What have school parent governors got to do with SUs?

Originally published on changesu

“The thing is”, said the Principal in a purposeful, moralistic tone, “it’s not in anyone’s interests for the college to continue to put on provision of this standard where the success rates are so low. We have to focus on doing what we do best and ensuring the learners are set up to succeed, not fail”

So asserted the Principal of West Herts College, a multi campus general Further Education college in Watford, during a debate (at which I was present) in 2009 in a Governing Body meeting that resolved to close the college’s A-Level provision after some eighteen years.

Up until that point in the debate, the reasoning for the proposal put forward to the Board- a collection of lay business people, community volunteers and staff and students of the college, was largely technocratic- that teaching quality targets and success rates were not as high as vocational provision and thus it was a matter of management science that should cause us to agree to the proposal.

But suddenly, the question of interests was in sharp focus. Who did the college serve, and why? Should those failed (or not motivated) by the local school system be able to access A-Levels in a college? And if so, was it our job to provide that despite the inevitable risks to success rates?

The college had been formed in 1991 as an amalgamation of a group of local further education colleges across Watford (with wonderful names like Cassio College, Dacorum College and George Stephenson College) each with a different history and role in providing non school, non university education for the town and surrounding areas. The merger- in direct response to Government resolving to incorporate local FE Colleges and “free” them from local authority control in the early 90s- was designed to create a strong, multi faceted general FE provider able to respond itself to the local area’s needs. Until that point, a central role of the Local Authority had been to determine the educational needs of the local area and provide for those needs centrally- now at least part of that role was to be carried out by and devolved to the FE corporation itself.

Once the Principal had asserted that which she believed to be in the interests of Watford’s learners, the meeting made for an uncomfortable environment. The regular pattern of meetings had tended to be a collection of legalistic papers making clear to Governors the ways in which the college was fulfilling fiduciary or legal compliance duties, peppered occasionally with papers inviting Governors to scrutinize targets and management performance against them where few of the Governors had any educational background or frames of reference with which to carry out such a task.y

Suddenly, the duty which we knew we held (but rarely manifested itself in any practical sense)- that of determining the educational character and mission of the institution- was “front and centre” without any of the tools that would have been useful for that navigation job. The Board was not given any data on A-Levels provision or alternatives across Watford. It wasn’t supplied with evidence on demand for the qualification, or ideas on what else the leaners that would no longer be on the programmes would do. Floundering and uncertain, the chair steered the discussion back to the issue of success rates and teaching quality, coupled with the need to make the decision “now” or have to wait a year; and at a stroke any non- school A Level provision for Watford was voted away into history.

So why does this tale matter? And why does it matter specifically to those of us that work in the Student Movement?

I was reminded of the FE tale last week when I delved into the Schools white paper, widely believed to have been brought forward and rushed out to provide some content for an otherwise thin (and eventually disastrous) Osbourne budget. The headline proposals involve the conversion of all schools to academies, and therefore removing them from local authority control- thus completing the slow process that begun with polytechnics and continued with further education, albeit with added private sector sponsorship in its current guise. But in both of the previous phases, models of shared governance- with academics, students and staff joining solicitors, accountants and other quasi retired (and usually white male) appointees on the Board- survived. This time, parents are no longer to get guaranteed representation on the school Governing Body- and all under the guide of “effectiveness”.

“Governing boards have a vital strategic role” says the document, “which they should deliver in a dynamic and professional manner: focusing strongly on their core functions of setting the vision and ethos for their school(s), holding school leaders to account and making sure money is well spent”. So far, so status quo. But it goes on.

“We will expect all governing boards to focus on seeking people with the right skills for governance, and so we will no longer require academy trusts to reserve places for elected parents on governing boards”. Note the construction. Governance is about effectiveness and technical skills, not representing interests.

“Fully skills-based governance will become the norm across the education system… parents often have these skills and many parents already play a valuable role in governance – and will always be encouraged to serve on governing boards. We will also expect every academy to put in place arrangements for meaningful engagement with all parents, to listen to their views and feedback”

It is a well understood phenomenon that the boundaries between the public, voluntary and private sectors are less clear than ever and if anything the academisation of schools sits at the nexus of this blurring. I have my own (pretty negative) views on the relative merits of the wider academisation of schools which I won’t dwell on here, but when you look at the coverage much of the focus of comment and analysis of that blurring centres on the extent to which private interests are being met, either at the direct expense of public interests or as a matter of comparison with those of “ordinary people”. Outside of the news headlines, large swathes of public services are now delivered through organisations whose boards have been given the task- sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly- of determining, representing and resolving that which is in the interests of people such that those interests can be served. This is a job that used to be done by councillors and governors- but it’s not at all clear who is to do it now.

In times of economic comfort this perhaps matters less than when times are hard- and given that decisions to close, reduce or merge services and provision are frequent, it is arguably critical that those making those decisions have the capacity and legitimacy to determine, represent and resolve competing interests. But even in times of economic plenty, beneficiary participation in the Governance of organisations appears to offer the prospect of a focus on their interests being central to decision making and strategy.

This is familiar to us in HE, with most student governors regularly invited to reflect on the interests of students at Governing Body level. And it is central to us in students’ unions- both in our representative function and in our democratic nature, where elections and democratic structures offer explicit opportunities to resolve competing interests.

Yet in the Schools white paper confection, the participation of beneficiaries insofar as it is about discussing the interests of beneficiaries is absent. Beneficiary participation is there only if the parents can ape the retired solicitor or the local JP. The interests of those who the school serves- pupils and parents, and the wider community- are only to be consulted on. Governance is done by those with skills who merely consult with beneficiaries.

