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Supporting autonomous, professionalised schools

Jet engine being inspected

Supporting autonomous, professionalised schools

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This is the fourth post of a serialisation of Dr Andrew Wilkins‘ paper Professionalizing school governance: the disciplinary effects of school autonomy and inspection on the changing role of school governors. It has been edited for brevity and ease of reading online, references are hyperlinked inline where available, otherwise most footnote references have been removed. The article with full references is available at and it is reproduced on the Modern Governor blog with permission of the publishers.

Prior to this post, you may wish to read:

  1. Good governance – a modality of state power?
  2. Two trends in school governance and
  3. Academies – an accountability sinkhole?

School autonomy: inspection and professionalisation

The government has partly responded to this problem – arguably a problem of its own making – by demanding, first, the inspection of all governing bodies. All Ofsted reports now include an evaluation of school governors in the section on leadership and management. Governors are typically assessed on whether they demonstrate sufficient knowledge or understanding of school budgets and performance data. Therefore, school governors are evaluated on their preparedness and willingness to hold senior leadership to account. These interventions are justified on the grounds of an increased accountability risk for those schools wishing to plough their own furrow (risk of poor governance, poor training, poor evaluation, poor oversight, poor challenge, poor standards when left unchecked, etc.). Second, government together with Ofsted is now appealing to governing bodies to conduct themselves through professional standards and technical expertise provided by ‘high quality’ governors who possess the ‘right’ skills and knowledge. (And remember this is only an appeal. Governor training is not mandatory and academies and free schools are granted flexibility to decide their size, number of subcommittees, ratio of skilled to unskilled governors, and delegation of power). As Schools Minister Lord Nash (GUK 2013) highlighted in a speech to the Independent Academies Association national conference:

I’m certainly not opposed to parents and staff being on the GB, but people should be appointed on a clear prospectus and because of their skills and expertise as governors; not simply because they represent particular interest groups … Running a school is in many ways like running a business, so we need more business people coming forward to become governors.

Echoing this, the DfE’s (2014d, 2:1) proposed amendments to the 2012 constitution regulations for maintained school GBs (under consultation) argue

GBs have a vital role to play as the non-executive leaders of our schools. It is their role to set the strategic direction of the school and hold the headteacher to account for its educational and financial performance. This is a demanding task, and we think that anyone appointed to the GB should therefore have the skills to contribute to effective governance and the success of the school … This could include specific skills such as an ability to understand data or finances as well as general capabilities such as the capacity and willingness to learn.

To complement and support the professionalisation of school governors, there exists a variety of non-governmental ‘third sector’ agencies (governor support services) offering technical advice and guidance on how GBs might conduct themselves efficiently and effectively. Key governor support agencies include the National Governors Association, Freedom and Autonomy for Schools – National Association, Ten Governor Support, School Governors’ One-Stop Shop, and Modern Governor. It is important to note here the application of Rhodes’ conceptualization of ‘policy networks,’ which he uses to refer to the shift from government to ‘governance’ (governing without government), but more specifically ‘to sets of formal and informal institutional linkages between governmental and other actors shared around interests in public policy-making and implementation’ (2007, 1244).

The key thing to note here is that the state has not been ‘hollowed out’ (depleted of its powers to shape the governing of public services) but rather, has been reinvented through a new role, modality, or rationality, that of supporting and incentivising agencies, infrastructures or frameworks which work to locate public service professionals, and volunteers through relations and practices of marketisation and financialisation.

From this perspective, governor support services may be considered ‘policy communities’ or ‘policy devices’ (Ball 2008) which do not work over and against the state, but in relation to the state. In other words, these non-governmental agencies do the work of the state by promoting and legitimating the entanglement of state–market interests: they work to align the politics and practice of schools with various government requirements specifying the corporate accountability and contract responsibility of schools as businesses. Much of what governor support services offer is advice which governing bodies can use (and many of them do with great effect) to measure and evidence practices of good governance. This usually includes an emphasis on robust monitoring of financial and educational performance; effective challenge and support to senior leadership; an awareness of key duties and priorities with a focus on enabling strategy and performance operation; and the importance of good clerking and paper trails to evidence transparency, internal audit, and impact.

Understood in this way, governor support networks are crucial, on the one hand, in enabling/prompting governing bodies to internalize the disciplinary practices by which they can self-govern as autonomous agents. On the other hand, they capture the steering power of central government, and indeed the idea of good governance as a dominant or organizing principle by which government guides the performance of governors through disciplinary tools of professionalization and inspection, and achieve the ‘control of control’ (Power 1994). On this account, the inspection and professionalization of governing bodies constitute policy technologies and disciplinary strategies aimed at inscribing difference (differences between effective and ineffective governing bodies, for example) together with making processes and subjects knowable and visible in order that they may be managed. According to Foucault, discipline ‘normalizes’ and ‘of course analyzes and breaks down; it breaks down individuals, places, time, movements, actions and operations. It breaks them down into components such that they can be seen, on the one hand, and modified on the other’ (2009, 56). In other words, disciplinary power works on and through human subjects as objects of the state gaze through ‘a principle of compulsory visibility’ (Foucault 1979, 187).

The shadow of inspection

As one anonymous chair of governors reported in a TES (2014) opinion column, the role of the school governor demands ‘playing advocate for the school’s defence in Ofsted’s harsh court.’ Ofsted has always occupied a permanent ‘absent presence’ within English state schools to the extent that schools rely heavily on satisfying Ofsted criteria over what constitutes a good or even outstanding school. Government funding for schools follows students in a market-based education system, and parents typically, though not always, exercise preference over which school to send their child to using information provided by Ofsted reports and league tables. The circular logic underpinning this system means schools are always under pressure to meet Ofsted evaluations of student performance and progress. Ofsted, therefore, is always already present during any GB meeting.

