Given the perceived  importance of governors to the self-improving school system, how come there are still big shortages of good governors and Chairs in areas of most need?

More than 300,000 school governors in England form one of the largest volunteer groups in the country. Since 1988, school governing bodies have taken on more responsibilities and their role has become more important as schools have gained increasing autonomy.  According to Ofsted ‘The governing body complements and enhances school leadership by providing support and challenge, ensuring that all statutory duties are met, appointing the headteacher and holding them to account for the impact of the school’s work on improving outcomes for all pupils’

The  latest Governors handbook says ‘In all types of schools, governing bodies should have a strong focus on three core strategic functions:

  1. Ensuring clarity of vision, ethos and strategic direction;
  2. Holding the headteacher to account for the educational performance of the school and its pupils, and the performance management of staff; and
  3. Overseeing the financial performance of the school and making sure its money is well spent.’

In order to be effective governors need to have the right skills set , a clear understanding of their roles and access to high quality information on their schools and pupil performance. The problem,of course, is that those with the right skills are often busy with their day jobs, and  not always attracted to the idea of working for free. Nor are some all that keen  to be held accountable, and, indeed,  sometimes personally  liable, in a legal sense,  for things that  go wrong in  their  school and over which they feel that  they might not have much control. .

The CMRE think tank,  which has recently discussed with experts the issue of governance and its future .within a self-improving school system ,says that much attention is currently focused,on professionalization, with discussion of routine payment of expenses and even remuneration of governors. These are important considerations if the aim is only to improve effectiveness on the present arrangements. But CMRE suggests that  more thought should also go  towards the legal framework and definition of governors’ duties. This framework entails a spreading of responsibility, which, in turn, mandates specific structures and procedures of governance. Is this apparatus necessary, they ask,  or helpful even, to achieving the outcomes we want to see for our education system? Might there not be  some benefits to liberalisation? In that event, what can we learn from more focused corporate governance and the diversity of models in evidence in the independent sector? And for governance to add value in terms of raising education quality and ensuring equitable access – of particular import in areas where governance capital is persistently low – what supporting reforms might be required?

While more responsibilities and accountability are being given to governors it is also the case that there is a big challenge in recruiting governors and good Chairs, a majority of whom, remember,  are unpaid volunteers. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the most disadvantaged areas, including rural areas and coastal towns, indeed precisely the areas that  most need to drive up student attainment and to narrow  the attainment gaps. These areas also of course  have problems attracting the best Heads and teachers (and their partners too). So, has the time arrived to offer remuneration and/or other incentives to make up for the shortfall, If not across the board then in specific targeted areas? Should Chairs of governors ,for example, be incentivised? And shouldn’t all governors  be required to have some basic training?

In its Report on The Role of School Governing Bodies, The Education Select Committee stated:

“In order to improve the quality of governance in all schools, the Government must stress the importance of continuing professional development for all governors and headteachers. Our recommendation that the Government should introduce a requirement for schools to offer mandatory training to all new governors reflects the high priority attributed to training and development in the evidence we received.”

Given the significant new responsibilities placed on these volunteers and the shortage of supply there may be a need for a rethink.  And, if the current system of governance is so  good, relying ,as it does, on the motivated , altruistic amateur, how come so many schools are still under-performing? And the performance gap is narrowing so slowly?

Perhaps, most worrying. is that the vast bulk of information  requests from  serving governors  to  the  Key ,which provides an information service for governors countrywide , concerns compliance issues and regulations, rather than issues concerning strategy, school improvement, pupil performance , research  CPD and so on, issues seen as vital to improving student outcomes.

James Croft of the CMRE says ‘Given the weakness of the statistical link between measures of governing body effectiveness and pupil attainment, the lack of clear thinking in general around performance indicators for governing bodies, and the viability of alternative models for getting the job done, it is not unreasonable to ask whether the current arrangements are necessary for success.’ He has a point.



Failures in the body politic laid bare

But what is the solution?


It was standing room only at the IPPR think tank this week when Dominic Cummings the maverick who was Michael Goves adviser, when he was education secretary, deconstructed what is wrong with the way we govern ourselves. The short answer  is,it seems,   quite a lot.

Cummings is being listened to by both the left and right. He says that the political establishment and leadership is dysfunctional. We are led by leaders who are indistinguishable in terms of their background, experience, education and leadership skills (ie a lack thereof).

