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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As children head back to class this week, another school will be opening its doors for the autumn term as an academy – in spite of opposition from parents and the community. From early September the Hewett School, a secondary school in Norwich, will form part of The Inspiration Trust, a not-for-profit charity which runs a chain of academies. In yet another blow for democratic governance the school is the latest in a long line to be converted against the wishes of many of its parents and the governing body, raising renewed questions about the democratic governance of the English education system.
As in the case of a number of other schools graded inadequate and subsequently turned into academies, it is only a short time ago that the Hewett School was judged to be “good” by schools inspectorate Ofsted. In May 2013 it received a “good” report in all areas – an improvement on its previous grade of satisfactory – with teaching graded as good and sometimes outstanding. But in November 2014 the school was placed in special measures after a follow up Ofsted inspection.
A monitoring visit paid to the school in February 2015 showed that although there were still outstanding issues, progress was being made. A follow up visit in May 2015 confirmed that the school was making reasonable progress towards the removal of special measures. But in March 2015 the Department of Education (DfE) had already informed the school that it was to constitute the governing body as an Interim Executive Board (IEB) and that it was possible that the school would become an academy. The final decision, that the school would be academised and taken over by The Inspiration Trust, was made in August 2015.
Of the parents that participated in the consultation, 4:1 were against it. In some cases respondents to the questionnaire accepted conversion to academy but questioned the process, the lack of choice of sponsor and a failure to communicate effectively why such a decision had been made.
A pervasive sense of dissatisfaction with the choice of sponsor was a key reason why many were so against it being turned into an academy. The reasons given for this in the consultation were: “perception of the ethos of schools in the trust, political links of the trustees, the governance arrangements of the trust and lack of accountability.”
The Inspiration Trust has been linked to controversy. The trust, headed by Dame Rachel de Souza, ran one of three schools that were the subject of an investigation by Ofsted following allegations in 2014 that they had received prior notification of inspection dates due to De Souza’s position as both a “superhead” of the three schools and as a part-time school inspector. This raised questions about the detrimental effects of employing practising headteachers as inspectors. In January 2015, the schools were cleared of wrongdoing by an independent review of Ofsted’s original investigation.
Convert or close
The government’s academisation project took another leap forward earlier this year when the education secretary, Nicky Morgan, announced her intention to address the problem of “coasting schools”. The government plans to convert these schools – who fail to ensure that 60% of pupils gain five A* to C grades and don’t have a “credible” improvement plan – to academy status. This is in spite of the fact that to date there is no convincing evidence that the current system of academies improve performance.
Morgan and Cameron continue the academy drive. Reuters/Stefan Wermuth
As the education and adoption bill – the legislation seeking to implement Morgan’s proposals – makes its way through parliament after the summer recess, the outlook for coasting schools that resist conversion looks decidedly bleak.
Resistance against “forced” conversion is not a new phenomenon. The Anti Academies Alliance contains a catalogue of conversions of local authority-run schools into academies that were bitterly opposed by governors and parents. Many within education and outside of it are opposed to the highly politicised nature of conversions and the lack of evidence that these conversions are in the best interests of the students.
Holding school commissioners to account
Tensions surrounding the whole area of forced academisation are also reflected in the new system of local accountability, set up by the government in response to the public and political outcry surrounding the so-called “Trojan Horse” affair in 2014, and fears over an Islamic extremism agenda in Birmingham schools. The affair exposed the dearth of local accountability that prevails in many regions of England, caused by an erosion in funding and consisted media attacks undermining public trust in local education authorities.
Under the new system, eight regional school commissioners (RSCs), appointed by the DfE are advised by a headteachers board made up of four elected academy heads and “experienced professional leaders” to provide sector expertise and “local knowledge”.
The scheme immediately provoked questions following the announcement that one of the key performance measures for RSCs was the number of academy conversions they had each achieved within a given period. Although this may yet be reversed, the whole area of school commissioners, how they are held to account and how they manage the vast areas that fall within their remit, is still not clear.
The relationship between regional commissioners and headteacher boards is also fairly vague and is contained in a single line on the DfE website which states that:
Each RSC gets support from a headteachers board (HTB). HTBs are made up of experienced academy headteachers who advise and challenge RSCs on the decisions they make.
