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.”
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.
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.
But awareness of equality and diversity issues has been central to early years education for years now. Many early years teachers already underpin their teaching with these values –values that will now be tagged as “officially British”. The big question is how Ofsted, the schools inspectorate, will interpret and police the way these values are taught to toddlers.
But experts argue that the definition of these values – learning right from wrong, to take turns and sharing – are values that have been fundamental to early years provision for a considerable amount of time. This position was emphasised by Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-School Learning Alliance in a recent interview on the proposed changes.
This view is also supported by Sue Griffin, former national training manager for the National Childminding Association and author of Inclusion, Equality and Diversity in working with children. She told me, “Early years settings have a lot to teach the education sector and right wing politicians about addressing inclusion, equality and diversity, since practitioners with our youngest children have been exploring these issues for decades.”
She went on to emphasise the need for practitioners “to keep their nerve and carry on in the confidence that they are thinking seriously about practical ways of helping children to develop unprejudiced views and learn to respect and value one another, whatever their differences in ethnicity, culture, family background.”
What are British values?
There is little dispute around the actual values being advocated by government, but the insertion of the word British and its apparent annexation of these values is, for many, deeply disturbing.
The term British on its own is difficult to define. There is no single definition of what it means to be British as historian Paul Ward points out in his book on Britishness since 1870. He highlights the fact that Britishness is not innate, static or permanent and has been mediated by many identities, not least race, colour, gender and class.
If we can’t define British, then British values are even more nebulous to pin down as educationalist Gus John describes:
David Cameron and people like me see the world through different eyes. We see our combined history through different lenses and therefore I have a take on the legacy of Empire and what Britain should have been doing about these last 50 years that differs fundamentally from that of Mr Cameron and the roots of his ‘British values’.
It seems bewildering to some professionals in this area that the government should seek to make such a provocative statement about British values. Liz Bayram, chief executive of the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years said that the existing early years curriculum “already requires nurseries and child-minders to develop key skills such as teaching children to take turns and challenge negative attitudes”.
She goes on to say that Ofsted already has the power to judge values under the Early Years Foundation Stage and can already, “tackle concerns by judging a setting as requiring improvement”. Bayram calls the innovation “a big reaction to an issue that may not even be there, and that could be tackled by the inspection framework that is already in place”.
Creating policy on this matter is one thing but it is quite another when it comes down to putting it into operation. Asking inspectors to define what a British value is and what is not will add a very tricky element to their training. This is already overloaded with the numerous requirements demanded of practising inspectors, not only in the act of inspection itself but equally in post-inspection reporting to the public. They will need to explain exactly how they came to their judgements on this issue.
The guidance contained in the School Inspection Handbook comes into force this September. It remains to be seen how Ofsted will deal with this latest turn in the complex business of regulating English education, and the early years sector will no doubt look on with interest.
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.