PPE graduate politicians [like Cameron] think they’ve been taught to run the country, but don’t know how to organise their own diaries. They are arts graduates with no idea of managing people or budgets,” Cummings said.

They had never run a significant enterprise, project or budget before becoming political  leaders , and, unfortunately, it  shows. The same can be said for most cabinet Ministers . The probability is that none of the party leaders  will still be  a leader in eighteen months’ time. No 10, the Cabinet Office and the Treasury (which isn’t much interested in cutting costs) do not work together.  No 10 and the Cabinet Office need radical restructuring  in order to function effectively or indeed function at all. The spending Review process is a farce, led by a Treasury that knows that it doesnt have a full grasp of the public finances.Departments squirrel away significant sums beyond the Treasury’s  grasp .  Such a lack of transparency is hardly conducive to good government and  doesnt   foment  trust.  Government Departments could be reduced by two thirds, and nobody would notice. A cabinet of 30 is ridiculous, it should be cut down  to 6 or 7. Ministers cant hire, fire or train those who work for them, unlike  what happens in every other successful organisation. The higher echelons of government need access to real talent not just a small reservoir of inexperienced and often unskilled  MPs working to short term agendas.

The Civil service is poor at all forms of management and delivery, is over-centralised, cannot project manage, is hugely wasteful and resistant to change to outsiders and  to outside ideas .There should be no permanent civil service. Permanent Secretaries have too big a job and their roles should be split as, in some respects, they are conflicting. There could be a chief executive, for example ,a top policy specialist and a fixer  to drive through reform .  Nothing  major happens at the top of government unless   Sir Jeremy Heywood ,the top civil servant ,gives it the nod. Downing Street runs a short term reactive agenda, its staff are hopeless and in the wrong jobs, and there is no longer term strategic and reflective  innovative thinking going on, says Cummings. Its all short term, driven by media and blogosphere requirements.And narcissm.

The whole wiring of the system is designed to perpetuate policy failure and lack of organisational grip. Those who get promoted are those who conform, and don’t rock the boat, rather than those who can drive through change. Failure is rewarded. Civil servants who consistently fail  to deliver  for ministers remain in post. Nor is there any institutional memory, and key experience is lost. Departments have got rid of their libraries . There is an obsession with process, rather than  getting useful things done. Who is copied into e-mails, and covering your back  is more important than a single minded focus on trying to  deliver the right outcomes and what is of public value and public  interest. Real direct accountability doesn’t exist.

Project Management skills are too scarce, even basic letter writing skills are  very poor. 9 out of 10 letters were returned by Goves private office, due to very basic errors.

Departmental culture militates against a culture of excellence and professional responsibility. Perverse incentives abound.

Dysfunctional teams and chaotic networks characterise Whitehall.  There is far too much complexity in the system ,and too little predictability, for centralised  command and control to work. Our rulers do not know how to interpret information and  have  insufficient background in scientific concepts and how to interpret and use evidence, to make informed decisions. Much better, therefore ,to have devolved decision-making hubs.

Nor do we have a clear  idea of our role in the world, says Cummings. Just look at the arguments over Europe. What we need is little short of a revolution in the way we think about governance and about how  we govern ourselves. Because at the moment it is absolutely not working. Do not believe that there is a small group of enlightened people behind a closed door who in quiet contemplation and reflection have a long view and are quietly steering the ship of state to more settled waters. Neither they nor the room exist. What you see is what you get.

Some of what Cummings says has a powerful resonance but, unsurprisingly, he seems less clear what to do about it.  After this  deconstruction we have a right to expect  if not a blueprint for reform, at least  some  basic architecture.

He did draw our attention though  to the research of   Philip Tetlock . He is  finding out, through crowd sourcing and  ‘tournaments’ that groups of open minded people can predict future events with  surprising accuracy. Moreover  with training our predictive ability can get better. The implications for government and business are obvious.

He also  offerd  an interesting big  thought  about where he sees  our future role ,picked up by Nick Pearce  of the IPPR who said it was  “very interesting“ and worth exploring –That as a country  we should focus on seeking to become a world leader in Education and Science

The issue of how our political establishment can  govern more effectively, and with greater public support and engagement   to  address  the increasingly complex  long term issues facing  humanity does seem to be the big political question of the moment.

