Emma Knights

Author: Emma Knights

03/06/2016 17:00:00

This week the Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan, replied to our letter in which we objected to compulsory academisation for all schools and the removal of reserved places for elected parents in academy governance.

Lockers (credit Ingram Publishing)

Read Nicky Morgan's response in full

The bit that has stuck in my head is the response to our argument that the election of two parents is useful to avoid “governance by clique”. The Secretary of State’s solution is to introduce: “business minded people onto MAT [Multi academy trust] boards to provide fresh and independent outlooks”. Our contention is that those very
people may become the clique and develop “groupthink”.

{Groupthink : A pattern of thought characterised by self-deception, forced manufacture of consent, and conformity to group values and ethics.}

I don’t believe I’ve ever met a trustee of a MAT who isn’t business minded. That is right and proper because we want governing boards to be business-like and by that we mean: “having an efficient, practical, competent, systematic and professional approach”.  Schools have much to learn from other sectors and I am sometimes frustrated by the reluctance of school leaders to look outside Education for inspiration. The work NGA has done to introduce basic strategic planning into schools often resonates more with those governing schools (as they use similar approaches in their professional lives) than it does with school leaders; many of whom are used to very long development plans (action plans for staff), and are not familiar with formulating a meaningful vision with strategic priorities.

I don’t think money drives teachers’ careers in the same way or to the same extent as it might in the private sector.

But that is only one facet of governance. We also need those governing to understand what they are governing, and to set a culture and ethos conducive to a place of learning, with children’s welfare at its heart. Every organisation in every sector needs a healthy culture by which to thrive. What constitutes healthy culture won’t be the same everywhere. Values are the bedrock of culture and there can be very different values in different organisations, in different sectors. This isn’t a theoretical issue; values and ethos drive behaviour. Nurture and caring are at the heart of what schools do in a way they are not for most profit-making businesses.

There have been a couple of times recently when I have felt uncomfortable about certain values and ethos talked about by people whose previous experience is primarily of the business sector and who are now working in Education. One such example is the completely different take on pay.

Education tends to attract people with a strong service ethic to work in it, people who want to make a difference. For example, when deciding to become a teacher, people are often choosing to sacrifice a higher salary and risk-taking culture for mission and stability. We all want to be paid fairly, and what constitutes fair pay is a similar debate to what constitutes fair school funding, but I don’t think money drives teachers’ careers in the same way or to the same extent as it might in the private sector. We have to reflect carefully and pick and choose what is appropriate to transfer to the Education sector. On a pragmatic note, most school budgets couldn’t stretch to higher salaries right now but this issue demonstrates how different values can produce counter-productive ways of doing things when transplanted from another sector.  

we do want trustees from business, but we don’t want all trustees to be people from business

Of course, this unease may just be my problem as I am a creature of the third sector. It is much easier to critique the culture of another sector of society than it is one’s own and behaviour condemned in one context is not always recognised closer to home. Let’s take the so-called Trojan horse investigation, where a small group of governors took undue power and influence in a few East Birmingham schools and instilled a malign culture. One of the 15 recommendations made by Peter Clarke, the Secretary of State’s Commissioner’ in his July 2014 report was:

Unless there are genuinely exceptional circumstances, there should be a presumption that an individual will only be a governor at a maximum of two schools at any one time. All local authorities and multi-academy trusts should review their current governor arrangements, and where they identify an individual holding multiple positions they should consider the appropriate steps to ensure that a wider range of people are able to hold governor positions and that no single individual has undue influence over a number of schools.

The Secretary of State formally accepted all of Clarke’s recommendations, but this one is conspicuous by the absence of any subsequent significant action by the Department for Education (DfE). In fact, I would go so far as to say that the spirit of it has been undermined by its inclusion as ‘myth’ in the Department’s myths and facts document, that a person is not allowed to govern at more than two schools. There was a very good reason why Peter Clarke made this recommendation: to reduce the likelihood that power over a number of schools could be captured by a small group of like-minded individuals. The DfE doesn’t seem to think the same danger can apply to ‘people like us’.

So yes, we do want trustees from business, but we don’t want all trustees to be people from business as some MAT boards may be aiming for. That is one of the reasons why NGA will continue to make noise about the importance of those two reserved places for elected parents and we encourage those of you who feel the same way to contact your MP to defend reserved parent places. 

If you do make contact this weekend, you can also encourage your MP to attend next Tuesday’s meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Education Governance and Leadership, chaired by Neil Carmichael MP, which is meeting in the House of Commons, Committee Room 5 from 17:30-19:00 to consider the implications of the proposed Education for All bill for school governance and leadership.

If you do ask your MP to attend this APPG meeting, please let us know by emailing us. You can easily find your MP by clicking here.