What is not clear is what power headteacher boards have to veto any decisions made by a regional commissioner.
The whole system of accountability in education is worrying to say the least. It is far from clear how the current arrangements are fit to ensure that those in leadership positions are abiding by the seven principles of public life: that they are acting in the public interest with integrity, objectivity, openness and that in their leadership roles they are acting in accordance with these principles.
Parliament’s education select committee is now starting a inquiry into how RSCs will be held to account, and will also explore their relationship to Ofsted, individual schools and local communities. It is hoped that MPs’ findings will do something to provide clarity in the increasingly muddy and obfuscating system of educational accountability in England today.
The school governor identities project has now been running for six months. During this time I have carried out over 50 interviews with school governors from all over the country.
The project aims to investigate the influences of various factors on school governor identity at a time of great changes to the education system in England.
The project investigates areas such as : the media influence on governors; how governors become confident in their role; what brought them into the role in the first place; what they imagine to be ‘school strategy’; how they see themselves as leaders; what governors feel about inspection and their role in it.
Some of the data will be published in a forthcoming book : Governors: Policy , politics and practices (Policy press ), I will also be writing a number of articles and blog posts over the next six months.
The survey is still running so if you ‘
haven’t had a chance to complete it you still can –
The responses so far have been fascinating , not least in the area of governor learning and development , governor web use and governor perceptions on strategy and leadership . I will be posting an update soon on these areas.
Jacqueline Baxter – Lecturer in Public Policy and Management : The Open University Business School .
Set up in 2012 and based around a Christian ethos, Durham Free School had been struggling since November 2014 when Ofsted declared it inadequate in all areas. The regulator stated that the school’s leaders, including its governors, placed too much emphasis on religious credentials when recruiting key staff, and not enough on excellent candidates with good leadership and teaching skills. They also declared that the leaders were failing to prepare students for life in modern Britain and that some students held discriminatory views of other people who have different beliefs or values from themselves.
This is a far cry from where the school began. Its first head, Peter Cantley, speaking in an interview with the Northern Echo in December 2012, declared it would: “bring extra investment to the area and increase parental choice “ and would categorically not draw funding from nearby schools. He went on to describe it as having the potential to: “empower local communities, responding to their educational aspirations.”
The decision to close the school was taken very quickly, with Morgan speaking in parliament just an hour after the school had received a letter warning it had two weeks to notification of an intention to terminate its government funding.
The abrupt closure of the Durham Free School is already being seen by some parents as a politically motivated move that dismisses the needs of parents and pupils. One parent at the school told me:
I can only conclude that the bad publicity that has been generated of late regarding this school is causing embarrassment to the government at a time when they are considering the future governance of the UK following the elections, and will seek to dismiss this as a failed school in order to save the others and save their face. Education should NEVER be used for political gain by any party member in this manner, but because of this I have to find a new school place for my daughter.
The school’s headteacher has said he will appeal against the government’s decision.
It was far from easy to set up the school in the first place. Press reports dating back to 2012 give some indication of the levels of resistance that the school faced before finally opening its doors. Its critics, among them, a senior education officer at Durham County Council, voiced concerns that there was no need for another secondary school in the city. Dave Ford, then head of achievement services at Durham County Council voiced considerable concerns over what he described as, “the fragmentation of funding.” Funding, that in the opinions of those opposing establishment of the new school, would have been better spent on existing schools.
No sticking plaster
The idea of borrowing policies from one country and applying them like a sticking plaster to another is very common in education. In the case of free schools, the English policy was largely developed from the Swedish free school model, with little heed paid to problems revealed by research.
One such study carried out by the Institute of Education’s Susanne Wiborg concluded that in Sweden – one of the world’s most egalitarian societies – free schools increased segregation and impeded social cohesion. Back in 2010, she posed a number of questions aimed at those intending to adopt the Swedish free school model, including whether more school choice is desirable: “if free schools do not reconcile high academic standards and social integration?”
Choice and challenges
Sweeping changes to the education system have brought new school freedoms designed to offer more choice to parents combined with diminishing levels of local accountability. The speed and scope of these changes are without precedent and have led to grave concerns about the quality of education and the capacity of the new system to reduce unacceptable levels of educational inequity: a problem which has dogged the English system for some time now.
