Governance is tricky, why make it risky too?

08/04/2016 10:31:09 | with 4 comments

White Paper fallout: Emma Knights considers the nature of oversight and accountability in schools and suggests a radical alternative. 

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What a couple of weeks! When does school governance make it onto the front page of a national broadsheet?  Not in NGA’s ten years of existence, but it did the day after the government published a White Paper Education Excellence Everywhere containing one little sentence on the role of parents in school governance: “we will no longer require academy trusts to reserve places for elected parents on governing boards”.

The government shouldn’t have been surprised by the attention this garnered, as believe you me, they had been warned that removing reserved places for parents in school governance was not a good plan several times since the Secretary of State, Nicky Morgan, floated the idea at our summer national conference.  Some journalists came out as parent governors, and Nicky Morgan posted about the White Paper on Mumsnet to much criticism.

The Department for Education (DfE) considered this to be a minor tinkering of the governance constitution, one which fitted with their trajectory in the last couple of years of encouraging the recruitment of skilled volunteers to govern schools and which would be compensated for by talking about better parental engagement with schools. More emphasis on parent engagement is very welcome given the lack of attention the DfE has paid to the issue over the past five years.  It is, however, a different issue from school governance, even if Lord Nash, the minister with responsibility for school governance, confused the two earlier this week when he made his first intervention in the uproar.

It is perfectly understandable for the general public to think parents governors ‘represent’ the school’s parents, but Lord Nash writes the foreword to the DfE’s Governance Handbook, in which it says:  “Meaningful and effective engagement with parents, staff and the wider community is vital, and not achieved by the presence of various categories of governor on the board. Governors must govern in the best interest of pupils; it is not their role to represent a stakeholder group. Stakeholder engagement is an important, but distinct, activity for which boards will need to assure themselves that appropriate structures and arrangements are in place. Governors themselves should seek to assist their school to build relationships with business and other employers, in order to enhance the education and raise the aspirations of pupils.”

The DfE is very keen on its myths and facts document, but despite our suggestion, this myth that parent governors are a spokesperson for the whole parent body has not been included, and here in print is a government minister actually perpetuating it.  This is particularly galling when ministers have been claiming that their proposals have been misrepresented and are now indulging in the very same thing.

"did ministers in the DfE simply misunderstand the messages they were sending about the value they place on parents, our views and our ability to govern?"

I am not sure there is anyone out there still supporting the abolition of reserved places for elected parents, but for the record I have written an essay to both explain the facts of the case and to refute the twelve arguments we have heard for their abolition.    

But the question I ponder here is: did ministers in the DfE simply misunderstand the messages they were sending about the value they place on parents, our views and our ability to govern? (I ought to declare an interest here. Before I had ever heard of the National Governors’ Association, I was an elected parent governor).  Or more fundamentally, does the government actually misunderstand not just the message, but the risks they are building into the governance of academies?

Increasing power over our country’s state schools is being put the hands of a small number of the great and the good on academy trust boards and an even smaller number of academy ‘members’.  Some of those trustees are members of the National Governors’ Association, and we would like them all to be! I am not casting suspicion on the individuals, but this change in the system of governing our schools needs more debate; it has been confined to those of us who are governance geeks and it could benefit from the light of public debate. 

State schools are being moved into the third sector, which as its name suggests is neither the public nor private sector.  Most independent schools are governed in this way, although usually as stand-alone schools, but as it is private money which is paying for their pupils’ education the same system of accountability need not apply. 

The word ‘privatisation’ has been thrown around a lot in the debate about academies - in our view erroneously.  Academies are charitable companies which exist to deliver their charitable aims on behalf of their beneficiaries – in this case pupils - and cannot make profits. Yes, they can buy services from the private sector but so can public services.  The White Paper heralds an even greater pace of movement of schools into the third sector, trustees of multi academy trusts (MATs) responsible for more public money and the education of more pupils. For pupils then, the consequences of poor governance of MATs are huge; we must minimise that risk.

This hugely significant move to governance by trusteeship instead of oversight by local government is being underplayed by the DfE. The White Paper does not use the word trustee once (I have checked a number of times as I find this omission extraordinary), and time and time again responsibilities and decisions of boards are reported as belonging to school leaders.  The experiences of the charity sector have not been valued.

