Customers not stakeholders: the death of local accountability

Next month is the fourth anniversary of the formation of Educating Brentwood. A relatively short time ago but long enough, it seems, for the central concerns about the threat to educational accountability that we resolved to highlight locally and nationally to become glaring realities.

The consequences of adopting a free market approach to school commissioning is now the subject of major concern to the all party parliamentary education committee as we have a scarcity of school places in some areas whilst new provision has been opened where there is a clear surplus. The resulting uneven distribution of resources making a nonsense of claims that this drives improvements in existing schools.

As Simon Jenkins, hardly a renowned statist, recently pointed out you did not have to be a modern day Nostradamus to see where the 2010 Academies Act was likely to lead us:

Britain’s headteachers today claimed the blindingly obvious. If the government funds private organisations to set up “free” state schools wherever parents do not like existing ones, provision will be “wasteful, fragmented and confusing”. There will be too many places in some neighbourhoods and too few in others.

That has duly happened.

Now the drive to replace elected local authorities with private academy chains has seen links to parents and local communities wither and, in the case of E-ACT this week, be overtly cut. As reported by the BBC, the London-based academy chain has decided to disband the governing bodies of the 23 schools that they currently oversee.

The proposed new governance structure was helpfully revealed in the report and is reproduced below. It underlines that headteachers have little, if any, strategic say in their school let alone the chain and that parents are effectively reduced to cheerleaders. Given that the schools are located as far apart as Bristol, Yorkshire and the West Midlands, it is difficult to understand how local context, community need and accountability can be maintained from an office in the capital using this model.

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The response to this news from the National Governors Association (NGA), as reported in Schools Week, took me a little by surprise. The Association’s Chair, Emma Knights, is described as “welcoming” the move but, when you read on, only beacuse E-ACT are being open about the reality of governance within their schools. The worrying implication being that other chains are operating on the same de-facto basis with puppet local arrangements. It is interesting to note that E-ACT’s existing bodies were made up of 2/3 of their own appointees.

However, Ms Knights continues:

“As federations and MATs grow, they do need to review their governance arrangements and be creative to ensure it still works and that the overarching board is able to hear from parents and the local communities, which the schools serve.”

It is the nature of “hear from” and “serve” that is surely crucial.

EACT 1If, as backed up by our current accountability system, “serve” is restricted to headline outcomes for students who complete their exams at a school then how that is achieved risks that being at the expense of some in the community. Witness this week’s revelation, as revealed by Warwick Mansell in this week’s Guardian, that as many as 10,000 students were removed from roll last year in time for their results not to count in accountability measures. How well have they, and the wider community, been ‘served’?

It is explicitly clear following the Prime Minister’s stated wish that ‘all schools are academies’ by 2020 that accountability will effectively restricted to headline outcomes and Ofsted inspections. The implication of this is that if those boxes are ticked, how this is done, and how it may impact neighbours, is unimportant. Worse, as a stretched Ofsted have effectively given those currently holding an ‘Outstanding’ rating (however long ago they were last inspected and, in the case of some new schools, even if they only had two year groups at the time) a free pass from inspection unless results dip or significant concerns are raised, how are they to be held to account in the interim?

The case of E-ACT is particularly interesting in this context as they were forced to hand back 10 of their schools by the DfE only two years ago. The Independent reported that the investigation uncovered some dubious use of Trust funds:

The report, which criticised monthly lunches at London’s prestigious Reform Club and first-class rail travel for senior executives, led to Sir Bruce Liddington, head of E-ACT and a former head of the academies programme at the Department for Education, giving up his post.

Some will argue that the fact that action was taken in this case proves that bad practice is being identified and acted on. However, if you condense your governance into a small number of people at the centre doesn’t this make such scrutiny more difficult?

The ‘reforms’ set in train by the Academies Act were presented as a prime example of localism in action. The reality has been the exact opposite. There has been no consideration of local factors in commissioning and now the same is being applied in governance.

As I have written previously, parents are only listened to when it suits. The small vocal minority, with no need to consider the implications of their ‘demand’ for new provision on existing schools, are feted and indulged while the students and parents adversely affected are legislated against to prevent objection.

Parents are reduced to ‘customers’, ‘free’ to ‘choose’ to move their children from school to school just as they would choose where to buy their coffee. The removal of the need to consider local stakeholders in the running of state funded schools continues this trend.

It doesn’t have to be this way. I understand and largely agree with the DfE recommendation to ensure that governing bodies have a range of skills at their disposal rather than meeting a stakeholder representation quota but they are not mutually exclusive. The government is currently risking painting those running academy chains as having a monopoly on educational wisdom, above even the actual teaching professionals – the Headteacher and their staff. The E-ACT model reinforces that impression.

Constructive partnership between those with a genuine stake in the education that students receive at a school, because their children are amongst the cohort, and those that provide it on a daily basis is the most likely to provide true accountability and to reflect the needs of the local community. As such it is important that parents and teachers are properly represented in the new governance structures. To that end, I would stipulate that each local governing body supplied at least one trustee to their Academy Trust, in addition to the headteacher, as a minimum and not the other way around.

The die is cast in terms of academisation in my judgement but there is no reason why that has to necessarily mean loss of local accountability and service to the local community in itself. There are plenty of good examples of inclusive schools operating for the benefit of their whole community with a governance structure that reflects that. I must declare an interest as a governor of a Co-operative Trust school, but I believe that their model is underpinned by that intention and there are many other academy trusts operating with direct involvement of their stakeholders and with the interests of the whole local educational community at heart.

Unfortunately, if the DfE allow the proposed E-ACT model to stand, they are tacitly approving the reduction of parents and the community to nothing more than customers despite the fact that they are the ones providing the funds for them to operate.

Over the last four years we have been regularly accused of scaremongering about the harmful effect of opening schools where they are not needed, manipulated admissions and declining funding.

I long to be proved wrong on the death of local accountability.

Stephen Mayo

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