Since the Trojan Horse Affair made headlines in March 2014 the pace of change in education governance has, it would appear, become increasingly frenetic.
In light of recent turbulent times in politics , and post Brexit, Jacqueline Baxter, author of School governance, asks what has changed in terms of the democratic governance of education in England ?
The affair which provoked a number of subsequent inquiries into radicalisation in schools, also resulted in a raft of measures introduced by the government in order to counter extremist views in schools and to ensure that British Values are firmly embedded in the system. The affair also left government with some very pressing questions about the state of school governance and accountability in England.
Since then we have had a change of government, a vote to exit the EU and a leadership crisis in both government and opposition parties- one that at the time of writing, is still not fully resolved.
The relentless pace of change in education far from subsiding in the wake of the crisis, has if anything increased, with a new White Paper in education – Educational Excellence Everywhere– produced by the Department for Education under the then Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan MP. The White Paper showed a stronger commitment than ever to the academies project and its vision of governance included removal of the need for elected parent governors on Academy Trust Boards.
Alongside this the paper saw school governors as having, ‘a vital strategic role, which they should deliver in a dynamic and professional manner: focusing strongly on their core functions of setting the vision and ethos for their school(s), holding school leaders to account and making sure money is well spent.’ (Section 3.27).
“The changes to English education since 2010 evoke elements of disaster capitalism”
The speed and scale of the changes to The English education system since 2010 invoke aspects of the type of Disaster capitalism that Klein referred to in her book, The Shock Doctrine, in which she described the way in which large scale disasters or change have been used to implement neo-liberal agendas in a number of countries around the world. In similar fashion, changes since 2010 have sent shock waves through the education community, disorientating them in much the same fashion as in Klein’s testimony.
This disorientation was no doubt part of Gove’s original plan- to disempower ‘the blob’ as he ‘affectionately’ referred to education profession; creating a system so far removed from its predecessor that the security of knowing the terrain has become all but lost: obfuscated in a mire of turbid arrangements which are by their very nature, abstruse.
In terms of school governance the paper argues that that the growth of Multi Academy Trusts will ‘improve the quality of governance, meaning that, fewer ‘more highly skilled boards adopt strategic oversight’ of multiple schools. This implies the beginning of the end for democracy and community representation in education governance.
For school governors, once described as the, ‘biggest experiment in democratic governance ever undertaken,’ (Ranson et al, 2005,p.22 in Baxter, 2016, p.17), the announcements in the 2016 White Paper heralded yet another new era in the evolution of their role and one that has mixed benefits.
Certainly there is room for improvement in terms of education accountability as the recent Education Select Committee report into Regional School Commissioners highlighted. Raising a number of issues with what it perceived to be the labrynthian and abstruse nature of a system that, rather than growing organically, has been hastily put into place in order to fill the vacuum left by the government’s academisation project.
But for the democratic governance of education, the announcements contained in the paper are very much a mixed bag: smaller more skills based boards will undoubtedly mean that issues can be addressed faster and in a more focused manner. They also imply the end of the type of governor who rarely attends meetings and when they do so, contribute little. But this mode of governance also presents substantial issues for the democratic representative function of boards
Democracy and the skills based board
The focus of the skills based model of governance, one that aligns with many third sector boards, is in many ways a change for the better; ensuring that schools and groups of schools responsible for thousands of pupils and multi-million pound budgets, have the skills necessary to deal with these weighty responsibilities. So too is the announcement that at last the government is to take long awaited action to document exactly who is involved in school governance. But in so doing they will, I believe, finally reveal the true extent of representation in boards- I strongly suspect that this may not be a pretty picture.
Skills based boards are not without issue, not least in light of their ability to be democratically representative of stakeholders. Concerted work in the realm of representation in the FTSE 100 boards has resulted in no all-male boards in FTSE 100 companies, marking a watershed in women’s representation, according to the launch of the Female FTSE Board Report 2015. Since the Davies Report of 2011 set a target of 25% of women serving on boards of FTSE 100 companies four years ago, women’s representation has almost doubled.
But unfortunately the results of the FTSE 100 are not mirrored in the public sector. Despite a number of government interventions since 2010, representation of women, ethnic minorities and those with disabilities remains poor. As I wrote in a recent article on The Conversation , ‘In health, although women account for 77% of the NHS workforce they hold only 37% of board positions. A mere 30% reach the position of chair, compared to 70% of men’.
“..the news on ethnicity and gender may not be good for school governing bodies…”
There are several reasons to believe that the news on ethnicity and gender will not be good for school governing bodies: the first is that along with just about every other aspect of education in England, the job of school governor has changed with multi – level systems of governing, increased budgets and curricular and other freedoms, combining with the responsibilities for counter extremism measures and safeguarding that were instigated post Trojan Horse.
These extra responsibilities mean not only is the role more complex, but equally takes up more time, meaning it is less attractive to busy individuals who combine full time parenting with full time work outside of the home. The skills based approach can also undermine the democratic elements of representation – with governors being recruited from outside of school communities and having little insight into what the particular needs of the community are.
Recent research in the area of accountability by Andrew Wilkins revealed that governors have a raft of accountabilities- to parents, to communities and not least to Ofsted, whose weighty regulatory system evaluates school governors on the same criterial as the senior leadership team.
Education is a public service, it is vitally important that its governance is representative of the communities it serves. Recent government discourse around education and accountability is completely focused on the needs of parents: parental choice; parents as consumers; parents as evaluators of educational provision. Yes parents are important but education is a public good – it is the foundation of the citizenship of all advanced societies and its governance needs to reflect this. I fear that the government’s relentless pursuit of education as a marketplace and parents as consumers will all but eradicate the democratic element of education governance that was so hard won in the first place.
#governance #schools #Trojanhorseaffair #government #academies
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