England & Wales Education and children's services

Schools White Paper: Governing school governance

Photo by Anton Sukhinov on Unsplash

How schools should be organised and governed is a recurrent theme since modern schools systems developed 150 years ago.

In England and Wales, school governance was nationalised at 40 years old. The Education Act 1980 required local authorities to establish a governing body for each publicly established school with a set composition – which included staff and parent representation and co-opted representatives of the community as well as the local authority. From Summer 1981, local authorities began a two-year process to make the transition to institutional school governing bodies.

In truth, local authorities had been required to have school-level governance arrangements from the start of state involvement in school education and by 1981 nearly all secondary schools already had institutional governing bodies and progressive local authorities had institutional governing bodies for all schools and were using existing flexibilities to require staff, parent and community representation on school governing bodies. As for less enlightened local authorities, stories abounded about area governance arrangements and direct governance by council committees with each headteacher turning up termly to give a ten-minute report to councillors, most of whom had little knowledge of the school under scrutiny.

Role of governing bodies

There was initially a lack of clarity about what these new governing bodies would do. An army of volunteers would need to be recruited – over 300,000 at its height before the Government required smaller and smaller governing bodies – to provide a focus for the school and a buffer with the local authority. The Education Act 1981 was the first to impose a specific duty in relation to special and educational needs and since then ministers have tinkered frequently with the composition, trying to make governing bodies more ‘business-like’, and added new responsibilities and autonomy with every passing education act – from finance, staffing, pay, pupil performance, pupil discipline and attendance, admissions arrangements and corporate accountability.

This nationalisation and institutionalisation of school governance has carried on without a public government review for 40 years about whether it makes the quality of education better for children, makes staff retention better, gives access to the school system (which the Government say employers want), and makes schools easier to manage. The system has developed over the years with schools and their governing now working more collaboratively with each other and their local authority.

However, there can be few who work in educational administration who have not heard headteachers complain about their governing bodies and the unreasonable demands, and interference, imposed by governors. And England is an outlier. No school system elsewhere has gone down this path (although, for the record, there are many heads who value their governing bodies).

School system today and institutional governance

The school system in England is now complicated by mass academisation. Introduced by the Coalition Government in 2010 without a specific endpoint or vision about what eventually would be achieved collectively, the system has changed radically over the years. Roughly 70% of secondary schools are academies but 60% of primary schools continue to be maintained by their local authority. From an initial focus on the Single Academy Trust, nearly all new schools which academise now are expected to join a Multi-Academy Trust (MAT). What is noticeable, is that the Government is encouraging pre-1980 governance within MATs. Weak ‘local’ governing bodies for each school within the MAT, and the MAT having a role similar to the pre-1980 local authority – holding the money, employment contracts and public accountability (without admittedly any local democratic accountability).

Meanwhile, those local authorities which have valued their local school system have continued to develop school autonomy including school collaboration and sponsoring area improvement bodies owned by schools, something that would not be possible under a MAT system.

Schools White Paper

The new Secretary of State for Education Nadhim Zahawi, participated in a question and answer session last Saturday (9 October) at the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) annual conference. According to Schools Week, Catherine Jones, the head of a maintained school in Sunderland [asked the Secretary of State] to:

“clarify the direction of the government’s academisation plans […] We provide a good standard of education. We’re outward-looking and collaborative. We serve our community extremely well. We would like to remain autonomous. Is this still an option for successful schools?” He replied that he believed schools “do benefit from being part of a multi-academy trust” and went on to describe the pre-1980 local authority role: MATs “provide the opportunities for teachers and leaders to enable them to focus on what I think matters most, which we all agree on, which is high-quality teaching and support for pupils outcomes effectively.”

The pretext for the Sunderland head’s question was the proposed Schools White Paper planned for 2022. The Government tried in 2016 to put forward a plan for full academisation of schools before being hastily withdrawn when the flaws were exposed. The Government has reiterated its ambition of seeing “all schools in multi-academy trusts” and the school’s white paper was (re-) announced in the Secretary of State’s speech to the Conservative Party Conference. In preparation this time, local authority officers are being invited to roundtable discussions by a third-party organisation to help develop government thinking. Civil servants are openly talking about the pursuit of the ‘end state’ through bringing together the academy and maintained sectors. The legislative task would be difficult ending 120 years of painstakingly assembled legislation, but not impossible.

Bringing all schools into Multi-Academy Trusts would put an end to the 40-year experiment of institutional and autonomous school governing bodies. It would be regrettable if this was done without a full review and consultation on future models using a Green Paper. One of the regrettable consequences would be the diminution of the parent voice at the school level. Arguably, sticking one or two parents on a governing body is tokenism, but there are other ways such as elected parent councils for each school.

What local government needs to focus on is the added-value of local democracy for the school system, which is clearly valued by many local authority headteachers, and what accountability local government can offer those schools which have left the local school system for accountability via a distant MAT and an even more distant Regional Schools Commissioner.

The LGIU welcomes comments on this blog and the forthcoming Schools White Paper.

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