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 investigations into the Trojan Horse affair, where a group of schools in Birmingham were accused of failing to protect children from extremism, has provoked a number of criticisms centred on the way schools are governed in England.
During a recent inquiry of the education select committee into extremism in schools, the head of Ofsted, Michael Wilshaw, told MPs that schools in England have relied on “amateurish governance to do a professional job”. His words provoked an angry response from the National Governors’ Association (NGA) who insisted that being a volunteer is not synonymous with amateurism. Wilshaw also suggested paying one or two governors in each governing body, a move that the NGA are also opposed to and which reflects the views of their members. In a 2013 survey only 30% of governors believed they should be paid.
The NGA’s policy manager Gillian Ashcroft told me the NGA’s view is “that one can perform a role professionally and in a business-like fashion without being paid”. She also said there was no evidence to suggest that paying governors would improve governance.
The end of excitement?
Given their heavyweight responsibilities, not least in ensuring that the money allocated to pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds is used to close the enduring gap between rich and poor pupils, governors don’t deserve to be called amateur.
They have been hit pretty hard by the changes in England’s educational landscape. Amid the excitement of creating a new system of autonomous schools while also severely cutting Local Education Authority budgets, the government seemed to assume that the old system of school governance could simply be grafted onto a new system of education. This was without any real thinking behind what this system would entail for school regulation and accountability.
Until the Trojan Horse affair, school governors had attracted surprisingly little attention in the media. Perhaps they weren’t seen as exciting enough – after all, if the government didn’t give it much thought, why would it attract media attention?
But governors have always done important work. The difference is that now they are far less supported in their role and subject to far more stringent regulation.
In order to do this, the pupil premium was introduced by the coalition government from an idea conceived primarily by the Liberal Democrats. It is now increasing from its current £1.875 billion to £2.5 billion in the 2014-15 financial year. In an average sized secondary school with an average number of pupils on free school meals, this translates at around £200,000 – the equivalent of five full-time teachers. It represents one of the most substantive strategies to combat the gap between rich and poor pupils, an area in which England performs poorly compared to many of its peers.
One of the key tasks for governors is to monitor how the premium is spent, as well as the more difficult task of monitoring its impact on pupil performance. Following allegations in mid-2013 that schools were misusing the premium to plug holes in budgets, Ofsted has increased its monitoring of governor performance in this area. In its most recent update, it reported that while school leaders were spending the premium more effectively, “weak leadership and governance is still an obstacle in too many schools.”
Grafting not crafting
It is often quite difficult for people outside of England to understand this form of school governance and how it has come about. An emphasis on recruiting school governors from the business sector during the early nineties – which persists today – has gone a long way to creating the idea that the most effective governors are those with a business background.
This prompted a move to link governors’ professional backgrounds with roles on the governing body: an accountant for the finance committee, an HR professional for staffing. Mirroring practices from other public sector boards, payment of an allowance could be the next step in this type of policy borrowing.
But as in the case of international policy borrowing, taking one policy and grafting it onto another context often provokes unexpected results. Already, in the processs of borrowing ideas from non-profit boards, the government has largely negated to consider the very particular context of school governance.
A recent study showed that polarised thinking about governors’ roles – conceptualising them as either willing volunteers or adept professionals – is causing tensions among inspectors and head teachers that are counterproductive to accountability.
It is therefore not surprising that Wilshaw feels it would be more productive to separate the two: paying a couple of professional governors whose day job is to keep up with the myriad legislative and policy-related documents issued to governors on a weekly basis. The same governors would presumably have greater responsibility for feeding back during inspections – a prospect that must sound pretty seductive to the inspectorate who often struggle to meet with governors at short notice.
But the idea does raise considerable issues – not least in terms of their recruitment and funding. School budgets are already creaking under the prospect of the extension of austerity measures until 2018. Paying governors for their services, as well as mandatory training, would be highly contentious if it looked to be taking from schools’ teaching and learning budgets.
Looking back over the Trojan Horse affair, it is difficult to see how paying governors would have prevented the issue. Paying just one or two on each board – including the chair – may well have the regulatory advantages mentioned earlier, but it would also create a hierarchy within the governing body, which in the longer term could be equally, if not more, counter-productive.
A hierarchy that would undoubtedly change the whole character of school governing and may well erode the goodwill that has for so long supported, sustained and nourished the foundations of education in England.
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.