Doveryai no proveryai

Much is said about the need for democratic control to be at the forefront in our education system, specifically local democratic control. Having worked in a grant-maintained school that became GM because the LA was on the verge of closing it due to a falling roll I perhaps have a slightly less rose-tinted view of this.

What I want to talk about here is thing that makes democracy work. The oil in the gears, so to speak. Transparency. Without transparency we have no democracy. If we don’t know when those we allow to lead are lying to us we have no democratic control, we just have the lottery of the ballot box.

In case you think I am always moaning it is worth noting that I have previously noted that praise has been due to the current government for their efforts in making more data available and have set out how they should do more and what mechanisms they should use. This post is gentle push for them to keep moving in the right direction.

To use the language that opponents of academies hate, if education is a market (and elements of it are and always have been) then a perfect market requires perfect knowledge in order that participants make rational decisions. At the moment knowledge is imperfect which is why the school system does not always operate in a rational way.

There are two ways to approach the issue of transparency as it relates, in particular, to academies. One way is to construct the perfect theoretical model of how the system will work and then build in controls to enable an appropriate level of transparency. There are two reasons I don’t intend to use this approach. Firstly, it would be too hard and secondly it would be bound to failure due there being no such thing as a perfect theoretical model of how the system will work. In such complex systems there is no such thing as perfect. It’s a bit like when you get a new car and your told not to run it at full capacity for the first few thousand miles. Everything needs to bed in before it is ready to run at full speed. So you often don’t know where the pinch point are until the thing is working. This means that transparency often has to be bolted on afterwards.

The approach I will take is to look at where I would be concerned that problems could arise and ensure that an appropriate level of scrutiny is possible. This seems to me the better approach as you can show how the mechanism directly addresses the issues that people may have.

Many of these mechanisms I highlight are already partially or completely in place.

Lets start at the top.

Oversight

This is simple. Minutes of RSC meetings need to start saying more than “We had a meeting and discussed stuff”. That level of information would be insufficient for the minutes of a school governing body and so should be for the RSC meetings. Where decisions are being taken that affect the future of a school that information should be in the public domain, unless there is a clear reason for it not to be.

Control.

One issue that people have about academies and more generally about Multi-academy Trusts is who control them. I would widen this to my concern that decisions about MATs (e.g. re-brokering of schools in/out of the MAT) are made openly and without any conflicts of interest. So to this end it is imperative that all Trustees, Members and Governors fully disclose their other activities. So they would have to disclose any membership of any other Trust boards, and external directorships and this information would have to be easily available on both the school web-site and as a central record held by DfE.

Much of this information is already required to be disclosed at the school level, but in my view the information is also required at the system level in order for full connections to be made. Informal as well as formal networks are important here. It should be easy to find the person who is a member of several trust boards and is also the director of a major supplier to schools. Whilst such a portfolio does not automatically indicate there may be problems it is something that should be out in the light. Much of this information is already required to be disclosed, but the disclosure needs to be much more transparent and the consequences of non-disclosure need to be more of a deterrent.

Companies House also now requires companies to register Persons with Significant Control. These are people who need not have formal, legal control over an entity but “…who actually exercise, or have the right to exercise, significant influence or control…” over the entity. This is a much looser definition than we currently have and we need to ensure that such individuals are also identified with respect to academies.

And the publication of suitably detailed minutes obviously goes the same as for RSCs at all levels of governance within the trust.

Admissions

At certain times of the year all that you will hear parents talking about are school admissions. They are concerned that their child will get their preferred school. Fair dos, in the majority do get their first place, or at least one of the schools on their list. But many don’t and they often feel hard done by. The system for selection can be quite opaque to the untutored eye.

Now even if we had my preferred system (single, national set of admissions criteria) we would still need transparency around the results as often what concerns people is how the rules are implemented more than the rules themselves.

It must be easily possible to see not just what proportions of various groupings each schools takes in, but how that grouping relates to the narrow and wider locality. This data must be provided over a number of years to see if there are changes.

My own feeling for this (based anecdotally and on experience) is that whilst it does happen, there is less “cheating” than many believe. I’ll give an example of what I mean. It is not unusual, for example, for a particular school in an area to gain a reputation for having an excellent SEND team. This will often lead to parents of children with additional needs preferentially choosing that school and where they meet the relevant admissions criteria being successful. Of course, the fact that they are successful in that school means that the other schools may well end up having a lower proportion of SEND students than would seem reasonable. This is why the information is required over several years.

So the publication of more data will not always be able to allay all fears but the more that can be resolved in this way increases trust in the system

Reductions

The other major area for complaint relating to the students in a school is that a school will somehow remove from roll students who will not aid their accountability measures.

