Tuesday, March 29, 2016

A Call for ReforMATion in School Governance

The recently published White Paper Education, Excellence, Everywhere has made clear the government's determination that all schools become academies by 2022, with most having to join Multi Academy Trusts. In one way we're just going to have to get on with it and I advocate a pragmatic approach here. But Parliament's Education Committee has just launched an inquiry into MATs and one area that they'll be looking into is, "The balance of decision-making at the individual school level and at the chain level, and the appropriateness of formal governance structures employed". As I see it that is the big problem with the Multi Academy Trust model of school governance. The balance of powers is too one sided in favour of MAT boards. This may be summed up in terms the wording found in the November 2015 Governance Handbook, which reflects the current legislation covering MATs:
A MAT board is accountable for all of the academies within the trust. However, it can choose to delegate governance functions to local governing bodies or LGBs... It is the decision of the trustees about which, if any, governance functions they delegate to LGBs or other committees. (4.2.2 Multi Academy Trusts, 16 & 17.)
 LGBs are little more than committees of the MAT board and the powers delegated to LGBs or even their very existence are in the gift of the the MAT board. The situation is akin to governance in a maintained school or stand-alone academy. The full governing board may choose to delegate certain powers to committees, and then decide to get rid of one committee and distribute its powers to others, or exercise them itself. That is fair enough when it comes to a governing board of a local school reviewing  its Scheme of Delegation and governance structures, but it amounts to a serious loss of autonomy for LGBs in a MAT. Even if the MAT may accord DevoMax powers to LGBs on joining the group, it may later reverse that decision and turn its LGBs into focus groups or abolish them altogether.  

I would like to see the legislation reformed so as to accord certain inalienable rights to local governing boards in relation to the MAT board. Those rights would also entail binding responsibilities for a LGB. The points below are not intended to serve as a complete Scheme of Delegation, but set out a number of underlying principles for consideration: 

The rights of LGBs in a MAT

1. LGBs should have the right to exist and not be unilaterally abolished by the MAT board.
2. LGBs should have the right to exercise the core functions of governance in relation to their local school: a) Set the school's vision, ethos and strategy. b) Hold the Headteacher to account. c) Ensure value for money. A body that does not exercise these core functions cannot be said to be governing their school in any meaningful sense.   
3. LGBs should have the right to equal or at least equitable representation on the MAT board.
4. As far as distributed powers of governance are concerned, no change should be made to the MAT Scheme of Delegation without the agreement of a majority of constituent LGBs.
5. The MAT board should report to an annual LGB conference where local governors would have an opportunity to hold the MAT board to account for its actions.

The responsibilities of LGBs in a MAT

1. LGBs will account to the MAT board for its school's progress against a set of agreed Key Performance Indicators and operate on the basis of earned rather than absolute autonomy. 
2. Where an LGB is not giving its school the strategic leadership it requires, the MAT board may suspend its 'earned autonomy'. In that case the MAT board may intervene to direct the LGB's actions up to and including changing the leadership and composition of the local board. 
3. In fulfilling its core functions the LGB will oversee the effectiveness of its school's leadership and management, and monitor measures taken to improve the quality of teaching. It will scrutinise pupil outcomes, and ensure actions are taken to secure the personal development, welfare and safety of pupils. The LGB will report to the MAT board on its work as required so the board is apprised of the strengths and weaknesses of member schools and can take action as appropriate.
4. While ensuring compliance with the MAT-wide vision, standards and policies, the LGB will safeguard its school's distinctive ethos and character. 
5. The LGB will engage with key stakeholders, pupils. parents, staff and members of the local community so that the MAT board is made aware of their views and is able to take them into account when considering its strategic priorities.

I believe that redistributing the powers of governance as outlined above would make for a more effective self-improving school-led system. Harris Academies have 'authoritative' LGBs that provide strong strategic leadership and robust accountability to individual academies. E-ACT notoriously abolished its LGBs. No prizes for guessing which 'chain' is doing better when it comes to improving pupil outcomes. Even in MAT-land, governance by appropriately skilled-up and fired-up local stakeholders has its place.

Reform of the legislation that accorded clear rights and responsibilities to LGBs in relation to MAT boards would also help to allay the fears of governors and Headteachers who are reluctant to contemplate joining a MAT because of the loss of autonomy that would entail. If local freedom was respected as well as the power of collective action harnessed in MATs, that would make joining one a more enticing prospect. If a ReforMATion of school governance isn't forthcoming, the next best thing would be for schools to academise together under an Umbrella Trust, but who knows whether we would be allowed the autonomy to do that? 

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Easter: Hope Reborn

When we say, ‘I hope so’ we often mean, ‘I’d quite like something to happen, but can’t be sure it will.’ Like our favourite football team winning the FA Cup, or getting that dream job, or whatever. Hope is a fragile thing in an uncertain world where we never really know what’s around the corner. But a fragile hope that things are going to turn out well is better than no hope at all, I suppose.