Ian Dewes
I have been a governor at three different schools at once for a number of years and for a time even served on four governing bodies concurrently. While I can see the concern for such arrangements in the wake of Trojan Horse, the lack of people willing to serve governors is a perennial problem (and one which affects schools in disadvantaged areas the most). There is a danger in power being concentrated in too few hands, but I think it is possibly time to admit defeat on governor recruitment; having a dozen or so governors for every school in the country is not going to happen. I think we should look positively at the new emerging structures of governance as an opportunity to ensure effective governance is available to all schools.
12/06/2016 20:25:06

Mark Coppel
I just wanted to agree with your point, Emma, about what remembering what business we are in. I have met governors, with great skills, who come from the business sector and have often ended up saying "don't forget we are in the business of education, not the business of making money!" The skills are valuable but we have to remember our bottom line is outcomes for children not pounds.
11/06/2016 17:22:50

Andy Martin
Having served on a governing body for many years I firmly believe that that the schools leadership are best to decide on the size, type and make up if the governing body it requires to support it. Large governing bodies are not effective. In my experience there are normally only a few governors that really take an active interest and therefore keeping the bodies as small as possible will be more successfull. How important is it to have parent governors? Having worked with governors from all backgrounds what is more important is what a member brings to the role and not the role they fill. Why do we need to have different categories of governors anyway? You should simply be a governor, what is important is that you should want to give something back to education but you also need the skills the school requires. The government needs to do more to attract the best governors regardless of their background. Governors are there to ensure the school meets the needs of the pupils its serves and provides the education that they deserve to make them successfull. Governors are not there to run schools and nor should they be, They are there to be a critical friend and serve as "non executive directors" making sure they hold school leaders to account. Are we not forgetting that people from business are also parents and come from various backgrounds. I am both a parent and from business, and whilst drawing on my business skills to challenge the leadership I was also concerned as a parent that the school did it's very best for the young people it served. I was also concerned that it looked after and developed its staff but I am not a teacher either. As Nikki says It is important that schools seek the views of its stakeholders and then take these into account in its planning and strategy. Governors as a critical friend need to make sure this engagement takes place and that school leaders act upon the results. As in business, schools need a highly engaged community to be successful. This includes staff, pupils, governors, parents, sponsors local MPs etc. The question is what can government do to make sure stakeholder views are sought on a regular basis, perhaps they should legislate to make this happen. This only seems to happen at the moment when an Ofsted Inspection takes place! Having 2 parent governors is hardly representative of what parents really think is it? All governors regardless of where they come from have a duty to understand if the school is serving the pupils and its staff well. Results alone don't tell you this. This is Nikkis point and it seems to be being missed. As long as schools leaders have control of who they recruit to their governing body and the government provides assurance via inspection that the skills identified for the school governing body are justified then you should have an effective governing body for that school. It could be the whole governing body ends up being parents as far as I'm concerned, likewise they could all come from business, the important thing is that they are the right people for the job. Does it really matter where they come from. It appears to me that this is the essence of Nikkis letter. Where the needs of the school change then so should the governing body. All too often governing bodies stay the same in fear of upsetting members and they become ineffective. Governing bodies also need to be self critical and members should be prepared to move aside if the skills are no longer required or if they feel they no longer contribute. This is certainly the reason I left as I felt I was no longer contributing and was not getting any pleasure from volunteering my services. The government needs to provide clear guidance that will help school leaders to identify the sort of skills they require on their governing body. Simply saying governors should come from business is not good enough. Along with effective Inspection this will help to avoid more Trojan horses and make sure governing bodies retain the right balance As an aside Nikki also makes some very credible points about schools working together in order to release more resources to the front line. I believe this to be key, instead of using competition to drive up standards, as seems to be a government strategy, schools need to collaborate with each other to share best practice and resources to drive up standards, especially in local communities. In my opinion Nikki does not need to look too far from her own constituency to see the damage being caused by competition for pupil numbers and lack of collaboration. Some Schools have empty places and have to make continuous cut backs to both staff and facilities costing money out of the public purse, whilst others are investing money out of the same public purse in order to increase capacity. If they could actually collaborate better the money would be better spent on the pupils. It wouldn't be so bad but it would appear the standards in the schools increasing in size are actually falling looking at last years results! Here's a final thought how about a governing body that serves more than one school. Now that will never work will it. One thing for certain is we will never know if we don't try. likewise we will never know how successfull changes to governance will be if we don't try.
11/06/2016 02:12:25

Cullompton Community College
Having recently seen several organisation structures for new MATs, I have to say I have never seen such top heavy structures in a 45 year career in businesses large and small but it seems the DfE seem to be supportive of them. My experience is that the larger the committee/board, the poorer the decisions and the slower they are made.
10/06/2016 22:54:48

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