He contends that if the process of academisation could be viewed as potentially removing power and control from the community, then democratic governance structures are all the more essential.
- Governance of schools is rapidly changing, with almost 5000 state-funded schools having converted to academies.
- A growing number of academics and practitioners are referring to the democratic deficit within academised governance arrangements.
- Participatory governance is concerned with stimulating the energy and influence of ordinary people in the governance arrangements of organisations.
- The SBM is likely to have an advisory role in the process of designing the governance structure of the academy, so it is legitimate to propose a democratic model for consideration.
The governance arrangements of schools are more important today than ever before. Why? Well, almost 5,000 state-funded schools have converted to academies. This means that over 60% of all secondary schools in England are now privatised organisations, so the tipping point in the creation of the autonomous school has been passed. Furthermore, David Cameron has stated that he wants all schools to become academies by 2020.
Given that academies are independent, private companies and accountable only to the Secretary of State for Education, governance of our schools is rapidly changing. A point in case is that of multi-academy sponsor E-ACT, which has made the news recently with the controversial decision to, as the BBC puts it, ‘scrap its governing bodies’. The NUT suggested that the move was undemocratic and sets a dangerous precedent. Education funding agency (EFA) funding agreements can place power into a handful of trustees, with governing boards having no obvious right to power or status.
Academy autonomy and accountability
The idea of the autonomous school is not new and is arguably based upon the neo-liberalist principle that there is little that the public sector can do that the private ‘marketised’ sector cannot do better. This ideological perspective was applied to education by both Conservative and Labour administrations – remember grant maintained schools, CTCs and the city academies? During the early period of academisation, sponsors from the private sector were invited to run the city academies as efficient ‘edu-businesses’. However, few sponsors materialised because of the requirement to contribute financially, so this requirement was removed. The legacy term ‘sponsor’ of course remains and should really be replaced by a more accurate term. Perhaps one that signifies a removal of academy funds as opposed to one that implies an addition?
Moving forward in time, a useful rationale for the coalition government for autonomous academies was provided by the programme for international student assessment (PISA) rankings. Finland, with its pedagogical and administrative freedoms, was at the top of the table. The OECD argued that its list was much more than a ranking, that it was effectively a tool to assist government policy. The indication was that when autonomy and accountability were intelligently combined they tended to be associated with better school performance. Hence, the government used this argument to convert state-funded schools into academies.
Note, however, that an academy within a multi-academy trust (MAT) is not autonomous at all; its accountability route has simply been redirected from the local authority. Moreover, Ofsted’s annual report now states that, ‘structural solutions alone will not be enough to address this gap’ (of failing schools), acknowledging that converting schools into autonomous academies does not automatically raise standards.
The democratic deficit
A growing number of academics and practitioners are referring to the democratic deficit within academised governance arrangements, where control is placed outside of established public accountability systems.
One of the largest MATs currently operating is an interesting example. The trust in question operates scores of academies and has a board comprised of only four unelected trustees. Trusts are best able to decide the format that suits their needs, even though potentially small groups of unelected individuals are responsible for extremely large sums of public money. Now in receipt of a ‘financial notice to improve’ from the EFA, this MAT is looking to strengthen its board. However, appointments in such cases are often made by recommendation and nomination and it is unlikely that the broader community will be involved within the process – or receive a place at the exclusive non-executive table.
Confirming this observation, Andrew Wilkins’ study, funded by the economic and social research council (ESRC) and cited in the TES article ‘Are cliques taking control of our governing bodies?’, is critical of small governing boards. It suggests that many schools are increasingly governed by unelected cliques, leading to an accountability deficit and regulatory gap that allows poor governance to go undetected. This leads to significant failures of governance.
In order to ensure meaningful accountability within academised governance, the identification of a democratic, participative alternative is necessary.
Participatory governance is concerned with stimulating the energy and influence of ordinary people in the governance arrangements of organisations that are important to them. In the school context, it is about capturing the skills and interests of local stakeholders and creating a system that actively encourages and values their participation. A characteristic of this form of democracy is that it is a ‘bottom-up’ structure that creates channels for stakeholders to become involved in decision-making processes. A further feature is that these decision-making processes are ‘deliberative’, whereby participants actively listen to one another to generate group choices that are not merely interest led.
The Co-operative College has developed a governance model (below) that is participatory, and is rapidly gaining popularity, although co-operative academies currently represent less than 1% of academies nationally. The model is values driven, stated as self-help, equality, solidarity, honesty, openness, responsibility and a caring for others. Moreover, co-operative principles include voluntary open membership, democratic member control and a concern for the community. Within this inclusive model, members of the community are encouraged to join a membership group which, in turn, elects a forum – a powerful consultative body of the elected governing board. This structure is reminiscent of earlier forms of community representation and participation, the members associations, for example, of Henry Morris’s Village Colleges in Cambridgeshire, and would sit highly on a ladder of citizen control or empowerment.
The co-operative governing board comprises a minimum of ten governors, though in practice it is likely to be more. It includes staff, parents, community members, local authority representatives, Co-operative College representatives, representatives from partner organisations, the headteacher and co-opted members. Realistically, in this model there is little room for a small, self-elected, hero- leadership group. Note that government policy is working to reduce the size of governing boards, which in my view reduces democratic involvement. There is also little evidence to support this policy; indeed, a recent large-scale study headed by Professor James from the University of Bath, linked higher-performing schools with larger governing boards. Furthermore, the National Governors Association has expressed concern that smaller boards are a risk to capacity, implying perhaps that a larger board is preferable.
The role of the SBM
School business managers play an important role in the conversion process to academy status, and often assume the role of the Company Secretary. While acknowledging that is it the role of the trust to design the governance structure of the new organisation, the SBM is likely to have an advisory role in the process, so it is legitimate to propose a democratic model for consideration. It is unlikely that such democratic models will evolve without such advice and support and they will need to be developed and nurtured.
So, to finish with a challenge! Take a critical look at the governance arrangements that are in place within your academy and assess how participative and inclusive it is. If it is democratically weak what are you, as both a professional and stakeholder, going to do about it?
- ‘Academy chain to scrap governing bodies’ by Sean Coughlan, BBC News online, January 2016: http://bit.ly/BBCAcademiesArticle
- A collection of academies investigation reports by the EFA can be found at: http://bit.ly/EFA-AcademiesReports
- A collection of academies, financial notices to improve can be found at: http://bit.ly/EFA-AcademiesFNTIs
- The Annual Report of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills 2014/15: http://bit.ly/OfstedAnnualReport14-15
- ‘Are cliques taking control of our governing bodies?’ by Helen Ward, TES, November 2014: http://bit.ly/TESreGoverningBodies
- Professor C. James et al. (2014), ‘The State of School Governing in England 2014’, University of Bath and NGA: http://bit.ly/NGASchoolGoverning2014
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