Academisation and returning to governance: lessons from ECER 2016


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Author: Trevor Male

I attended the European Educational Research Association annual conference which took place in late August in Dublin in August of this year (ECER 2016). One of the key issues I explored with colleagues from other countries was school governance in the current era and during these sessions I was struck by how much circumstances have changed recently here in England. Most colleagues discussed how the intermediate level between national government and individual units of accountability, typically schools, was still in the developmental stage.  This contrasted strongly with circumstances that were emerging in England.  One immediate conclusion I reached was how exposed our school system is now following recent policy initiatives and intentions contained within the White Paper – Educational Excellence Everywhere.

The exposure I refer to is the potential for manipulation of the school system in ways that may not lend themselves to preferred outcomes, whether that be the apparent government desire for enhanced student examination success or the desire of some liberal educators to promote learning beyond the immediacy of test scores. Central among my concerns is the policy shift to academisation, especially to the establishment of multi-academy trusts, and an almost inevitable reduction of lay influence in school governance. What we are seeing is not only a virtual removal of intermediate structures, such as the local authorities, but also a significant reduction in the engagement of parents and other community members. 

In my view this has the potential to create a continuum between corruption and confusion in school management. The first issue to confront in this debate is the transformation from each school as an accountable unit with their own governing body to a system that is being replaced by multi-academy trusts with a single governing body for which official guidance is for there to be more ‘professional’ membership. In other words, we are in the process of radically reducing the number of governing bodies in the national school system (to say nothing of degrading the role of individual headteachers).  One laudable feature of the English system I had noted earlier in my career is that governing bodies were an integral part of the complex system of checks and balances evident in the administration of public services established to address the concern society exhibits over the prevention of fraud and misuse of public resources.  Already we have seen, however, abuse of finances by some academy leaders which has resulted in the diversion of funding to their own desires rather than those of the school body they serve.  This is corruption, pure and simple, for which there should be no place in public schooling.

So what of confusion? To date we have seen an entrepreneurial approach to schooling by academy trusts who have been quick to exploit the possibilities of a liberal environment based on the simplistic policy of system self-improvement. What I am finding difficult to reconcile is how this initiative supports a national school system. To illustrate this concern I point to the outcome of the recent Research Excellence Framework in universities whereby it seemed each and every institution claimed a degree of success. What was not clear, however, was how this represented our research capability as a nation. Similarly, I do not doubt that in time each and every academy trust will be able to demonstrate success with their student body, yet what will happen to those who are not part of their ventures?

Listening to colleagues from other countries in ECER2016 explaining the national and local structures being established I became increasingly concerned that not only are we dismantling our own system of governance, but we are also seemingly losing sight of what our schools are aiming to achieve.  The spectre (ogre?) of PISA tables seems to be driving our national policy, but with the fragmentation of the system to one that is dependent on school led improvement we may be witnessing the evolution of isolated pockets of improvement with the risk of simultaneously creating areas of stagnation and regression. Without an overarching national policy and an absence of a democratic system of governance we run the risk of exposing a significant proportion of the school population to a lack of care.

We need intermediate structures of governance to avoid the possibility of unchecked professional control in our schools. To my mind the evidence of multiple cases of fraud and financial misconduct within the academies that have been created should be warning enough that we need stronger governance. Let’s not have to wait until we discover that a significant proportion of our school population has been ignored, overlooked or neglected because they did not fit the aspirations of our newly formed multi academy trusts. Properly constituted governing bodies, those with lay and parental membership, gave us that reassurance so let’s get them back soon!

Trevor is a Senior Lecturer at UCL Institute of Education, working in the London Centre for Leadership in Learning.  He is Programme Leader for the MBA in Educational Leadership (International) and a supervisor of doctoral theses and masters dissertations.

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