Tuesday, February 09, 2016

School governance as we know it is about to be swept under the MAT

I've been reading Improving School Governance, by Nigel Gann (Routledge, Second edition 2016). I'll post a review when I'm done, but this isn't it. Gann traces the history of school governance from the Victorian era until the present day and deals with some of the key aspects of modern governance; strategic leadership, roles and responsibilities, stakeholder engagement, self-evaluation and so on. 

It's good stuff and the historical chapters are a reminder that governance nowadays is quite different from earlier models. Today's skilled-up stakeholders are a far cry from the ill-equipped old duffers of yesteryear. Not to mention the local Councillor dominated political cliques of the early 1980's. But as the book hints, it looks as though governance in its contemporary guise is destined to become yet another historical curio.

In years to come governors will look back on things as they are today with a degree of astonishment. 'Imagine, in 2016 many individual schools had their own Governing Boards comprised of local stakeholders. Big decisions such as setting a school's vision, ethos and strategy, hiring a new Headteacher, site development, budget setting and the like were entrusted to a bunch of well-meaning randomers; mums and dads, school staff, members of the local community and the like. How quaint.' Or will future members of Local Governing Bodies, shorn of their key strategic powers, feel rather envious of the way we do things now?

We are soon to witness the decline of schools governed by their own individual GBs and the rise of groups of schools governed under the auspices of Multi Academy Trusts. Cometh the hour, cometh the MAT. Yes, schools in a MAT will have their own Local Governing Bodies, but the MAT board will have the power to direct, sideline, or even abolish LGBs if it likes. And in the case of  E-ACT they did exactly that (see here). 

Current government policy is that all schools should become academies by 2020, preferably through the MAT route. As the MAT programme is rolled out many of the key functions and responsibilities of governance as described by Gann will no longer be in the hands of a school's own GB. MAT trustees will call the shots. LGBs may be delegated with the nitty gritty work of data scrutiny and some other bits and pieces, but they will have surrendered the strategic leadership of their schools to the MAT board. Once-autonomous GBs will be treated as little more than glorified focus groups, required to serve up stakeholder views spiced with a bit of data for MAT trustees to chew on.

In a recent blog post Emma Knights of  the NGA seemed to welcome this development. That looks like a self-defeating counsel of despair on the part of the estimable Ms Knights. The usefulness of the NGA lies in the fact that it exists to offer advice and guidance to governing stakeholders, many of whom are not educationalists by background. In the shiny new world of MATs, boards will be comprised not of 'have-a-go-stakeholders', but professionals; education experts, accountants, lawyers, and business people. In large part, anyway. Not the types to ring the NGA Gold Helpline seeking advice on best practice, or pay an awful lot of attention to the latest NGA briefing paper/mag article. They already know it all, right? Well, perhaps not, but at least they may think they do. (See Nigel Gann on Do school governing boards do the business?) Once virtually all schools are grouped in MATs and governance proper is carried out by MAT trustees, I foresee a diminishing role for the NGA. The pros won't be interested. And will it be needed to advise your common or garden LGB on its focus group activities? Can't see it.

Rather than acquiescing to this situation, the NGA should be using its influence to campaign for the re-empowerment of local governance before it's too late. It should alert governors to the danger of signing up to any MAT Scheme of Delegation that would deprive them of their core strategic powers, or even of their very existence. LA  Federations, the NGA's favoured model of school led system aren't the answer. Why would a Foundation school (like ours) want to return its hard won freedom and autonomy, together with the keys to the school site back to the LA? No thanks. 

To be clear, I'm far from opposed to MATs. I get it that schools in an area can achieve more together than they can apart. Informal alliances lack the strong accountability to make things happen. But the move to deprive local school governance of its strategic power is profoundly misguided. Consider the evidence. The Ofsted Annual Report 2014/15 makes it clear that the vast majority of primary schools are at least Good. It is also the case that the vast majority of primary schools are governed by their own individual GB's. The situation in the secondary sector is altogether more challenging and, strangely enough, most secondaries are either stand-alone Academies or belong to a MAT. The report makes the point that some large MATs are as bad as the old LAs when it comes to holding schools back. Several are proving pretty hopeless at turning around failing schools. Just recently the largest chain of all, AET was heavily criticised by Ofsted on this front, see here. So, the evidence hardly stacks up in favour of a wholesale transfer of the powers of strategic leadership from GBs to MAT boards. Does it?

Let's get down to specifics. One area in which there seems to be confusion in MAT-land is the extent to which the strategic power to performance manage Headteachers should be in the hands of LGBs or executive Headteachers/CEOs (see this NGA report on the role of Executive Headteachers). In her blog Emma Knights suggested 'it makes perfect sense for an executive head to [performance] manage the school’s head teacher'. Doesn't to me. A clear distinction needs to be made between operational line management and strategic performance management. An exec HT/CEO should line manage individual Headteachers to ensure that their operational actions are having the desired strategic outcomes. But Headteacher performance management panels should be drawn from LGBs. 

