Making Difficult Decisions

solomonIt was in the first book of the Kings in the Old Testament (3:16-28) where the Hebrew King Solomon had an impossible decision to make regarding conflicting maternal claims over the parentage of a baby. Having listened to both women, he called for a sword to cut the baby in half knowing that the real mother would rather hand over the child to the charlatan than see it killed. No school governor is currently facing decisions of such magnitude and complexity but many of us feel we need the wisdom of Solomon in navigating the gradual return to school of children, young people, and our staff.

In some ways the last few weeks have been easy for governors. Although helpless to prevent the closing down of national education at the end of March, we have largely been able to sit back and simply marvel at the ingenuity, dexterity and consummate professionalism of our leaders and teachers, who have adapted almost instantly to remote learning, constructed at all times against a backdrop of well-being and positive mental health. They have weathered the storm caused by a school meal voucher debacle whilst becoming immediately proficient in Zoom and Teams, and finding creative and innovative ways of engaging children and, indeed, their parents and carers. No it’s not been easy. No, it’s not been normal. But the gargantuan effort by already stressed, and undoubtedly worried, teachers and leaders is cause for national celebration. Certainly there should be no argument around school staff being applauded on Thursday nights just as much as any other key worker.

I need to be frank here. I don’t want to write an overtly politicised blog as it’s not helpful. However you cannot disentangle government decision-making and establishment of priorities from the situation schools are currently in. The fact is there was inevitably always going to be pressure on schools to re-open their gates once the sheer enormity of the financial crisis became apparent. Whether we like it or not schools are viewed by some as national child care providers to allow the workers to return to their factories and offices to jump start industry, business and commerce. I think many of us assumed that this would take place from September as the virus gradually evaporated into the hazy sunshine of summer. Once can only surmise that it is the sheer numbers of those who have been furloughed that has provoked the government to try and reintroduce in-school education for certain age groups from June 1st. Immediately, up and down the land, leaders and governors have been hastily convening streamed meetings and considering detailed risk assessments along with the obligatory tape measure.

Make no mistake every Headteacher, teacher, support staff, office staff and site staff I have spoken to or read are unequivocal in their desire to be back in school doing a job they love with children they cherish. BUT only if it is safe to do so. And here’s the conundrum we face. Irrespective of  political persuasion here are some facts. Britain has 0.8% of the world’s population. It has over 11% of world COVID deaths, the second highest death toll in the world. Yesterday (13th May) the equivalent of a jumbo-jet full of passengers died from this terrible illness. All loved. All with a name. Never just a number. May they rest in peace. Testing in this country is not at the same level as other nations and is missing targets. Government scientists appear uncertain, and issue conflicting messages around the possibility of child to child, and child to adult transmission.People are told to wear masks on public transport (having been told to avoid it) but school staff are told it is not necessary. Some reports say social distancing is critical for children. Others say less so. Nobody seems to really know.

Completing a risk assessment in normal circumstances is easy. Identify the risk, put resources or actions in place to mitigate the risk, and hence reduce or remove it. COVID, and a return to schools, take risk assessment to an unprecedented level. How do you mitigate against death? How do you put things in place to reduce the risk when there is no scientific consensus around the level of risk . How do you prevent a potential epidemic within a school? At what point do you conclude you may be fighting a losing battle and shut down again?

It is against this backdrop of uncertainty and yes, fear that some vocal parents have stated they will keep children at home. School staff supported by, for once, a unified union voice, have challenged government to guarantee reasonable levels of safety before advising a return to their memberships. And of course governance with its employment and duty of care responsibilities is wrestling with the “cost v benefit” analysis of children filing back into class. I have a view that we may see mass dissent, and only a drip-feed of children going back after the half term holiday. There are teachers with health issues, and indeed justifiable anxiety, who will feel unable to return. They need supportive and caring employers as opposed to the orchestrated right wing media cacophony already tarring the profession as a bunch of lazy, politicised malcontents. Given the heroism, and I choose that word wisely, of our schools’ staff since shutdown I say this to those sneering voices. Shut up. Or walk a mile in the shoes of those you disparage before spouting your grossly unhelpful bile. Teachers care about people especially little people, before profits. You would do well to learn from them.