In the period since the introduction of the free schools policy there have been substantial challenges for education – not least the political conflation of education and the battle against extremist teaching. This began with the the “Trojan Horse” affair in Birmingham schools and continued with allegations of links to extremism in Tower Hamlets in London.
These events, set against a background of growing national and international unrest, have resulted in changes to education and school inspection policy that look to combat the rise of extremism. The resultant focus on the policing of British values from pre-school level upwards has brought a whole new dimension to the meaning of school freedom and parental choice.
The free schools policy is hanging in the balance, as University of Birmingham doctoral researcher Rebecca Morris has pointed out in a commentary on the future of free schools.
It would seem that, in the case of Durham Free School, its students are paying a very high price for the so-called luxury of parental choice in a market where schools can apparently be there one moment and gone the next.
The seductive market ideology persists, couched in the primacy of supposed parental choice. When schools fail, we blame everyone: the teachers, the governors, the management, the inspectors. The real culprit – the ideological spectre of the market – is forgotten in all of the media frenzy and political posturing that follows.
The results of seven school inspections in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets have brought a fresh wave of allegations that some schools are not providing a broad and balanced curriculum for their pupils, who may be vulnerable to radicalisation. A memorandum on the inspections sent by Ofsted’s chief inspector of schools Michael Wilshaw to the education secretary Nicky Morgan has upped the ante in debates that conflate conservative religious values with the risk of radicalisation and extremism.
In six independent schools that were visited in the borough, inspectors found serious concerns over the safeguarding and welfare of pupils, lack of provision of a broad and balanced curriculum and issues around leadership, management and teaching.
Kenny Frederick, a former school leader in Tower Hamlets, articulated concerns that resonate with those also voiced in Jewish communities that have been subject to similar inspections. Frederick said that putting a school in special measures “will only be negative” for a school and its community. “People will feel resentful. All we are going to do is alienate. If I was one of the kids, it would not be doing anything for my British values.”
The whole area surrounding “British values”, schools and religion has been thrown into confusion since the Birmingham “Trojan Horse” affair over allegations of a takeover of school board by hardline Muslim governors. The Muslim community is not unique in stating that the subsequent introduction of a responsibility for schools to promote “British values” and the apparent conflation of religious conservatism with extremism by both government and media is riddled with ideological and political complexities.
For example, Nigel Genders, speaking on behalf of the Church of England, raised serious concerns during the recent consultation into the Proposed New Independent Schools Standards in July. His response agreed that: “There is a legitimate exploration to be undertaken of values in the context of our distinctive national culture, literature, legal and political systems.” But he added that “many of those values cannot be defined as uniquely British”. He continued by highlighting the church’s concerns that the “British values should emanate from a broad public conversation,not from the secretary of state”.
Schools and culture
The apparent appropriation of values by the state is a worrying trend. More worrying still is how Ofsted is being used to police these values – particularly as they have yet to be fully defined. A recent Ofsted report following a snap inspection at the St Benedict’s Catholic secondary school in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, claimed that younger pupils “show less awareness of the dangers of extremism and radicalisation”.
The present guidance given to inspectors on how to spot a “British value” is scant to say the least. The 2014 revised school inspection handbook contains four references to values which link to curriculum and safeguarding, the most specific of which are articulated in terms of the social development of pupils.
School governors are also instrumental in the whole area of values. The extent to which they are expected to define and be conversant with values at every level of school life is outlined in detail on the National Governors Association website. But the question of how all of these areas will be effectively investigated by the inspectorate and then translated into a tangible threat of radicalisation and extremism remains a very grey area indeed.
Again the issue of British values is making life difficult for governors, as Naureen Khalid, school governor and co-founder of @ukgovchat told me. She said: “I personally think in terms of human values. As long as my school promotes these, I’m happy.”
As director of the Universities’ Police Science Institute in Cardiff, Martin Innes points out that there is a distinct lack of knowledge – not only around what works in preventing extremism, but equally how we can effectively identify real triggers. He also brings home the dangers of branding schools and their communities with extremist labels, quoting the steady decline in Muslims between the ages of 16 and 24 who feel that police treat them fairly.
The announcement by the home secretary, Teresa May, on the intention to include new statutory powers to prevent individuals being drawn into terrorism within the Channel anti-radicalisation programme, looks likely to place increasing levels of pressure on governors, school leaders and inspectors. But they are already working in communities where levels of trust in public bodies appears to be reaching an all time low.
