School Governing : policy, politics and practices

School governance FC

 

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.”

Jane Owens, National Leader of Governance,
Wirral

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Crafting strategy : school boards, systems or command and control approach?

Strategic leadership: board members in areas of high deprivation ‘deliverololgy or systems approach?’

Department of Public Leadership and Social Enterprise, The Open University Business School, England, UK)

Rapid and intense changes to the English education system, particularly since 2010 have created a quasi-market operating environment for schools. Research into other areas of the public services reveals that the ability of boards to create externally facing effective strategy, is vital for their survival and ongoing improvement, yet in education we know little about how school boards and the 300,000 volunteer board members within them understand, create and develop strategic direction for their schools or how important it is to school survival and improvement in the current climate. This blog post focuses on a paper to be presented at the American Educational Research Association Conference 2016- Washington DC and which examines exactly these questions.

Research tells us that across the public sector board approaches to strategy are linked to notions of public value and are extremely influential in determining the shape and form of organisations and how they respond to service users, yet in terms of English education the role of strategy is underexplored.

Command and Control or deliverology?

It is certainly true that in the English quasi-marketised system of education, increasing emphasis is being placed on board members’ ability to set, monitor and evaluate strategic direction, not only in terms of school capabilities, but perhaps equally as importantly, in terms of the shape and form of schools within the context of the wider system. Research has shown that in areas of high deprivation, school boards are particularly cognizant of the need to serve their communities, but what is not known is how they articulate this need in terms of strategy: how they draw on particular sources of information to craft strategic direction as an evolving and learning process (Baxter 2016a, Baxter and Hult 2016).

Command and control approaches to strategy, made popular by the Audit Commission and Blair’s Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit, placed a great deal of emphasis on targets, performance management and delivery outputs in order to effect public service improvement (Campbell-Smith 2008). Since then researchers and organisations that do not believe that this set of ideas creates real improvement in public services have been exploring other routes – particularly in relation to strategy (Alimo-Metcalfe and Alban-Metcalfe 2004). One such set of ideas is articulated under the broad banner ‘systems thinking’ and draws on theories that vision strategy in terms of a whole system approach.

How do school board members understand strategy?

Examining how school board members articulate their understandings of strategy in this study draws on a sample from multi-academy trusts in areas of high socio economic deprivation. Exploring how governors approaches to strategy fit within existing models the study looks at whether these approaches are discursively underpinned by command and control or systems thinking (Seddon 2008, Graham 1999). As the findings reveal, many board members although they aspire to a systems approach, feel ill equipped to operationalise this in their handling of strategy. This appears to be founded in the belief that either they lack the knowledge necessary for this work, or they are more comfortable with monitoring and evaluating strategy that is developed by the head and senior leadership team. Governors, for the most part did have a deep and committed relationship with communities in which their schools were located. Yet in spite of this, still appeared to lack confidence in terms of translating this knowledge into setting the strategic direction of the school (Baxter 2016b).

Looking for ways to integrate community needs into strategy

The considerable evidence that board members were working towards translating this knowledge into strategically relevant data was illustrated by the ways in which they were looking to new ways to engage with parents; using focus groups and community groups to inform their knowledge and provide tangible evidence to inform strategy. It also revealed that although in many cases they appear keen to learn about their work in relation to the wider system, they were conditioned to thinking in command and control ways about their particular remit. This is an important insight for future board development and implies that there is a need for development that places boards and their members in the wider political and socio-cultural contexts of their work. Investigation of sub themes arising as part of the coding process, revealed training events to be largely focused on particular areas of monitoring work, for example: budgets, safeguarding, counter extremism, behavior rather than focusing on ‘the bigger picture’ in relation to the situation of their schools within the wider system

This is supported by governor interpretations of what strategy is: even governors that appeared comfortable with strategy within their own professional lives often appeared at sea when interpreting this in terms of a public service/schools context.

Analysis of documentation relating to inspection processes was instrumental in identifying expectations of board understandings of strategy. These documents were peppered with command and control terminology which concomitantly appeared in board member narratives. Again this points to the need for inspection processes to reflect a systems approach, if indeed this is the way that both government and inspectorate wish to see the system develop and improve, as evidence from policy documents, press releases and media reports suggest they do.

