Debate over national values is a threat to the education system

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.

Four of the six independent Muslim schools have been judged inadequate, with two failing to meet independent school standards. The only maintained school involved in the recent inspections, Sir John Cass in Stepney, was also downgraded by Ofsted from outstanding to inadequate. This followed concerns about segregation between boys and girls in school areas and insufficient guidance on “the dangers associated with using the internet, particularly in relation to extremist views”.

The ‘British values’ minefield

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 report, which was withdrawn very soon after its publication, went on to question whether the school prepared pupils “for life and work in modern Britain”. It was apparently withdrawn due to concerns around quality – a little too late for those who had already seen the report posted on the schools website.

The new values police

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.

Trust eroding

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.

The Conversation

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Pupils at academy chains being failed by inspection loophole

The Conversation

By Jacqueline Baxter, The Open University

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.

Immune to public scrutiny

It was only a short time ago that the head of Ofsted, Michael Wilshaw called for more stringent inspection of Local Education Authorities following a spate of high-profile school failures of several schools within the same authority. The authorities concerned have been named and shamed for the dereliction of their duties.

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.

Governance loophole

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.

It appears to be somewhat paradoxical that we pay £143m for an inspection system that is prevented from inspecting some of the key organisations behind so many schools in England, particularly in light of the type of failures that have come to light recently. According to the Department for Education, there are currently 1,226 open sponsored academies in the 2014-15 academic year.

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.

The Conversation

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.

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Governing their future: musings on the life and times of school governing in England

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?