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Good governance – a hand on the wheel of your school’s Tesla

Image credit: Telsa-autopilot by portal-gda - licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Good governance – a hand on the wheel of your school’s Tesla

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Joshua Brown’s YouTube channel is almost completely dedicated to his experiences of driving his Tesla Model S using the vehicle’s Autopilot system – a system of sensors and controls which make the car able to drive without the person in the driver’s seat holding the wheel or touching any other controls.

One video in particular gives a visceral example of these new technologies possibly saving him from injury, while definitely saving the car from damage. Brown is in his Tesla Model S on an Interstate when the vehicle’s autopilot system avoids a truck which, having apparently not seen the Tesla, moves into the same lane. The car – or rather its autopilot – senses the other vehicle and moves to avoid a collision. Meanwhile, the truck continues, its driver apparently unaware.

Elon Musk, the billionaire driving force behind Tesla, SpaceX and co-founder of PayPal, saw the video of this incident and thought it worthy of a wider audience:

By any measure, this is impressive – without active human interaction or control, the vehicle used a combination of its radar (seen in the image of a Tesla’s dashboard at the top of this post) and controls to avoid a collision. Understandably, Musk didn’t link to any of the examples posted by drivers whose Teslas had apparently tried to do the opposite of preserving their lives:

If you look at the details of Elon Musk’s tweet showing Joshua Brown’s video, and have swiped or scrolled down through the replies (most of which, in the couple of days after the 17th of April, seem to ask “can the autopilot honk the horn too?”), after a period of no responses you’ll see a simple tweet in reply, dated the 9th of May:

It wasn’t officially announced until the end of June (by the US National Highway and Transportation Safety Administration) that Joshua Brown would be remembered as the first person to die as a result of an autonomous vehicle’s actions, becoming the 21st century’s Mary Ward. His Tesla Model S, from which the video shared by Musk was filmed, drove under the trailer of a truck which had crossed into its path, killing Brown while the car continued to drive with its roof missing.

According to Tesla, the vehicle’s autopilot possibly mistook the white trailer for a bridge as it crossed in front of Brown in bright Florida sunlight on May 7th. There are obvious questions about what the driver of the model S was doing at the time of the crash – and Tesla will be the subject of an investigation by the NHTSA, as well as the Securities & Exchange Commission, which is investigating Musk’s actions in selling $2bn of stock between the incident and its announcement nearly two months later.

This, in a blog about governance?

To the point, then. In recent weeks in England there have been calls for an inquiry into a case in a different sphere – that of oversight of a particular academy:

There’s no real need for a summary of this case in exhaustive detail – the Bradford Telegraph & Argus has one for you already. The Schools Week report on the verdicts in the case quotes the head of the complex casework unit at the Crown Prosecution Service as saying (emphasis added):

“Far from being a model school, Raza treated the academy like a family business, employing his relatives there and, for at least the first 12 months, operating with no proper governance.”

The Ofsted inspection report (PDF) of February 2013 stated:

“Governance is weak and governors are not holding leaders to account for the quality of teaching and the progress students make. They have been concerned with establishing the academy and have not been sufficiently robust when challenging leaders about the quality of education provided. The minutes of their meetings record that governors do not discuss how pupil premium is being used or whether teachers are reaching their performance targets.
“Recent change to the membership of the governing body is recognition of the need to include governors with an education background. The impact of this change is not yet apparent.”

When the school was re-inspected in December 2014, the section on governance was a different read:

“Governance arrangements are much improved since the previous inspection. The Chair of the Governing Body has worked tirelessly to ensure appropriate safeguarding and financial structures. He works closely with the Executive Principal to support the drive for improvement. Governors have an appropriate range of skills, particularly in finance and education. Governors have a detailed understanding of the strengths and weaknesses in the academy and hold senior and middle leaders to account with challenging questions. They check students’ progress rigorously, including the impact of pupil premium spending. The gap in progress between students in receipt of the pupil premium and others is very small and well below that seen nationally.
“Financial management is transparent and accountable. The budget is balanced.”

It seems as if governance in this situation has been rectified – the school is now known as the Dixons Kings Academy, with a different head, a new set of governors and trustees and an ethos which has Integrity as one of its three cornerstones – all good signs. There’s little use in examining the failures of the individuals in the past – these are well documented and those convicted are due to be sentenced in September. However, it is worthwhile considering the policy and regulatory conditions in which this case occurred:

By any account, effective governance in academies is a work in progress – the roles of members, trustees and the commonly-used yet misleadingly-named “local governing bodies” are sometimes fluid and can be subject to local variation. Critically, a MAT’s Scheme of Delegation (SoD) sets the parameters for how governance and oversight functions at a local level, but there’s no crystal clear guidance on this from the DfE, which appears to have been reluctant to offer any direction, prompting the NGA to offer model SoDs to members (NGA membership required). The DfE’s Governance Handbook states:

“The Academies Financial Handbook requires all academies and MATs to publish on their website their SoD for governance functions. This should set out in a clear and concise format the structure and remit of the members and of the board of trustees, its committees and LGBs – including details of which governance functions have been delegated and which remain with the trust board.”

