The importance of school governance and accountability

Students Raising Hands in Classroom

Professor John Diamond (Director of the University’s I4P) points to the glaring policy and practice contradictions in this recent announcement:

The news that a national academy chain is to drop its school based governing bodies and opt for a combination of centralised decision making, whilst having local school ‘ambassadors’, raises a number of really important questions.

On the one hand the whole underpinning rationale for academies was to break up the role of local education authorities and to make explicit the direct connection between school leaders and their local stakeholders (parents). The LEA was seen as inhibiting innovation and change. At the same time schools (whether as part of local chains or national ones) needed support and guidance across a range of areas (from recruitment and staffing to payroll and planning). But the question remained (and remains) can these practical management and admin functions be separate from being accountable to the different communities of interest which are reflected in schools (from parents to children and young people to local employers to local communities)?

Schools sit within their geographic localities and occupy an important role in community bonding and development. How are they and should they be accountable for this role? And if they are what are the formal mechanisms and processes for ensuring this happens (governance arrangements)? Who should be involved and with what roles and powers?

These are not abstract questions. Recently the Government have started to move away from academy chains which cut across England. The expectation is that chains should be accessible by being able to drive from one school to another during the lunch break. Even with the best will in the world that’s not going to happen in the big urban conurbations of London, Greater Manchester or the West Midlands. And as a policy aspiration seems at odds with city regions and devolution.

There are other questions too – in an increasingly technological and interdependent world we can host innovative teaching materials online in Latin America but have them accessed in Bolton. Global education developments require us to rethink the models of governance and accountability we develop and promote. But we shouldn’t drop or ignore the most profound questions of how to develop good relationships between school communities (in all its richest sense) and school leaders and teachers and the communities they are situated in.

The regeneration of housing estates illustrates the change in the Government’s narrative

Inner city demolition of High rise building

Professor John Diamond (Director of the University’s I4P) argues that the announcement of funding to undertake an initial identification of housing estates which need ‘regeneration’ should not be dismissed:

I am not suggesting that there has been a change in priorities where the allocation of resources is concerned. The amounts outlined over the weekend do not go far enough, nor is the assumption that pension funds will be the primary source of money convincing. But, the announcements mark another subtle but quite important shift in the Government’s public policy narrative.

Following the 2010 and 2015 elections, first the Coalition, and then the Conservative Government made it an important part of their new approach that most of the New Labour initiatives were cut (out went Regional Development Agencies, integrated Government Offices and regeneration initiatives were regarded as old fashioned and not relevant to the new public policy  priorities or strategies).

So has everything changed? Not totally. But just as the devolution agenda (the Northern Powerhouse) is a case of taking other party’s policies and claiming as your own, so is the regeneration agenda. Does this matter? I think it does. Because in both cases to be successful there needs to a ‘public’ or civic society presence. Neither of these two developments can be undertaken by the private or not for profit sector alone. It is this reintroduction of the ‘public’ and with it the idea of the local agency facilitating or brokering changes as well as providing some element of accountability for what is done, which is the real potential shift in policy. Both of these developments need governance mechanisms to ensure that public needs are met or at least addressed. Governance is what the public agency or civic institutions provide. We need to reflect on what this means in the long term but in the short term it is another subtle but important shift in thinking and decision making at a central level.

After the election: What next ?

The General Election result will, for those fascinated by the intricacies of such events, provide much fertile ground for endless speculations and interpretations.

And there is a risk that these conversations crowd out some important questions as once again the daily media return their gaze to the succession competitions in the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties and the up coming leadership campaign in the Conservative Party (given Cameron’s decision not to seek a ‘third term’).

The important questions which remain after the results were announced last Friday still remain:

What are the immediate consequences of the planned austerity cuts?

Where are the cuts coming to fund the reductions in welfare spending?

Where will the funds come to meet the crisis in the Health Service?

We know that there are planned cuts in public spending and we know that some of these planned cuts have factored into them a failure to keep pace with increases in utility costs.

As a consequences for those managing budgets across the public sector (education, health, social care and all locally provided services) the real reductions in funding are likely to have more impact than has been assumed or expected.

We know too that those responsible for managing local government services are talking about not being able to meet their statutory duties and services. One of the known (but often unappreciated by the wider public) ways in which some social and welfare services are provided at the local level is through the voluntary and community sector. What might appear to be small scale operations (good neighbour schemes or community based mentor or advocate schemes) but have a profound significance for those that use them are at risk in this context. There has been a contradiction throughout the last government’s policy and practice.

On the one hand there was a time when the Cameron-led Conservatives valued the idea of volunteering and the ‘Big Society’ on the other hand the cuts to mainstream services has pushed the provision of some of these services to the voluntary sector. So rather than providing an important added extra based on what might work locally, the Voluntary Sector has found itself looking to provide core services or in some cases through contracting out seeking to win commissions to run them.

There are also questions about those aspects of the last government’s budget which were never quantified. We can anticipate that these will be made explicit sooner rather than later. We might expect that the Government will want to get these cuts announced and implemented within the next three to four years to give themselves a chance of preparing for 2020.

And yet, there is still the impact of these changes at the local level. We can expect that as the cuts result in still further and major reductions in services there is likely to be more campaigning and opposition. One of the unintended consequences (perhaps) of last week is that the political context is ‘clearer and cleaner’ than it was in 2010. The Government no longer has the political advantage of being in coalition (that advantage enabled them to see their partners punished last week) and the opposition (whilst not united at all) might yet begin to articulate a shared critique.

The other potential base from which we might see opposition developing is at the local level. We are moving, I expect, to more direct cuts in services and so those who are local councillors or those who are school governors or members of hospital trusts will find themselves either defending their decisions to cut services or sack staff or they will be joining a broad network of opposition.

It is this period of unpredictability which we need to watch and engage with.