So what would help reduce the risks? Let’s start with these three:

1.      Reduce the possibility of cronyism and increase diversity

2.      Reduce the power of the executives

3.      Open up membership of MATs

Reduce the possibility of cronyism and increase diversity

Leaving the constitution of boards to the discretion of trustees (or members in a Trust) as the White Paper proposes increases the risk of them becoming sets of like-minded people who do not have the wealth of experience and viewpoints that brings the healthy challenge and debate that strong governance requires. The DfE has acknowledged this danger in the latest edition of their Governance Handbook: “the most robust governing bodies welcome and thrive on having a sufficient diverse range of viewpoints…governing bodies should be alert to the risk of becoming dominated by one particular mind-set or strand of opinion”.

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But it is not a risk I have ever heard ministers talking about passionately (or indeed ever defending) and yet group-think appears to be a risk which is already coming to pass.  Last Friday Sir Dan Moynihan of the Harris Federation defended his astronomical salary in TES by saying the trust board who made the decision were ‘hard headed business people’. Perhaps that board needs to include more people from the Third or public sectors who understand that those with ‘moral purpose’ do not require private sector salaries in order to do the best possible job they can, or even as a reward for doing a great job. ‘Charitable mission’ is a strong driving force; perhaps we should start using that phrase instead of ‘moral purpose’ which in turn replaced ‘public duty’ some years ago amongst school leaders and now trips off the tongue rather too easily.  I may sound self-righteousness, but values in governance are critical. They are at the heart of what we do: it is boards that set the vision and ethos of charities.

Reduce the power of the executives

In charities the chief executive is not a trustee; one of the primary purposes of the board is to hold the chief executive to account and holding oneself to account is tricky. Although the latest model academy articles do provide for them not to be trustees, we have yet to come across a trust where this is the case.

Not only has this important check been largely ignored in academies, but often a number of other senior employees are also involved in governing. There is usually a rule instead that employees should be no more than 30% of boards, but we have seen models which ignore even this and others where executives chair committees. Many school leaders do not comprehend the conflict of their position, and without qualm present proposals to boards of which they are members, and therefore should be challenging. It has long been NGA’s position that headteachers should not govern at their own school but is not one we made a lot of noise about as there were other things which would make a bigger difference to improving governance.  With the growth of MATs, however, the risks are greater and this weakness in the model should no longer be ignored.  

Open up the membership of MATs

In the public debate ‘privatisation’ has become shorthand for the removal of power from the democratically elected local authority, the ‘people’, to a small group of unelected trustees. As Jonathan Simons of Policy Exchange said of parents objecting to their school becoming an academy: “They fear their local primary school is about to be taken away and ‘privatised’. Or, at a minimum, will be run by a group they’ve never heard of, aren’t based near them, and over which they have no say or input.” So can membership of a trust be used to right that sense of disenfranchisement?

Members of a trust hold its trustees to account and although they are listed in the academy trust’s annual accounts, and in theory on their websites, members are largely invisible and their role is overlooked.  Some of the early trusts have only three members. Often, they are also the trustees - one of whom is the chief executive. This is an extremely ropy model and although the DfE subsequently accepted the need to have a few more members, it remains a weak link, ripe for a re-think.

The comparison with shareholders in the private sector is invidious – state schools have absolutely nothing to do with profit making or paying dividends.  No-one should become involved in the governance of charities or schools out of self-interest, quite the opposite.  Given schools are such an important public service, we need to ensure accountability to the parents and the local community.  At our last national conference, Dr. Jeroen Veldman from the Cass Business School, who coordinates an international project called 'The Modern Corporation’ argued that the focus of the private companies, driven by the need to make returns for shareholders, has been too short-term.

"We need to debate opening membership to a wider group of people in order to truly hold the academy trust’s board of trustees to account."

Once again we should be drawing on the practice of the charity sector. NGA’s members are our subscribers who (unlike in a for-profit situation) can elect some trustees and attend our AGM to vote on motions.  So, just as our board of trustees is held to account by NGA’s members as well as the Charity Commission and company law, why shouldn’t academy trusts include this same sort of accountability?

We need to debate opening membership to a wider group of people in order to truly hold the academy trust’s board of trustees to account.  There are a number of models we could consider: from all parents of pupils becoming members, to having some elected members.

The government has promised that: “In an academised system, where schools will be more locally accountable to academy trusts with whom parents have a direct relationship, it is even more important that parents and governing boards should be able to challenge schools and hold them to account.” So let’s design a system where that can actually happen (the current one will certainly not deliver) and where it is seen to happen, but transparency is the subject of a whole other blog! 

We hope that the public interest in what the proposed changes mean for who owns our schools will prompt a thorough and honest consideration of the way our schools are held to account.

 

Emma Knights is Chief Executive of the National Governors' Association. 

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