The DfE's recent White Paper - Educational Excellence Everywhere - truly had something for everyone. Its proposal to transfer £billions of assets out of direct state control and use an unproven structural model to organise and improve our state schools is ambitious at best. Unsurprisingly, it has attracted criticism from all quarters, and has achieved the dubious distinction of being opposed by a developing cross-party consensus (including influential Tories), stimulating a national strike, and providing reason for the teachers' unions to finally consider working together.
Similarly controversial is the proposal to disenfranchise parents, allowing multi-academy trusts (MATs) to run their schools without the need to involve parents as governors at any level. As yet, outside of Mumsnet, the idea appears not to have seriously roused a rabble, although this is probably because parents - again, as yet - lack a representative body to aggregate and promote their interests. However, the government should not mistake a lack of organisation for a lack of will. Neither should it underestimate how embedded the idea of representation is for parents, and it should not think that an apparent lack of interest in school structuresmeans we will surrender our stake without a fight.
At the time of writing, the Secretary of State has indicated that she is not for turning and is in fact digging in her heels, under pressure from a Chancellor bruised by the failure of other parts of his recent budget. But serious questions remain about the Department for Education's (DfE's) capacity to enact these changes (see National Audit Office reports here and here). Perhaps it will just have to face up to the gap between the capacity of the Education Funding Agency - which journalist Chris Cook suggests may be "the most incompetent body in govt" - and its ideological objectives, and back down.
But regardless of whether or not mass academisation happens, we (as parents) would do well to note the government's position on our involvement - or indeed our rights* - with respect to our children's education. Moreover, in the absence of an 'official' role in school governance, we would do well to consider how we can best create opportunities to influence our children's schools without actually being given a seat at the top table. Because for me, this legislative denial of my stake in my children's schools is an opportunity to exercise more power as a citizen than any parent governor really has through their place on a board of governors; a role that Andrew Wilkins FRSA, Senior Lecturer at UEL's Cass School of Education and Communities, reminds us is not really all that powerful anyway.
Writing for Democratic Audit UK, Wilkins suggests that all governors, "regardless of their so-called 'representative function', are conscripted to a service agent role: they monitor targets and outcomes, ratify documents, and carry out important checks and balances to enhance succession planning, quality control and efficient resource allocation." There is no real power in this form of managerial engagement which, for any one individual on a board (but especially the non-experts), amounts to little more than paper pushing, interspersed with the occasional excitement of a vote. The role is even more tokenistic in the local governing boards established in most MATs, where any remnant of authority is gifted through a Scheme of Delegation, and where the concept of co-production is even more supressed.
The current attack on the involvement of 'amateurs' in school governance is, for Wilkins, absolutely concurrent with a view of schools as businesses, where a skilled-professional class hold school (business) leaders to account for £million budgets and critical KPIs. It is also a logical next step in the 'de-democratisation' of education, and a removal of the vested interests of elected bodies and people. Because "there is nothing more dangerous to the narrow realisation of schools as businesses than the vagaries of democratic discourse and obstructiveness of debating and reconciling value differences about the meaning of education and what it means to be educated."
So, set free from the technical-bureaucratic shackles of an official role, and without the need to comply with various codes of conduct or wither under a 'Stare from the Chair', what can parents do? How can we use this opportunity to build capacity and "harness the creative energy of families and communities as co-producers and co-creators" in schools? Well, with reference to personal experience, it is vital to organise, and social media may provide a perfect platform for this.
After a ten year spell as a governor at my local secondary school came to an abrupt Ofsted-induced end last Easter, I found myself engaging for the first time as a non-governor parent when my daughter started in September. It had already been an 'interesting' few months, with many parents contacting me as their school's former chair, having found the new leadership team and board quite unresponsive. A number of controversies as well as worsening Ofsted monitoring reports led to a kind of critical mass of frustrated pent-up energy, which is when a couple of other parents and I hit upon the idea of setting up a Facebook discussion group.
It's very easy to do, but we were clear from the outset that had been set up - and would be facilitated - with explicitly positive intent. It was to be a space where parents could engage in constructive discussion about the school and wider educational issues, and where experienced parents could advise and buddy up with newbies. We collectively agreed a 'no names' rule, and where exchanges have become too heated, an agreement has been reached about deletion. We also decided to keep the forum a 'closed community' - mainly to keep the local media from prying - with parents being invited to join through the network.
Many have found it empowering, and engaged with some highly relevant material that usually passes parents by. The impact of posting education news, opinion and digestible research onto the forum has been catalysing. Since October 2015, the 200 or so members of the group have discussed Desforges' seminal paper on the impact of their involvement in their children's education, reviewed various parts of the EEF's Teaching & Learning toolkit and its evidence on ability grouping, and considered the relative merits of performance grading. We have discussed the admissions process, teacher shortages, how to support the school with resources and time, the volume (or lack) of homework, teacher workload, assessment reform, the mental health of children, and more recently of course, the White Paper. We have run polls on the best time for after school meetings, scotched unfounded rumours before they became accepted truths, lobbied for fairer funding, and encouraged parents to use Parent View, join Ofsted's Parent Panel and submit evidence to an Education Select Committee consultation.
The group has also been a site for collective action, with real social impact. For example, the local press had a field day with last year's Ofsted judgement, but now any unfairly negative reporting about 'our' school is met with some healthily defensive responses, organised - and in one case, collectively edited - in the group's timeline. More powerfully, perhaps, when it became clear in December that the failed MAT was being directed to re-broker the school but that parents were being kept in the dark, we organised emails to our local MP and Regional Schools Commissioner. Both were remarkably responsive (more so than the school, in fact), and quickly arranged a meeting so the outgoing MAT could account to parents for their decision and explain the process. This was repeated just before Easter this year, when we felt we'd not been kept up to date with respect to progress in transferring to a new MAT. Again, an organised flurry of emails to the RSC and MP very swiftly resulted in an announcement, and invitations to a meeting with the new MAT after the Easter break.
Sadly the school declined our early invitations to engage with the group, took the view that it was divisive, and asked for it to be closed. In retrospect, the group is probably more powerful, focused and useful because of this distance. But there are also benefits in having a governor and staff member or two lurking, both to see that the group is not a hotbed of dissent, but also to feedback into the school where appropriate.
The new MAT has already shown an interest in the group, which we hope heralds a new, more open style of communication with parents. But while this may correct the deficit underlying its establishment, the group has already proven to be a far more inclusive, democratic and effective space for creative discussion and collective empowerment than any governing body, and will remain. The key will be to turn the potential participative will into real action and, working with a new team, help co-create the school we all want. Watch this space!
* For example, if a child attends a maintained school, the parents have an independent right of access to their child’s educational record. There is no equivalent legal right for the parent of a child in an academy. According to the ICO website, "it will be up to the school to decide whether to grant such access, and it is likely to depend on the contractual relationship between the parent and the school", whatever that means!