I’m sat here nine days (excluding half term) from our school potentially reopening. Tonight governors meet online with the Head to go through his plans and to see if, and how we can facilitate a phased return. We have already made a pledge that we will not compromise health and well-being, and this will be front of mind when coming to conclusions. We are already stretched in terms of staff thanks to sustained underfunding. We already have areas of our site inaccessible due to sustained underfunding. Our school field is wholly reliant on good weather due to sustained underfunding. All of these are real factors that we have to wrestle with on the ground, whilst ministers and advisors make up policy on a fag packet having not visited a state school outside the M25 since, well…probably since the M25 was built.

I think come June 1st, or a date close to that, we may have some children in school. Nowhere near all and spread out so much it negates any social benefits of return. Teachers will lead face to face lessons whilst colleagues address remotely educating those still at home. No hugs for Miss. No fist bumps for Sir. A surreal, eerie and quite unnatural environment. Beyond that I suspect there will be no further cohorts returning. There simply isn’t the space on a school footprint to socially distance two hundred primary, or thirteen hundred secondary students. This sporadic, even haphazard arrangement will actually defeat its intended aim. A parent with a child in Year One (in school) and one in Year Three (at home) cannot return to work. The mother of a Year Six pupil might be able to work mornings, but may need to finish at lunch to accommodate the staggered teaching of the class. Like much of the last two months it very much resembles to me a tin of Pedigree Chum at 8am.

The government should not assume governors and trustees will meekly follow their advice. We are normally a compliant bunch given our professionalism and understanding of the importance of children being in school. However, these are strange times and might lead to strange outcomes. Most boards I have ever met are led overwhelmingly by ethical considerations, putting values and culture before operational and performance considerations. I fully expect that any board, without sufficient certainty around risk and mitigation will refuse to reopen. They will refrain from challenging dissenting parents and staff, and quite rightly. They will only admit children to the premise if as sure as is possible that their health and well-being will not be compromised. We are not pushovers. We are not lapdogs. And the government can turn its media storm-troopers on the education sector to divert its own culpability, but we will not be diverted from our chosen path. We govern for our school. Not for our government. If you are a governor or trustee battling all of these questions this week I wish you all the luck in the world. And the wisdom of Solomon.

 

A Journey Into The Unknown

face maskIn fifty-six unspectacular years on this earth I can never remember a time like it. Those of an even more mature vintage concur that this is a global crisis we have not seen the likes of since the Second World War. What started as a minor news item in a Chinese outpost now poses the greatest risk to public health in generations. All of us are rapidly coming to terms with the gravity of the situation, a difficult task given the speed with which things are moving. And sadly of course some people behave utterly irresponsibly displaying a flagrant “I’m alright Jack” approach whilst the vulnerable and key workers struggle to buy essential items.

Whilst the behaviour of society during this growing crisis merits a blog of its own, I wish to concentrate on the effects of COVID 19 on the English education system. The initial incomprehensible government response to the crisis to use school children to infect wider society to create herd immunity was quickly shifted when it became apparent we were the only nation on earth pursuing such a policy. Still, as Michael Gove infamously pronounced “The British public has had enough of experts.” That is of course until millions of us faced death hence suddenly the expertise of virologists and public health managers concentrated our collective attention. The change of policy led us to last Friday when nurseries, schools, colleges and universities effectively closed down remaining available only to vulnerable children and those whose parents were identified as key workers in ensuring the wheels of the nation continued to turn.

Of course this creates an immediate issue for governance. In many English schools we are the employer and thus have an overriding duty of care to our staff. How do we square the strong government advice for social distancing whilst expecting our staff to put their lives on the line to look after those children previously referenced. Whilst you might legitimately ask what value the government places on its teachers and school staff, we are where we are and we have to work around the current situation. As ever the operational organisation of that childcare is at the behest of the Headteacher and many will currently be wrestling with rotas and attempting to minimise exposure to potential carriers of the virus. They will be looking at how children can be kept occupied possibly with different peer groups being taught together. They will also be battling to ensure the more vulnerable children are properly fed and hydrated. As governors our job at this stage is restricted to offering our support and making explicitly clear our admiration for their utter professionalism. I also think it is important to clarify expectations. At present our schools should be seen as childcare centres rather than educational establishments. We must reinforce this message to already pressurised school leaders by emphasising that our priority at present is existence rather than excellence. We do not expect attainment or progress as we might in normal times. We do not expect the curriculum to be delivered in all its minutiae. We do not expect beleaguered teachers to be responding to governance demands for data and subject leader reports. The message must be clear. Just look after them.

