Monday, March 21, 2016

Education, Excellence, Everywhere - A Governor's Response

When published last Thursday Nicky Morgan's nicely alliterative White Paper, Education, Excellence, Everywhere landed landed like a hand grenade in the playground of educationalists. Its shock waves are still reverberating around schools and their governing boards. That's the case even though many of its key proposals had been long trailed by the DfE, especially governance-wise. But what makes the White Paper explosive is the shift from persuasion to compulsion. HMG has argued for some time that schools would be better off as academies, preferably grouped together in Multi Academy Trusts, but most have remained stubbornly attached to their LAs. Now almost all must become academies by 2022. Similarly, none too subtle hints have been dropped that the days of stakeholder governance were drawing to an end, but now the requirement to have parent governor posts on boards will be removed. Skills alone matter.

Many objections could be raised to the White Paper. As Chair of Governors in a 'Good' Foundation School I don't recognise the picture it paints of stultifying LA control. While supportive and providing useful services, they basically leave us to get on with it. I'm not sure that a LGB in a MAT would have the same autonomy as we have now. And why shouldn't MATs continue to be able to purchase services from the LA if that's what they want to do, such as HR, Payroll, or Governor Services? This blog doesn't profess to be the educational equivalent of, but I'd have thought that the LA provides its services more cost effectively than any private business. If it's doable, why don't LAs consider turning their old departments into not for profit companies?

For local governors, the vast majority of whose maintained schools are at least 'Good', it was as if the hefty, 128 page White Paper had been rolled up by the Secretary of State and used to biff them over the head as she said, "Sorry, but the days of 'mums and dads army' Home Guard Governance are over. Time to leave it to the pros". Cue reactions ranging from quiet despair, "What have we done to deserve this?" to grandstanding "over my dead body" defiance. But the thing is, whether we whinge or rage, the main provisions of the White Paper are going to become law. As such they will shape the future direction of education in England for the foreseeable. We're just going to have to deal with it.

What to do, then, govs? Rather than rage at the dying of the light, I offer some constructive proposals from a governance perspective:

1. Don't panic. 2020 is a long way off and 2022 further away still, Don't be rushed into joining a pre-existing MAT and certainly not an 'Academy Chain' by anyone. Take stock. Look around. Organise local meetings with other Chairs of Goverors and Headteachers to see if there might be ways of moving ahead together. If you've not already started to do this, get on with it. 

2. Don't delay. Yes, 2020 is a long way off and 2022 further away still, but leave it too long before you start thinking about MAT options and you may find that you have little choice other than join someone else's group on their terms on which you have had little say.

3. Secondary schools, avoid treating your primary partners as 'little schools' who can bossed into forming a MAT in which you call the shots. Do that and they may be tempted to form a local MAT on their own, leaving you high and dry. Do you really want to end up having to join E-ACT or the Education Fellowship because no one else will have you? No, then be nice to primary schools and treat them as equal partners. 

4. Governors, remember forming a MAT and on what basis isn't your Headteacher's decision, but yours. Your Head may be inclined to jump in with his or her favoured  cronies and try to coral you into making a decision with the promise that nothing will change. That's rubbish. It's your job as governors is to get the governance of the MAT right before you ask for a show of hands at a specially convened FGB. Difficult to reverse that decision once made. 'Marry in haste' and all that... 

5. With that in mind, pay careful attention to a number of matters:
a. Do the schools considering forming a MAT share a common vision for education in the area?
b. Do you have at least a semblance of a strategy, including some agreed strategic priorities? 
c. Who will serve on the MAT board that will hold all powers of governance in its gift? LGB chairs plus the CEO in the first instance? 
d. Will the board allow for equal or at least equitable representation for all member schools?
e. What will be the balance of powers between the MAT board and individual school governing boards? Pay very careful attention to the Scheme of Delegation. NGA will soon be publishing adaptable models for members to use.
f. Preserve the power of local governance by going for a DevoMax SofD on the basis of earned autonomy.
g. Agree clear intervention triggers that will make earned autonomy meaningful and ensure strong accountability. 
h. What will be the role of the CEO/Exec Headteacher in relation to the MAT board and to individual Headteachers? 
i. Adopt shared policies on Behaviour, HR, and so on to ensure consistency for all students and staff across the MAT.
j. Allow for unity in diversity that allows each individual school to maintain its own distinctive ethos and character. 
k.  Consider how savings may be made and economies of scale developed to make best use of financial resources. And before you jump in, exercise due diligence on the schools with whom you may be entering into partnership and expect them to do the same to you.
l. Don't forget that church schools (e.g. CofE VC & VA) may have stipulations concerning the % of foundation govs on the board of any MAT they join. 

6. Sorry about the above 'Alphabetti Spaghetti'. At least I stopped at 'l'. 

7. Go local. It's been shown that nation wide 'Stretchy MATs', or 'Chains' are by and large pretty poor. Right, Sir Michael? MATs will work best when member schools have a vested interest in each others' success. Secondary schools want their primary partners to do as well as possible, as they are going to receive their children. Primary schools have invested years of time and effort into getting their children to fulfill their potential. They don't want all that hard work to go to waste at secondary level. Even when it comes to relationships between primary schools in a MAT, the emphasis can move away from competition towards deeper collaboration. Especially if each school is encouraged to develop an appropriately funded specialism that will enable it to share valuable expertise with others.

8. The White Paper hasn't banned Parent Governors, just enabled us to be a bit more picky over which ones we appoint to serve on MAT and local school boards. It needn't spell the death knell for stakeholder governance. What we need is properly skilled stakeholders who are fired up enough to make a difference, yet skilled enough to know what they are doing. It's your local stakeholder who will keep things honest if the 'pros' start abusing their position to make a 'nice little earner' for themselves. Parents want the money spent on children, not PR consultancy fees to the tune of £250,000 provided by MAT board members. Yep, that's actually happened

9. Contact the NGA and ask them to lead a session on MATs in your area. The one they did for us last Thursday was very informative and you don't have to worry that they're just trying to get you to join their MAT gang. But try not to laugh too loudly if they mention the Federation First thing. The White Paper shot that fox. No LAs, no LA Feds. Sorry. Our NGA consultant was wise enough not to mention it.

10. Engage with a wider network of governors. Round here we have the Wiltshire Governors Association. See what others are up to and learn from their experiences. At least treat yourself to some group therapy after the shock of the White Paper. 

Above all, even while planning for life in the Promised MAT-Land, remain focused on governing your school as it is now so that it continues to provide the best possible education for your students. Keep governing on. 

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