Monday 11 April 2016

Back to school for governors

I wrote this essay for Public Finance Perspectives ahead of the recent education white paper. Its relevance remains strong.

The transformation of school structures over the past decade has dramatically increased the importance of good governance in schools. Yet evidence from the school inspectorate, Ofsted, and others suggests that the rapid conversion of seven in 10 secondary schools and one in six primaries into academy schools has not always been matched by the improvements one would expect in strategic leadership.

This has thrown into sharp relief the role of school governors, who historically have played the role of non-executives in an educational context. It may also help explain why the ‘academy effect’ on standards has been patchy and far from universal.

Until 2010, the vast majority of schools were maintained by their local authority. That wasn’t the whole story: a significant minority (largely faith based) were voluntary aided, while others had a greater degree of independence as foundation schools. While schools were funded through the local authority, the government dictated which budget was for schools and which was for central services. School forums, including headteachers, governors and council officials, could vary such spending locally.

By the time the coalition government took office, around 280 schools – mainly once‑failing secondaries in disadvantaged areas – had become or were becoming academies. These schools, representing fewer than one in 10 secondaries, were funded through an education funding agency, had charitable status, usually had sponsors drawn from charities or business and had greater freedoms over pay, the curriculum, admissions and building development. Most had strong governance systems.

New landscape

It is worth briefly examining what happened next, as it has created a very different school governance landscape. Former education secretary Michael Gove radically changed the academies programme. He allowed primary schools and schools rated as successful by Ofsted to take on academy status; and he rebranded new academies and all new schools as ‘free schools’.

With primary academies, the focus was on turning around failing schools. However, a lot of time and energy was also expended in supporting good secondary converters and promoting new free schools, which increasingly are the government’s answer to shortages of school places rather than the hubs of innovation originally imagined.

For many converters, it was a financial no-brainer: their £5m or £6m budgets would be increased by around £250k a year at a time when those without significant numbers of disadvantaged pupils eligible for the pupil premium were otherwise expecting to have to lay off staff.

Although the new academies were expected to support weaker schools locally, this was not a condition of approval. As a result, innovation was slower than it might have been and the Department for Education (DfE) found it hard to get enough good sponsors for the rapidly growing number of failing schools required to become academies.

The DfE promoted some big chains, ahead of local partnerships, to replace failing schools, and they expanded more rapidly than was prudent. The worst offenders were subsequently berated by Ofsted and had to surrender some of their schools. Despite these problems, the government has extended the range of schools that it expects to become academies, including those that are coasting as well as those deemed to be failing by Ofsted.

Chain reaction

The result is a programme with mixed success. The Sutton Trust looks each year at the performance of academy chains for their disadvantaged pupils – those they were originally intended to help the most. In its 2015 Chain Effects report, it found that, after being part of chains for three years, sponsored secondary academies had lower inspection grades – and were twice as likely to be below the minimum standard set for schools by the government.

Comparing this with 2013 data, the trust found that the contrast between the best and worst chains had increased in 2014. And, when analysed against a range of government indicators on attainment, a majority of the chains still underperform against the average for all secondary schools on attainment for their disadvantaged pupils.

Notwithstanding this, there are some great success stories. The Ark and Harris chains, schools sponsored by the City of London, and the Outwood Academies established by a dynamic Yorkshire headteacher, Sir Michael Wilkins, spring to mind.

Overall, the analysis suggests that chains within geographic clusters (making it easier to share resources), a strong ‘business model’ – with clarity across the chain on issues such as curriculum, teaching and data – and with growth at a manageable pace have succeeded significantly faster than schools generally. But the rest have performed at or below the national average.

The Sutton Trust focused on chains that had been in operation for at least three years, and it may be that newer chains do better. A wider analysis by the National Foundation for Education Research of sponsored and converter academies found that, although progress between the ages of 11 and 16 in sponsored academies (those replacing failing schools) is better than in local authority schools, there is no significant difference between converters and the remaining local authority schools. Moreover, the additional sponsored academy gains largely reflect a wider use of vocational qualifications that ministers have since downgraded because they believe they overinflate GCSE scores.

So, although the evidence on academy attainment is complex, the findings do give an indication of the challenging and ever-shifting context within which school governance has been operating – and the issues that school trustees, directors and governors have had to grapple with.

Multi-academy tasking

Meanwhile, another important change is happening in the system, which could have a profound impact if it works. Ministers have shifted their focus – after the embarrassments of the failing chains – away from national academy chains to local multi-academy trusts (MATs), which now include three-fifths of academies.

Typically centred around a successful local school (in the same fashion as some successful chains), they are selling it as a way both to achieve economies of scale and to drive up standards through a collaborative approach. The MAT will have a chief executive overseeing several schools, often both primary and secondary, which can share business, back office and teacher training functions. Only one in six primaries are currently academies, so ministers are particularly keen to see MATs bring small primaries together, perhaps with a single head, to increase the programme.

Yet there may be as big an issue with the governance of the new MATs as there has been with the way many of the less successful chains have been run.

In local authority schools, parents, teachers and the occasional community governor often made up the governing body, which often exceeded 15 members – there are around 300,000 school governors in England. While they had significant responsibilities, including over the budget and hiring of the head, it was a less daunting task than the role of a MAT director, whose responsibilities are closer to those of a business non-executive director or charity trustee. Increasingly, governors are expected to be recruited on talent rather than on their links to the schools.

The ‘Trojan Horse’ schools scandal in Birmingham – where governors were accused of putting their personal and religious ideology ahead of the pupils – was one of a number of issues that prompted Sir Michael Wilshaw, the schools chief inspector, to launch a review last November of the quality of school governance. He wants mandatory training for governors and MAT trustees, with payments for chairs and vice-chairs to attract more good people to the roles.

“In short, the role is so important that amateurish governance will no longer do,” he said. “Governing bodies made up of people who are not properly trained and who do not understand the importance of their role are not fit for purpose in the modern and complex educational landscape.” While the DfE has ignored the payment proposal, it says it is spending £2.4m on the recruitment and training of governors.

Fit for governance?

Whether there are enough volunteers of the right calibre to provide the required strategic governance is the key question, as the government continues its rapid academy expansion. A National Governors’ Association/TES survey last year showed that half of governors do not have a day job, and a further 20% get no time off for governance. So there is an important role here for employers in encouraging staff to become governors, something the CBI says it supports.

With the much more business-like approach of the new boards, such expertise will be vital. Equally, it will be important that board members as well as governors reflect the wider community. A 2014 analysis by the University of Bath for the National Governors’ Association showed that 96% of governors are white and many are retired.

The reality is that a fundamental shift in the structural operation of schools has not been accompanied by anything like the rigour needed to improve governance both locally and in national academy chains.

As multi-academy board members, trustees and directors are expected to be largely strategically focused on finance, trust-wide policies, leadership recruitment and pay, trust development and expansion, whereas school governors should focus much more on the academic attainment of their students, probing behind ostensibly good headline results.

MAT boards also need to be smaller, with specialist committees on audit, finance and pay that are MAT-wide. Sir Michael says governors and trustees should avoid “marginal issues” of day-to-day management that ought to be dealt with by school leaders. Multi-academy trusts may have budgets of £20m or more – school budgets total £46bn nationally – so audit responsibilities are particularly important.

As the government shifts from chains to MATs as its preferred schools delivery model, there is a big demand for senior people in the public and private sectors to take on all these roles. It remains an open question though as to whether this scale of ambition can attract the right calibre of trustees and governors – with the experience and vision needed to oversee the effective use of so much public money.

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