Who is in charge of our schools?
The role, responsibilities and authority of the Board of Governors
PART 1 Who is in charge of our schools, who makes the final decisions?
This is part of a series of articles charting the decline of Boards of Governors’ and Principals’ authority, the last part of which makes some suggestions for improving the situation.
School Principals and Chairs of Governors are rightly accountable for the performance of the school, yet when problems arise it seems to me that schools are increasingly restricted when it comes to taking the very decisions which would have prevented the problem in the first place.
The Education Reform Orders of the late 1980s placed responsibility for the management of the school in the hands of Governors as part of the then government’s drive to “free” schools, introduce business/ market practices including competition and make schools more responsive to their community.
This shepherded in a range of accountability factors-open enrolment, open days, publication of results, financial (before then finance had been controlled by the ELBs), discipline, the curriculum and the production of School Development Plans. In all areas introducing the tenets of the free market, schools were to publish information to enable the consumers, the parents to choose schools.
Since then processes have been put in place which override the governors’ decisions and limit their ability to fulfil their role.
PART 2 pf 5 Who is in charge ? How did we get here, where are we and does it work?
The philosophy was that, as with business, competition would raise standards by holding schools accountable for all aspects of their performance. As Kenneth Baker stated “we will not tolerate a moment loner the smug complacency of educationalists”-that’s Kenneth of Baker days, prior to this, of course, schools had fixed catchment areas and were allocated finance by the Boards-so basing school finance on the numbers of pupils heralded the competition for those pupils.
So Governors are held accountable in the areas listed above yet, their authority has decreased, just as the role of the Principal has expanded he/she seems to bear the responsibility when things go wrong, but does not seem to have the authority to rectify them. Yet, as research by the University of Bath (The School Governance Study, University of Bath, Balerin ,Brammer, James ,Mccormack) concludes “accountability on schools has become thorough, demanding and intense” and yet, “intensification of accountability has not resulted in schools doing well”
Do you agree?
Who is in charge? Part 3 Putting the Governors back in charge
The role of the Board of Governors has become so all encompassing, time consuming and complex that it is unreasonable to expect lay people to have, or indeed want, a realistic grasp of the issues involved based on perhaps one meeting per month,whilst Farell and Early (2003) found that “the number of specific regulations hinders governors’ capacity for Strategic Planning”
The research by the University of Bath, in recognising this, makes several recommendations to make the role more doable. eg
-the range of Governor responsibilities should be reduced
-the role of governing bodies should be simplified
Surely there should be a redefinition of the roles and responsibilities of governors to take account of issues and areas where they might reasonably be expected to have an interest. These might include ethos and culture, uniform, discipline, access and partnership arrangements with parents, the oversight and review of policies pertaining to parent/child issues and finance as well as their crucial involvement in appointments.
By setting out what the governors are responsible for it would make it clear in which areas Governors are actually in charge…….and for which they are accountable.
Part 4 Accountability-right and proper or over the top?
So let’s look at that accountability in the context of how it effects Governors’ and schools’ ability to carry out the role intended by the legislation.
It is, of course, right and proper that schools are held accountable for its expenditure of public money.
However, either the Board of Governors IS in charge of the school or it isn’t, now all manner of decisions can be challenged from simple sanctions such as extra work or being kept in-who really knows the regulations relating to after school detention, couched as they are in so many conditions?, to uniform and presentational issues to “rights” to go on school trips.
It does not appear no matter what the school policies, agreed by the Governors say on these issues, parents can challenge and be supported by unaccountable bodies such as the Children’s Commissioner, the Ombudsman, the Discrimination and Disability Tribunals and the courts, in addition repeated Freedom of Information requests add to the workload and distraction. Appeals can be made consecutively to multiple bodies, yet schools have no recourse to appeal.
Many of the decisions appear to override Health and Safety law
In this respect, it appears to me that those taking the risk should have the final decision.
Many of the school leaders I speak to state that vexatious and continuous challenges to the school’s decisions represent the most draining aspect of their job.
They must be given powers to call a full stop to relentless, time-consuming and stressful challenges.
Try this article by Russell Holland, a practicing education lawyer.
The cost is also out of proportion to many of the issues, many of the commissions and tribunals involve as many of 12 professionals for days and include hundreds of pages of evidence, sapping the will of schools and drawing the teachers and management away from their classes and depriving other students of their attention.
The very purpose of the 80’s legislation is being undermined by subsequent processes.