To mitigate against this I would require schools to publish movements in numbers in major grouping of students as cohorts move through the years. This would show, for example, if the mix of student abilities changed as students moved towards an external exam year. It should be easily possible to see for the current year 11 how many students started in Y7, for example.

Finance

One of the key issues for workers in the schools system is the belief that mass academisation will lead to lower pay for the same work. Financial transparency can easily address this issue. Firstly, the banded salary data required for company accounts should be published on the school website. I know this is not popular but is essential. Secondly, and at a minimum for the three main discrete groups in a school, Teachers, Teaching Assistants and other non-teaching staff the average pay of the group should be published, along with the average length of service. This data published should cover the past three years.

For teaching staff there should be a separate banded salary table showing not just salary, but years teaching. This is to answer the accusation that academies are employing less experienced staff. Maybe they are, and maybe it makes no difference to outcomes, but lets see the data.

It will also be necessary for schools in a MAT to publish the amount of the MAT top-slice (percentage and pounds) along with the value of the services provided from the MAT.

It will be unnecessary to publish details of related party transaction because I would ban them. The only RPTs that would be permissible are those where there are teacher governors, or where a salaried member of staff had any form of relationship with a trustee. These of course would have to be published.

 

There are numerous other areas where transparency changes would be required, but I hope you can see the benefit of addressing the problem this way. What is the issue? What transparency is required to enable proper judgements to be made?

It might be suggested that all this data is just to satisfy the demands of a few people who will use it negatively. Well, there is always that risk if the data does indeed show that concerns were justified. We have reached a point where such data is easy to create and to make available to those that want it. There is no reason why it should not be. There are no issues of commercial confidentiality involved. Yes, the salaries of some individuals would be identifiable, but that is fairly easy to do already for those who know how. The point of transparency is that such information should not be available only to a privileged few.

My belief is simple. The more that people know about a system, the more they trust it. The more knowledge awash in the system, the more rational the decisions that are made within it. The only reason to keep this information hidden is if to reveal it would cause embarrassment (or worse). If that is the case then there is even more reason to make it available.

 

This is follow up post to Building Trust

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4 thoughts on “Doveryai no proveryai

  1. I see what you are saying here, Mike, but the main thing I’ve found with running a charity is that, even though we are effectively very transparent and publish our accounts etc. via the Charity Commission website and have an audit, as compliance rules require, the real question is who is actually *looking* at the stuff we publish. We take detailed minutes at every meeting and, in theory, someone could read them and go over them with a fine tooth comb to see what we are doing, but again in reality this doesn’t happen because there just aren’t enough people to check up on us. Even when Ofsted visited, there was no real interest in the running of the charity, the focus was (rightly) on the teaching, learning and progress. The Charity Commission is, I fear, far too busy to worry about small entities like ours and it would be worryingly easy for me to do some very dodgy things (which luckily I don’t, but I know that I could if I wanted to).

    While more transparency would be welcome, any self regulating system needs people to make good and moral decisions without the oversight, because that won’t always be there, and there will never be enough external checks to ensure that you can’t ‘get away’ with stuff.

    1. Hi Sue,

      One of the things I wanted to say in the post but ran out of space for was there has been a huge change in the consequences of transparency with the development of technology. When I started out as an accountant mumble-mumble years ago, getting hold of a set of accounts was an arcane art known only to the very few. It involved using the *gasp* postal system and *louder gasps* waiting for a period of time before you got hold of the information. Consequently there were very few people who got involved in informal oversight. In those days the reason people could commit the most egregious breeches of trust is that they were fairly certain to get away with them.

      There is now a considerable difference. I could, as i’m writing this comment, alt-tab to another window and find out how many companies you are involved with, where you work what position you hold and how that organisation is fairing financially. Yes, I might need a bit of training to be able to properly interpret that information but the point is that anyone can now do that initial viewing and then raise questions. The information age has outsourced oversight to the crowd. And the crowd has ways to make its findings public. What we need to ensure now is that the data that is made available is not just presented in a way that enables the organisation to obfuscate information it contains and allows the user to interrogate it in different ways. This is why I’m keen it is the users of the information who should get to input into what information should be available and how it should be presented, rather than this being left to the information owners.

      My view is that one of the reasons (generally speaking) that business in this country is so clean is that there has always been a culture of oversight. It is imperfect, and with recent cuts to organisations which have been historically responsible for that oversight it is in a small amount of danger. This is compounded in the case of academisation where one well-developed system of oversight has been ripped away with a less that fully formed one put in its place. I think it’s possible to provide that oversight if the information is presented in the right way. And then, because those in the system know the oversight is there, they will behave. Mostly.

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