What is Nicky Morgan doing to school governance?

I’d love to know who is advising the Tories and Nicky Morgan with respect to much of what is contained in the education white paper.

What I sense overall is panic. They are terrified that we will not have the skilled individuals to make us globally competitive. So they are embarking on a series of measures that they think will give more flexibility in the education system and modernize it in terms of structure and accountability, on the one hand, but rigidly defining what children should learn, particularly at primary level, and sticking with archaic, sudden death-style examinations for GCSE and A Level on the other. It really is the worst kind of schizophrenia.

To say it is confused would be too generous. The problem is that the Tories are predominantly in the business of wanting to rule for its own sake and have no idea really about how to get sensibly to where they want to get to through effective policy formulation. So we get this confused mish-mash and then, when it has been passed into legislation, the schools and professionals are left with the truly awful task of trying to make something of it for the sake of the learning and life chances of the actual children.

But an issue that is falling under the radar in terms of this white paper is what it is proposing for governance. The white paper includes:

  • The legal obligation for academies to have parents as governors in schools will cease.
  • Those sitting on a governing board will have to pass a skills test to ensure the board have the ‘right skills.’
  • New national database to be implemented to record all those on governing boards.

So now it’s governors as well who are coming under an unbelievable level of scrutiny. Bear in mind that all governors are currently volunteers who give time for free in the service of their communities. So now they are going to be tested to see if they are up to the job, and will be listed on a national database. And not be paid, it would seem. That sounds really attractive!

They are turning governors into unremunerated non-executive directors, and, of course, the number of them will dwindle. We have already seen academy chain E-ACT’s move to get rid of governing bodies, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-35347602.

Academisation of the schools sector, let’s not forget, is the corporatisation of education–as all academies are companies–and these proposals for governance make this all too clear. There is an urgent need for a Liberal Democrat response to the white paper in general and its proposals for governance, in particular, as we are losing the vital link between communities and their schools . This is not something we can tolerate, I believe.

* Helen Flynn is an Executive Member of the LDEA. She is a former Parliamentary Candidate and Harrogate Borough Councillor and has served on the Federal Policy Committee and Federal Board. She has been a school governor in a variety of settings for 19 years and currently chairs a multi academy trust in the north of England.

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  • Completely agree, Helen. An issue to get our teeth into if we are to rebuild the party as a radical force with popular appeal at national and local level. How dare they inflict a system on everyone without any consultation.

    To use your phrase, “Those sitting on a governing board will have to pass a skills test to ensure the board have the ‘right skills.’” Shame we can’t inflict a similar system on the politicians, especially on the public school educated Secretary of State.

  • Thomas Shakespeare 22nd Mar '16 - 6:39pm

    All good points Helen. Academies can and do work in some cases, but pointless putting the thriving schools in the hands of unaccountable civil servants. Can the Tories stop increasing teacher workload with ‘reforms’ and obsessive examination? Curriculum really not the main issues here. Issues are resources and teachers leaving the profession – vicious cycle.

  • So parents are removed, local government is removed, volunteers and teachers (teachers already work long into the evenings but are now expected to do an extra hour with the children too) are given far more work all at a great cost and upheaval when there is no evidence that it improves results?

  • David Allen 22nd Mar '16 - 7:29pm

    “Academisation of the schools sector, let’s not forget, is the corporatisation of education–as all academies are companies”

    Yes, and that’s what’s driving this change. Business wants to do business. They got a foot in the door with Labour by falsely arguing that they just wanted the opportunity to rescue failing schools or bring resources to poorer areas. Now the Tories are happy to throw the doors wide open. The “panic” about standards is not so much about global competition, more about seeing off opposition from professionals and the Left. It would never do if academisation wasn’t capable of delivering some bogus statistics attesting to an improvement.

    Let’s just stop using the honeyed word “academy”. We don’t let a racist give himself the name of “patriot”. They should be “Commercial schools”.

  • Couldn’t agree more, Helen. I’ve recently join a governing board and there’s real anxiety about what these reforms might mean. It’s right that we make the positive case for governors and non-commercial schools, as well as the economic and negative case against academisation – which, effectively, is the privatisation of the school system by any other name.

  • Jamie Dalzell 22nd Mar '16 - 10:11pm

    Thanks Helen – the only thing more staggering than the scale of these proposals is the scale of incompetence. It’s also worth mentioning that the Tory manifesto did not propose such scale of reform; they simply do not have a mandate to do this.

    However, I do believe that the education community, as beaten and battered as it is right now, could be a tinderbox ready to ignite against this. I truly hope that our party is seen on the front lines of the campaign (and would hope to see yellow at the “Hands off our Schools” demonstration organised by the National Union of Teachers which is due to take place outside the Department for Education’s London offices tomorrow).

  • I’m a governor at a primary school in York, and recently attended an LEA organised conference discussing options for local schools to self assemble into Federations or MAT’s. It was very informative and balanced and I personally came away with absolutely no ideological issue against schools becoming academies, but it was also obvious that becoming an Academy was not a solution to the problems of our particular school.

    So what I can’t fathom is why on earth the government would make it compulsory! There are loads of schools which are already rated good or outstanding where this is simply going to be a distraction, its going to cost hundreds of millions in legal fees and other costs, and its bound to stir up lots of grass roots opposition from parents/voters. I don’t buy the idea that the Conservatives want to turn the sector into a for-profit industry. Tories are not that stupid, they know it would be political dynamite. I wonder if they think its a way to break the stranglehold of the teachers unions by making them negotiate individual settlements with thousands of trusts instead of a national pay settlment?
    Would be interested in others opinion.

