Ducking the issue

Yesterday the SoS spoke to the National Governors Association Summer conference. Amongst other things, she said this:

Because a school-led system doesn’t mean schools as islands, making their own way. It means schools fully integrated with the local community, responsive to local parents and, crucially, connected with, learning from and supporting other schools. And you as governors will play a crucial role in this; ensuring your school is fully linked with the world outside.

What that doesn’t necessarily mean is a stakeholder model of school governance, and I should be clear now that I intend to look further into how we can move away from that model over this Parliament – because what makes your contribution so important isn’t the particular group you represent, it’s the skills, expertise and wisdom you bring to the running of a school.

It’s that rationale that has underpinned our reforms to governance over the past 5 years – making it easier for schools to recruit a wide mix of highly-skilled governors who can make an even bigger contribution to the running of their school.

In many cases, schools are already reaping the rewards of recruiting more governors from business backgrounds. And I’d call on more schools to reach out in a similar way.

This is a very confused statement. I’m not sure how a school can both on the one hand be fully integrated and responsive to parents and the local community and on the other have a model of governance which is not stakeholder based. The academy model has broken the local democratic link. I’m not one who has any great issues with that. I have never been wedded to the LA model of school control. I have seen too many instances where it had failed badly and the theory of democratic accountability was broken. The stakeholder model, on the other hand, given the specificity of the connection between parents (in particular) and the school, is a strength of the system, and a weakness of the Multi-Academy model. It is this model which I suspect the SoS wants to see replicated.

Schools need more parent governors, not fewer. I would like to see a 50% model. This is not antithetic to the need for appropriate skills. Schools have plenty of parents with the appropriate skills.

The SoS also talks about “an even bigger contribution to the running of their school”. Now, I know there are many different views on this, but here’s mine. Governors don’t run schools. The school leadership team runs the school. Governors provide strategic direction and support. They can provide expertise where it is lacking in the school, but only in an advisory capacity. There is good reason for this. In a word, sustainability. Governors are transitory. If a particular skill or capability is required by a school on an ongoing basis, then the school needs to factor the need for that into its workforce planning. Governors should ensure that this occurs. Relying on a volunteer to carry out a mission critical role is, to put it bluntly, a failure of management and oversight.

The SoS then went further down the rabbit hole:

Almost nowhere is this more important than in the field of financial management – a core function of governing bodies – and it’s here that I expect them to play a key role. Every governing body and every individual governor should take seriously their role in ensuring that schools remain financially healthy with robust management systems in place.

I believe that it is entirely right to trust schools with how best to spend their budgets. All that I expect from governing bodies in return is the reassurance that they have the right systems of oversight and scrutiny in place.

There are two things about this.

Firstly, I would argue very strongly that financial management is NOT a core function of governing bodies. This is to mistake financial oversight for financial management. They are clearly two very separate things. The school leadership work in the school day in, day out. They can provide financial management. Governors meet several times a year. They can provide oversight. To elide the two roles is sloppy and dangerous. They are separate for a very good reason, that of proper control of public finances.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I hear in those words the sound of ducks being lined up.

I’m lucky enough to be the governor of an outstanding school. I’m not talking about Ofsted outstanding (though it is – read the report, it’s one of the best I’ve ever seen) I’m talking about outstanding in the commonly accepted meaning of the word. The leadership of the school, in all areas, is outstanding. Next year we face a deficit in the region of £200,000 (this is a matter of public record, so I’m not speaking out of turn). Because the school has been well run we have reserves to cover that. But after two, three years of this new financial reality? No amount of forward financial planning could cushion what is coming.

So, back to the ducks. What the SoS is saying, in her coded, weasely way is this – “If your school hasn’t remained financially healthy it’s your own fault. Specifically it’s the fault of your governors. If you haven’t told me before now there’s a problem, it’s ALL YOUR FAULT.”

She knows there’s a budgetary armageddon on the way and she’s trying to dodge the bullet.

The two issues I’ve highlighted are connected.

The reason you need parents and the local community deeply embedded in the governance of schools is because they are stakeholders. They are the real local democratic control, not local authorities. They will not remain silent when their school is being treated unfairly, when it is, to put none to fine a point on it, under sustained financial attack. They will write to the local paper. They will lobby their MPs continuously until they listen and stop swallowing the party line. They will be active and they will express their disquiet through the ballot box.

At rough guess, there are probably 15,000,000 voters with school age children. Many of them are receiving letters from their children’s schools explaining the financial position they have been put in.

I suspect that some rethink on behalf of government re school finances might be needed.

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