Dr Andy Allen takes a look at a Co-operative Academy through the research lens of empowered participatory governance.
Introduction from NGA
For a number of years, NGA has been highlighting concerns that we are concentrating the power in academy trusts in the hands of too few people (their members) and in some cases boards which are distant from their schools and communities. We have questioned how legitimate a model this is for a public service and have been trying to start a debate on improving the accountability of schools to their stakeholders, see for example this blog.
We have suggested, amongst other things, that academy trust membership could be opened up to parents and the wider community. Although almost everyone we speak to thinks that engaging parents and the community is important, including the Department for Education, few people have been willing or able to take the time to reflect on how accountability to them could be strengthened. We are therefore pleased that Dr Andy Allen has offered to share a model he has been studying. The strength of his work is that it combines the theory of governance with research on practice. We hope others will contribute their comments below.
Dr Andy Allen is a governor of a Further Education College and has held a range of governance roles including sitting on a local board of the Learning and Skills Council. Andy has also served on school leadership teams and supported governors for almost 20 years. This blog represents his personal views drawn from research findings. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
for a link to his research work.
‘A democratic deficit occurs when an organisation falls short of fulfilling its democratic responsibilities’.
A key finding from one of my early research investigations into the conversion of schools to academies was that change management and operational issues had not been adequately addressed by the Department for Education (DfE).
This period (2011/12) witnessed the unfettered and exponential growth of academies, subsequently calculated by the National Audit Office (NAO) as a staggering 1037%. It became apparent that the conversion processes could lead to embedded governance, leadership, management and operational issues – some of the unintended consequences of academisation.
Academisation is frequently viewed as a political construct, argued by some practitioners and academics to be concerned more with ideology (and fiddling with structures) than with a focus on excellence in teaching and learning. Numerous commentators have suggested that academised structures, together with the policy of reducing the size of governing boards (GB), can lead to a democratic deficit.
Within such academised structures, poor governance can and does remain undetected. Moreover, these autonomous governance arrangements are not publicly accountable to local democratic government or stakeholder groups. It is contended, therefore, that democratic and stakeholder legitimacy becomes problematic. High-profile failures of governance are commonplace and are widely reported, not only in the media but also within independent reports that include the NAO and the Education Select Committee. Indeed, the comprehensive report by Greany and Scott highlights the potential for accountability deficits and the potential for conflicts of interests.
It is also apparent that the current controversy and debate around the levels of pay for CEOs of some multi academy trusts, and now extended to include university vice chancellors, is related to failings of accountability and arguably an inherent democratic deficit.
Empowered participatory governance and a Co-operative College governance model
In order to redress the democratic deficit within school governance arrangements I identified the conceptual framework of Empowered Participatory Governance (EPG) that had the potential to illuminate democratic approaches to the governance of our schools.
EPG is concerned with progressive institutional reform – innovations that meaningfully deepen of democracy, and has three main principles:
- ‘Bottom-up participation’ of stakeholders, whereby channels of engagement are developed to allow those most affected by the organisation to apply their knowledge, interest and skills to the formation of solutions.
- ‘Practical orientation’, whereby the governance structure is developed specifically to meet the needs of the organisation. Importantly, stakeholders who may have previously competed for power might begin to co-operate.
- ‘Deliberative solution generation’, whereby participants in the broader governance structure (not restricted to the GB) listen to and respect each other’s positions to generate group choices.
An academy governance model, developed by the Co-operative College (CC), was comprehensively analysed with respect to the three principles of EPG. This case study was adopted following research that indicated the model was operationally and theoretically consistent with EPG. Research data was drawn from semi-structured interviews and documentary evidence, primarily agendas and minutes of governance meetings, over a five year period.
The CC model in this case study was designed to embrace a clear line of accountability from those who manage the school to those who use it and its extended services. Here stakeholders can become co-operative members within one of five groups representing Parents or Carers, Staff, Learners, Local Community or Alumni. These membership groups subsequently democratically elect representatives to the Forum – a strong consultative body to the GB. Importantly the Forum is a significant element of the wider-governance structure enabling stakeholder voice. An interesting democratic innovation is that the elected Forum can elect some members of the GB. The GB is also the academy trust board, thus the legal and financial responsibility for the organisation is not transferred to a small and possibly unrepresentative number of trustees.
