, allowing universal access for all. But this account drives home the fact that these innovations proved to be so profoundly disturbing and troubling for politicians of both left and right wing persuasion. Many of whom considered the very idea of education for the masses to be bridge to far – a potential public and political disaster; far too radical an idea to be accepted by the British public. The idea of using television as a medium for teaching proved particularly aberrant for those on the political right who dismissed it as an election gimmick of little real substance.

The vivid description of Harrold Wilson – Leader of HM Loyal Opposition – and his boundless enthusiasm for a university that would promote social justice, aid elimination of social inequalities and drive both economic regeneration and productivity, animates the passionate idealism that drove the institution’s early development: A development combining ideals of social justice with an ambitious and innovative aim to make TV a central means by which to widen access. The creation of a university which aimed to banish the pedagogically pedestrian in its quest to seek out new ways to engage students formerly deprived of the opportunity to enter the hallowed halls of a conventional institution.
One of the most interesting threads running throughout the book is the way that the OU influenced the lives of women, infusing their lives in numerous and often unexpected ways. The volume offers a lively and engaging account of how one of the university’s most enthusiastic supporters – Jenny Lee, a coal miner’s daughter turned MP- was instrumental in bringing the dream into fruition. A woman whose determination that the OU would offer educational standards on a par with the best universities in the world and whose fortitude standing firm in the face of substantial and vituperative opposition finally won through, leading to the creation of a university characterised by high quality teaching, innovative pedagogies and a contentious reputation for left wing thinking which characterised some of its curriculum.

Drawing on interviews with early students, the account offers the reader some fascinating insights into the ways in which education influenced and often completely changed the ways in which they saw themselves and their roles. Particularly vivid accounts from female students on their experiences of residential school- full week study opportunities spent away from family and children in order to spend a week discussing and learning with OU lecturers and fellow students – illustrate to what extent OU study was indeed a life changing experience. Despite media descriptions of the university acting as a ‘haven for housebound Guardian reading housewives‘ (246).

Quotes such as, ‘it messes up your whole life but it’s worth it,’ help to illustrate the ways in which OU study challenged household structures and conventions whilst bringing hitherto unimaginable possibilities and opportunities into the lives of those it touched. The book also gives some sense of the degree to which the OU impacted on other marginalised groups – such as prisoners and the disabled- groups who would otherwise have been stellenboshed by beliefs and assumptions that HE was not for them.

Pedagogy

One of the most interesting insights for educationalists -particularly those involved in distance learning in some form – is undoubtedly the way in which the book details the developing pedagogies of open and distance learning at the OU. The insights the book offers into the ways in which the transmission mode of teaching was challenged by new collaborative ways of working, are accompanied by case studies illustrating the development of pedagogies which placed as much emphasis on the processes engendered within the learning , as the learning itself. Using illustrative modules such as, ‘Art and environment’ Weinbren describes how, ‘the aims of the course were attitudinal, sensory and subjective rather than cognitive, relating to feeling rather than knowledge,’ – a radical departure from previous approaches to the subject. The chapter continues with an account of how from the outset the university encouraged group learning premised largely on a social cultural approach to education. An idea that had its genesis in the constructivist theories that were infusing and permeating pedagogies more generally and emerging largely in response to new technologies.
According to its history the university has always placed great emphasis on group learning which often led students to form their own support groups during or after their studies. Describing how one student initiated group known affectionately as ‘the Tadpole Society,’ named for the course code – TAD292 continued to meet long after their module was over. This in many ways exemplifies the constructivist socio cultural approach to learning which characterises not only present day OU pedagogies but much of the thinking within current day thinking around teaching and learning in the realm of distance and blended learning more generally.
In light of the rest of the book this particular chapter is rather unique in its approach – whereas other chapters detail the growth of the OU against the political and social backdrop of the times, this chapter is rather more insular in its approach; tending to focus on the pedagogies within the OU rather than placing these developments in the broader context of educational innovations internationally. It is however, perfectly understandable that Weinbren avoided this in the interests of brevity- however fascinating such an approach may be, it would probably necessitate another volume in order to do it justice.
The relationship between the OU, politicians and the media which characterised the university’s early days has continued to be a leitmotif within its evolution. As the book illustrates – the very content of the OU product was attacked for its alleged hostility to capitalism and the market economy- a fact acknowledged by David Harris writing in The British Journal of Educational Technology, quoted as stating that ‘the OU teaching system was as much shaped by political and administrative pressures as by any particular educational goals ‘(123).

The Media

Continuing in this vein the book details the often stormy and uncomfortable relationship that the OU has had with the media- particularly during the Thatcher era when the creation of such an institution was regularly portrayed as being an aberrant departure from the norm. Rich examples from a range of publications demonstrate how the media questioned the value of the university’s offering, often using the residential school experience as an eponym for an OU education’ The Times referring to it as ‘the university where a lecture begins with a beer,’ and the BBC describing the ‘Bizarre games and happenings,’ that took place as part of the learning experience (254).
Although the media proved mercurial in their descriptions of the OU experience- vacillating from the condemnatory to the conciliatory -the fact remained that particularly in its early days, media coverage of the university, its staff and students ensured that the institution was enshrined in the British consciousness as a particularly British product :quirky; a little off beat but fundamentally sound.
The principal strength of this account lies in the intimate way in which we are presented with not only the institution but the people to whom it meant so much. Stories and anecdotes from staff, students, media personal and government combine to give a sense of how the institution later became known as something of a national treasure. The fact that it is in essence an insider account offers a unique perspective of the ways in which this ‘machine’ like structure with its mechanistic forms of production and delivery developed the capacity to offer students a uniquely personal learning experience.

This history of the OU, located as it is against a changing social, economic and political backdrop, furnishes the reader with a sense of the changes that characterised the institution from inception to the present day. The challenges and opportunities that infuse its rich and chequered history not only offering an account of the past but also in many ways portending the challenges and changes that lie ahead in order for this unique institution to remain true to its original mission- to remain open to people, places and ideas- in the challenging and protean context of higher education today.