And also I think it’s very important that the GB knows the school in terms of, you know, data, because that’s what Ofsted want to focus on, is data, so a weak GB will not understand the data, or will just accept the data, whereas a strong GB will, you know, be looking at it and asking questions about it, saying well why is this trend happening, or what are we doing about that particular blip that happened that year? You know, they will look at it, and ask the question.
(Katie, Parent Governor, Montague)

As indicated in the above interview extract, the structure and form taken by some GB meetings include a focus on Ofsted judgments and evaluations, and the preparedness and willingness of school governors to support and challenge senior leadership through careful reading and understanding of data pertaining to student performance and progression as well as finance. Ofsted is implicated and animated through the relations and practices of school governors, considered necessary to the formulation of effective verification and measurement of good verdicts, and even constitutive of meaningful and intelligible forms of contribution and challenge. Katie above, for example, conflates a weak GB with a disengagement from or lack of understanding of data, school governors who uncritically accept what is presented to them as fact, go unquestionably with the flow and grain of consensus, or fail to ‘read between the lines,’ as another governor told me. In contrast, a strong GB will discern patterns or relationships in the data, and crucially seek justification or rationalization (‘why’) for decisions taken and track any instances of dips, blips, or anomalies in the data. As already detailed above, in addition to classroom teaching, Ofsted also inspects and evaluates school governors on their knowledge and understanding of school data:

Yeah, but then I suppose when Ofsted come in they can call the governors more to account, and I know they do, and governance is something being looked at now very closely by Ofsted, governors have to be informed.
(Johanna, Head, Richford)


scaffolding by Lewis Martin licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

School governors are under the watchful eye of Ofsted and, therefore, inhabit and perform their role through a field of relations and practices always already structured with Ofsted in mind. Moreover, it is common for senior leadership and in particular chairs of governors to conduct a skills audit of governors using peer evaluation and questionnaires, and even commission a governance review performed by an independent source. The purpose of a skills audit is to identify strengths and weaknesses within the GB in order that particular governors may be allocated to committees (education and standards, premises, human resources, legal, finance, pastoral and well-being, etc.) that best utilize their skills, knowledge, and background. Again, the shadow of Ofsted is explicit in the decision to conduct a skills audit or provide training:

I mean the London Borough of [removed] organize training for governors continually throughout the year, and depending on what committee you are on, you sign yourself up for the current training, but as a whole GB, which something like Ofsted would affect us all, then we arrange an in-house whole GB, with the GB section, and they would get a trainer, an expert in that field to come in one evening and we would have a whole school training.
(Maria, Staff Governor, Moorhead)

To assist school governors in their role, Ofsted have created the Ofsted Schools Data Dashboard (OSDD). The OSDD provides decontextualized results for each school based on student achievement levels for Key Stages 1–4. Data for ‘Similar schools’ and ‘All schools’ is represented graphically in quintiles sorted according to five categories where top quintile equals good and bottom quintile equals bad. OSDD is intended ‘for governors and schools to use in their drive for improvement’ (Ofsted website). In addition, Ofsted have introduced RAISEonline, an online digital archive of reports and analysis of attainment and progress levels for all schools, which schools in turn are encouraged to use as part of the self-evaluation process. The importance of these resources is well documented across all schools investigated in this study, reinforced by the regularity of their dispersion and repeated emphasis. The following is taken from a school improvement plan and documents the importance of inspection (and of OSDD and RAISEonline in particular) as discourses through which school governors are positioned and made knowable, measurable, and inspectable as subjects. Knowledge equals performative efficacy:

Inspectors will meet with as many governors during an inspection as is possible. They will want to know how well GBs use a range of information and evaluate the performance of the school, particularly in terms of pupils’ progress, the leadership of teaching and the management of staff. In February 2013 Ofsted launched the data dashboard to help governors understand essential headline school performance data. Inspectors will want to know how governors are using this, and other information such as RAISEonline, to ask challenging questions which help the school to sustain high performance or to improve. The School Inspection Handbook and the subsidiary guidance contain further information about how inspectors evaluate the effectiveness of governance.
(RAISEonline 2013 Summary Report, Richford)

Ofsted inspections may, therefore, be considered taxonomical, signifying, orientating practices by which good governance is normalized and school governor performance may be divisible, normalized, specified, and differentiated through a ‘principle of compulsory visibility’ (Foucault 1979, 187). As the following interview extract Journal of Education Policy demonstrates, Ofsted engenders forms and practices of seeing, knowing, and understanding which some school governors value as well as emulate in their role and practice:

I don’t want to be critical of the management of the school, because I think they do the job, but I just think it is important that they are monitored by the GB, and I’m sure they have all the answers, and they ought to have the information to provide those answers. I’m sure if Ofsted came in they would immediately pick up on it, well certainly I think they would because I know quite a lot about it, because the headteacher who I dealt with in the primary school for many years is an Ofsted inspector and she knows what it’s like from the other side.
(Oliver, Parent Governor, Child’s Hill)

Questions for governing bodies

  • Is your governing body already comprised of mainly skilled professionals from other sectors beyond education? If so and the ‘professionalisation’ agenda might affect this, what are your plans for the training and development of incoming governors?
  • What governor support networks – formal and informal – does your governing body use to develop its capacity, particularly where the school may have taken on greater responsibility for itself.
  • It is reasonable to assume that HR or business professionals joining a governing body (and in some cases engaging with formal educational structures for the first time in decades) require no training in order be confident in those areas on a school will be assessed during an inspection?

Part 5: Professionalised governing bodies: businesslike & effective, or antagnoistic & tense?

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