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Researching the metrics of governance

Big Data is watching you by Jeremy Keith - licensed under CC-BY 2.0

Researching the metrics of governance

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Thursday the 19th of November – the day that HMCI’s commentary on governance was released – was also the closing date for Expressions Of Interest (EOIs) in undertaking a research project commissioned by the DfE into school governance entitled Defining and collecting metrics on the quality of school governance: a feasibility study. The metrics of governance almost certainly refers to measurements of what effective (and by inference ineffective) governance looks like – and seems to imply a quantitative measure, albeit one which might be informed by interviews and surveys. The relevant PDF has since been taken down from the GOV.UK site – having only been published nine days earlier – but is still available in text form via Google’s cache.

The metrics of governance… what?

The proposed project’s Background section gives an interesting take on how much the government trusts current methods of monitoring governance – and perhaps its anxiety about being in the dark regarding an accurate picture of the state of governance:

There are currently limited sources of information which allow us to know whether the quality of governance is improving and the NAO [National Audit Office] has recently recommended that the Department should improve its understanding of the quality of school governance.

Independent external reviews of governance provide an in-depth assessment of the quality of governance in an individual setting and annual survey data provides information on the activity and views of an increasing number of governors, but neither provide a robust assessment of the quality of governance across the system.

It should be noted that this is (was) not in itself a project to carry out nationwide research into the quality of governance, but merely to find out if it’s possible to create a methodology to do so:

The aim of this project is to identify whether it is possible to design metrics directly indicative or related to the quality of governance which could be collected in a statistically representative way to assess whether the quality of governance across the education system is improving over time

Of course, in education, the government’s track record of commissioning a piece of work and acting upon its findings could be described as requiring improvement – see the former Secretary of State’s differences with his expert panel on the proposed national curriculum and, more recently, the report on professional standards for teaching assistants being delayed, then not published at all – with speculation that it did not come up with an answer which would have suited current priorities.

Some would advise researchers who have submitted EOIs for the DfE research feasibility study to bear those cases in mind and consider what a preferred outcome might be in the Department’s eyes. Further to its report Academies and maintained schools: Oversight and intervention – published just over a year ago – the NAO insist that there should be a better understanding of the effectiveness of governance – possibly as a prelude to the DfE changing the way governance works, or providing a metric for payment, or for comparing governance in single institutions to the same across groups of them. It may be correct to presume that the Department has a hope that it is possible to somehow capture the clouds of data orbiting schools and knit elements of said data into ‘proof’ of improvement – or at least change. However, if the chosen researchers were to come up with a categorical “It isn’t possible to do it from data, one has to be on the ground” then it is conceivable that, with pressure on budgets, that an already-considered internal method might be used. Note the lack of a defined budget for this study:

We are not publishing a budget for this work because we hope to stimulate the widest possible range of responses for how a metric could be developed and, if so, the most efficient way of doing so.

Does this rule out the hands-on, thoughtful, considered approach to ‘measuring’ governance afforded by speaking with people – and instead push us towards a Big Data-driven, black box-testing methodology of measurement of the impact and characteristics of governance? Not completely, as in his commentary Sir Michael announced a call for evidence (in the form of an online survey) which would inform “an in-depth and far-reaching survey into the effectiveness of governance in our schools” from “anyone who has views and experience to contribute”.

In the same way that it’s currently useful to follow the government’s current think-tank of choice for a barometer on what direction policy might move in, reading the NAO report is helpful for a current-state-of-affairs snapshot (albeit a year old) on the issues the DfE faces around evaluating school governance, and to give some intelligence about how it might address this lack of knowledge. Data about governance (rather than data solely about educational performance, or school effectiveness) will be difficult to measure, but might include demographics of governing boards, access to and impact of CPD, attendance at meetings & committees plus… well, clearly not the surface area of paint in a school found to be peeling, but the metrics appear to be up for grabs by way of the final research methodology.

What you can do: answer HMCI’s call for evidence

Never mind research the scope & methodology of which haven’t been determined yet – if you believe that governance is about leadership (the art – explained by testimony and not numbers) and not management, then it’s the crafted, nuanced, real-world accounts of governance that need to be heard by Sir Michael Wilshaw and his colleagues at Ofsted. As the author of the forthcoming Modern Governor module on Educational data for governors asserts:

“data cannot give you answers; it can only help you ask better questions”

and so, if we’re serious about governance, it’s one of our duties to be advocates for what effective and transformational governance can be, to provide the life on any skeleton of “effectiveness” generated by any future data mixed with algorithms.. Still not completed that form? Please do it now if you can.

Image: Big Data is watching you by Jeremy Keith – licensed under CC-BY 2.0.


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