  • Peter Watson 22nd Mar '16 - 11:05pm

    Two excellent articles on schooling in two consecutive days (this one and Jamie Dalzell’s https://www.libdemvoice.org/avoiding-the-tory-disaster-in-education-49899.html), both criticising the Conservative party’s approach.
    I can’t help but wonder why there were so few such articles in the previous 5.5 years, and perhaps things might be different now if we’d seen more of this Lib Dem attitude back then.

  • Simon Banks 23rd Mar '16 - 9:26am

    An excellent, hard-hitting post. Which ancient Roman writer was it who said, roughly, that the first response of someone in charge, faced by things going badly, is a reorganisation?

  • @Simon Shaw “It’s something far worse: its the nationalisation of state education.”
    It is even worse than that; at least in a proper nationalisation there would be adequate resources and systems of oversight. The current plans embody the worst aspects of both privatisation and nationalisation.
    Roger Brown, professor of higher education policy at Liverpool Hope university, wrote in the TES on 15 January about the parallels between Oliver Cromwell’s major-generals and the regional schools commissioners who the government expect to oversee our state education:
    “Both are creatures of an authoritarian central government. Both are undemocratic…Both reflect the central government’s mistrust of local interests…Yet both rely on local knowledge and advice to do their jobs (including in the case of the RSCs the local authorities they are replacing)”
    The lack of local democratic involvement was a major factor in the unpopularity of the major generals, “whose time in power ended ignominiously” . If this is a prediction of the end of the system this government is creating, then good, except that meanwhile so many things will have gone wrong, so many more teachers will have left or become unhappy and so many youngsters will not have had the education needed to develop their potential for themselves or our nation.

  • Matt (Bristol) 23rd Mar '16 - 11:54am

    I’m not advocating this myself, but if there was a consistent ‘modern’ Tory theory of local government, regional schools commissioners would be elected, like crime commissioners, on the same system.

    It would still have many drawbacks, but the pseudo-democratic aspects and the US-imitation of the PCC system would be retained.

    I like the phrase ‘corporatisation’ above for the mishmash that is enforced national centrallised regulation of semi private bodies that are not locally accountable.

  • Peter Watson 23rd Mar '16 - 12:50pm

    @Nigel Jones “The current plans embody the worst aspects of both privatisation and nationalisation.”
    It also struck me as a step towards a system in which government cash would follow the pupil, private schools could take this money and charge parents a top-up fee, and tax payer’s money would be moved towards the wealthiest.

  • Peter Watson 23rd Mar '16 - 3:55pm

    @Helen Flynn “It is time we had a hard look at education as a party–we used to have a reputation as the party for education.”
    Sadly, since I started visiting this site some 5 years ago, that is not the impression I have had. Some voices (Julian Critchley and Helen Tedcastle spring to mind immediately) always impressed me, but overall I have felt disappointed by the Lib Dems in discussions about education on LDV.

    “Tim could be doing more to own this agenda, I feel.”
    Tim Farron said some good things very passionately in his response to the budget but nobody was listening. The Lib Dems are now associated with the expansion of Academies over the last few years so, as with many Coalition policies (in education and elsewhere), there is a difficult balancing act to avoid appearing hypocritical and opportunistic now. Goodness only knows how frustrating that must be for those of you in the party.

  • SUSAN Sutherland 23rd Mar '16 - 3:57pm

    Tobie Abel, I agree with you that part of the Tories reason for this madness is to overcome the power of the teaching unions. They can then claim to their own party that they’re acting under the mantle of Margaret Thatcher to appease their right wing but I don’t think they’ll have the support of their local Councillors about this so it could be a Pyrrhic victory.

  • Helen Tedcastle 23rd Mar '16 - 4:58pm

    An excellent and timely article.

    Helen Flynn wonders who is advising Nicky Morgan? Simple answer – Michael Gove, George Osborne and the think-tank of choice for neo-Thatcherities, (paradoxically de-regulators and centralisers at the same time with a fixation on LEAs, teachers and schools), Policy Exchange.

    It is evident that the faux-localism of the forced academies programme will usher in a new era of centralised funding of schools (the last attempt was the Tory grant-maintained schools policy of the Major years). More concerning are the plans to axe parent-governors and impose a new criterion of ‘those with the right skills.’

    What this could mean in an academy chain run by a carpet magnate like Lord Harris for example, is that the ‘right people’ are those with business links. What chief executives of academy chains don’t want are ‘busy bodies’ ie: parents who might ask awkward questions.

    Of course, the implications and losses to democracy and local community links are well-outlined by Helen Flynn.

    Under the radar, another rather sinister plan is added to this ‘reform’. Another round of tinkering with teacher-training. Under Morgan’s proposal, trainee teachers fresh out of passing their university course will not gain Qualified Teacher Status without the say so of a senior teacher in the school they are working in. This gives a senior teacher considerably more power than they have now over the fate of their new teachers.

    It’s a clever way of undermining yet again the status of the university route into teaching. After all, what will be the point of going through a rigorous year long training programme when it’s up to a senior teacher at your school to accredit you your status?

    The chances are it will prove to be an extremely good way to keep pay down by holding back accreditation for a few years.

    So far both the Lib Dems and Labour have been muted in their responses to this dreadful white paper. If we do not scrutinise and criticise this plan, and fight to amend it, then simply, we will have let Gove and Osborne consign to history any semblance of education as a community endeavour and teaching as a noble vocation with the status of a higher education-accredited profession.

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