The Tories have form here- minister for FE John Hayes proposed a similar change for FE Colleges in the early days of the coalition, but was swiftly talked out of it by a razor sharp VP Further Education backed by a talented staff unit on top of its game in London. Pupils and parents don’t have an NUS to do their bidding in quite the same way. The tories also spent much of the 80s and 90s arguing that polytechnic and University governance should be corporatized and streamlined with a focus on “skills”.

And history doesn’t help us either. Charity in Britain is much marked by the distinction between altruism and self-help, reflecting two strands of 19th century activity: philanthropy by the well-to-do towards the poor, and mutuality by the working classes for self-help. Alongside charity, charity law and the Charity Commission, the whole movement of co-operatives, mutuals and friendly societies developed during the 19th century with its own framework of law and regulation, in particular the Registrar of Friendly Societies. But that whole tradition, which inherently “gets” involving beneficiaries in resolving competing interests, has not flourished in comparison with charity- and the result is a dominant hegemony of understanding around Boards, governance and skills that reduces tensions over interests to a consultation function instead of a Governance role. Both in the private sector board tradition and the old fashioned charity tradition, there’s no need for the messiness of interests or accountability- because the purpose is clear and the board knows best.

This is a scary enough business in and of itself. Zimmerman and Dart’s (2007) examination of “commercialisation” in the not for profit sector argues that Governance can become less “responsive to community needs and more concerned with issues such as productivity and accountability”, and “that they focus too much on output measures (e.g. are we serving more people than we were last year?) of effectiveness” and ignore other measures- such as which people it is best to serve.

Yet merely using a corporate model is one thing- mixing that with inherently private interests of academy sponsors and profit is quite another. It doesn’t take a massive leap to recognise situations where the interests of the private sector might skew a decision that should be made inherently in the public interest.

One of the key issues is accountability. My own research here suggests that whilst most Boards are good at working out what they are accountable for, they are hopeless at working out who they are accountable to. And you only need a cursory glance at this instructive tale to know the sorts of circumstances where this might matter.

I guess the real question is why all of this should matter to us. I think it matters for all sorts of reasons. It matters because we all have sons and daughters and sisters and brothers and cousins and friends who depend on the schools system and want it to reflect our interests in our communities. It matters because if the argument about the role of beneficiaries is won in the schools sector, it will get won in the FE sector and the HE sector. And it matters then because when people look at students’ unions and question having 21 year old elected students as Board members, if we’re out of the habit of arguing for structures and cultures that explicitly involve the beneficiaries themselves, we’ll lose the argument just when we need to win it.

It matters for other reasons too. I reckon that the Governance of public things should be carried out in public. In schools, colleges and universities, there is specific regulation that determines the circumstances under which beneficiary governors may have a paper withheld from them or the circumstances under which they might be removed from a meeting. We should pay close attention to this regulation- it is there in part to ensure that Governance in done in the presence of those whose the decisions will principally affect and keeps those in power on their toes as a result.

It matters because we ought to value old fashioned concepts like representation and legitimacy. Anyone can learn how to get a manager to write a strategic plan or read a set of accounts. But whilst this might make them skilled and knowledgeable, it doesn’t make them legitimate. In fulfilling their “educational character and mission” purpose, all boards should contain members drawn from stakeholder groups that best reflect their range of activity. This might mean all sorts of people depending on the context. But a non varying quality of schools, colleges and universities is that they all have staff and students (or by proxy parents), and so there should be at least some places on each board for these internal stakeholder groups.

But perhaps most importantly, we should all put some time into saving compulsory parent Governors because I think the Government’s wrong about their skills- they, like students and staff, make Governance better. They are more challenging. They are really engaged.

And whilst it is true that many parent and student Governors report that meetings paperwork is too onerous; that issues under discussion and jargon are heavily complex; that the environment of debate and responses from management to scrutiny is intimidating and that they are unclear on what they have achieved at the end of a meeting, in voicing these concerns (which they are happy to raise “out loud”) they are highly likely to be reflecting the views of thousands of other governors. The only difference is that having applied and been recruited, those Governors that “suffer in silence” and nod through decisions are highly unlikely to stop attending. The Government would do well to regard the active participation of amateur, beneficiary governors as a clear sign of governance health, not some “unobtainable”.

Ultimately, there is little doubt that schools, colleges, universities, charities and even students unions in recent years are being nudged towards Governance cultures and structures which don’t satisfactorily identify or resolve conflicts between the interests of beneficiaries or potential beneficiaries. They fail at this within themselves, and they fail across providers.

My guess is that the old, structurally democratic alternatives- just relying on an LEA or HEFCE or a local LSC are gone or at best very hard to revive. So if devolution is coming, we owe it to ourselves to revive the traditions of democracy and mutuality, first within our own organisations, then in our personal schools white paper responses and then in our local areas.

The concept, process, methodology and behaviours required to get this right- getting governance to behave in the interests of the people its organisations serve- all need further research, focus and work;  and they need us- managers and CEOs and national bodies that have until now focussed on a Board’s role in fiduciary, legal and management capability- to change the way we think and alter the value we are perceived to bring. It’s time for us to stop lauding ourselves simply as technocratic “grown ups” that can run things efficiently and know the law whilst the amateurs sort the interests of beneficiaries.

The good news is that for all the messiness of elections and referendums and union council meetings, students’ unions represent a great place to start for rebuilding democracy in the public realm, so we should crack on with it.



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