Thursday, February 11, 2016

Second thoughts on the great governance cake off

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To recap. Emma Knights, chief executive of the National Governors' Association (no less) has argued that whatever strategic powers remain in the hands of Local Governing Bodies should be handed over to MAT trustees. That will free up longsuffering local govs from the irksome bother of strategic leadership so their LGBs can be turned into. Wait for it, focus groups. They will then be in the privileged position of having 'influence without responsibility'. Good, eh? I mean, whoever wanted to do all that vision and strategy, challenge and support stuff anyway? Apart from people who were all fired up about being school governors. And how sad is that?

According to EK, being transmogrified into focus groups will enable LGBs to 'have their cake and eat it'. Fancy, Victoria Sponges all round. I wasn't convinced, however, saying that it was more like 'having a cake and giving it to someone else to eat'. Where's the fun in that?

But there is more to this spat than a storm in a cup cake. The controversy sparked by EK's 'cake off' blog calls for a considered response and I've been having second thoughts about the whole thing. After reflecting on the matter very carefully I have to tell you that my second thoughts are much gloomer than the first ones. If they were't bad enough.

This 'give all the strategic powers to MAT boards' lark spells the total destruction of school governance as we know it. Think I'm being alarmist? Let's take a look at an actual example of what EK is proposing in action. Have a shufti at Ofsted's focused inspection letter for E-ACT. Go on, I know you want to. Focused inspections concentrate on the effectiveness of trustees in improving the outcomes of member schools. In other words, they are a judgement on a MAT's governance arrangements. But the inspection letter bears little resemblance to a judgement on governance you'd get in a standard Ofsted report.

Alright, I know, the letter covers the governance of a MAT, not a single school. Bound to be differences. And yes, there's some traditional gov stuff in there. Mention is made of vision and strategy etc, but the rest of it is like reading a cross between an Ofsted judgement on a dysfunctional Senior Management Team that has been spliced with a poorly performing LA. Yep, it's E-ACT alright. And their response to this criticism from Ofsted? You've got it, they unilaterally abolished their LGBs. They'll be sorted now, then.

Hold local governance cheap and that's what you'll get. Virtually no governance at all. Much of the work the E-ACT trustees are described as doing in the Ofsted letter barely relates to governance as defined in the DfE's Governance Handbook, or the Ofsted Inspection Handbook, or the NGA's own Framework for Governance for that matter. It's more like another tier of senior management with some old style LA work thrown in for good measure. Directors for this, that and other other. Ambassadors for whatever else. What's that all about? Local stakeholders giving their schools strong strategic leadership and robust accountability barely comes into it. Now not at all.

Seems passing strange to me that the chief executive of the NGA could regard this state of affairs as a consummation devoutly to be wished, with local GBs reduced to having 'influence without responsibility'. Or worse, 'disappeared'. It's a bit like the President of the BMA wondering out loud whether or not GPs are a good thing. Or imagine the Gen Sec of ASCL putting it out there that maybe Headteachers should be stripped of their powers of operational school leadership. Heads would be up in arms. If that doesn't paint a slightly odd picture.

The advent of MATs needn't spell the end of local governance. For example, the Harris MAT operates on a federated system, 'with powerful and authoritative local governing bodies able to hold principals to account'. That's a far healthier model than the one proposed by EK. 

After all, the NGA is meant to be 'the independent organisation for school governors and trustees.' Not just trustees. Sticking up for local governance should be its raison d'etre. The enduring value of School Governing Boards should certainly be an article of faith for the organisation's chief exec. For it's the article upon which the NGA stands or falls. 

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