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Are we concentrating power in the hands of too few?


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.

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.

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”.


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.

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

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.

Emma Knights OBE
Emma Knights OBE

Co-Chief Executive

As NGA’s Co-Chief Executive, Emma promotes the interests of the school governance community nationally with legislators, policy makers, education sector organisations and the media. Emma is an accomplished writer and speaker on a range of school governance policy and practice topics.