In spite of a plethora of research investigating board approaches to strategy in the private and not-for profit sector, there is little in terms of education. This may well be due to the speed at which the current wave of marketization has occurred: According to the DfE since 2010 4, 000 academies opened in England – almost 20 times as many as there were in May 2010, when all 203 academies were sponsored secondary schools of these 87% of academies support other schools in some way (DfE 2014). It is clear from this case study that this area is becoming increasingly important as one for research if the notion of a self-improving education system is ever to maximise its potential and come fully to fruition.

 

References

Alimo-Metcalfe, Beverly, and John Alban-Metcalfe. 2004. “Leadership in public sector organisations.”  Leadership in Organizations 174.

Baxter, J. 2016a. School governing : politics, policy and practice. Bristol: Policy Press.

Baxter, J. . 2016b. “Strategic leadership: board members in areas of high deprivation ‘deliverololgy or systems approach?’.” AERA _ The American Educational Research Association Conference 2016, Washington DC, 080416.

Baxter, J. , and A. Hult. 2016. “School inspectors in Sweden and England: the impact of changing policy on practices. .” In School inspectors: operational challendges in National Policy Contexts edited by Baxter.J. London: Springer. .

Campbell-Smith, Duncan. 2008. Follow the Money: A History of the Audit Commission: Penguin UK.

Graham, P. 1999. “Critical Systems Theory: A Political Economy of Language, Thought and Technology.”  Communication Research 26 (4):482-507.

Seddon, J. 2008. Systems Thinking in the Public Sector. Axminster: Triarchy Press.

 

 

The Government ‘Vision’ for Education : where are we now ?

The government’s vision for education is difficult to swallow – here’s why

Jacqueline Baxter, The Open University

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.

Effective strategic planning is recognised as one of the cornerstones of effective public services, as a number of research projects have highlighted.

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.

Since 2010, free schools have taken a disproportionate amount of funding compared to state-maintained schools. But they have also compounded the places problem by opening in areas where there is already a surplus of places.

Crammed in.
Smiltena/www.shutterstock.com

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.

The government assures us that it does have a vision for education: “A world class education system in which all schools are academised.

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.

The Conversation

Jacqueline Baxter, Lecturer in Public Policy and Management , The Open University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Where are all of the women on public service boards ?

More women on company boards, but what about the public sector?

Jacqueline Baxter, The Open University

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.

The government’s current emphasis on recruiting people with “business skills” as school governors runs the risk of creating exactly the same issues around diversity as have occurred in corporate public boards – the very same issue that the FTSE 100 project sought to eradicate.

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.

The substantial body of research into quotas – largely relating to their use in political appointments – has shown that although they act immediately, they also have the potential to reinforce the status quo. This is because they recruit a “particular type of candidate”, which then provides too much “group think”.

“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.

Good for business.
Monkey Business Images/www.shutterstock.com

The benefits of a diverse board

There is little doubt that diversity on boards is a good thing. A recent report by McKinsey argued that advancing womens’equality could add US$12 trillion to global growth.

Other evidence shows that companies with mixed boards outperform those with all male ones. There is also substantial evidence to support the fact that women also bring particular skills to the table.

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.

The Conversation

Jacqueline Baxter, Lecturer in Public Policy and Management , The Open University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

By extending the remit of PCCs, the government is playing with fire

By extending the remit of PCCs, the government is playing with fire

Jacqueline Baxter, The Open University

The UK government has proposed to extend the remit of Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) to cover other emergency services, including fire and rescue.

The system has been called a “failed experiment” by the Independent Police Commission, and has continued to attract criticism since its inception in 2012.

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.

Chequered history

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.

From the beginning, the system failed to make a favourable impression: the first PCC election was described as a “bungled” affair, after a voter turnout of just 15.1%. It was later revealed that 37% of those on the register said they failed to vote due to “lack of awareness” about the elections and the candidates who were running. To make things worse, the cost of this farcical election ran as high as £4m; pretty high considering the 2011 estimated total cost for holding mayoral referendums in 12 cities in 2011 was £2.58m.

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.

Image problems

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.

Vera Baird – PCC for Northumbria.
Policy Exchange/Flickr, CC BY

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.

The Conversation

Jacqueline Baxter, Lecturer in Public Policy and Management , The Open University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Evolving models of governance in public 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.