Of course, it is vitally important to prevent terrorism, but the present system risks undermining hard-won community cohesion. It also risks transforming schools from being trusted institutions at the heart of their communities into organisations undermined by suspicion, doubt and a panoptecon-like scrutiny. This is more likely to give rise to the very activities that both government and inspectorate are so eager to expunge.
To avoid this, as the Church of England’s Genders points out, we need a public debate about the human values that form the core of our society. Until this happens, the grey area around these “British values” is open to mis-interpretation, political manipulation and false assumptions. That may well cause repercussions which could fundamentally undermine our system of education.
Recent inspections of schools run by academy chains have shown many of these schools to be failing. Yet Ofsted, the schools inspectorate, is still not allowed to regulate the very organisations that are responsible for this.
In a recent sitting of the Education Committee’s inquiry into academies and free schools, its chair, the Conservative MP Graham Stuart, detailed the long list of academy chain failures now occurring with increasing regularity.
Ofsted have said that AET [Academies Enterprise Trust] has low expectations and are leaving schools to founder; that E-ACT provides poor-quality teaching intervention and support and that an overwhelming proportion of pupils in the Kemnal Academy Trust are not receiving a good education.
Since 2012, Ofsted has intensified its focus on the inspection of school governance, insisting that it is integral to the leadership and management function of schools. In spite of this – and the concomitant furore surrounding the state of school governance in the wake of the Trojan Horse extremism affair in Birmingham – the inspectorate still has its hands tied when it comes to inspecting academy chains.
As part of its brief, Ofsted is allowed to inspect individual schools within academy chains but not the trusts that run them. Yet in many cases it is precisely these trusts and their sponsors that are failing the very schools they purport to support.
One area that has proved to be particularly problematic from a regulatory perspective is the lack of effective scrutiny in terms of conflicts of interest within academy chains. This is an area highlighted in a new report by the Institute of Education’s Toby Greany and Jean Scott.
They found that the mechanisms to identify and address conflicts of interest in academy chains are almost non-existent. They outlined a number weaknesses in the system, including that some trust boards are not adhering to national guidance or doing enough to mitigate the risks associated with conflict of interest. They also point out that the skills and capacity of bodies charged with auditing trusts may be weak or insufficient to “get under the skin” of what is going on.
Yet organisations at the helm of some of the biggest school chains in the country appear to be accountable to no one. As David Wolfe of law firm Matrix Chambers highlighted during the recent inquiry:
The power is concentrated with the trust and no longer really with local governing bodies unless it is delegated down and then the trusts are not under any great scrutiny. They are not subject to direct observation from Ofsted and they are not subject to the kind of public pressures that come from democratic accountability or a wider public transparency.
Such issues of accountability around chains of schools which expand too quickly are a common feature of the US Charter school system, a system that in many ways mirrors the reform intentions of the academies project. In states in which there are high levels of regulatory accountability such as Massachusetts, charter schools appear to do well, outperforming regular district schools on a number of criteria.
But uncontrolled expansion of charter schools and lack of concomitant accountability has given rise to a number of cases in which schools have been shut down and had their licences revoked.
Research into school federations in the UK is beginning to unpick the new governance structures that are appearing. Although in its early stages, researchers have stressed the importance of retaining coherence in these multi-level governance structures that mirror so many in the wider not-for-profit sector.
It took some time for Ofsted to bring school leadership and governance into a single judgement, following a long period during which they were considered entirely separately in regulatory terms. Now this is in place, it would make perfect sense to apply it it to academy chains, yet their sponsors and trusts have been conveniently permitted to slip through the net.
This lack of accountability has caused a number of issues. It makes it almost impossible to be able to pinpoint why one or a number of schools in a chain are not performing well.
It also makes it difficult to see how multi-level governance is actually functioning if inspectors are only able to see part of the picture and not the whole. Inspectors look only at individual schools and their performance in isolation, rather than the chain as a whole. It is also almost impossible to evaluate how the strategic direction of the chain is operating through individual schools and evaluate to what extent those schools are working with and through that strategy.
