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.”
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 Trojan Horse affair in Birmingham schools last year has left an indelible mark on the education system and the ensuing debate on the need for schools to uphold “British values” has infused parties’ proposals for education. This is despite a final report into the affair by the House of Commons education committee which concluded that apart from one incident, no evidence of extremism or radicalisation was found in any of the schools involved and there was “no evidence of a sustained plot”.
Tighten up the standards on pupil welfare to improve safeguarding and on spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of pupils to strengthen the barriers to extremism.
These guidelines were also an attempt to shore up a national identity at a time of increasing threats from fundamentalism. But the move has caused anger in religious schools such as St Benedict’s Catholic Secondary School in Bury St Edmunds, which was downgraded by the schools’ inspectorate Ofsted last year for failing to prepare students for life in modern Britain.
The whole idea of British values may have been conceived by the former Conservative secretary of state for education, Michael Gove, but feelings in his party on the issue are running high. Edward Leigh, Conservative MP for Gainsborough, recently argued in the House of Commons that Ofsted was waging a war against faith schools with the policy, citing the recent announcement to close the Christian-ethos Durham Free School.
This tension between nationalism and faith places the Conservatives in an uncomfortable position. Although the party has declared its intention to forge ahead with the expansion of its academy and free schools programmes (many of which will presumably be faith-based), it has vacillated in its support of Ofsted in a number of areas, including the policing of British values.
The Conservatives have been seemingly content to use the inspection system to drive their academy and free school programme, by enjoining schools judged to be weak to become academies, yet also reluctant to allow it to perform thorough inspections of academy chains. Recent developments have moved the inspectorate a little closer to doing this, but Ofsted still has to stop short of offering an actual judgement on the overall performance of multi-academy trusts.
Diverging views on ‘British values’
Meanwhile, UKIP has specifically mentioned British values in its proposals for education, stating: “UKIP supports the principle of free schools that are open to the whole community and uphold British values.” This infers that those schools found to be lacking in this area would not be supported. UKIP also states that parents and governors would have the power to trigger snap inspections, potentially exacerbating Ofsted’s already contentious role in this issue.
In contrast, Labour’s Tristram Hunt, writing in The Observer, described British values as a ministerial fad and announced Labour’s intention to reform and de-politicise Ofsted.
The Liberal Democrats have spoken out on a number of occasions about their concern in labelling values as specifically British. In an interview last June with The Independent, its leader Nick Clegg expressed concern that imposing British values in schools could alienate moderate Muslims. But since then the whole issue surrounding British values has not been confined to those holding Muslim beliefs but has been the subject of heated discussion within a number of other faith groups too.
The Green Party talks in terms of human values rather than British ones but firmly declares that, “no publicly funded schools shall be run by a religious organisation” and that “privately run schools run by religious organisations must reflect the inclusive nature of British society.” It also states that faith schools will not be allowed to opt out of equality and diversity legislation, nor will they be allowed to promote homophobia or transphobia on the grounds of religion.
The Greens are also proposing that Ofsted be dismantled and replaced by a local system of accountability shared between each local authority and a new National Council of Educational Excellence. Speaking to the TES in February, Green leader Natalie Bennett argued that Ofsted has become very damaging and that parachuting inspectors in every few years was not an appropriate form of accountability.
It is somewhat ironic that the incident that initiated the whole issue around British values and their promotion in education is not only widely viewed as a hoax, but also rooted not in extremism but in inadequate governance and oversight.
Debates around incorporation of the policing of British values into the inspection schedule, Ofsted’s heavy-handed approach in policing them and the conflation of the whole idea of British values with the fight against extremism, are not going to disappear overnight. Nor are the accusations that what began as a failure of governance in 21 Birmingham schools has since been used to downgrade and close many others.
In considering any future policies on accountability and oversight, the next government will have to think very carefully about what is to be done with the spectre of British values or wake up with a severe post-election hangover from the last administration’s policies.
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.
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?