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A review of Channel 4’s Dispatches: anyone for governance?

Image credit: Sept. 2014 306 by Lord Jim - licensed under CC BY 2.0.

A review of Channel 4’s Dispatches: anyone for governance?

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The Secret Governor may or may not be on your governing board. They may also continue to refer to it as a ‘governing body’, which may or may not be an attitude which Requires Improvement. They have indicated that this post represents a very personal opinion, with which you may dis/agree wholeheartedly.

If what I read and understand is correct, much of the current educational orthodoxy is centred around the philosophies of American historian E.D Hirsch, who advocates a knowledge-based curriculum in place of skills and meta-cognition (“learning about learning”). The adoption of Hirsch’s views by government – an anti-Rose Review if you like – is due in no small part to his influence on the thinking of former Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove and current Schools Minister Nick Gibb:

But Education Secretary Michael Gove is certainly keen to inject more of Hirsch into English schools. He told MPs earlier this year that far from seeing these ideas as old-fashioned, he expected schools to embrace them.

Mr Gove says he does not want to force schools to adopt Hirsch’s ideas – but some members of the expert panel set up to provide advice on his curriculum review think that is just what he is doing.

Prof Andrew Pollard was one of the panel’s four members. It came up with a perfectly sensible conclusion: education is the product of interaction between knowledge and individual development.

But Mr Gove and Mr Gibb did not entirely agree with that. They want more of the knowledge and less of the individual development. And they want it laid out as Hirsch recommends – in specific, year-by-year detail.

Cultural literacy: Michael Gove’s school of hard facts, BBC Radio 4 Analysis, 28th October 2012.

It could be summarised that a Hirschian-Govian-Gibbian view of the world is about asking the What?, Who?, When? and Where? questions – listen to the start of the audio clip to hear the MP for Surrey Heath and Brutus to Boris Johnson’s Caesar answering quiz questions like a middle-class version of Google – with this approach setting aside the question Why? for another time, or possibly ignoring it altogether.

Academies under a mainstream media microscope

Watching this week’s Dispatches on Channel 4, which had been trailed by a companion article in Sunday’s Observer, rang some bells in my head. In some ways to this viewer it felt like the programme took a Hirschian view of what counts as analysis – asking a lot of the What? and Who? but neglecting to go deeper and ask Why?.

I’ve been thinking about this for a few days now, and my questions are as much about the programme as they are about the examples of poor practice it portrayed.

How School Bosses Spend Your Millions was trailed by Channel 4 as an investigation – and in many respects it did do a fair bit of digging. Freedom of Information requests carried out by the programme (presumably Laura McInerney, the Queen of FOI, was unavailable) revealed details of business expenses including lease car arrangements, restaurant bills for an unknown number of staff and other benefits which apparently shouldn’t be available to those responsible for positions of responsibility in education. Where one draws the line on what’s “appropriate” is of course subjective – if you are one of Lord Nash’s imagined army of business-folk who are waiting to illuminate the world of education with your insights, then maybe you expect that sort of stuff. Maybe some things aren’t that unreasonable, yet others are…

While watching, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop – my governance phaser was set to pester and questions about Where was the oversight in this? or Why didn’t anyone question anything? buzzed around my head. Apparently I wasn’t the only one.

Anyone for governance? Anyone?

A chair of governors was featured – well, a former chair of Nonsuch Primary School in Birmingham who had resigned after 30 children, almost all with SEN, had been excluded.
Still from Dispatches "How school bosses spend your millions"
This section of the programme felt vague – it wasn’t clear how governance had functioned, if the governance featured was pre- or post-academisation, or if academy status was conclusively linked to the exclusion of children with additional needs. Of course, if applying to join a MAT is some sort of educational dating show where a partner looks upon one’s vital statistics data with a critical eye, then some might be tempted to game the system by ensuring that their stats look as good as they possibly can to a numbers-focused suitor. There have been other cases where this link has been asserted (read Vic Goddard’s Guardian article for an explanation of some of the all-too-real issues around children with SEND and academies), but the mention of governance here felt like a remnant from an edit, with some wider context missing.

Dig It Yourself

A cursory search online reveals more detail about the background to the school referred to in this section of the programme:

‘Former chairman of governors Simon Thomas quit last December after 17 years service. He claimed he walked away after learning of one exclusion from his local chip shop.

“That was the final straw,” he said. “That’s no way to run a business.”

The 47-year-old city council employee said: “I emailed (headteacher) Jo and the other governors and said I’d had enough.

“You would’ve thought, after 17 years, the headteacher would want to know why. You were banging your head against a brick wall, and I’d had enough.

Probe launched after 30 pupils excluded from primary school, Birmingham Mail, 3rd April 2016 / School excludes four disabled children ‘for no reason’, Birmingham Mail.

