Control and accountability: what does the future hold for governance?

Friday, July 22nd, 2016

by Oliver Kean

It seems a long time ago now that one of the bigger political stories dominating news cycles was the government’s coolly received  white paper on school reform, and in particular its controversial measures on school structure and governance. U-turns followed and then… well… other events took place, which in the ensuing chaos led some to declare the white paper and its contents finished, for the time being at least. But now that the dust has begun to settle after weeks of post-Brexit upheaval, does the future for school governance look any different?

While much has been made of the fresh start provided by the new, comprehensive-educated secretary of state for education, Justine Greening, the ministerial team running the Department for Education remains largely unchanged. Although now delayed by a year, efforts to reform the funding system will continue, suggesting a continuity agenda has been embraced. Crucially, Lord Nash, whose vision of a more professional and private-sector ethos within school governance has provided the overarching strategy for several years, remains in post. His mission of reducing the size of governing bodies, in an attempt to ensure they are skills focused and less occupied with peripheral matters, looks set to continue.

In this spirit, trustees and local governors in larger academies, alliances and multi-academy trusts will continue to develop their governance arrangements to deliver improved outcomes across larger and more complex organisations. In many cases trustees will be learning to work alongside chief executives rather than traditional headteachers. Better, more detailed induction and finance training will form a key part of this approach, as will greater recruitment of professionals to governing bodies from companies.

That said, it’ll remain a challenge to fully embed this ethos in smaller schools, primaries and those in the maintained sector, where the need for such professional expertise over community knowledge will continue to be questioned, even resisted by some. On a related note, quite how plans to abolish the parent governor category from governing bodies will be received after the new prime minister’s pledge to “ordinary families” to “do everything we can to give you more control”, along with her commitment to greater worker and consumer representation on private sector boards, remains to be seen – but it throws up some interesting questions as to whether the course ahead will be changed to ensure certain voices are always heard on the governing body.

There remains uncertainty too about exactly how the academy programme will progress under new leadership, something which will have a major impact on how the role of governance will play out in coming years. While it’s unlikely that there’ll be any end to academy conversion – the new prime minister has always supported academies – it’ll be difficult to re-introduce anything like the mandatory programme that was proposed earlier in the year. In light of circumstances, it’s possible that May will want her government to be seen as introducing a more consultative approach to what some critics have sometimes felt is an aloof and centralising academy programme. Those governors in the maintained sector who have long resisted academy conversion may well feel that bit more secure for the time being.

Of course, some have long argued that full academisation will happen anyway, voluntarily rather than by legislative means. But nevertheless it now seems a different approach is plausible, in the long term at least. Might we eventually arrive at a system where governance sits within beefed-up local and regional decision making structures that have been designed to ensure better representation of, and accountability to, community interests? As a small aside, much has already been made of Theresa May’s support of grammar school expansion. Might enhanced local decision-making be one way of allowing her to make such a policy development more palatable?

I’m just speculating here, of course. The pressing issues of limited budgets, staff shortages, and improving teaching and learning will continue to dominate governors’ agendas in the near to medium term. Meanwhile, many maintained school governing bodies will decide that the future of their schools (although not their futures as governors) are more secure and better served within multi-academy trusts, with all the implications this has for governance across the system.

But, as I’ve noted before, questions of control and accountability are not going away; how our governance system answers them remain key challenges for the future.

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