The case study co-operative academy embraced and promoted the principles of the CC – principles that include open membership, democratic member control, autonomy and independence, co-operation and a concern for the community.
Key research findings
- The CC model exhibits strong characteristics of EPG and thus reduces the potential for the democratic deficit within academised governance structures.
- Upwards of 2,500 stakeholders had actively become members of the academy co-operative by joining one of five membership groups outlined above. The case study academy prioritised and resourced this democratic process, participants referring to it as the “Journey of engagement”. Within this model Governance ‘voice’ is not limited to the GB but is effectively heard laterally and vertically within the organisation.
- A strong community forum (an advisory board to the GB of 50-plus members) was elected from the membership base to ‘champion the democratic voice of its stakeholder groups’, establishing a highly accountable collective. Although technically ‘advisory’, the GB understands the importance, strength and effective mandate of the elected voice of the Forum.
- Deliberative solution generation (a principle of EPG) was a strong feature of the broader governance structure – the membership groups, Forum and GB. Furthermore, to hear the governance voice from across the organisation a meaningful communications strategy was developed to ‘capture, share and assimilate individual and collective voices’ It was believed that, “Participation will get better when there is a better communications system, people will feel more involved”.
- The GB, contrary to current guidelines and trends, has 20 members. This strong and active membership sustains a strong sub-committee structure (detailed below). Furthermore, the GB has the capacity to sustain 19 positions of responsibility that include link governors with specific responsibilities and areas of strategic oversight. Governor voice indicated that, “It’s hard to see how a small group of people would have the time, energy or expertise to do justice to the role ... it’s hard work, we need to absorb lots of complicated information and investigate crucial issues ... I can’t see how it can be dealt with by a small group of people.”
- The GB had eight sub-committees to maintain accountability with respect to its demanding and comprehensive responsibilities, specifically, community development and liaison; finance and property; audit; learning and wellbeing; personnel and training; appointments and standards; admissions; and appeals. The co-operative community Forum and membership-base work alongside this structure.
- With regard to the current neoliberalist policy of ‘professionalising’ the GB by appointing fewer ‘skilled’ members, it was apparent within the case study academy that the more open and democratic board with 20 members comprised an enviable range of skills. An important point was made by one governor voice: “You can buy in the skills, but you can’t buy in understanding and empathy ... it’s important that different groups in the community are represented.” I termed this a ‘brought-in or bought-in’ strategy, that is simple and effective, essentially buying in or co-opt individuals for specific short-term projects. These roles, created as and when required enhance governance capacity whilst ensuring governance members maintain stakeholder understanding and empathy.
- EPG discusses stretching the values of participation, deliberation and empowerment to the limits of prudence and feasibility and it fosters lateral and creative thinking in relation to governance structures. The CC model allows its community Forum to democratically elect a number of governors. Consider the democratic impact, however, if the Forum was able to elect all of the GB. One participant stated, “My view of a GB would be that it is almost wholly elected by members of the Co-op Forum”. In this scenario the stakeholder-led Forum could become the ‘sponsoring’ academy trust holding the funding agreement with the DfE. This ‘bottom-up’ democratic innovation is a radical departure from existing often ‘top-down’ academised governance structures. Is it possible that democracy and stakeholder involvement is not really, therefore, the problem with academised governance but possibly the solution to emergent accountability deficits?
A number of key recommendations stem from this extended research project. First, that empowered and participatory forms of governance are encouraged and actively developed to address the growing democratic deficit within school governance. Second that the structures and underlying principles of the Co-operative College model and EPG are embraced and developed. Third, that the move towards smaller and, therefore, less representative GBs is reconsidered – this shift reduces governance capital and stakeholder involvement.
What makes the co-operative trust school model so successful? - Governing Matters
The Feeling's Mutual - Governing Matters
Improving through co-operation - Governing Matters
Working together to raise standards - Governing Matters