On Saturday I spoke at the Association of Leicestershire Governors (ALG) conference, not an unusual experience, but a core part of what NGA does. What was rather different is that I was followed by the Secretary of State, Nicky Morgan, who is one of the county’s MPs. I don’t think her predecessor, Michael Gove MP, spoke to a single governor conference in his four year tenure, not even accepting NGA’s invitation when I offered to move one of our national conferences to a Surrey venue. Nicky Morgan not only gave a speech but stayed some time answering questions. A report of the conference is now available on the ALG website.
I thought governors around the country would be interested to see the range of topics that Leicestershire governors asked questions about:
One governor mentioned the duty of care that the governing board has as an employer, was concerned about the stress on staff, the lack of work/life for senior leaders and whether the DfE monitored impact on schools of proposed changes.
o SoS had already referred to the recent workload challenge in her speech and reiterated that actions were being taken. She pointed out that although international surveys show our teachers work longer hours than many other countries, they don’t teach for longer, but do other activities, such as planning, marking and data collection.
A questioner argued that the pace of change had increased under the previous Secretary of State, and that this has put schools under undue pressure.
o SoS argued that change has been needed to improve the offer to young people, but that should the Conservatives form the government after the General Election, there would be a period of stability to allow the changes in the pipeline to bed in.
It was asserted that there were many old school buildings across the county which were expensive to maintain and really needed to be replaced.
o SoS said a property data survey had been carried out so that the DfE would know the state of all schools in England, and had recently announced £6 billion for investment in school buildings.
It was asked what would be done to ensure Leicestershire would get its fair share of revenue funding, given its schools are amongst the most poorly funded in the country.
o SoS said they had not got as far with a national funding formula as she would have liked to, but they had protected funding for schools for 5-16 year olds. She said schools in Leicestershire should have received a top-up during this last year.
A chair of governors at a primary (who is also a headteacher at a secondary) commended the SoS on the Pupil Premium, and asked for assurances that it will continue.
o The SoS gave her assurance it would, as it has been a powerful lever for improving the outcomes for disadvantaged children, and she thought moving to Progress8 would also mean all children’s progress would be counted.
A governor of a small school asked for advice on the future.
o The SoS agreed schools should be the heart of their communities and encouraged governors to let both MPs and local councillors know what they offered pupils, but also urged schools to innovate and seek to improve the offer.
One governor said it was a problem that employed governors were not given the time to govern properly, and asked that she do more to make the case to employers about the development of their staff.
o SoS had mentioned the Inspiring Governors Alliance in her speech but added that she had met with the CBI about this, who were keen to support. She said that it was harder for small businesses, and she would like to do more on this.
A questioner wondered whether the options available in KS5 and beyond were now too narrow, especially for those who did not want the degree route; and asked if the offers and understanding of sixth forms, FE and HE were joined up.
o The SoS argued that even though the latter came under the jurisdiction of BIS, there was capacity to join up and that this happened.
A governor, who also had experience of FE, asked how she was going to ensure all pupils received impartial careers information, advice and guidance as it was not happening in many schools at present.
o The SoS replied that she had announced a new company which will challenge schools which don’t.
A governor at a middle school (11-14) pointed out they were without RAISEonline data, and that this gap in information had been compounded by the removal of levels; they no longer had benchmarks with other schools.
o The SoS took the point that it was currently tricky to compare, but she trusted teachers and school leaders to develop assessment information which was more helpful for parents.
Will another Conservative government change the Academies Act 2010 to take decision making away from the governing body and force all schools to become academies?
o The SoS said no, but there is support governing bodies making the decisions. She has not met any school which regrets becoming an academy, and issued this challenge: “If you do regret it, invite me to your school to talk about it”. She accepted it was more difficult for primary schools to convert, especially smaller schools on their own.
A governor reported that when they had urged a more rounded education, including more music and sport, and more emphasis on history and RE in their primary school, the answer was we have no time left to so this.
o SoS reminded governors of their duty to ensure a broad and balanced education, and that music and art are compulsory until end of KS3. She emphasised the importance of volunteering and other character building activities.
A governor complemented the SoS on the revised National Curriculum, and wanted to know why, if it was such a good thing, academies don’t have to follow it?
o The SoS said most academies did use the National Curriculum, but there is also the option to go above and beyond it. (A supplementary question was that if those freedoms improve the curriculum for pupils, why can’t LA maintained schools have them too?) To this the SoS said she believed those freedoms were what made academies different from LA maintained schools.
It was reported that the new SEND system was already breaking down with social services and health failing to work together.
o The SoS asked governors to keep the pressure on to make sure Education, Health and Care Plans were just that – plans which encompassed each service.
One national leader of governance (NLG) asked why improving governance was not part of the Teaching School Alliance core remit. Some TSAs have been saying working with NLGs was not part of their role. A second NLG from the first cohort felt that NLGs had also lost their home at the National College for Teaching & Leadership and there was no-one with the role of brokering deployments. A third, more recently designated NLG, felt there was still school-to-school work happening in the county.
o The SoS said she would take this back to the Department for discussion.
At the end of the session, another governor took the opportunity to raise the issue of the increasing difficulty of recruiting senior leaders for our schools; I am pleased he managed to add this to the list of issues, as it was rather a glaring omission and is an issue raised with me more and more often recently.
Informally, during breaks, I had a range of other issues raised with me, including: several about the confusion about governance roles at different levels within academies and particularly multi-academy trusts, the difficulty of recruiting a range of skilled governors, the time it takes to govern, how to get rid of a rogue parent governor, the new post-Trojan horse guidance on governing on a maximum of two governing boards, the increasing number of parental complaints, Ofsted inspectors’ understanding of governance, and how to tackle poor business management in school without stepping over that strategic/operational line. Despite the very different local contexts in the different authorities I visit, this is a very typical set of challenges.
If you had been able to ask the Secretary of State a question, what would it have been?
Leicestershire, Morgan, Nicky