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Nothing new under the sun

by
05 February 2016

Dennis Richards looks at the problem of inadequate school governance

IN SOME respects, educational policies are like Christmas gifts that don’t fit the bill. The shop takes them back, and not a few return with a new label. So the reformed GCSEs resemble O levels, and the EBacc looks more like pre-1950s School Certificate by the day. Now, the OFSTED supremo Sir Michael Wilshaw has raised questions about the quality of academy governance.

In the past academic year alone, OFSTED inspectors judged the governing boards at almost 500 schools to be so inadequate that urgent external reviews were ordered. “The role is now so important, that amateurish governance will no longer do,” Sir Michael says. “Inspectors frequently come across governors without the professional background or educational background to challenge head teachers”.

The academy governance system is creaking. Sir Michael has all but said it. Schools have always had a local governing body, and, formerly, the “comfort blanket” of a local education authority. But, as more and more schools become academies, so local education authorities continue to decline.

Academies are often “invited” to join a multi-academy trust (MAT). The MAT is a kind of super-governing body, made up of the chairmen and women of the local governing bodies of the member academies, and other unpaid volunteers dredged up — quite literally, in the case of church schools — from God knows where.

 

THE process of appointment can be arcane. In the case of church schools and MATs, appointments are made through the diocesan board. But this is what can happen: at the board meeting, the head teacher of Blathering C of E School has suggested the name of Mrs Patmore for the vacancy on her school governing body. She is a cook at the local stately home, and attends church. She has not appeared in a tabloid newspaper. She will be a huge asset at the governors’ annual Christmas do. All those in favour?

Heads’ proposing names for their own governing bodies is, in any case, a bit dubious, especially as Sir Michael has queried MATs’ and governing bodies’ “nodding through wildly excessive remuneration packages for head teachers, and lacking proper oversight of school finances”.

Having struggled for years to recruit enough church worthies for governing bodies, the diocesan board, therefore, now finds itself having to find another lot for the MAT board as well. The evidence suggests that, in affluent areas, with clusters of successful academies, there is no problem For tough schools in deprived communities, however, it is another story.

Potential governors with the background, confidence, and financial know-how to challenge a complacent or inadequate head, or questionable budget issues, are scarce.

 

SIR MICHAEL concluded that that is why the “Trojan horse” scandal erupted in tough areas of Birmingham: “Governing bodies infiltrated by governors abusing their position to impose a particular world-view.” Nobody else was interested in the position. And, when the safety of children is at stake, it is suddenly serious.

Sir Michael’s solution is simple: pay governors, and have a proper appointments system.

There is, of course, a more radical alternative: abolish MATs, and create an overall structure with paid professionals who are responsible for schools in a local area. They are called in, anyway, when a school fails its OFSTED on safeguarding grounds. Just don’t call it a local education authority.

 

Dennis Richards is a former head of St Aidan’s C of E High School, Harrogate.

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