Thursday, November 26, 2015

John Owen Centre Doctrine Study Day on 'Sinai: What was the Law For?'

Well, that was good. Yesterday I attended a John Owen Centre Study Day led by Garry Williams on 'Sinai: What was the Law For?' This was the 5th of these events hosted by our Bradford on Avon Ministers' Fraternal. 

The study days take the form of a seminar where Garry leads the group in discussing a paper he has prepared on the subject in hand. The papers contain a distillation of his study, setting out the diverse views of various writers before drawing some conclusions.  

We gave attention to the character of the Sinai covenant. Was it a covenant of works, a covenant of grace administered as a covenant of works, or a covenant of grace with a special focus on law? That led to a lively discussion, especially when it came to the views of Meredith Kline. We also considered what is the 'problem' with the law? Your view on this second issue will probably be determined by your attitude to the Sinai covenant. 

It was a real 'iron sharpening iron' occasion where group members endeavored to assess the various theological viewpoints in the light of Scripture. It really made me think and just occasionally blurt out what I was thinking. With so many Bible literate colleagues around, woe betide anyone who (like me) tried quoting Scripture from memory and got it a bit wrong.

It wasn't all about high level theological discussion, though. Thought was given to how what we had learned might impact on our preaching and so be of benefit to the people Of God.

I look forward to giving Garry's paper a good read through, as we had to skip some bits on the day due to time constraints. 

I'm not going to try and summarise the paper, or the discussion it stimulated here, as this Study Day is still on the road and I don't want to 'steal Garry's thunder'. Far better to attend one near you. See the John Owen Centre website for details of other Study Days around the country, or contact them about hosting one at your Fraternal. 

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Building Better Boards: An Opportunity for Education

Published by Wild Search

This report seeks to assess the state of school governance today and makes proposals that are intended to enable governors to respond to the challenges presented by a rapidly changing educational landscape. Governance used to be the Cinderella of schooling, receiving little attention from government ministers and policy wonks. That has now changed. The much discussed Trojan Horse affair has shown up the damage than can be done when governance goes awry. The move towards academisation, and with it the diminishing power of Local Education Authorities has placed an increasing burden on governors to monitor the performance of their school or group of schools in the case of Multi Academy Trusts. The preface by Lord Nash highlights the excellent work of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Education Governance and Leadership. He recognises the importance of governance as an agent for  change in a school-led system. It is instructive that head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw chose to devote the second of his monthly 'commentaries' to the subject of governance for 21st century schools

By 'school-led system' Nash means schools working together under the auspices of an Academy Chain or Multi-Academy Trust. The jury is out on whether academies perform better than maintained schools, especially when it comes to raising standards for disadvantaged students. But with David Cameron wanting all schools to have the 'opportunity' to become an academy by the end of the current parliament, it looks as though the drive towards academisation remains a key plank in the government's education policy.

But if governors are going to help fill the vacuum left by the decline of LEAs they are going to have to sharpen up their act. The report emphasises the need for governors to be appointed on the basis of their skills and for existing governors to engage in high quality training and professional development. The authors are rather sniffy about Parent Governors. They would like to see a shift from the stakeholder model towards skills-based governance, as if it's a case of either the one or the other. I disagree. It is rather patronising to suggest that Parent Governors don't necessarily have the skills needed to govern. At our school Parent Governors are a highly skilled bunch, but they are also passionate about seeing the school attended by their children continuing to make rapid progress. A concern about Parent Governors only being interested in the welfare and progress of their own darling children can be resolved by effective induction and training so that they understand the strategic nature of the role. The answer to the tendency for governor meetings to be sidetracked by parents raising issues to do with their children is good chairing, not getting rid of Parent Governors altogether.

The core functions of governance are: 1. Setting the Vision, Ethos and Strategy of the school. 2. Holding the Headteacher to account for the educational progress of the school. 3. Ensuring value for money. In all those areas parents have a role to play, as well as school leaders, staff,  members of the local community and governors appointed simply on account of their skills. In any case, when Parent Governor vacancies become available it is good practice for the role advertisement to include a description of the desired set of skills that a parent might bring to the table to complement the existing team. Do we really want a situation where Governing Boards are almost exclusively comprised of accountants, lawyers and high-powered business men and women? With all due respect to the good people of those professions, that would represent a considerable narrowing of the range of interests and backgrounds represented at board level. But whatever the composition of our boards we need to ensure that governors are trained and empowered to contribute to the strategic leadership of their schools and to hold senior leaders to account. In her recent address to the NGA conference Emma Knights issued a rallying call to governors that we would do well to heed. 

