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.
There are now no all-male boards in FTSE 100 companies, marking a watershed in women’s representation, according to the launch of the Female FTSE Board Report 2015. Since the Davies Report set a target of 25% of women serving on boards of FTSE 100 companies four years ago, women’s representation has almost doubled.
But the successes of the FTSE 100 are not mirrored in the public sector. Despite a number of government interventions since 2010, representation of women, ethnic minorities and those with disabilities remains challenging to say the least.
In health, although women account for 77% of the NHS workforce they hold only 37% of board positions. A mere 30% reach the position of chair, compared to 70% of men.
In policing, the picture is even bleaker: the system of elected Police and Crime Commissioners (PCC) introduced in 2012 was driven by the need for greater transparency and public accountability. But the elections resulted in only six women PCCS compared with 35 men.
Combined with a total lack of representation of ethnic minorities this led to the system being described as a “monoculture”. And it makes the current government plans to extend the remit of PCCs to include all emergency services concerning, to say the least.
In spite of the fact that there are around 22,000 schools in England, governed by an estimated 300,000 volunteer governors, we have no idea how representative these boards are. No statistics have ever been kept.
Since September 1, 2015, schools have been required to post certain information regarding their governing body on their websites. The Department for Education is currently looking at ways that this can be made easier, but there is no indication of how this will be monitored or whether diversity data would be gathered at any point.
In higher education the outlook appears to be more positive with a fifth of the boards of governing bodies in the UK possessing a 40-60% split between men and women members. Out of 166 higher education institutions in the UK, women make up 37% of all governing body members. But only 12% of chairs of these boards are women.
Quotas or no quotas?
The FTSE report is impressive, not least because it demonstrates what can be achieved without the introduction of quotas. But it also indicates that achieving diversity on boards doesn’t come without hard work and collaboration.
Lack of supply of qualified female candidates is often quoted as a reason for the lack of diversity on public sector boards. An important part of the FTSE 100 experience lay in encouraging and supporting the pipeline of women as potential leaders. It carries the additional benefit of encouraging women to fulfil their potential on merit rather than relying on quotas to do the job.
“Group think” is recognised by psychologists as being a strong desire for harmony or conformity within a group which can result in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making. In the worst case scenario, members go to extraordinary lengths to minimise conflict by suppressing dissenting viewpoints and isolating themselves from “outside influences”. In the case of boards, the phenomenon is found far more frequently in those that lack diversity in their membership.
Research suggests that there are also problems in the appointment process: organisations often employ a narrow definition of experience, essentially seeking candidates with prior board or executive experience. This restricts the access of qualified female candidates, whose backgrounds might not fit this narrow profile.
Interpersonal dynamics are often found to play a part, largely in terms of recruiters’ preference for similar candidates and narrow perceptions of who fits and who doesn’t. Social capital and relationships have also been found to be critical and organisations such as Women on Boards have been set up to provide formal and informal support through referencing and sponsorship.
So with the evidence that women on boards increase performance, it’s time the public sector woke up to the benefits of female representation and made a concerted effort to emulate their FTSE counterparts.
So why widen the remit of PCCs, in light of so much criticism? Looking back on issues surrounding the system gives some insight into challenges facing any extension.
The PCCs replaced an old three-pronged system of police governance, which was comprised of the home secretary, the Local Police Authority and the local chief constable. It was hoped the new system would address accusations that these authorities were opaque, that their membership was largely hidden from public view and that they were far too distant from the communities they claimed to represent.
Under the new system, PCCs are elected by the general public and “held accountable” by police and crime panels, which are made up from all local authorities within the force area PCCs. Elected PCCs possess a great deal of power. Their many responsibilities include creating a police and crime plan, and setting the police precept – the share of council tax received by the police, commissioning victim and community safety services. Perhaps their most contentious power is to appoint and dismiss the chief constable for their area.
The new model has also come under sustained criticism from both the Local Government Association (LGA) and The Home Affairs Select Committee, which have both voiced concerns over lack of democratic representation due to the spectacularly low voter turnout. The Stevens Report by the Independent Police Commission, published in November 2013 described “serious disquiet” over both concept and workings of the system, and called for a new system to put the structural defects of the present one to rights.
A flawed democracy
The “strong democratic mandate” promised by the new system has simply not happened, and not just because of low voter turnout. The problems since then have been many and varied.
One of the most troubling issues is the inability of the Police and Crime Panels to hold PCCs to account. According to research by the University of Leeds’ Dr Stuart Lister, this is largely due to the legislative weakness of the panels, which leave them without substantive powers to veto the decisions made by PCCs. Another problem Lister revealed is that 68% of panel members shared the same political affiliation as the PCC, leading to political partisanship in the system.
Adding to these concerns, a number of scandals have dogged the new system. These included the resignation and suspension of high profile chief constables, which became the subject of a critical report by the Home Affairs Select Committee. The report urged the government to bring in a range of amendments, to ensure that the panels had the information and authority necessary to fulfil their role. They also suggested that the Local Government Association take an in-depth look at the panels’ experience with handling complaints.
Representation has also been a problem from the beginning. News stories ranged from accusations of cronyism to charges of ineptitude against the PCCs. Poor gender balance is another issue: of the 41 current commissioners, only six are women, while 15 out of 41 seats were contested by an all-male line up of candidates.
There is also a complete lack of representation of ethnic minorities. There were only 20 candidates from ethnic minorities, and none was elected. The Home Affairs Committee puts this down to the requirement for would-be candidates to provide 100 signatures supporting them, alongside a fee of £50,000, which are supposed to “discourage frivolous candidacies”.
To the rescue?
Under the government’s proposals, PCCs would take on responsibility for fire and rescues, where doing so would be “in the interests of economy, efficiency and effectiveness, or public safety”. The consultation also suggests that a single employer could take responsibility for both fire and policing, under the governance of the PCC.
A number of challenges would have to be overcome. The boundaries of several fire and police services do not currently align – changes would have to be made to bring coherent areas under the auspices of individual PCCs.
There is considerable concern from the unions that the culture and purpose of the two services are far too distinct to be brought together under one system of governance. Paul Embery, the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) regional secretary for London, has argued that the move is based on the government’s wish to get rid of “awkward”, locally-elected councillors who block its attempts to cut services.
Others feel that this is part of a plan to undermine the power of both police and fire professionals, in a similar vein to the project which replaced 15,000 police staff jobs with a “home guard of 9,000 unpaid police support volunteers”. According to UNISON – the biggest union for police staff – the project was never the subject of proper public debate or scrutiny.
In light of these issues, it seems ill-advised to roll out a clearly flawed system to encompass an even wider remit. If the proposals go ahead without a review of the existing system, then the government could be playing with fire. It certainly risks further undermining public confidence in accountability and governance of the British emergency services.
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.