As I have set out in an earlier blog, Governance in the Academies Age: a less or more localised future?, I’ve spent the past few months working with an expert group on the future of school governance – a project that culminated in a summit at the RSA on June 21st and which will lead to the publication of a scoping study, 'Governance in the Academies Age: issues, opportunities and challenges', this autumn. Partners in the project include the Association for School and College Leaders, the Catholic Education Service, the Centre for Public Scrutiny, The Elliot Foundation, the Local Government Association, the National Governors’ Association and RSA Academies.
The RSA is immensely grateful for the time and the financial and/or in-kind support that these partners have committed to the project, and I, as project lead, have richly enjoyed and benefitted from the variety and depth of thought that each has brought to our deliberations. We are also grateful to the governors, senior leaders and policy-influencers who took time out to join us at the summit and who have responded to our earlier calls for observations and feedback.
As I have remarked previously, our aim is not to answer the many questions that are now emerging about how we govern our schools, but to identify as many of these questions as possible and to urge their further exploration, possibly through the launch of a National Commission on School Governance, something we’ll be making the case for to new Secretary of State for Education, Justine Greening.
In my earlier blog, I outlined some of the discussions centering around one perennial debate in the area – the balance to be struck between securing expertise and engaging stakeholders, a debate that has found recent expression in the question marks being raised over the future of parent governors. Our summit, which brought together governors, school leaders, and policy influencers in the field, explored these matters further but also gave particular attention to several arguably unintended consequences of the current direction of travel.
So, what is this direction of travel? In a word: academisation. Former Secretary of State Nicky Morgan may have stepped back from statutory academisation as set out in her recent oxymoronically titled White Paper, 'Educational Excellence Everywhere', but this is less a u-turn, more a shimmy around the bollards and speed-bumps of the educational landscape, and one that newcomer to the role Justin Greening is likely to stick largely to. We may see some more nuanced arrangements for smaller schools, especially special schools and those in rural areas, and some local authorities might be able to evolve into Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs), but the end point is likely to be pretty similar – a largely academised world where the MAT becomes a key player.
Unintended or not, the consequences for local school governance are profound, and yet governance barely features in the White Paper from which these changes spring. Let’s look at three inter-related consequences of the proposed reforms here: (1) the relocation of power at a different, less local place in the educational infrastructure; (2) the potential loss of expertise to the education system that is currently voluntarily-gifted to it; (3) the rise of managed headship.
A fundamental power-shift?
The shift to academisation and to a system of schools organised through a series of MATs that are not necessarily locally or regionally based represents a fundamental power-shift in the educational infrastructure. Critically, the hard edges of governance – what we might term the ‘responsibility stuff’ – is no longer held at local level; it is in the gift of the MAT through the scheme of delegation that it uses. Thus, responsibilities for finance, human and physical resources, and for strategic direction and school ethos are fundamentally held at the level of the MAT and defined by the MAT’s Board of Trustees. In short, in the academies age, local governing bodies – those that we currently understand to be school governing bodies – are not, well, governing bodies.
Especially where existing governing boards are weak or where they struggle to recruit, this change may bring significant benefits, with the MAT Board better able to recruit and retain expertise in key areas and able to share this across a range of schools to the benefit of all. Moreover, free of these responsibilities, there is the possibility that these local school-based bodies might be free to focus on issues like curriculum, standards and community engagement. Nonetheless, it does open-up a potential accountability gap between MAT Board members (the new governors) and the governed (the range of stakeholders in a school’s local community, including pupils, staff and parents).
While a combination of charity and company law makes more demands on the probity of those who are members of MAT Boards than current regulations do on that of members of traditional governing bodies, how those in local school communities hold MAT Boards to account is much less clear. And this is not just a governance issue – it is one fundamentally of legitimacy, the legitimacy that derives from being locally connected and offering local voice. Further, some might contend that the concurrent and intended decline of the power of the local authority in supporting educational delivery that flows from the White Paper amounts to a democratic double-whammy in terms of the influence that local communities might exercise over schooling provision, especially given the current lack of clarity about just what part Regional Schools Commissioners will play in all of this.
A loss of volunteered expertise?