Attention is given to the challenges of governance in  Multi-Academy Trusts, especially in the light of the Education and Adoption Bill 2015-16. The bill will legislate to make it harder for maintained schools judged 'Inadequate' or 'coasting' by Ofsted to resist being forced to join an Academy Chain or MAT. However, recent Ofsted reports arising from the inspection of Chains and MATs suggest a mixed picture when it comes to these 'school-led systems' being able to turn around failing schools. Often the problem with poorly performing schools is not their maintained status, but ineffective leadership and weak governance. Forcing a struggling school to join a group that may share those characteristics isn't going to help anyone (see here and here). Far better for a successful local school to offer school-to-school support at leadership and governance level to an underperforming neighbour. But where is the funding to facilitate that kind of thing? If MATs are the way to go, let them at least be area-wide set-ups that are the product of a shared vision, ethos and strategy, not 'marriages of convenience' with several schools in one part of the country and a few dotted elsewhere, having little in common save a bit of branding. 

The aspect of this report that garnered media interest was the proposal that governors, notably Chairs should be remunerated for their work. Sir Michael Wilshaw concurs with this view in his 'commentary' . However, while reasonable expenses should be paid so that no one is left out of pocket for their efforts, I'm not sure that I would want governors to be paid. That does not make us dilettante amateurs, but 'unpaid professionals', who seek to serve as governors in local schools for the common good of the communities in which we live. Even when it comes to Chairs, it is difficult to see how either they would be offered little more than an insulting pittance for their work, or be paid so much as to change the nature of the role in a detrimental way. Chairs might be reluctant to do anything that might deprive them of 'a nice little earner' and fail to upset apple carts that sometimes need upsetting. Effective chairing might be better secured by in-post chairs taking advantage of high quality training such as the Chairs of Governors' Leadership Development Programme. Thoughtful succession planning is also vital for ensuring continuity of good leadership at the helm of the GB.  

One area that did not receive sufficient reflection here was the professionalisation of clerking. If more is going to be expected of governors and they are to remain unpaid for their services, then governing boards are going to need the support of highly effective clerks. The role of the clerk is to offer the board procedural and legal advice and guidance, organise and prepare for meetings, take minutes and so on. Too often clerks are regarded as semi-professionals who routinely work well over their contracted hours. They are not always subject to regular performance management to help ensure their continued professional development. This needs to change. Effective clerking is essential for efficient, sharply focused and properly functioning school governance.  

I don't want to sound too negative about this report, though. That fact that governance is being given attention in a document like this is welcome in itself. There are some good things here, such as arguing the case for governors to engage in rigorous self-evaluation. The emphasis on skills and training is welcome. The pieces on The Importance of Communications and Promoting the Role of Governors are helpful enough. The findings of Building Better Boards should stimulate discussion among governors as to how we may best respond to the challenges that we face in the current educational climate. Boards would do well to review their practices in the light of the report's recommendations. While not all of the proposals found here may command agreement, they at least deserve serious thought and consideration. 

I am grateful to the publisher for supplying a free review copy. 

Monday, November 02, 2015

November: A Month to Remember

The recent film Inside Out is all about how memory helps to shape our identity. It focuses on Riley, an 11-year old girl and her struggle to adjust to life when her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco. Her feelings are controlled by five characters representing her emotions; Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Fear and Anger. As we've come to expect of Pixar. the film is a visually stunning spectacle, especially as we join Joy and Sadness on a trip around Riley's brain as they seek to recover her personality-forming core memories. I won't spoil the plot for you by summarising it here. If you left it too late to catch the film in the cinema, get the DVD or something. You’ll enjoy it. Watching it put me in mind of Augustine’s classic treatment of the theme of memory in his Confessions. But that’s probably just me.

The month of November evokes memories. There’s Bonfire Night, which recalls Guy Fawkes’ foiled attempt to blow up parliament. The old ditty calls us to ‘Remember, remember the 5th of November/Gunpowder, treason and plot.’ And then there’s Remembrance Sunday on 8th November and Remembrance Day on the 11th, commemorating the end of the First World War. On those days the whole nation pauses to remember those who gave their lives for this country. Their sacrifice should not be forgotten.

Some of our memories are sad and others happy. In the film Inside Out, Joy keeps trying to cheer Riley up, as she's feeling out of sorts in her new environment. At all costs she wants to stop Sadness touching the girl's core memories. But it is only when Riley is allowed to feel sad that she realises how much she is loved and pulls back from doing something stupid. We wouldn't choose sad times in our lives. But they are often occasions when family and friends have rallied round and surprised us with the warmth of their love and care.

Memory is an important aspect of the Christian faith. Jesus knew that he was about to lay down his life  so that those who believe in him may be forgiven and be put right with God. He told his followers to eat a simple meal of bread and wine in remembrance of him. The bread was a symbol of his body and the wine of his blood. Nigh on 2,000 years later Christians continue to remember Jesus in that way. The Lord wanted his people never to forget how much he loved them. He said, ‘Greater love has no one than this, than this: to lay down his life for his friends.’ That’s something worth remembering all year round.

* For News & Views & Trinity parish magazines.