After a long career in schools, I volunteered to become a school Governor, in a school in what has often been described as a very deprived area of Gosport. I had been involved with the school as a Link Tutor for Winchester Uni and had built up a relationship with the school and the staff, and, having lived and worked in the area for all my working career, I was fully aware of the area demographics and the challenges. The head and the staff knew that I’d sometimes ask insightful questions, so, along with my fellow Governors, and an extremely hard working and professional staff, we have supported the school to a “Good grade”, with some better aspects. The school knows what it feels like to be good, so has a qualitative as well as a quantitative benchmark.
Being a Governor these days cannot be taken lightly, especially as we are linked to the Leadership and Management judgements on the school. Everyone is acutely aware that a deficiency in the Governance could be the issue that took the school into “Requiring Improvement”. External, unpaid volunteers could have a serious impact on a school. However, the current composition of the majority of Governing bodies provides a broad range of opinions and expertise, not least the voice of the local community and the parents in particular.
In another role, I visit schools to support improvement in different areas, through supported auditing. A few of those visits have thrown up interesting scenarios in Governance, particularly in relation to (some) Academy chains. It would appear that the notion of Governance is embedded in the Trust, so that the Trust committee can act as the Governing body for all its schools, with, in one model, a School Improvement Partner acting as the Quality Assurance aspect of the Governance, but also te point for complaints against the school. There was no evident conduit to ascertain the local views on the school. The school could have been in danger of becoming an island in the community. The self-checking aspect could also isolate further.
Governors, in LA schools, do still retain a certain distance and independence.
The fact that academised schools can effectively become laws unto themselves, is one of the reasons why I’d be concerned at a mass academisation programme, as is being envisaged within the current Education Bill, with an as yet undefined group of school being designated as “coasting” and placed with academy chains. It is not just that the schools area taken out of Local Authority hands, but that they are also effectively taken out of locality hands. Local voices will count for much less. Chains can dictate their terms and conditions for entry, with some seeming to say, “If you don’t like this, don’t come here”, which takes away local choice from some.
Having worked in the State education system, within a strong Local Authority, I have valued the local knowledge that has supported personal and school development. As a LA school Governor, I can take advantage of the available training courses, free, as we pay our nominal sum each year. As a Governor, I can also contact local officers for advice when needed.
I am aware that not all Local Authorities were strong.
However, the developing evidence is that, while some academy chains perform well, others don’t. This may be because they have taken on schools in difficulty, with localise problems/inertia proving difficult to move. Equally, it could be as a result of distance, with advice being generic, rather than applicable to the local circumstance. The ability for a school leader to pick up a phone and ask a specific person for specific advice is enabling. To spend a considerable amount of time seeking the right person, available at the right time, can be frustrating. Stuff can happen quickly in schools. Systems need to enable speedy resolution, or personal damage can occur.
We have a Secretary of State for Education, running a Department for Education, on behalf of the state. Therefore every school is a state school. In the absence of a Local Authority, academies need the ability to find rapid answers to rapidly escalating issues. With additional schools being forced into academisation, will the centralised, or even regional organisation be able to cope? If not, who will pick up the pieces (children’s lives?)
What I can see is a gently fracturing system, with lots of bits that use to be more joined up to serve the needs of the holistic system, eg teacher supply.
The education system is a bit like an Airfix kit; the bits have to go in the right place, with the right amount of glue, if the finished model is to look like the picture on the box. As in many reorganisations in education, there isn’t a very clear picture on the packaging, so bits are in danger of being put in the wrong place.
Strong Governance needs to be a part of every school, but it needs a strong local base, supported by a supportive, easily available, local centre of information.
Think local, act global, not think global, forget local…