You can find a full copy of the paper here

Election Countdown – British Values and the Horse that never was.

The spectre of 'British values' is infusing education policy

Jacqueline Baxter, The Open University

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”.

Guidelines for schools on embedding British values were introduced in November 2014 and were designed to:

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.

Conservative backlash

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.

Governance issues

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.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

The Open University – A History by Daniel Weinbren- Reviewed by Jacqueline Baxter

DSCF6826

The Open University
A History
By Daniel Weinbren 2015
Manchester University Press

Review by Jacqueline Baxter
Lecturer in Social Policy – the Open University UK
Jacqueline.baxter@open.ac.uk

It is not the first time that someone has documented the exponential growth and development of The Open University UK (OU) – but this volume stands out as unique for a number of reasons. Dan Weinbren- the author not only has a long personal history with the OU but still works there. His perspective is unique drawing as it does not only from his own knowledge of the institution as it touched his family – but also from the unique and particular perspective of an insider- a member of staff who has, over the course of their career, taken a variety of roles within it.

These roles, alongside Weinbren’s Open University (OU) studies and extensive interviews with individuals whose involvement with the university- in some cases goes back to its inception – lend an incisive and energising quality to the account. In a volume which successfully combines the intense political intrigue which characterised the evolution of the OU alongside the myriad voices of staff and students in a vibrant medley, the book invites the reader to share the joys and frustrations that went into making up the OU experience.

Beginning with an account of the university’s early beginnings, based as they were on a corporate industrial model which reflected in many ways the national zeitgeist, the volume tracks the cultural and economic markers which so profoundly shaped its evolution. A particularly effective way that it does this is in drawing attention to the language which characterised the ways in which early staff referred to the university’s early educational offerings. Through terms such as ‘production of units’ of teaching materials and ‘lines of study’, we gain an insight of how ‘academic enquiry was combined with assembly line’ manufacturing techniques in order to create education for the masses, the like of which had not been seen up until this time.

This takes place against the backdrop of an era when internationally governments were manifesting a growing interest in the ways in which education could be employed to extend their global reach. An era during which the post war consensus on the state as moral agent was rapidly being replaced by neoliberal ideals of education as a market.

The Open University as it is today has become such an integral part of the national and international Higher Education (HE) landscape that it is difficult for us to imagine the extent of the political opposition that it encountered as the first ‘University of the Air.’ A university that fulfilled its unique promise in eradicating the entry requirements that characterised conventional universities, allowing universal access for all. But this account drives home the fact that these innovations proved to be so profoundly disturbing and troubling for politicians of both left and right wing persuasion. Many of whom considered the very idea of education for the masses to be bridge to far – a potential public and political disaster; far too radical an idea to be accepted by the British public. The idea of using television as a medium for teaching proved particularly aberrant for those on the political right who dismissed it as an election gimmick of little real substance.

The vivid description of Harrold Wilson – Leader of HM Loyal Opposition – and his boundless enthusiasm for a university that would promote social justice, aid elimination of social inequalities and drive both economic regeneration and productivity, animates the passionate idealism that drove the institution’s early development: A development combining ideals of social justice with an ambitious and innovative aim to make TV a central means by which to widen access. The creation of a university which aimed to banish the pedagogically pedestrian in its quest to seek out new ways to engage students formerly deprived of the opportunity to enter the hallowed halls of a conventional institution.
One of the most interesting threads running throughout the book is the way that the OU influenced the lives of women, infusing their lives in numerous and often unexpected ways. The volume offers a lively and engaging account of how one of the university’s most enthusiastic supporters – Jenny Lee, a coal miner’s daughter turned MP- was instrumental in bringing the dream into fruition. A woman whose determination that the OU would offer educational standards on a par with the best universities in the world and whose fortitude standing firm in the face of substantial and vituperative opposition finally won through, leading to the creation of a university characterised by high quality teaching, innovative pedagogies and a contentious reputation for left wing thinking which characterised some of its curriculum.

Drawing on interviews with early students, the account offers the reader some fascinating insights into the ways in which education influenced and often completely changed the ways in which they saw themselves and their roles. Particularly vivid accounts from female students on their experiences of residential school- full week study opportunities spent away from family and children in order to spend a week discussing and learning with OU lecturers and fellow students – illustrate to what extent OU study was indeed a life changing experience. Despite media descriptions of the university acting as a ‘haven for housebound Guardian reading housewives‘ (246).