Rudderless in the face of weak leadership
A lack of cohesion in accountability also makes it difficult to see how the goings-on at individual schools relate to overarching principles within the trust. This includes how pupil premium money is spent on children who qualify for it, or the direction of standards for teaching and learning. As trusts continue to grow, it becomes even more pressing to ensure governing trusts are accountable in financial and operational terms.
As researchers in the US point out, the challenges of retaining quality during periods of intensive growth are substantial. It’s not difficult to see how schools in academy chains can be left rudderless and lacking strategic and operational direction and prey to conflicts of interest.
Unless these failures are investigated in a holistic way that departs substantially from the fractured and dislocated manner of current regulatory practice, then it is difficult to see how errors can be pinpointed and addressed in the future.
Jacqueline Baxter does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
According to the NGA (National Governors Association) an increasing number of school governors are very confused about their role in today’s education system (source NGA).
At one time the role was very clear: you only have to read Joan Sallis’ excellent history of school governance to trace the fascinating evolution of this very singular role. Brought in to ensure financial probity of schools that were funded by philanthropists or the church, the role of the governor took on a life of its own, moving through phases during which the emphasis shifted from democratic representation to a more business orientated model of governing. During this time the role of the parent became increasingly highlighted (See Andrew Wilkins’- #Andewilkins’great work on parents as school governors). And yet, today in spite of the fact that they are one of the biggest volunteer forces in England with a job description which more closely resembles that of a company director than an unpaid volunteer, there is evidence to suggest that they are increasingly wondering what exactly they are there to do.
In my own experience this has always been the case. I started off as governor in a tiny village primary school: ‘Go on join us on governors; we need people like you,’ cajoled a well-established governor who also happened to be VP of the local FE college (my son was 5 he’d been at school barely three weeks- talk about grab them early). People like me, I wondered: and what sort of person is that? And it still remains a pertinent question today: what qualities do we want in this position that is so pivotal to the success or failure of a school that poor governance has been cited by both Ofsted and in a good deal of US research as one of the key reasons for school closure?
I was cajoled…. and remained a governor for 17 years, moving through the system as my three children moved up. I enjoyed the role; it was good to feel part of the school; to be on first name terms with the teachers and head and to gain a unique perspective on the backroom ops of a school. But right through the system I always felt that seed of doubt: was I doing this right? What were we achieving as governors? There was training- good training available but it’s a funny old position being a governor: often recruited for your professional skills yet applying them in a very different context from the day job…being a parent governor yet resisting the urge to bring tales from the school gate into the board room and certainly never daring to venture the fact that whilst the general focus of the meeting that evening is on the great exam results, your little Jonny came home in tears after Miss X failed to intervene in a bullying situation.
During my time as a governor I saw people cope with the role in several different ways: some gained a sense of purpose by doing their day job in school : HR adviser out of school HR adviser on governors; some drew their sense of purpose by feeling like teacher watchdogs: keeping an eye on the staff …just in case they should get out of hand if they were not there to pounce on any misdemeanour. And some drew their governor identities from a sense of doing what was right for the school- steering it through the choppy waters of the latest set of initiatives and the 100 page+ Governor Guide to the Law. Of course there were those that were on governors purely for a front seat at the school concert; but over the years as the workload burgeoned, that type melted away. I can’t say that I met a single governor that didn’t have the children/student interest at heart; but the articulation of this varied enormously from governor to governor.
Governors of today are having to adapt to myriad changes as new school autonomies, in very many cases, leave them directly responsible to the Secretary of State. During these times of change it is more important than ever that they feel secure and certain of their roles and governor identities: that they feel that they are doing a good job for their schools and pupils. But as the pressure and workload on them increases what type of folk will still be drawn to this role? As governing bodies conform increasingly to business models, introducing performance management and other tools of the trade; how will the governor feel then? More importantly, if governors begin to leave in their droves what will the government do to replace this 300, 000 strong volunteer force ?
In 2012 I attended my final governor meeting. After 17 years it was time for a break; time to reflect on my time as a governor and use that experience to ground my research. Do I miss it? Yes sometimes – I miss being that cog in the wheel, I miss the highs of school life and the camaraderie of pulling together as a team when times got tough. When I left I received a note from the chair ‘thank you for your contributions during your time as governor, ‘I still ponder over that….what exactly were those contributions in the end ? Did we change things or were we just rubber stampers? Did others sit around the table feeling at sea or was it just me?