There is an inescapable feeling that, in some cases, the governance ship is either being built as it makes its maiden voyage, or has simply never been completed. In terms of a ‘product’ or ‘service’, it feels like governance in an academised system is being ‘beta-tested’ in a ‘live’ environment.

The risks of a ‘public beta’

One of the issues which it appears Tesla needs to address is the manner in which their control mechanism (the Autopilot software) has been made available to owners of Tesla vehicles. It is officially a ‘beta’ – meaning it’s a nearly-ready-to-use version of what the final, approved, checked version of the software will be. Owners can download the software and update their car (in a similar way one might update one’s smartphone’s operating system to a new version of iOS or Android) and allow it to control their vehicle – with an understanding that there will be situations when their intervention is necessary.

Generally, with a beta version of something, there’s a chance that not everything will work as well as one would hope. Some features might not make it to the officially released version and it’s very much a “use at your own risk” situation. One can use beta versions to get real work done – our computer’s web browser (Chrome) or favourite messaging app (WhatsApp) could be a beta version if you choose – but it’s done on the understanding that the our results may vary. With Tesla, choosing to release a beta version of software for their cars may have been a risk too far for the Brown family.

There appear to be echoes of this in the DfE’s approach. It has been undertaking a public beta of its models of oversight, monitoring and governance in academies – but with the unchanged prospect of universal academisation, this is a model which will shortly be the default model of governance for all institutions. While the Kings Science case is clearly not representative of what a well-run, well-governed academy looks like, it’s the regulatory environment which allowed it to happen which merits closer enquiry, if not an actual public inquiry. This was demanded by the NUT in 2014, and those demands have recently been repeated:

One of the issues is whether there was effective governance at the academy – vast swathes of  a redacted report (PDF) published in May 2013 for the DfE refer directly or obliquely to governance, and in particular the chairing of the governing board, which may (or may not, depending on which DfE communication you may have read at the time) have been chaired by a vice chairman of the Conservative party. Either way, he still owned the land on which the academy was built, and a read-through of the redacted DfE report gives plenty of examples of the unease about governance and the ill-defined roles of individuals. There was even an early-day motion raised by a local Lib Dem MP entitled  The Chairman Of Governors At Kings Science Academy In Sheffield – in an attempt to get the DfE to be transparent about who was actually in charge of governance at the academy. It’s also reported that an independent adviser taken on by the DfE to investigate the situation at the academy warned repeatedly that things weren’t as they should be:

“she sent a report to the DfE with a copy to the Trust and Raza expressing “serious concerns about the school.” She said she found it “extraordinary” that the Governors did not appear to have met for seven months.”

In effect, this suggests that any enquiry might ask similar questions as those into the incidents involving Teslas:

  • Who exactly was in control at the time of the incident?
  • Were they aware of what was going on?
  • Have untested control systems been used in a public environment?
  • What should be done differently in the future?
  • What might the minimum skills and competencies (and qualifications?) be for being in a position of control of such a complex system?
  • Does regulation in this area needs to be revamped, or should it just be applied properly in the first place?
Coda: redemptive control

No one with any educational credibility pretends that one likely outcome of a fully-academised system will be that governance becomes disastrous, or indeed won’t be required.  That said, some of the recent cases (see the furore around Perry Beeches) have, rightly or wrongly, focused on the details of the cases without asking bigger questions about how we develop the nature of governance and oversight in a changing system.

Inspirational leadership in schools can of course move beyond superstar headteachers and instil real, significant, lasting change in the lives of young people. Likewise good governance can be transformative by empowering, supporting and directing gifted leaders to be effective across the school’s community. There are huge questions around government’s role in and understanding of effective governance, and it seems that the current hot potato of related party transactions isn’t going to go away and will highlight the DfE’s role in oversight (or lack of it):

As far as Tesla goes, the inquiries and commissions will rumble on – but while they do, read the account of a Tesla Model X taking its driver 20 miles along roads to a hospital in Missouri after he suffered a pulmonary embolism while driving. Is this a dystopian future, or one of hope and promise, the counterpoint to Joshua Brown’s story?

Whatever the outcome, how should these cases inform our thinking and actions in the present? The same questions could be asked around the DfE’s current understanding of governance – with some clear answers needed about whose hands are on or near the controls in any given situation.


Image credit: Telsa autopilot by portal gda – licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.


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