One other interesting footnote. He said that Gove had been getting daily memos from within the DFE about how we badly needed to fix the Careers service. Indeed no subject seemed to be more important within the department. Gove though was adamant that this responsibility should go to schools with a saving made on the previous service ie Connexions, which he and Cummings strongly believed had been useless.   Memos kept coming, so Gove told the Permanent Secretary to stop them and cut down the number of civil servants dealing with Careers. This was achieved, so the number went down from around 30 to four or five, although Cummings said that the numbers were now probably creeping up.  Ironically in this respect Gove, confirmed by Cummings, has a visceral concern for the lot of the most disadvantaged and  acknowledges how much help he was given as an adopted boy in his early life and how easy it would have been to make a wrong turn and be given the wrong advice. Sound, independent information, advice and guidance is, of course, supposed to benefit the disadvantaged the most.  At present Goves legacy on this  is that schools are offering at best patchy advice and not enough one- to one –independent,  professional advice to their most  disadvantaged pupils.   Sad that, as it clearly  undermines the governments  own  social mobility agenda , big time.

Cummings is currently unemployed.


Note- Nick Pearce of the IPPR recently wrote

‘ Our hollowed-out, elite-driven party politics, besieged by populist forces and an insatiable media, finds itself responding ever more frenetically and tactically to the fickle electorate, so that politicians are increasingly unable to take hold of the major long-term structural challenges that advanced societies face.’

Painting in primary colours: political populism and the muted mainstream

See any similarities?



Given the ‘derogations’ and funding agreements its not so straightforward


The DFE says ‘All academies and free schools must comply with the School Admissions Code. This ensures their admission arrangements are fair, clear and objective.’ ‘The purpose of the Code is to ensure that all school places for  maintained schools (excluding maintained special schools ) and Academies  are allocated and offered in an open and fair way.’ So far, so straightforward.

But, there are what are called ‘derogations’ from the Code. The Secretary of State  has Funding Agreements with individual academies (ie Funding Agreements are not all the same)

It is through the individual Funding Agreement that the Secretary of State has agreed different admissions arrangements for academies and free schools. The DFE likes to stress, though, that this happens only in limited circumstances, ‘where there is demonstrable evidence that it will benefit local children’.

In addition on opening, all free schools are permitted to allocate places outside of local authority co-ordination in their first year only; while all academy schools that have opened since 2012 can grant admissions priority to pupils eligible for the pupil and service premiums. The revised School Admissions Code currently before the Commons proposes extending this freedom to all state-funded schools.

So what does derogation mean in practice?  Well, for example, 46 free schools are able to give admissions priority to founders’ children.  But Founders’ status is granted ‘ only to those individuals who have played a material role in setting up the school and who continue to be involved in the running of the school.’ And, another example, Birmingham Ormiston Academy which became an academy in 2011 is permitted to select the majority of its intake by their aptitude for the performing arts . Why? Because it is operating as a regional centre for the performing arts. So in the DFEs words.. ‘ The derogation enables children to obtain a specialist education unavailable elsewhere’.

Admissions policy  is a bit of a minefield and one thing it is  not is straightforward.School  choice  rather too often can mean   that the school rather than the parent exercises choice.


Governments response to consultation  on Code




Should Ofsted inspections better reflect the fact that there are networks involved in school improvement?


At the heart of the “self-improving system” is the idea that schools should co-operate in networks, where teachers and Heads , collaborate and exchange good practice to improve outcomes. This collaboration ,of course,  must remain relevant to particular local contexts – so schools are not told to impose what worked in an affluent London borough on a school in a remote coastal town or rural area. This is more bottom up than top down. Or that at least is the theory.

Ofsted has a powerful influence on schools’ actions, but whether this influence is overall positive or negative depends on the type of school inspected and the quality of inspections.

Melanie Ehren a Senior lecturer at the London Centre for Leadership in Learning at the Institute of Education, says that ‘The way schools and authorities operate in this “networked system” needs to become more localised, rather than dictated by a national inspection framework which treats all schools and their governing bodies in a similar manner. Instead, a group of schools and authorities should step up to take a joint responsibility for how well a school is functioning. Ofsted inspections need to reflect this by evaluating how schools and authorities take on that joint responsibility.’

School improvement is not simply, she adds, a linear process of inspection, intervention and improvement of individual schools and of individual authorities. Ehren argues plausibly  that  if  the Department of Education  really wants to move towards a self-improving school system, centred on collaboration,  it needs to move away from thinking that individual schools operate in a vacuum. They don’t ,or at least shouldn’t. So, it follows that  the inspection regime should take this into account.