Easter is all about hope destroyed and reborn. Jesus’ followers were full of hope that he was the long-expected Messiah who was going to put the world to rights. The Saviour of the world, even. But it didn’t seem to work out quite like that. Jesus was rejected by the religious authorities, put through a mockery of a trial and condemned to be crucified on the first Good Friday. Some Saviour. Couldn’t even save himself from the suffering and indignity of public execution. Jesus’ followers dutifully buried their Master and thought that was that. All their grand hopes of a new and better world were gone.

They were wrong, however. On the fist Easter Sunday morning Jesus’ followers were amazed to discover that his tomb was empty and the body was nowhere to be seen. Later that day he appeared to them. Jesus had risen from the dead. At first they couldn’t quite believe their eyes, but it was him alright. The same Jesus who had been crucified was alive. The hearts of his followers burned with hope once more.

Jesus explained that it was by his death on the cross and resurrection from the dead that he had broken the power of sin and death. Now those who believe in him may be forgiven and restored to a right relationship with God. The power of God that raised Jesus from the dead will also raise his people to everlasting life and glory.

That’s the Christian hope. It is rooted not in an optimistic feeling that things are going to work out for the best, but in what God did in Christ on that first Easter Weekend. The believer has a sure and certain hope in the living Lord Jesus. 

*For Easter editions of News & Views and Holy Trinity Magazine

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. 

Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Servant King

Kings and stuff, right? Like Henry VIII. Crown on head, hands on hips, eyes fastened on you from a massive portrait with that, ‘You looking at me?’ stare. Yep, that’s a king, alright; with intimidating life or death powers at his command.

These days we prefer our Monarchs to be of the constitutional rather than absolute variety. Democracy and all that. But in the ancient world rulers held unquestioned sway over their subjects. Or at least if you did dare to question, it wouldn’t end well for you. Well, yes, there was Charles I, but let’s not go there. By and large, kings ruled, OK?

On Palm Sunday a different kind of King rode into town. The town was Jerusalem and the King was Jesus. The crowds hailed him as the King who had come in the name of the Lord. They gave him the ancient equivalent of the red carpet treatment by strewing his path with palm branches. But, uh? What kind of King is this?

King Jesus wasn’t seated upon a stately war horse, but a humble donkey. He rode into Jerusalem as the King of Peace, not to obliterate his enemies, but to lay down his life for them. By the following Friday he did just that when the King of the Jews was crucified outside the walls of the Holy City.

Jesus said, ‘The Son of Man has come not to be served, but to serve and give his life a ransom for many.’ He was bent not on self-aggrandizing conquest, but dying in our place out of self-giving love. Jesus was willing to pay the price so that people like you and me may be forgiven and be put right with God through faith in him.

Jesus rose from the dead on the first Easter Sunday morning. He was exalted to God’s right hand as King of kings and Lord of lords. ‘This is our God, the Servant King, he calls us now to follow him.’

*For White Horse News, March edition. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Improving School Governance by Nigel Gann

Improving School Governance: How better governors make better schools,
by Nigel Gann, Routledge, 2016 second edition, 249pp. 

Michael Gove. Remember him? How could anyone involved in the world of education in England ever forget? Now he's Justice Secretary and a leading light in the campaign for the UK to leave the EU in the forthcoming referendum. A right-winger, then. Neocon, even. To a point, yes. When at the DfE he had a portrait of his political hero, Mrs. Thatcher hung on the wall of his inner sanctum. But she was joined by a depiction of commie chief, Vladimir Lennin. If Thatch was there to remind him to keep the blue flame of Toryism burning, the image of Lennin rallied the former Ed Sec to the cause of perpetual revolution. 

Lennin isn't the only leftist luminary to command Gove's admiration. He's also something of a fan of 'Little Red Book' Cultural Revolutionary, Mao Zedong. Don't just take my word for it. David Cameron was recently cited as saying,  "The thing that you've got to remember with Michael is that he is basically a bit of a Maoist - he believes that the world makes progress through a process of creative destruction!" 

Gove said as much himself in a 2010 article in The Telegraph while still in charge of education. The notion of 'creative destruction' well describes the revolution in education that Gove fomented when in charge of England's schools. An essential component of the Gove's education revolution involved wresting state schools from the clutches of local authorities and transforming them into autonomous academies. It falls to his successor Nicky Morgan to bring the revolution to its logical conclusion by ensuring that all schools are transformed into academies by 2020. 

Quite what this 'school-led system' will look like once all the pieces of the educational jigsaw so gleefully thrown into the air have landed, no one really knows. That's 'creative destruction' for you. Once stand-alone academies were 'the thing', but now they're not. Then  it was big academy chains, but some of them are little better than the bad old LA's at turning around underperforming schools. Now the preference is for schools to organise themselves into localised Multi Academy Trusts. I can see the sense in that in a 'better together' sort of way. But if were not careful, one thing that looks like being creatively destroyed in the process will be local school governance.

