I’m thrilled to publish Karen’s blog, in which she introduces the case for civic knowledge and shares some powerful messages from her research with parents. Karen shines a light on how some so-called parental engagement initiatives are little more than a PR exercise and suggests that there can be an increasing distance – metaphorical if not physical – between Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) and the communities they are designed to serve. Karen shares stories of how some parents were empowered to garner wider parental and community support; how there was a recognition of the power of collective action and the value of civic knowledge. This blog allows us an insight into how local and authentic parental participation can contribute to meaningful governance and decision-making.
So, thank you, Karen, for sharing this blog with us. If you’d like to comment, head over to Twitter and use the hashtag #BELMASblog.
Engaging with Parents in the Governance of Multi Academy Trusts (MATs): A Case for Civic Knowledge.
The United Kingdom’s Levelling Up agenda has acknowledged the importance of place and local agency when seeking to address inequalities. This blog seeks to explore the value of that civic knowledge offered by local parents* in decision-making in multi-academy trusts (MATs) by exploring the stories of parents at Town Academy, a member of Academies Trust.
With the academisation of schools in England alongside the growth of MATs there has been a concretisation of market ideologies (Courtney and McGinity, 2020) which have shaped the relationships between governance, schools and local parents. Parental engagement in MAT governance structures and activities is constructed in policy contemporarily as mattering less than engagement by professionalised governors and trustees.
Guidance from the Department for Education for school governance and that of MATs (DfE, 2020; DfE, 2022) advise that mechanisms are in place for communication with parents with governance able to show how decision-making has been influenced by parents views. However, the ‘professionalisation’ of school governance has led to “managerial-bureaucratic duties” (Olmedo and Wilkins, 2017: 580) aimed at meeting functional accountability measures rather than one of the critical citizen (Wilkins, 2019; Wilkins and Gobby, 2022). As a result, parents have been divided: those with or without the privileged knowledge and skills for school governance (Wilkins, 2015). Consequently, this re-imagining of school governance has led to an increasing invisibility of decision-making (Kulz, 2020) and the loss of local voices (Woods and Simkins, 2014), as many MATs become metaphorically distant, (Baxter and Cornforth, 2019) from the local communities of their schools.
Research has often been concerned with the deficiency of many parents in both operationalising MAT governance (Olmedo and Wilkins, 2017) but also in securing improved standards as currently measured (Harris and Goodall, 2008; Smith, 2021). Rarely are parents part of that research as knowers (Gunter et al., 2013) or interpreters of where knowing occurs and what counts as knowledge (Gunter and Ribbens, 2003b).
In seeking to understand the role of parental engagement this study collected the stories of three parents from Town academy in Academies Trust, a large MAT.
Parents in this study saw the role of parents as one that provides local civic knowledges from being a citizen of the community. These parents told stories of a civic knowledge that was heterogeneous and informed action. For them the purpose was described as one of giving, influence and sharing. However, engagement with those in governance was seen as a public relations activity seeking to secure support for decisions suggesting an illusory power. In fact, it was often perceived as disciplinary, shaping parent behaviour and expectations.
Locally the recognition that parents are not a homogeneous group was seen in the development of varied spaces for ‘knowing’ and knowledge production. These included drop-in sessions to come and talk and formal activities, in school and in the community. A Parent Forum had been established by a parent as a vehicle for communication with the Trust. But regular events in community bases offered access for some parents to be heard creating greater collective understanding.
Stories told of collective action, such as when parents worked locally with the academy to address issues of behaviour. They told of how their civic knowledge allowed an alternative view of alienation and recognising the need to engage with community leaders to build relationships. In this story parents saw themselves as community conduits for civic knowledge and networks. Other stories told of how the academy’s response to COVID had required alternative knowledge often held locally. This was civic knowledge necessary in decision-making whether that was resourcing for learning, such as ICT, curriculum priorities addressing learning and well-being or connecting the school with local resourcing to support families in need.
