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Two trends in school governance

i i i i i i i i i i i i i i i ! i i i i i i by Ol.v!er [H2vPk] licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 .

Two trends in school governance

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This is the second 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. You may wish to read Good governance – a modality of state power? prior to this post.

Two trends: neoliberalisation and depoliticisation

Since the 1980s, educational governance in England has been shaped by two interrelated trends. The first is the devolution of power and responsibility to all non-maintained and maintained schools; a process known as decentralization or deregulation. In the case of maintained schools (schools guided and managed by the LEA), the 1988 Education Reform Act issued GBs with responsibility for the school’s budget. The same piece of legislation also allowed some schools greater control over their finances, admissions, premises, and staff through the acquisition of ‘grant-maintained status.’ Take the example of City Technology Colleges (CTCs) introduced under the terms of the Education Reform Act 1988 and the LMS. These schools operate outside the purview of LEA management (making them non-maintained) to enable the maximum delegation of financial and managerial responsibilities to the GB (Whitty, Edwards, and Gewirtz 1993). The basic legal model for CTCs (state funded and privately run pursuant to a contract with the Secretary of State) is the same model for academies and free schools today, albeit funding agreements for academies post 2010 are variable (Wolfe 2013). Under these arrangements school governors adopt legal responsibility for the financial and educational performance of the school. An outcome of these changes is greater school autonomy, which means schools can opt out of LEA control and become administratively self-governing. But autonomy is earned (‘earned autonomy’). Converter academies and free schools (both free-standing, state-funded independent schools) typically must employ temporary or permanent staff (e.g. school business manager/bursar, HR manager, finance director, estate manager) and appoint ‘skilled’ volunteers (e.g. school governors, preferably barristers, chartered surveyors, accountants, civil servants, middle managers, people with experience of running a business) who can help shape high-risk decisions relating to finance, curriculum, standards, human resources, premises, and strategy. These changes to the form and structure of state schools are part of a set of technologies or strategies to ‘modernise’ (or ‘privatise’) public services and reduce the influence of local government and local politics on public sector organization (Vidler and Clarke 2005).

A second, related trend to impact educational governance concerns a movement to situate schools within a culture of ‘testing, targets, and tables’ (DfES 2004). Ranson (2010), for example, identifies four measures of accountability through which schools are made to answer:

  1. performative accountability (examinations and assessment),
  2. contract accountability (cost effectiveness),
  3. consumer accountability (parental choice), and
  4. corporate accountability (strategy and management).

In this framing, schools are assessed, sorted, funded, and ranked on the basis of regulatory practices (e.g. testing, league table results, Ofsted inspection criteria) and disciplinary practices enacted internally by the school (performance operation and management, competitive tendering, etc.). These competitive-comparative practices echo and redeem private sector approaches to public sector organization, with rewards for those schools who best demonstrate process, performance, and outcomes. Such organizational forms are evocative of New Public Management approaches to service delivery (see Clarke and Newman 1997), namely the idea that organizations share characteristics which can be evaluated and compared to measure effectiveness, efficiency, and continuous improvement. These practices may be considered technologies of power, mechanisms by which public services are specified through processes and outcomes which lend them to audit, measurement, and commensuration. Such mechanisms are well documented through different registers, including ‘good governance’ (IMF, World Bank), ‘generic management’ (Cutler and Waine 1997), Total Quality Management, ‘enterprise culture’ (Keat and Abercrombie 1991), ‘lure of the explicit’ (Green 2011, 49), and ‘cult of efficiency’ (Stein 2001, 7). Broadly speaking, they encompass a set of relations and practices which may be described as forms of neoliberalisation.

If we take neoliberalisation to mean the monetisation, financialisation, and marketisation of institutions and agents (Clarke 2008), including an enabling role for the state in disseminating, inventing, or supplementing market practices and behaviours across sites and domains where they may not exist (Brown 2006), the above trends may be regarded as expressions of a neoliberal logic. In particular, they highlight how political problems formerly managed by local government are reduced to a set of discrete, largely technical practices mobilized by the professional classes in a bid to better govern schools. As Clarke suggests, neoliberalization can be understood ‘as the latest in a dishonourable history of strategies of “depoliticisation” of politics that attempt to conceal the problems and conflicts of politics behind an appeal to forms of knowledge and varieties of technical expertise’ (2008, 142). What this means is that the politics and practice of managing particular legal, social, or financial problems (problems of population, student discipline, resource allocation, admissions, standards, ethos, community participation, etc.) remain. The difference however, is that, these problems are now handled discretely under the new legal authority of the executive and non-executive members of GBs, trustees, and potentially, unaccountable sponsors. Hence, the growing demands for good governance, skilled, preferably non-partisan governors, and increased monitoring and surveillance. Problems around the wide discretion of unaccountable sponsors and GBs to exert influence over a school’s budget, vision, and curriculum is now a key focus of Ofsted, for example (Wintour 2014). The recent ‘Trojan horse’ row details how three schools in Birmingham run by Park View Educational Trust were downgraded by Ofsted to inadequate and placed in special measures for, among other things, using school budget improperly and failing to tackle potential risks of religious extremism and radicalisation among students (Morris and Wintour 2014). Notably, there was expressed disappointment and anger at ‘some governors exerting inappropriate influence over the running of their schools’ (Adams 2014), a good example of how increased responsibility and visibility and surveillance go hand in hand. In subsequent posts, I highlight:

  1. the direct implications of school autonomy for school governors in terms of function and responsibility; and
  2. the mechanisms by which government and non-government agencies aim to steer the performance of school governors toward new calculative regimes of accountability and professionalisation.

Questions for governors & governing bodies

  • Are schools faced with a choice of having a governing body populated by ‘professional’ governors skilled in business tasks or local residents passionate about education and the school in question, or a happy mix of the two? Whatever the answer – should the professionals be made passionate and the passionate professionalised? Training and development is relatively easy – but how can a school build a passion for its ethos and mission among busy business professionals entering the world of education?
  • With little or no control over their funding, what role should a local authority have a in the governance of  non-maintained, free-standing and state-funded independent schools? How would such a role affect how these schools are strategically managed?
  • HMCI is quoted as saying that headteachers of outstanding schools “enjoying inspectors coming”. When “the call” arrives, how many of your school’s ‘professional’ governors will be able to attend a meeting with Ofsted inspectors at a day’s notice? What could your school do to plan for this?

Part 3: Academies – an accountability sinkhole?

Image: i i i i i i i i i i i i i i i ! i i i i i i by Ol.v!er [H2vPk] licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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