Are we witnessing the slow death of school governance?

With the recent speech to the National Governors’ Association conference in Manchester Nicky Morgan made clear the preferred model of governance is moving away from stakeholder representation.

Does this matter?

At the moment the vibe coming from the Dfe is towards medium sized multi academy trusts of 8-10 schools.

In itself this is not an issue but this will reduce the number of governors nationally to a frightening small number.

To be clear local governing bodies are not governance they are accountable committees solely at the mercy of the patronage of the MAT board. The presence of individuals on the LGB  “board” is at the behest of the board and can be removed at any time. What the LGB is given to do is at the whim of the board and can be changed at any time.

The only governors remaining will be MAT board members.

The numbers (please bear with me these are approximates)

There are circa 22,000 schools in England

The ideal MAT size is 8 -10 (DfE)

The average MAT board is approx. 10 people

That roughly equates to 22,000 governors nationally – down from over 300,000 today.

Even if my figures are off by 100% the drop by over 250,000 is potentially the single biggest dismantling and disenfranchisement of a volunteer group in our history.

Again – does this matter?

I have spoken to a number of MAT boards and several have no governance expertise at all. Skills such as legal, HR, and finance are valued but the mechanics and understanding of governance are not valued.

This does matter.

Governance has the Nolan principles running through it, is rooted in the local and accountable and is connected to the students and families it serves.

This will be lost.

Education will move to a service delivered to a community not reflecting the context it serves.

When parents find that a board remote from them their school and their child is the final arbiter of any disagreement with the head teacher. That if you have a SEND child the head teacher has no accountability locally. That if the board makes a decision which is disagreed with locally there is no formal method of arbitration people may start to take notice. By then it will be too late.

The balance of local accountability by head teachers does matter. Some head teachers are not outstanding and the freedoms in this model allow a poor head teacher to have a disproportionate local effect.

Is it worth the risk?

The concentration of the education of our children in the hands of a small number of people matters. Remember MAT board members are chosen by existing MAT board members. They are immune from the public appointments process despite running multi million taxpayer pound budgets.

Perhaps a MAT above £10M should be brought within the public appointment process?

The possibility of failure by a MAT board will have a disproportionate affect on the children within the MAT; way beyond the reach of a poorly performing governing body. Remember the phrase “to big to fail” and reflect on how that ended.

The flip of a coin to fly high or plumb the depths is not a chance I would relish with my own child’s education or any child for that matter.

The golden future of academisation will have to be very closely monitored but by whom?

There is neither the desire nor the capacity centrally or regionally. Local Authorities and regional schools commissioners and the DFE do not have the capacity. The local community may see what is happening but have little impact on preventing failure.

Too many known unknowns to paraphrase the metaphysical Dick Cheyney.

Worth the risk?

When is a governor not a governor?

 Increasingly I speak to people who believe their role is as a governor when it’s not. The complexity of the definition of who is a governor is confusing to everyone.

 Every person who volunteers their time to support schools wants the best education for children. No one wants to divert time from focussing on education to governance procedural matters but things have to be legal.

In 2010 the types of school were quite limited and mostly well understood. Community, academy, voluntary controlled and voluntary aided governors had largely similar roles. With the proliferation of UTC’s, studio schools, different multi academy trust types and free schools the structure, legality and types of governance have mushroomed.

 Diversity and local autonomy have been the watchwords for the last few years and this has allowed some schools to flourish. Others however have found adapting to the challenge much more perplexing. This doesn’t help the children in those schools.

Where a school chooses to join an existing Multi Academy Trust (MAT) all executive authority transfers to the MAT board. The governing body at the school ceases to exist and the school holds no residual authority to leave the MAT.

The volunteers who were governors are often given a local role by the MAT board. Being called a Local Governing Body (LGB) doesn’t help as the volunteers are not governors in the legal sense. Who can legally act and who is legally responsible are important aspects of governance and accountability. This isn’t me being pedantic; law matters and with the current Education Bill it will become more important.

Interestingly because local volunteers aren’t governors they can be paid for the role. I wonder how many know this and are being paid?

The MAT board should have a very clear schedule of delegation to the school committee, council, senate, synod, congress, cabinet; please no more LGB it’s confusing.

The schedule should be the clear founding document explaining what the MAT board wants the local group to do on their behalf, when they want reports and what data they expect. In essence it’s a service level agreement, very similar to the terms of reference to a governing body committee which the MAT board can change as they see fit.

The schedule should help the local group to demonstrate to Ofsted and any other accountable body how they meet their requirements, don’t meddle and focus on children. Without a schedule it’s akin to doing a job with no job description. The local group will become squeezed between the MAT board and Ofsted, pleasing neither and possibly failing the school.

The temptation to accept responsibility because we care is great but when legally it’s not ours the correctly accountable group must step up.

Similarly the recruitment process for MAT boards concerns me. A middle sized MAT can easily crest £20 million annual budget. Yet the recruitment process for board members is solely at the discretion of the board. There is no requirement to include stakeholders, skills audit to see what they need or potentially more than asking someone they know to join. The national public appointments process is both transparent, skills driven and clear. Perhaps it’s time for MAT boards to be brought into the national process?

The taxpayer funding from the DfE through a MAT to schools can be significant. Yet the MAT headquarters structure is unaccountable to OFSTED. Irrespective of philosophy taxpayers money should be accountable in the same way in every school. It’s not about academies it’s about children and value for money to provide their education.

These issues may seem arcane but the temptations associated with public money and duck houses has proved oversight is critical. I know its old fashioned to keep referring back to Nolan but the simple seven principles still apply.

If the DfE intends to encourage more schools into being academies the DfE budget scrutiny and MAT board recruitment issues have to be resolved.

When you know what you are expected to do doing it is much easier. Knowing the rules of the game means you are likelier to succeed.