For me the challenges for governance will come as we emerge from the depths of the darkness in which we currently find ourselves. Already we know that all national examinations scheduled for spring and summer have been cancelled. What will the impact of that be on those children? How can we reassure them? How can we ensure that the grades they eventually receive are as accurate a representation as possible of their likely attainment. Of course it’s not just Years Six, Eleven and Thirteen we need to consider. What about children in Years Five, Ten and Twelve who potentially will have lost access to over a third of this year’s teaching? One can only hope twelve months from now that national expectations will have been adjusted accordingly. I can also see no reason why those grades cannot be awarded by the end of June to allow an extended period for students to ensure they have time to select and access sixth form and university provision.

However, what I have discussed to now is what we know. What is certain. We must also accept that this crisis may be protracted beyond current expectations. It may affect greater number than currently projected or even feared. It may potentially mean that even by September 1st we will not be in a position to say it is business as usual. And that of course poses a number of challenges for governors. How do we manage our new intakes without the ability to meet with parents, partners in transition and relevant professionals? If we are recruiting for senior posts or others how do we orchestrate that process without being able to meet face to face. Of course we can use technology but how do operational leads observe teachers in action? How do we shortlist and interview recruits remotely? It’s about this time of year we start planning for the next academic year and possibly, in primary at least, looking at moving people around. How does this work in the current situation? And of course there’s our governor meetings? If we are to utilise technology to have online meetings is this accessible to all governors and the clerk?

I have no doubt that COVID 19 will mark a see change in how society operates in so many ways. So many conventions and norms will be challenged. Education is no different.Governors will need to be flexible, agile and responsive in our approach. But it is entirely feasible that both education in general and governance may emerge from this crisis significantly different to how it entered the current period. Those boards who have plodded along year after year may experience a reality check as those previous practices are consigned to education history. We are in a bleak even desperate predicament. But we need to be ready. Ready to hit the ground running and ensure that when things return to what passes for normal we are all on top of our brief. As for outside influences this might see a change in testing and examinations. If w can successfully transition children this summer without the stress of examinations might that not be a more kind model for future consideration? And what about inspection? If we rightly start to see the role that school plays in the lives of our families far beyond the classroom in such times of adversity then perhaps we re-calibrate what we value as a society from our leaders and teachers?

So many uncertainties. So many doubts. Nobody really knows when and how we will emerge from this desperate situation and how schools, children and staff may have been affected. What is certain is that the sector will be heavily reliant on governors and trustees to leading us strategically into a new era of education. We have to be strong. We have to be ready. And more than ever we have to be willing. Our children need us.

Visibility And Governance

VisibilityOn Friday I received a message from the National Governance Association asking if I would be prepared to promote the #VisibleGovernance initiative they were launching the same morning. I was delighted to accept the invitation. It is absolutely right that we all do our utmost to put school governance in the brightest spotlight possible. School governance when good will almost certainly lead to the best possible outcomes for children. Children who only get one chance. That chance is us. Although mere volunteers we bring a myriad of skills, expertise and experiences to the table in order to hold the executive to account and ensure our schools are also wholly accountable to the public whose money we spend. When we add to that eclectic mix of individuals a collective willingness to embrace training and development along with a steely determination to be our best, then the effective board of governors is indeed a considerable force within school.

From a personal perspective my seventeen years of governance have enriched and upskilled me considerably. I have developed the confidence to challenge. I have learned how to dig beneath the superficiality and be forensic in analysis. I have acquired the ability to see issues in advance and have a plan to deal with them. And hopefully my capacity to lead and be inspirational in that role has been acutely honed. Governance has made me better in my paid job. Governance has made me better in so many other ways. I owe governance a huge debt of gratitude. If telling this story attracts just one more person to join their local school board then it is a worthwhile exercise. I am proud of the work I have done for my school. Only the passage of time will tell how successful I was.

