School Governance--just in from the "back of the envelope"--beginning of the end for democratic accountability

Helen Flynn's picture
It had to happen, given the pace of change in the education policy area. First, there has been the onslaught on our school leaders, tempted as they have been (and many succumbing) by the extra money and "freedoms" of academy status. Then the appeal to anyone and everyone to open up a school, and the disproportionate amount of resources being allocated to a tiny amount of schools.

Now it's governance that is under the cosh. Ian Carmichael, MP, and member of the Education Select Committee, has dreamt up a report, entitled "Who Governs the Governors?", which (unsurprisingly) heralds recommendations for changes in governance which would get rid of all stakeholder representation and would yield accountability only to the Secretary of State and Companies House. In fact in the entire 34 pages of the report, the words "democratic accountability" do not come up once, and I could only find one reference to the "maintained sector". (The report is not generally available yet, but you can request a copy by contacting his constituency office.)

I have been watching this area for developments very closely for the past several months. I wasn't sure if the DfE was intent on making all academies companies either because they had just adopted the model for academies version 1.0, without realising in their haste that version 2.0 is sponsor-less (and therefore does not need the same legal entity to account for the financial contribution of the sponsor), or because there was some other agenda based-possibly--around privatisation of education and schools becoming companies to facilitate the process of the dismantling of state education as we know it.

With the publication of this report, I am leaning more towards the second reason. The report recommends a professionalisation of school governance, which will select governors based on skills only, reduce the size of the governing body, and ultimately reduce the number of governing bodies around the country drastically as academy chains proliferate and dominate.

All comparisons are to the corporate model of governance and specifically how the Non-Executive Board model is now the most appropriate for academies, which are now independent and therefore must be able to account for the sound handling of public money. All the accountability now goes up--to Michael Gove--not out to communities. (So much for localism and the Big Society, then?)

Here is one extract: "We suggest that the corporate model of executive and non-executive boards would be a good one for school governing bodies to emulate."

And here is the "ideal composition", as regards the ideal experience of members of the school board:

--Accountancy (especially for the Audit Chair)
--Academics (to bring an HE perspective)
--Heads or deputies of a primary/secondary school
--Human resources leadership

The authors "believe that this will create an environment of professionals handling other professionals, able to make appropriate/suitable judgements and who would understand the difference between executive and non-executive roles."

It is indeed a far cry from an old 19th century definition of a governing body as “A body of local people to represent the public interest in the school”.

Though in many other ways it does take us back in time (though in a contrary way to the spirit of the 19th century quotation), reminding us of when the aristocratic elite ran the show. It's just that it is now Michael Young's meritocratic elite--typified by the current cohort of career politicians-- who have all the levers, and are now wanting to extend the use of them solely to others of their ilk, leaving a growing chasm of democratic deficit in the schools sector.

When are people going to start to sit up and take notice?

NB Ian Carmichael is set on launching an All-Party Parliamentary Group to report on governance, so, watch this space.
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Fiona Millar's picture
Fri, 03/06/2011 - 07:13

This is definitely one to watch Helen, please keep us posted on Mr Carmichael's activities. I assume he is an outrider for the government?
There is a perception in that the stakeholder model has failed, although not based on any hard evidence. Some governing bodies are very successful, as this report from Ofsted shows. Some aren't. Yet there are many stunning examples of lousy corporate governance in the private sector. Personally I think 6-8 people is too small for a governing body, although think the idea of an executive group is not a bad one. It happens by defaul anyway in many schools as the chairs of committees take on more responsibility and tend to form an inner core. However there is no reason why this can't be done within a larger group, make up of a cross section of parents, staff, local people and other "experts" that the Governors want to bring on board within the stakeholder model. The important thing is to get the right people , make sure they are properly trained and properly led. The role of the chair is crucial, but rarely commented on.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 03/06/2011 - 08:25

I think you might mean Neil Carmichael. I can understand your mixing up Ian Carmichael, an actor famous for comic roles, with an MP who thinks democracy is best served by taking decisions away from local people (and don't forget the possible offer of remuneration to members of governing bodies). Oh, and he thinks one governing body overseeing a chain of schools is a good thing.

It's ironic that Neil Carmichael says that changes to school governing bodies are required because LA responsibility is lessened by academy conversions: "Without the safeguarding role of LEAs, we see the role of governing bodies is being much more important than ever before."

Electronic copies of the report can be requested here:

Meaningless words watch: on Mr Carmichael's page: "radical", "fresh", "vibrant", "sense of immediacy".

Sarah's picture
Fri, 03/06/2011 - 11:57

It seems to me that this is arguing for the creation of mini-local authorities (without the democractic accountability obviously). The functions described are precisely those areas of professional expertise (HR, property services, finance etc) which local authorities currently provide to maintained schools. If governors are going to be paid this is just a re-creation of local authority services outside of any local accountability. And perhaps that's precisely the intention.

Helen Flynn's picture
Fri, 03/06/2011 - 21:38

Oops, sorry about the name mistake- my fault for writing the blog too late at night!

Yes, it is another attempt at creating mini local authorities with no democratic accountability.

What with current policy moves in health, education, etc, soon the only things left under broad democratic control will be reality TV events, such as Britain's Got Talent and X Factor!

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 04/06/2011 - 09:25

I thought the name mistake was funny.

It's interesting that one member of the proposed Governing Body is someone responsible for marketing, media and fund-raising. Promotion and PR spin, in other words. Not much room for collaboration with competitors, then. And don't forget the fund-raising - a Big Society initiative, perhaps, to make locals more responsible for their schools by making up short-falls in state spending. Should work well in impoverished, disadvantaged areas.

Paul Haslam's picture
Thu, 29/09/2011 - 11:04

The Sinn Fein Minister of Education in Northern Ireland issued a statement on 26/9/2011 which included a bit saying "I propose additional measures to strengthen leadership & governance of schools .... so I will support governors who set high standards for themselves and for their schools etc . I will be examining how we can broaden and strengthen the existing inspection process to enable the effectiveness of Boards of Governors to be assessed so that governors can have feedback on how they are doing and so that good practice can be identified and shared." Which tail is wagging which dog?!

Judith Houghton's picture
Wed, 12/10/2011 - 13:58

I would be interested in knowing of any further updates on this "Governance of Governors". If there is genuine discussion on school governance then that would be a good thing but we still need the space and capabilities to make local decisions on what is best for the education of children in our community. (I am CoG of a recently converted Academy and we are determined to maintain a broad spectrum of governor experience and links with our community.)

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