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Outliers, mavericks, governance, and Kids Company

A jumble of Lego pieces and figures

Outliers, mavericks, governance, and Kids Company

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In the furore around the demise of Kids Company – the London-based charity which offered support for deprived young people by providing housing, education, food and counselling and advice services – it has been the proximity of the charity’s founder and chief executive to significant public figures which has provided a lightning rod for the Westminster-centric media coverage. Not since the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games had David Cameron, Boris Johnson and Chris Martin been in such close proximity, but the ability of Camilla Batmanghelidjh to engage with and get commitment, often financial, from government, private industry, figures from popular culture – even visiting Olympians in 2012 – has put what might otherwise be a sad and not unprecedented episode of a charity’s apparent failure on multiple fronts into even sharper focus. There wasn’t similar coverage when in October 2014 the charity Beat Bullying went into voluntary liquidation amid accusations of financial mismanagement – but like that episode, there are warning signs for those in and around the area of school governance and leadership.

Any school governor or academy trustee who has done any reading into the allegations, finances and public machinations regarding the granting of funds by the Cabinet Office, followed by the very public efforts to claw it back, can’t help have been struck by some echoes around governance in schools, and more acutely trusteeship in academies. In case you’re not clear on the difference, academies are independent of local authorities and therefore the board of the academy trust holds more power, influence and ultimate accountability than most governors on the boards of maintained schools. Whatever the sector, governing boards are in place to ensure that those in control of day-to-day operations are held to account and can explain the operational life of the organisation and how this matches the organisation’s mission or core purpose. For schools and academies, the core purpose will be around outcomes for learners, the environment and ethos of the school and a range of other purposes, which may shift according to the year, the incumbent leader or leadership team, or simple changes in circumstances.

Michael Wilshaw’s oft-repeated call for ‘maverick leaders’ who would ruffle feathers of education orthodoxy is tempered with a recognition that some mavericks do it as they’re “interested more in their own reputation” than the interests of learners, then further confused by a promise to enhance those mavericks’ reputation and profile by including their names in a list in Ofsted’s annual report. Reflecting on this in a blog post in the light of events at Kids Company, NGA Chief Execcutive Emma Knights says:

“It has ceased to surprise NGA how often the school leaders who are name-checked by ministers as exceptional and even honoured are later investigated for financial irregularities or other significant lapses of due process. If attention to detail is not part of a chief executive‘s leadership style, then s/he needs to be surrounded by a team who has that covered.”
[Kids Company Closure: what happened to the Trustees?]

Just as any organisation will benefit from a focus on and understanding of what its core purpose is, good school governance is more likely to happen when every action of the board is held against what the three core functions of a governing or trust board are, namely:

  1. Ensuring clarity of vision, ethos and strategic direction;
  2. Holding the headteacher to account for the educational performance of the school and its pupils; and
  3. Overseeing the financial performance of the school and making sure its money is well spent.

Often these functions can be batted back and forth around a governing board in search of clear definition – How do we know we’re being strategic? What’s the best way to hold the head to account? What does good financial performance look like in a school, anyway? so much that they can become vague and ill-defined.

Re-imagining the core functions

Perhaps a better method of understanding what they mean is to ask: What could (and probably would) happen if (one of these core functions) wasn’t carried out by the governing board? What would the outcomes be for the school or academy, its pupils and its future?  Even a cursory reading of some of the detail around Kids Company shows some outcomes which could easily be imagined in the event of a lack of good governance  – see Why Camila Batmanghelidjh had access to a Prime Ministerial slush fund by Steve Moore:

“Kids Company ultimately failed to manage the risks it was exposed to. It is commonplace for organisations to collapse when this happens. Alan Yentob and trustees plainly should have been securing more private donations specifically to build up critical cash reserves to protect themselves from an over-dependency on public sector grants. Instead they kept spending the money they had and continued to bet the house on their Prime Ministerial patronage seeing them through.”

This is a popular, though not universally shared, view on what the trustees should have been focusing on – see The Trouble with “Kids Company. A phrase which has occurred repeatedly in the public autopsies of Kids Company has been “founder’s syndrome” (sometimes known as “founderitis”) – where a charismatic, driven individual, with a passion and vision for an organisation, causes issues within that organisation which can cause it to fail. This often goes hand-in-hand with weak and ineffective governance, where governors find themselves unable to hold the founder(s) to account, or are explicitly chosen for their propensity not to do so. Founder’s syndrome isn’t universally accepted, and even where it is, it’s far from seen as a unversaally terminal condition, but one that can be addressed. Rightly or wrongly, in current circumstances Camilla Batmanghelidjh has been cast in the role of out-of-her-depth founder and the coup de grace was the Cabinet Office’s last-gasp grant of £3m to try and prevent the charity from failing. For the Cabinet Office read the Education Funding Agency, for Kids Company read a free school (not that free schools are any more susceptible to financial impropriety, but it’s hard not to imagine founders of free schools with vision, passion and drive being more susceptible to the f-word than the head of an under-pressure LA-maintained school) – and, as suggested before, imagine one of the three core functions not being carried out.

Perhaps a phrase to chew over in this whole affair can be taken from the thoughtful, dispassionate take on the affair by David Allen Green, who blogs as Jack of Kent and, in an almost throwaway phrase, sums up the state of governance in the charitable “third sector” thus:

“The third sector is where sentimentality and good intentions meet with essential services and large amounts of money in a context of weak governance and little accountability.”
[The collapse of Kids Company in perspective]

This would seem to be a good time to ask the if this statement could apply to our experience – local, regional or national – of school governance and its associated systems of regulation, particularly in an educational landscape where responsibility is taken with one hand (for example local governing boards in MATs) and proffered with another (trust boards in those same MATs). How can we prove that that statement on the third sector doesn’t apply to education in general, and our particularly local context in particular. Our first stop should probably be the NGA’s Twenty Key Questions for the Governing Board to ask itself or Twenty-one Questions for Multi-academy Trust Boards. As governors we’re often reminded of the need to hold school leadership to account – and rightly so – but recognising our own areas for improvement and holding ourselves to account could and should be an important first stage in this process, as some of the trustees at Kids Company might be wondering now.

Image: thirteen heads in lego land by woodleywonderworks. Used under CC-BY 2.0.

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