But the issue of visibility got me thinking. As school governors we need to be visible not a distant, almost mystical body. We are an integral part of the school community. We are leadership and management. And whilst many of us balance our governance duties with full time employment and hence find getting into school during the day a real challenge, we appreciate the need for our staff, children and families to know who we are and the critical role we fulfil in the life of the school. It is probably important to say that the governor who cannot get into school is not ineffective purely by that measure. We are a corporate and collective body and it is quite acceptable for those retired governors or those with greater flexibility to take up much of the heavy lifting when it comes to visits. Working governors can compensate in other areas. After all our job ostensibly is a thinking one. In my own school reflecting back governors had become too distant from our stakeholders. We were doing what we thought was best but had become detached from the lives of those we served and could not accurately judge the temperature of our community. Over the last few months we have made a concerted effort to rectify this and there was no more pleasurable outcome of our recent inspection report than the opening phrase that succinctly places the school “at the heart of its community.”

Clearly with visibility and a greater presence can come some challenges. It is easy for governors in school more regularly to become involved in operational considerations rather than having a more detached and more strategic outlook as is our remit. Whilst governors helping out with reading and accompanying children on trips is laudable it is also important to divorce those activities from our core work although they can of course inform governance too. More importantly is the need for us to stay away from gossip and being seen as a “shoulder to cry on” by concerned or disgruntled staff. Governors who are drawn too easily into staffroom tittle tattle can all too quickly find themselves compromised or tainted and hence are not sufficiently detached to play any future role in any grievance, disciplinary matter or complaint that may require governor scrutiny.

Sometimes visibility means other things. It can mean standing up to be counted rather than take the easier route of disappearing into the background meekly. It can mean having those courageous conversations referenced in the Governance Handbook which can be uncomfortable but we know we have to conduct in the best interests of our children. Remember again. Children only have once chance at education. And that chance is us. It can also mean challenging leadership if operational actions appear at odds with the school’s culture, values and ethos. It means being prepared to remind people that the “why” we lead our school is always more important than the “how and what.” I have thought of this in recent days when considering the comments of the Education Secretary when he clearly aligned silent corridors  and strict behavioural policies with academic achievement. Clearly influenced by his Schools Minister who is a proud advocate of 1960s education within the M25, he failed to point out the many thousands of schools up and down the country who develop and nurture well-adjusted and independent young people who take responsibility for their actions maturely and sensibly.  Of course he was heartily supported by the narrow band of sycophants including those in receipt of ten million pounds to sort out the epidemic of extreme violence and sexual assaults apparently endemic in state education.

For me this links seamlessly into how you see your school, how you view education, and most importantly how you think of children. If you see them as an enemy to be overcome, a force for harm and a barrier to your teaching then I assume you have no problem with zero tolerance. If you see children as a source of great joy who, yes, need boundaries and structure but fundamentally are a force for good and a source of joy, then such practices and philosophies are anathema, totally at odds with your core beliefs and values. I can only assume that in schools where these practices are embedded (often multi academy trusts with a brand image to protect) governors are aware and are largely supportive. I wonder how many don’t know about the methods employed but have been sold the line that good behaviour promotes high standards of attainment. However there is a clear need for governor visibility here. If you govern in one of those schools and are uneasy around this discourse then you must stand up and speak out. Not publicly but within the confidential confines of your boardroom. And of course if you are unsuccessful in persuading a rethink of these operational methods then resignation is the only option. But one you must take if you are true to your principles. There have been clearly documented allegations of zero tolerance being taken too far. “Flattening the grass” by emotionally abusing children was allegedly de rigeur in at least one trust. Off-rolling ill-disciplined children or more unforgivably those with special educational needs in the name of exam results is reprehensible to most of us. But where were the governors when these things happened? Where the people of principle prepared to draw a line in the sand and say “Not on my watch?”

I can very confidently say that no school where I was Chair of Governors would ever see children as the enemy. No school where I was Chair of Governors would demand silence  around the school from inquisitive and curious children. No school where I was Chair of Governors would give a detention to an autistic child who failed to make eye contact with a class teacher. No school where I was Chair of Governors would allow staff to publicly scream at children in the name of forced compliance. No school where I was Chair of Governors would ever get rid of difficult children or make us inhospitable to the most vulnerable. If it ever tried I would be very visible and very vocal. If I failed I would resign. And before any of you have the temerity to challenge me on standards don’t you dare. No school where I was Chair of Governors would ever have anything but the highest expectations of children and an ambitious vision for our school. It was the American businessman Thomas Watson Jr who said “If you stand up and be counted, from time to time you may get yourself knocked down. But remember this: A man flattened by an opponent can get up again. A man flattened by conformity stays down for good.” Be visible. Do the right thing. Be a force for good.