That's why I've prefaced my review of Nigel Gann's helpful book with a contextual preamble. Most everything he has to say about school governance is excellent. If governing boards operated in line with his guidance we would indeed have better governors making better schools. But it is possible that MATs may be set up in such a way that many of the powers of governance described by Gann could be stripped from local GBs. In that case they would end up as little more then 'focus groups' reporting to the MAT board. 

In a way this development renders Gann's work out of date, even though it is an updated second edition brought out only this year. That in itself is a mark of how rapidly the educational landscape is changing. Which is not to say that the author fails to give attention to new developments in education and how they may impact upon governance. The last two chapters 'Schools in uncertain times' and 'The future of governing schools' hint at future possibilities and challenges, and lay down some useful 'future proof' principles. But the government has now determined that all schools become will become academies, preferably within a MAT structure by the end of this parliament. As a result governors are in need of more detailed advice on joining or setting up a MAT and what that may involve for their governing board. Caveat emptor. At the very least governors considering joining a MAT should first read this book and weigh up the extent to which they will still be governing their school after they have signed on the dotted line. 

As far as I can see little work has been done on producing model Schemes of Delegation that will allow local governing boards to retain a large element of their strategic powers within a MAT set up. The NGA talks about the need to get this right, but showing what that looks like in terms of a guidance document containing various adaptable Schemes of Delegation models is another thing. (The NGA's Governing Groups of Schools is useful, but provides no model SofDs). Yet for GBs looking to join or set up a MAT that is one of the key things to consider. Many have been enticed to enter the Promised MAT-Land, only to find themselves robbed of their powers with the MAT board imperiously calling the shots. Result; some seriously disgruntled local govs. 

Gann commends a collaborative model where 'power and control are dispersed rather than concentrated' and 'local stakeholders and staff can have a sense of belonging'. But in large MATs, or 'chains' such as E-ACT those are often the very things that are lacking. These 'stretchy MATs' that link together schools scattered across England operate less like governing boards responsible for a collection of schools and more like LA's. Sir Michael Wilshaw agrees, writing in a recent memo to the DfE, "many of the trusts manifested the same weaknesses as the worst performing local authorities and offered the same excuses."

Yet the role that governing boards are meant to fulfill needs doing, both at the individual school level and in terms of an overarching MAT board. It's got to be about vision, strategy, accountability, ensuring value for money, stakeholder engagement, and so on. When governance structures start looking more like dysfunctional local authorities something has gone badly wrong. Schools are best governed individually and collectively by properly skilled-up and empowered local stakeholders. If MATs are set up wisely with a fair distribution of powers, then LGBs as well as MAT boards will have a lot to learn from this work in terms of how better governors will make for better schools. But if not, we may end up with an education system has has little or no governance at all. At least not at a local level. And that would be more an act of willful vandalism than creative destruction. 

* I am grateful to the publisher for a providing a complementary review copy. 

Saturday, March 05, 2016

Shepherds After My Own Heart: Essays in Honour of Robert W. Oliver

It was lovely to be present this afternoon to celebrate the 80th birthday of Robert Oliver at the Leigh Park Hotel, Bradford on Avon. Unbeknown to Robert a surprise party had been organised. A book compiled in his honour was presented to him by Robert Strivens, one of the editors. Appropriately enough the title explores various biblical, theological and historical themes and different aspects of pastoral ministry. I contributed a chapter on The Preacher as Spirit-Empowered Preacher of the Word. EP Books, 2016, p. 278.

I first came across Robert Oliver when he was appointed to teach Church History at the London Theological Seminary. I studied there from 1988-1990 and Robert began his work in 1989. As I recall, he picked up the syllabus at the 18th Century, with special reference to the Evangelical Revival and Great Awakening, and took us through to the 20th century. His lectures were the product of careful research and were delivered in a gripping and lively way that only served to enhance my love of church history. 

Robert's remarks on my history essays were schoolmasterly in their accuracy and economy. He punctured my presumptuous attempt, as he saw it, to rewrite Arnold Dallimore's 2 volume biography of George Whitefield in a lengthy essay that bore little relationship to the set topic: Whitefiled as a Leader of the Great Awakening. The need to be brief and to the point rather than bulky and ill-focused was a useful bit of criticism for a budding preacher and wannabe writer.  

In those days students were expected to submit sermon manuscripts to lecturers and then receive their feedback in a one-to-one tutorial session. On reviewing one of my efforts, Robert helpfully suggested that I should divide my material under a number of headings which would make it easier for the congregation to follow what I was trying to say. The substance was alright, he averred, but my material had no obvious structure. And so it is today that my sermons invariably have three or four clearly stated points. 

Our paths crossed once more when I took up my first pastorate in Stalbridge, Dorset in 1991. It was then that I started to attend the Bradford on Avon Ministers' Fraternal of which Robert was Chair until he stepped down in January of this year. After a spell out of pastoral work I was pleased to be able to rejoin the fraternal when called to my current pastorate in 2003. 

Like many I have reason to be thankful to God for Robert's ministry and friendship, and was honoured to be asked to contribute an essay to this Fetschrift. I look forward to reading the other contributions and hope that Robert enjoys our offering. Available here.