The role and activities of the regional school commissioners is interesting in this respect as they are supposed to have a more holistic , cross cutting approach to school improvement across the areas for which they are responsible.



It will come as no shock that it does

Autonomy by itself is insufficient ; autonomy must be  combined with effective governance


There are major disparities in the quality of education within and between countries (e.g. OECD 2012). School managerial practices may be an important reason for such differences.  Unfortunately, understanding the role of management in schools within and across countries has been held back ‘ by a lack of robust and comparable instruments to systematically measure management practices and, thus, a lack of good data.’

While many researchers have looked at differences in school inputs – such as teacher quality, class size and family/pupil characteristics – or variations in the institutional environment – such as pupil choice – few studies explore differences in school management.

However, this new paper from the Centre for Economic Performance claims to have robust evidence that management practices vary significantly across and within countries and are strongly linked to pupil outcomes. In short,  Management quality does matter.   The UK, Sweden, Canada and the US obtain the highest management scores, closely followed by Germany, with a gap to Italy, Brazil and then finally India. We also show that autonomous government schools (i.e. government funded but with substantial independence like UK academies and US charters) have significantly higher management scores than regular government schools and private schools. Almost half of the difference between the management scores of autonomous government schools and regular government schools is accounted for by differences in leadership of the principal and better governance.

The report states:

‘A new finding is that autonomous government schools appear to have significantly higher management scores than both regular government schools and private schools. Their better performance is not linked with autonomy per se but with how autonomy is used.

Having  strong accountability of principals to an external governing body and exercising strong  leadership through a coherent long-term strategy for the school appear to be two key features  that account for a large fraction of the superior management performance of such schools.’

’ From a policy point of view our findings suggest that improving management could be an  important way of raising school standards and give broad support for the fostering of greater  autonomy of government schools. Autonomy by itself is unlikely to deliver better results, however, finding ways to improve governance and motivate principals are likely to be key to make sure decentralized power leads to better standards.’

CEP Discussion Paper No 1312 -November 2014  Does Management Matter in Schools?

Nicholas Bloom,Renata Lemos Raffaella Sadun John Van Reenen




Published Sunday Times 9 November 2014

Christina Lamb’s assessment is absolutely correct. Back in 2006 the British established platoon bases in Helmand that were quickly besieged. These bases were to provide security footprints across the area, but one had an inkling that things were not going entirely to plan when the crews of the Chinook helicopters resupplying them began to be awarded gallantry medals.

What happened to these bases symbolised everything that was wrong. Tactics have to be informed by a strategy, but no credible strategy existed. There was a failure to navigate or harness the local micro-politics and clan system that has been running Afghanistan for centuries. The reliance instead on brute force with little intelligence never had a chance of succeeding.
Patrick Watson, London SW8




Lord Nash says that financial regulation of academies is tighter than in  maintained schools


In response to claims that academies have lax financial regulation, Lord Nash said in the Lords on 27 October that “…academies are subject to considerably more rigorous financial regulation than local authority maintained schools. For example, they have to publish annual, independently audited accounts; local authority maintained schools do not. They are subject to the rigorous oversight of the Education Funding Agency and anyone in a governing relationship with an academy, or an organisation closely linked to it, can provide services to a local authority maintained school at a profit; they cannot to an academy”

He was  dismissive of criticisms from Labour Peers, reminding them  “that 36 of the 55 pre-warning notices that this Government have issued to academy sponsors have been to sponsors approved under the previous Government. This Government have considerably tightened up financial oversight and improved things such as control of grants. Of course, these figures are but nothing compared to the £10 billion overspend the National Audit Office tells us that the previous Government were heading for under the Building Schools for the Future programme.”

Fraud and financial irregularities, of course ,are not the sole preserve of academies. Lord Nash pointed out, tellingly, that “The EFA has investigated 35 cases of fraud in academies in two years. That compares to 191 reported in maintained schools over one year. If we feel that there are causes for concern we will inform the police or, in more minor cases, introduce a financial notice to improve”

But, stepping aside from arguments about whether or not academies have less financial accountability than maintained schools (the evidence in any case is hardly compelling), it is pretty clear now  that the direction of travel is towards greater scrutiny of schools financial management and accountability. A steady trickle of stories about schools reckless and inappropriate spending, and a rather cavalier  attitude to public funds among some Heads and governors,  albeit a small minority, whether  in academies or maintained schools, serves to undermine confidence that taxpayers money is being well protected in the schools system .  Its seems likely that this issue will be on agenda after the election next  year.