Headteacher PM is one of the key ways in which governors exercise their core functions: 1. Setting the school's vision, ethos and strategy. 2 Holding the Headteacher to account. 3. Ensuring value for money. The role of an exec HT/CEO in relation to Headteacher PM should be akin to that of a School Improvement Advisor in the maintained sector. A SIA will help ensure that fair CSMART targets have been set by the PM panel and adjudicate on whether they have been met over the course of an academic year. In a MAT set up the exec HT/CEO should ensure that locally set goals are aligned with MAT targets, but not to the exclusion of individual school priorities identified by the PM panel. In any case, having Headteacher PM performed simply by an exec HT/CEO removes the necessary checks and balances that are inherent in the current panel arrangements. The system is wide open to abuse. 

We need to preserve the best elements of today's local governance model, while also embracing the need for schools to collaborate more closely. At their most effective GBs provide their schools with the strong strategic leadership and robust accountability that is needed to secure sustained improvements. But the 'me in my small corner, you in yours' approach has its limits, with schools and their GBs tending to protect their own little empires rather than facing outwards. Forming a MAT should enable schools in an area to develop collaborative strategies that will help them meet the challenges posed by their local communities head-on. Disadvantaged achievement gaps, high levels of persistent absence, dented community aspirations and so forth cannot be sorted out by individual schools acting alone, whether at primary or secondary level. All must work together to identify problems and devise strategies to solve them. The MAT board should focus on big, area-wide priorities and have in place a strong enough executive arm to make things happen. But LGBs should retain sufficient strategic powers to exercise the core functions of governance in relation to their own schools. Their very existence should not be at the say so of  MAT trustees.

The concentration of the key functions of governance almost entirely in the hands of MAT boards lacks democratic accountability. MAT Schemes of Delegation should be carefully drawn up to ensure a fair distribution of powers between trustees and LGBs. The principle of earned autonomy must be clearly set out so that trustees have the power to intervene in a member school should standards slip, but otherwise they should leave LGBs to get on with their job without too much interference. Schools connected in a MAT should not fall victim to centrally imposed uniformity, but celebrate unity in diversity. LGBs should be guardians of their school's distinctive ethos and character. The MAT board should have a super-strategic role that harnesses the collaborative energy of member schools to work together to meet shared goals, but it should not try to mirco-govern member schools in a meddlesome way. The relationship between the MAT boards and LGBs needs to be rebalanced in favour of mutual accountability. What if the trustees end up being less than the sum of the MAT's parts and are not performing effectively? Some kind of LGBs conference should have the power to hold trustees to account, and maybe even dismiss them if they are not up to the job. Perhaps if E-ACT trustees were held to account by its LGBs rather than unilaterally abolishing them, it might have made a better fist of turning around failing schools (see here)?

Reading Improving School Governance while reflecting on the implications of multi-academisation I was suddenly overwhelmed by a melancholy mood. It dawned on me that if we are not careful the power bestowed upon GBs to make a difference in their schools will soon be syphoned off to MAT boards. All we'll have left of local governance will be emasculated LGBs. I know the Bard said 'a rose by any other name would smell as sweet', but there's a reason why roses are called roses and turnips, turnips. Words mean something. Reserving 'board' with its strong strategic connotations for MAT trustees, while renaming individual school governance arrangements, 'Local Governing Bodies' doesn't smell as sweet to me. In fact, it stinks. 'School Governing Boards' and 'MAT Boards', please, emphasising strategic functions at different levels.

Dynamic local governance will enhance rather than undermine the development of highly effective, locally based, school led systems. The current situation calls for the NGA to act as a strong advocate for the enduring value of local governance. I fear, however, that Emma Knights has rather sold the pass in saying, "The school level group can act as the eyes and ears of the board" and "A new advisory role with influence, rather than responsibility could be one which builds on the best of governing" (see here). Is that it, 'influence'? LGBs as little more than focus groups. In her blog Emma Knights spoke of her proposals  in terms of governors 'having our cake and eating it'. Seems more like having a cake and giving it to someone else to eat.

Governors of the world (well, of England, anyway) unite! We have nothing to lose but our strategic powers to make a difference before they are swept under a MAT, never to be seen again.

* The views expressed here are entirely my own.  


JT said...

Excellent article - thank you. Emma K seems to have gone native on the subject of MATs, which is very worrying. From a chair of a LGB who sees a previously strong governing body being alienated by the MAT board and exec.

Guy Davies said...

You'd have thought that the NGA would be sticking up for LGBs rather than acquiescing in their disempowerment.

Did you see my follow-up post:


JT said...

I did see that one too, again excellent.
The problem I see with this apparent acquiescing is that it will only encourage the MAT execs who think LGB's are irrelevant or a nuisance - a vicious circle of decline. Talented people won't stay just to make up the numbers, they will quickly find better uses for their volunteer time