Accessing civic knowledge and connecting with it, requires a willingness to listen, share power and try the less trodden path at times. The opportunity to engage allows for multiple voices and a multiplicity of knowledges to shape an alternative space for engagement which recognises the value of professional and civic knowledges to inform decisions. These parents saw the value of parental engagement for the academy as a means of seeking alternative knowledge and expertise that could shape key local decisions and create a collective response.
Perhaps, the recognition of a civic knowledge allows us to see that there is a role for parental engagement beyond satisfaction surveys and consultation approaches designed as PR tools. The acknowledgement of this local civic knowledge could offer an alternative concept of parental engagement that could strengthen school governance action and begin to address the loss of local voice. Whilst the accountability measures lie with those responsible for governance this opportunity to see parents as knowers, creating places of knowing and creating knowledge offers an opportunity to re-address the marginalisation and even silencing of local civic knowledge.
*parents is used as a term to cover role of carer, parent and guardian
Karen is currently undertaking her PhD at the University of Manchester, Institute of Education. Prior to starting her PhD, she completed a Masters in Social Science Research at Keele University. Her research interests include MAT governance, education leadership, the role of parental engagement, and local democracy. These interests have been driven by her experience in school senior leadership over the last twenty years in both England and Wales. She has had the privilege to work alongside and with staff in schools, local parents and those governing schools in a variety of contexts. It is this experience gained with others that has led to Karen’s interest in knowledge production.
Karen has had her first article published by Management in Education.
Baxter, J, A. and Cornforth, C. (2019) Governing collaborations: how boards engage with their communities in multi-academy trusts in England, Public Management Review, 23 (4), 567-589.
Courtney, S.J., and McGinity, R. (2020) System leadership as depoliticisation: Reconceptualising educational leadership in a new Multi-Academy Trust. Educational Management, Administration & Leadership. Advance online publication.
Department for Education (DfE), (2020). Governance Handbook 2019. [online] Available HERE (accessed: 16 November 2022).
Department for Education (DfE), (2020). Governance Handbook 2019. [online] Available at: Academy Trust Handbook – Guidance – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk) (accessed: 16 November 2022).
Gov.uk. (2022) Levelling Up the UK. [online] Available at: assets.publishing.service.gov.uke (accessed 16th November 2022).
Gunter, H. and Ribbins, P. (2003b) ‘The Field of Educational Leadership: Studying Maps and Mapping Studies’, British Journal of Educational Studies, 51(3): 254–281.
Gunter, H., Hall, D. and Bragg, J. (2013) ‘Distributed Leadership: A Study in Knowledge Production’, Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 41(5): 555–580.
Harris, A., and Goodall. J. (2008) ‘Do parents know they matter? Engaging all parents in learning.’ Educational Research 50 (3): 277–289.
Kulz, C. (2021) Everyday erosions: neoliberal political rationality, democratic decline and the Multi-Academy Trust, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 42 (1): 66-81.
Olmedo, A. and Wilkins, A. (2017) ‘Governing through parents: a genealogical enquiry of education policy and the construction of neoliberal subjectivities in England’, Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 38(4): 573–589.
Smith, M. (2021) ‘Parent participation practices and subjectivities: New Zealand primary education 1988–2017’, Journal of Educational Administration and History, 53(3–4): 175–197.
Wilkins, A. (2015) ‘Professionalizing school governance: the disciplinary effects of school autonomy and inspection on the changing role of school governors’, Journal of Education Policy, 30(2): 182–200.
Wilkins, A. (2019) ‘Wither democracy? The rise of epistocracy and monopoly in school governance’. In Riddle, S. and Apple, M. (eds) Re-imaging Education for democracy. Routledge: London. pp. 142:155
Wilkins and Gobby (2022) Objects and subjects of risk: a governmentality approach to education governance, Globalisation, Societies and Education, 20: 1-14.
Woods, P., and Simkins, T., (2014) ‘Understanding the local’. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 42(3), 324–340.