A second - un-thought-through if not unintended - consequence of the shift towards, not just ‘academisation’ but ‘MAT-isation’, is likely to be in the continued ability of the school system to secure the level of expert-volunteer input that it currently does. Approximately 300,000 individuals currently volunteer as school governors across England and Wales. As such - alongside, for instance, the magistracy, jurors, charity trustees and local councilors - school governors provide one of the key (and largest) pillars of our lay democracy and a vital conduit for citizen-engagement. A recent report from the National Governors’ Association and the University of Bath, The State of School Governing in England (James, C. R. Goodall, J. Howarth, E. and Knights E., 2014), estimated the ‘cash’ value of the work of school governors as being worth approximately £1bn. In very crude terms this translates into over £40,000 per school, loosely the salary of an experienced full-time member of staff. However, the level of governor input may be much higher at particular points in time - for example, when a school is going through a process of federation or academisation, when it is appointing a new head, or when it is addressing issues arising from a critical inspection.
While placing a monetary figure on such activity is inherently difficult and often undertaken by those with a point to make, the social value is incalculably greater than any financial cost. Our concern is that the shift in responsibility outlined above runs the risk of acting as a disincentive to those who currently volunteer as governors to continue to do so. The quality of school governance as traditionally organised might be patchy and socio-economically patterned, but there is a risk that, in the new landscape, the Board that matters will be seen as the MAT’s Board of Trustees, not the comparatively less-influential school-based local committee. Whether these local bodies (often framed as “Academy Councils” or similar) will offer enough ‘meat’ for their members to ‘get their teeth into’ is questionable, and was a concern for governors attending our summit; anecdotally, we are hearing several stories from ‘governors’ in MAT settings who are finding their new role less engaging than their former one. In any case, on the basis of simple mathematics, there will not be enough seats around the MAT Board’s top-table for all to continue to play a role in the ‘responsibility stuff’.
Should the concerns of some about a more MAT-ised landscape have any substance in this regard, the loss of economic and social capital to the system could be substantial. If the outcome is that we lose even ten percent of existing governors, this will amount to a loss to the system in England of expertise that has a notional cash value of approximately £100m. And, if our supposition that engagement in school governance often opens a gateway to – and provides a training ground for – further and wider community and societal engagement, the cost in lost social capital might be much higher still. The ‘Big Society’ just got significantly smaller.
The rise of ‘managed headship’?
A third issue that we have identified in the course of our research is the impact on headship in all of this. I made the point in my earlier blog that great (or poor) governance takes place in the shared space where school leaders and school governors meet, in the grey area that is strategic and operational. For this reason, we opened the doors of our summit to school leaders – deputy heads, heads and executive heads, as well as governors, and we are pleased to have both ASCL and the NGA amongst our project partners. Here, another consequence of MAT-isation is as stark as it is unnoticed. We are moving from a climate in which headship is governed (however effectively or poorly), to one where it is line-managed. In traditional models of headship, the governing body holds the head or principal to account, at its best through a nuanced mix of support and challenge (and, when appropriate, support as challenge); in the new landscape, the head (or head of school) is line-managed by an executive head who, in turn, is line-managed by the CEO of the Multi-Academy Trust, who is formally accountable to the MAT Trustees, not to ‘governors’, parents and others in the local school community.
There could be advantages in such a shift - it may mean that headship emerges into a less lonely and more collaborative experience, it may reduce the risks of what can happen when charismatic professional leadership meets weak voluntary governance (most notably demonstrated in recent times at Kids’ Company, rather than in school settings), and it might mean the development of better models of succession planning. However, it is also likely to mean a move away from current levels of head teacher autonomy at the local level, even if that autonomy sometimes results from weak rather than strong governance. This hardly rests easy with a political mantra variously crystalised around “setting heads free”, “letting heads get on with it”, and system-leadership. Nor does it sit with the classic deal about headship itself - which, for all of its drawbacks and sometimes to the frustration of governors - remains seen as a career destination rather than a staging post, and one in which the post-holder manages, rather than is managed by, others. At a time when the shortage of current and future school leaders is acute, it may be wise to caution the new Secretary of State against any change that might make headship less attractive. We sense that the almost unnoticed shift to managed-headship might carry such risks, at least for some current and aspirant heads.
Feedback and next steps
These, and a host of other issues will feature in our report, which will be published this autumn. We’d love to have your feedback on the observations offered above, on governance in the academies age more broadly, and on what does (or doesn’t) constitute good (or even great) governance. Post your thoughts below or contact Roisin Ellison (Roisin.Ellison@rsa.org.uk) or myself (firstname.lastname@example.org) with your thoughts.
Dr. Tony Breslin is an RSA Fellow and an Associate in the Creative Learning and Development Team. He is the author of Governance in the Academies Age: issues, opportunities and challenges (RSA, 2016, forthcoming), Director of the consultancy Breslin Public Policy Limited and founder of the campaign, UseYourVote.com. He is Chair of Governors at Bushey and Oxhey Infant School in Hertfordshire and Chair of Academy Council, Oasis Academy, Enfield