Monday, 18 April 2016

Improving School Governance by Nigel Gann

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

The recently published white Ppaper, Educational 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 headline 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. (See here for my take on the value of parent governors). 

The white paper's vision is for a post-LA 'school-led system' under the auspices of MATs. In these groupings all the powers of governance reside with the MAT board. The local governing boards of individual schools function as committees of the MAT board, with as much or little power delegated to them as the MAT board sees fit.  

To say the least Educational Excellence Everywhere hasn't exactly commanded universal support, even from Conservative local Councillors and backbench MPs.  The element of compulsion for schools to join MATs and the removal of the requirement of boards to reserve places for elected Parent Governors (as opposed to governors who just happen to be parents) are key sticking points for many. Nicky Morgan has signaled that she is not for u-turning, but it may be that Education Secretary will have to give some ground as the White Paper makes its passage through parliament. 

In some ways, the publication of the DfE's white paper renders Gann's work slightly out of date, even though it is an updated second edition brought out only this year.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 writer 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 publication of the white paper means that governors are in need of more detailed advice on joining or setting up a MAT and what that may involve for their governing board. 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. 

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 National Governors' Association talks about the need to get this right, but showing what that looks like in terms of a guidance document containing various adaptable Scheme of Delegation models is another thing. (Their Governing Groups of Schools is useful, but provides no model SofDs). The NGA are hoping to make good this lacuna soon and a good thing too. For GBs looking to join or set up a MAT that is one of the key factors to consider. No SofD is set in stone, however, and changes may be made to the founding document by the MAT board without LGBs having a say. 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. (See here for my plea for a re-balancing of the powers of MAT boards in relation to LGBs). 

Gann commends a more collaborative model of school partnerships 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 and empowered local stakeholders. 

Which is why it's still worth taking a look at this thought provoking and informative book. Most everything Nigel Gann has to say about school governance is excellent. I don't propose to rattle through what he discusses in detail, though. That would mean having to write a proper review as opposed to taking the opportunity to sound off about stuff. What would be the fun in that? Anyway, as you'll see from this low-down the book's coverage is pretty comprehensive. Attention is given to the history, role and functions of governance. Sound and sensible advice on best practice is offered. One of my favourite lines was on governor training, culled from an 1878 survey of school governors (they used to call them Managers back then):
There is no training...for Managers. Many, indeed, have by great pains and application overcome this difficulty...but some do not see their deficiency, or trust to the light of Nature to make up for it, without any special effort on their own part; and much mischief is the result. (p. 17)
Let that be a warning to us all. Makes any conscientious governor  want to sign up for Governor Services training on RAISEonline immediately, or break off reading this do to a Modern Governor online module on Health & Safety. Making do with the 'light of Nature' simply won't cut it. Governors, be they co-opted for their skills, or parents should be committed to ongoing training and development to enable them to fulfill their roles properly. At its best stakeholder governance involves being fired-up enough to make a difference, and also skilled-up enough to do the job effectively.

If governing boards operated in line with Gann's 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 the author could be stripped altogether from local GBs. In that case they would end up as little more then 'focus groups' reporting to the MAT board, if the exist at all. A regrettable scenario to my mind. Maybe I am biased, but I believe that the rapid improvements seen at Matravers over the past few years are at least in some part due to the strength of the governing board in contributing to the school's strategic leadership. 

For our part, as a LA maintained Foundation School Matravers already has many of the freedoms associated with becoming an academy. The board of governors keeps the status of the school under constant review, however, and is considering how best to respond to the policy announcements set out in Educational Excellence Everywhere. Rest assured, we will seek to ensure that any decision the board takes with regard to academisation will be in the best interests of our students and staff, and will enable us to forge a strong alliance with other schools which share our vision and values.

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