Representation was designed to increase the legitimacy of school decisions increase accountability drive up standards and increase public confidence in its institutions.-because schools are not the final decision makers-
Ranson et al (2015) argues that whilst participation can strengthen the legitimacy of institutions in the public eye, problems associated with low parental participation undermining legitimacy. He found that social class, gender and ethnicity affect recruitment and leads to under representation of socially disadvantaged groups on governing bodies and this weakens their legitimacy.
Part 5 Before we take stock: Have things improved?
Where is the evidence that this mode of accountability has improved standards and as the competitive market model on which the 1988 Reform Order is based, reduced costs.
The cost-financial and human- is also out of proportion to many of the issues, many of the commissions and tribunals involve as many of 12 professionals for days and include hundreds of pages of evidence, sapping the will of schools and drawing the teachers and management away from their classes and depriving other students of their attention. Actually,what is the cost?-who knows?
On a broader note-is our water transport, electricity better and cheaper based on the same competitive market business model which was applied to education by the Margaret Thatcher government in the late 80s
No wonder a recent report by the NI Audit Office criticised "cumbersome governance and delivery structures" in the public sector and said a change of approach is needed.
The University of Bath report goes further- “the intended purpose of accountability-increasing public trust -has actually eroded public trust- the very processes set up to improve legitimacy and accountability of public bodies are, in fact, having the reverse effect. Representation was designed to increase the legitimacy of school decisions increase accountability, drive up standards and increase public confidence in its institutions but it hasn’t.-because schools are not the final decision makers-
Part 6 The End What can be done? Part 1 of 2 !
Taking Back Control
Just because that’s the way it is doesn’t mean it has to stay that way
Can you name the 6 entities which can overrule the decisions of the BoG and Principal. Let’s be honest the Governors have no chance of fulfilling the role laid down for them. The legislation defining their role and responsibilities should be brought up to date.
1. It is time for the role of the governors to be redefined and for its authority to be precisely defined and defended.
2. The range of Governor responsibility should be reduced and simplified
3. The requirement to manage yet scrutinise should be separated
4. The requirement to balance operational concerns with strategic concerns should be clarified
5. Steps should be taken to address the under representation of certain stakeholders.
6. A skills assessment process needs introduced.
7. Chair should be a paid post and an attendance allowance available
Part 6 2.1 The end
Where there is a will- vexatious and abusive challenges:- a particular example of the lack of clarity wrt Governors’ authority-but there is no will.
The EA is the Employing Authority-they state that they have a responsibility for employee welfare and therefore they have a duty of care-what policies and procedures do they have in place to fulfil this duty?
The initial concept was that so long as schools had policies and followed their policies then everything would be fine. What policies are schools supposed to have, who knows, is there a list? Another problem is the policies are not written by lawyers, they are written by teachers and dissected by lawyers
I refer once again to this very good article from a Russell-Holland, a practicing lawyer
Principals and teachers currently have no defence and no protection against such challenges.
Steps can be taken eg:
-there could be a legal definition of vexatious as applied to education
-there might be a limit to the number of communications- say 15 to include emails plus letters plus phone calls
-there should be a time limit on the rights of parents. Schools are required to reply promptly, no such expectation is placed on parents-this brings the added stress of uncertainty.
As part of the material sent to schools/parents by the EA/DE, a section should include responsibilities/obligations of parents and the rights of schools as well as the process schools will follow in the event of vexatious and abusive challenges
Steps could then be put in place:
-communications from governors,
.-meeting with governors,
-governors with the absolute right to say-no more
The EA routinely refers such matters reported to it back to the Board of Governors then the power of the BoG is systemically undermined. The final decision should rest with the Governors i.e those taking the risk and responsibility for the consequences should have the final say.
The corporate body must take responsibility for action when principal/teachers are abused in the course of carrying out their job-not pass the buck back to the individual, as long as the school is following its legitimate policies.
No wonder A report published today by the NI Audit Office criticised "cumbersome governance and delivery structures" in the public sector and said a change of approach is needed.
It is grossly unfair to the professionals that the authorities can introduce a Complaints procedure against them without a parallel right for those professionals.
I would echo the late British PM Clement Attlee’s opinion in advising against “the fundamental fallacy in believing that it is possible by the elaboration of machinery to escape the necessity of trusting ones fellow human beings”
CSSC,CCMS,NICIE NAHT and the teacher unions have a common cause here-common action would be helpful and enable the schools to get on with their job.
Do you agree?