The inquiry into the school (seen by the Birmingham Mercury) reveals some issues – all of which bear some relation to governance. It wasn’t mentioned by the programme that the inquiry had been carried out, or that this was at the instruction of the Barchelai Academy Trust, which the school is now part of.

‘The school’s own self-evaluation is inaccurate: “While the headteacher acknowledged to the reviewers that the school is not as good as it was, the extent of its decline has not been recognised or communicated to governors.”

Monitoring and evaluation of the school’s work and its impact are minimal: “Behaviour around the school is not monitored and, consequently, it is not improved. Behaviour in lessons is not checked on, with the result that there is widespread low-level disruption in lessons. Incidents of serious disruption are not unusual.”

The views of stakeholders – parents, pupils and teachers – are not sought: “Staff views have not been surveyed since Summer 2014. Relationships with some parents and carers have broken down. Inadequate account is taken of pupils’ views, including those of pupils with special educational needs.

Governance is inadequate: “Governors have not checked well enough on the school’s effectiveness. They have tended to accept information from the headteacher without sufficient probing and posing of challenging questions, particularly in relation to the quality of teaching and pupils’ progress and behaviour over time.”’

Nonsuch Primary School in crisis and failing pupils, says damning report, Sunday Mercury, 24th April 2016.

So, it feels like we only got part of the picture – with governance edited out or omitted entirely – and are none the wiser as to whether preparing for academisation leads to this sort of practice. Governance was notable by its absence and ineffectiveness, and a casual observer could infer that, in a MAT, “bosses” are out of control in their approach to exclusion, finances and every aspect of school life.

Vic Goddard from Passmores Academy in Essex appeared as The Voice of Reason on the programme – and it seemed that his comments might have originally been about provision for SEN pupils, but came over in the programme as being about money:

I won’t go any further into the programme’s detail – that’s been done elsewhere and you can make your own mind up by watching it yourself in the next few weeks. Suffice to say that the recurring issue of related-party transactions reared its head – for a sensible take on that, read Mike Cameron’s recent blog post on the topic.

For those of us who as governors spend time (too much?) thinking about the limitations of governance, as well as dealing with the impact of the waves of changes which continue to crash across the shore on which we dwell, this felt like a programme which didn’t take an approach we might want any primary pupil to do and ask Why? Instead, it felt like it wanted to scratch the surface of controversy enough to generate a flurry of outraged tweets from those hitherto unaware of the significant changes happening in schools. In that respect, it worked.

I came away wondering if the programme did much good for anyone. Early in the summer, those of us who could bear to watched violence on the streets of Marseille involving English football ‘suppporters’ with a kind of morbid fascination – knowing (and hearing from commentators) that such people aren’t representative of most football supporters – but it’s the extremes of behaviour and conduct which make stories, get programmes commissioned and draw outrage and ire from the rest of society.  This edition of Dispatches felt a little like one of those reports. The National Schools Commissioner pointed this out regarding academies, although the responses to this tweet indicated that he may have guesstimated his percentage figure:

This was an issue crying out for an hour’s programme, rather than the 27 minutes a half-hour slot permits. Asking the harder questions would require space for consideration and thoughtfulness. Do questions such as these make for good ratings and a tweetstorm?

  • Why has this (apparently lavish expenses / worrying practice in exclusions / remote and unaccountable leadership) happened in this case?
  • If it doesn’t happen everywhere, there must be controls and oversight which prevent this? What are they?
  • What does good academy oversight look like?
  • What does good provision for children with complex and additional needs look like – and are there any inherent issues with the ways academies are measured, funded and overseen which need addressing to enable this?

Maybe something like Teachers TV (remember that?) could have gone into greater depth on these issues, but we may be expecting too much from a broadcaster until recently under threat of full privatisation to hold the government’s feet to any sort of flame. Still, some found the programme a welcome return to what could be construed as golden age of reporting:

and even asserted that it deserved “Gold stars all round, I’d say”. Good grief – are these people unaware of Tom Bennett’s existence?

Why was this programme made?

Just as a clip on the News at Ten of an Englishman hurling a chair back at a Russian who’s just thrown it at him in Marseille tells me nothing about what a good football match is like, all that watching these extracts of poor practice does it to give me more examples of what I already know of people (we like money, and spending what’s not ours is good, especially if we benefit from it with some luxury or convenience) – and little about the school my children might attend next year. It does make me less trusting, more cynical and assume that somehow, even if I can’t prove it, everyone must be on the take, and few involved at a senior level in academies & MATs are in it for the good of children. Was that Channel 4’s intended outcome?


Image credit: Sept. 2014 306 by Lord Jim – licensed under CC BY 2.0.


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