Education Select Committee: Governance Matters

The Education Select Committee met on 9th April 2014 under the chairmanship of Graham Stuart to hear further evidence on academies and free schools. I have limited this blog to the first part of the day’s session. The witnesses who gave evidence during the first part were

  • Emma Knights; NGA
  • Lucy Heller; CEO, ARK
  • John Clarke; Deputy Director Children’s Services-Education and Inclusion, Hampshire County Council

I will be restricting myself to those parts of the proceedings which concern governance. However, it was quite amusing to note the silence in the room when Graham Stuart started the proceedings by asking about the single best thing about the academy programme!

Graham then wanted to know if the academy programme had perhaps moved too quickly. The consensus seemed to be yes, that it had. Emma went onto say that the pace had slowed down with DfE looking much more closely at academy performance. In the past governing bodies were offered two or more sponsors in a “beauty parade” but now there was usually just one sponsor on the table. This poses a problem as the department would like this programme to continue and the governing bodies have to decide if they go with that one sponsor.

What is important to remember is that all academies are not the same. Emma said that conversion is “so last year”. NGA is finding that by and large that the governing bodies who wanted to convert have done so. Some are looking at it again. They may have decided that conversion wasn’t for them in 2011 but now they are looking at it again in their strategy days. I do hope that this is what is happening ie the governing bodies are examining the issue of conversion and how it fits into the long term strategy of their schools. This is perhaps one of the most important decisions a governing body will have to make and it needs to be thought out properly with all alternate structures examined. Emma talked about the grant which is available to primaries to convert as primary chains. For a primary school to become part of a chain may be the better route to go down as most primaries will not have the business and operational infrastructure to go it alone. Emma said that NGA was slightly concerned that the option of federation was not put forward to primaries. She made the point which NGA has been making recently that primaries should look at becoming a federation as that could be a very good model for primaries. They could, if they wanted, use it as a “stepping stone” to becoming part of a MAT. Governing bodies of primaries should be aware that becoming part of a chain is not the only option open to them. As Emma said it may be preferable for a small local primary to federate rather than becoming a part of a large chain. As I said before, this is one of the most important decisions a governing body will have to make and it needs to explore all options and avenues in order to make an informed decision.

Emma then talked about “challenge” which for convertors has to be provided by the board of trustees. When schools converted, the new boards of directors were very similar to the old governing bodies and there was no impetus to provide challenge. I agree with Emma. Before conversion there was the LA which would provide the challenge. With the new trust board being very similar to the old governing body and with no LA involvement, the challenge is sometimes lacking which has caused these convertors to “go off the boil”. It is only now that some of the governing boards are reviewing their structure. I also feel that many of the trustees have failed to grasp what their role as trustees and directors is and how it differs from the role they played as governors in the old governing bodies. Emma went on to say that as far as school improvement was concerned, it wasn’t the structure which led to improvement. This, again, is very true. School improvement, if it has to happen, will happen only when there is good teaching, leaders and, crucially, good governance. Organisations which fail are those where governance has failed.

Emma also made the point that some sponsors grew very large very quickly. No thought had been given to having a proper, robust governance structure in place. In many of these large chains there is one board which oversees many schools under it but without a proper scheme of delegation. This indicates that the DfE were probably not asking the correct questions about robust structures and oversight. DfE definitely need to look at governance and leadership capacity. The one thing I would suggest is looked at is the nomenclature. When you talk about a Local Governing Body, many people are not clear about what that actually means. Members of local governing bodies are not governors and directors but are advisors. Maybe these bodies should be called Advisory Boards.

Talk then turned to whether chains should be inspected and what happens when a school in a chain isn’t performing well. Lucy was of the opinion that the schools would tell you all you wanted to know and there was no need to examine chains. John, on the other hand thought that chains should be inspected. Emma raised the point that what was needed was to have oversight of the board. It did not matter if the school was a single convertor or part of a chain. What is needed is to examine if the board is doing its job properly. She asked, “Who oversees the board?”This is a really crucial question and I think when the academy programme started not much thought was given to who and how the board will be held to account. Yes, DfE and EEFA can and do step in but usually when things go catastrophically wrong.

The discussion then focused on whether school leaders realised that by joining chains they were relinquishing autonomy rather than gaining it. Emma said that we were now entering a period of shrinking autonomy. There are various types of MATs now, the big chains and smaller MATs comprising of two or three schools. In many cases the governing bodies of schools joining MATs haven’t realised that they are giving up their freedoms till it is too late!

Lucy was asked about the skills of the governors on the governing bodies of the ARK schools. She said that what ARK looks for in the local governing bodies is a commitment to the school, willingness to give it time and willingness to challenge as well as support. This, she acknowledged, is a very difficult as governors get a flood of information from the head and have to support the head while pushing for improvement so that the school performs even better. John agreed that the important skills were to have a grasp on the progress made by the children and the ability to challenge the head. Emma listed ability to analyse and understand the data and ask questions. She said (and I’m sure governors will agree) that educational professionals are sometimes not very good at judging what data governors require. Graham asked if the academy programme was resulting in better governance and skilled governing bodies. Emma said that there is good governance in maintained and academy schools and at the same time “diabolical” governance in both! The risks in academies are greater because boards have more responsibilities. You need diversity and different skill sets on the board but governors need to remember that they are there to ask the right questions and not to provide legal, financial, etc services.

John made the point that the professional background of people is not relevant. What is needed is for them to understand what the job of a governor is. I love the fact that John used the word “job”. Governors need to treat governance as a job and not a pastime or badge of honour! John then provided what for me was the highlight of the session. He said he would like provision for induction and professional development for governors, chairs and clerks to be written into funding agreements. Laura McInerney and I were tweeting at the same time. John had suggested a model in which the new regional commissioners, LA and Ofsted would work together as the middle tier. This made Laura say that she was considering starting a John Clarke fan club. When John suggested enshrining training in the funding agreement I told Laura that I would become a fully paid up member of the fan club! I do hope John’s suggestion is included in the final report.

Finally, a question about accountability. Dominic Raab asked who should parents in an academy hold to account; the head, the governors or the LA? Emma said that to some extent it depends on the issue but formally it is the board. Emma made the point that we sometimes think that parent governors are a way of engaging with parents. One common misconception is that parent, staff or LA governors represent parents, staff or the LA but this is not the case. Once you enter the board room you need to leave your baggage at the door and remember that your job is to watch out for the interests of the children. Governors do need to keep reminding themselves that they are representative parent/staff and not parent/staff representatives.

You can watch a recording of the session by clicking here.
Tony Parkin has Storified the day’s proceedings.

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