Quotes such as, ‘it messes up your whole life but it’s worth it,’ help to illustrate the ways in which OU study challenged household structures and conventions whilst bringing hitherto unimaginable possibilities and opportunities into the lives of those it touched. The book also gives some sense of the degree to which the OU impacted on other marginalised groups – such as prisoners and the disabled- groups who would otherwise have been stellenboshed by beliefs and assumptions that HE was not for them.

Pedagogy

One of the most interesting insights for educationalists -particularly those involved in distance learning in some form – is undoubtedly the way in which the book details the developing pedagogies of open and distance learning at the OU. The insights the book offers into the ways in which the transmission mode of teaching was challenged by new collaborative ways of working, are accompanied by case studies illustrating the development of pedagogies which placed as much emphasis on the processes engendered within the learning , as the learning itself. Using illustrative modules such as, ‘Art and environment’ Weinbren describes how, ‘the aims of the course were attitudinal, sensory and subjective rather than cognitive, relating to feeling rather than knowledge,’ – a radical departure from previous approaches to the subject. The chapter continues with an account of how from the outset the university encouraged group learning premised largely on a social cultural approach to education. An idea that had its genesis in the constructivist theories that were infusing and permeating pedagogies more generally and emerging largely in response to new technologies.
According to its history the university has always placed great emphasis on group learning which often led students to form their own support groups during or after their studies. Describing how one student initiated group known affectionately as ‘the Tadpole Society,’ named for the course code – TAD292 continued to meet long after their module was over. This in many ways exemplifies the constructivist socio cultural approach to learning which characterises not only present day OU pedagogies but much of the thinking within current day thinking around teaching and learning in the realm of distance and blended learning more generally.
In light of the rest of the book this particular chapter is rather unique in its approach – whereas other chapters detail the growth of the OU against the political and social backdrop of the times, this chapter is rather more insular in its approach; tending to focus on the pedagogies within the OU rather than placing these developments in the broader context of educational innovations internationally. It is however, perfectly understandable that Weinbren avoided this in the interests of brevity- however fascinating such an approach may be, it would probably necessitate another volume in order to do it justice.
The relationship between the OU, politicians and the media which characterised the university’s early days has continued to be a leitmotif within its evolution. As the book illustrates – the very content of the OU product was attacked for its alleged hostility to capitalism and the market economy- a fact acknowledged by David Harris writing in The British Journal of Educational Technology, quoted as stating that ‘the OU teaching system was as much shaped by political and administrative pressures as by any particular educational goals ‘(123).

The Media

Continuing in this vein the book details the often stormy and uncomfortable relationship that the OU has had with the media- particularly during the Thatcher era when the creation of such an institution was regularly portrayed as being an aberrant departure from the norm. Rich examples from a range of publications demonstrate how the media questioned the value of the university’s offering, often using the residential school experience as an eponym for an OU education’ The Times referring to it as ‘the university where a lecture begins with a beer,’ and the BBC describing the ‘Bizarre games and happenings,’ that took place as part of the learning experience (254).
Although the media proved mercurial in their descriptions of the OU experience- vacillating from the condemnatory to the conciliatory -the fact remained that particularly in its early days, media coverage of the university, its staff and students ensured that the institution was enshrined in the British consciousness as a particularly British product :quirky; a little off beat but fundamentally sound.
The principal strength of this account lies in the intimate way in which we are presented with not only the institution but the people to whom it meant so much. Stories and anecdotes from staff, students, media personal and government combine to give a sense of how the institution later became known as something of a national treasure. The fact that it is in essence an insider account offers a unique perspective of the ways in which this ‘machine’ like structure with its mechanistic forms of production and delivery developed the capacity to offer students a uniquely personal learning experience.

This history of the OU, located as it is against a changing social, economic and political backdrop, furnishes the reader with a sense of the changes that characterised the institution from inception to the present day. The challenges and opportunities that infuse its rich and chequered history not only offering an account of the past but also in many ways portending the challenges and changes that lie ahead in order for this unique institution to remain true to its original mission- to remain open to people, places and ideas- in the challenging and protean context of higher education today.

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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