Can Staff Thrive In A Deep Dive?

workload

From Berwick to Bournemouth, from Blackpool to Bury St Edmunds much of the discourse in staff rooms and governing boards this term has inevitably focused on the 2019 OFSTED Inspection framework. From the consultation early in 2019 it was evident that the regulator was looking at a slightly different approach in how it judged the successful provision of education in schools and academies. Whilst there were minor tweaks as a result of that consultation with the sector, much of what was originally suggested remains in place. In a nutshell there was to be less of a focus on narrow attainment and progress data but much more emphasis on the overall quality of education. The general concern was that some schools may have been narrowing their curricular offer in pursuit of external examination success thereby restricting the knowledge base and educational experience of our children. By changing the focus the aim was to ensure all schools offered a wide curriculum and extra curricular activities that engaged all children, that knitted together in a logical and sequential way different core subjects, and that developed the “cultural capital” of pupils and students. Of course this concept is hugely popular with the traditional wing and their pin-up boy Nick Gibb, the Schools’ Minister since 1746. What constitutes cultural capital is highly subjective and worthy of a blog and certainly a debate of its own.

The new framework therefore introduced a new discrete heading of the Quality of Education. Now I am absolutely sure that the vast majority of schools have for many years offered children broad and balanced curricular provision that engaged children and developed both their knowledge but also the skills to apply and nurture that knowledge to their advantage. However this hasn’t stopped schools from undertaking huge revamps of the subjects and topics they teach. In fairness this has unleashed huge creativity in some areas and the innovative use of natural resources, people in the local community, and more traditional sources of information is very exciting.

The OFSTED grade descriptors are very interesting. Effectively to be “Outstanding” there is the assumption that the curriculum is already finely honed, stimulating, and challenges all children. This perhaps unrealistic  expectation so early in the cycle may explain whey nationally so few schools have either achieved or maintained that grading during the September and October inspections. Inevitably most schools are still working up their curricula offer having consulted with staff, parents, and children to ensure that what is being taught meets the needs of the children in that unique setting. Staff rooms that were used to hearing discussion around the three “Rs” now reverberate to the sound of the three “Is.” What is the Intent of the curriculum. What is its purpose? How relevant is it to our children and the world in which they are growing up? Then there is the Implementation. How will the curriculum be delivered? Will it be accessible to all children? And what will be the Impact? Will it ensure children have a secure depth of knowledge across all subject areas thereby boosting their cultural capital and theoretically improving their prospects of social mobility and higher workplace achievement?

One would have hoped that with the pressure of success in external examinations being eased, schools would take a much more relaxed and collaborative approach to the new inspection framework. Sadly this is proving not to be so in too many cases. The competition to top a league table is now a competition to design a world-beating curriculum. The apparent need to reinvent the wheel is prevalent rather than a much more sensible approach of tweaking existing models to suit your local circumstances and context. In the process a huge amount of work has been carried out. Already one is hearing stories of teachers having spent much of their summer holiday creating new subject curricula and in the case of primary teachers their whole annual teaching plan. So instead of hours hothousing children for tests, we now have teachers hothousing themselves in order to create a magic curriculum that will bewitch any visiting inspector.

It is possible to point the finger here at senior leaders who have switched ridiculously high expectations from exam cramming to curriculum cramming. It is arguable one should ask teachers why in heaven’s name they are complicit in this rat race. But the most powerful force at work here is OFSTED itself. The new inspection framework is absolutely explicit in its expectation that teachers will develop a greater depth of subject knowledge. In the areas they lead it is expected they will cascade this knowledge to colleagues. In other subject areas they are expected to embrace additional training to upskill themselves right across the curriculum. There is a school of thought of course that if we are to deliver the enhanced cultural capital demanded in the framework then teachers must have developed their own mastery of each subject. However, three months into the new framework a significant and glaring challenge is presenting itself.

In many schools, especially primary, the time allocated for subject development is scant. Anecdotally around half a day per term appears to be commonplace. And often of course those precious hours are eroded by behaviour management issues, and other urgent non-teaching considerations. Which then begs the question when are we expecting our hard working teachers to find the significant number of hours required to attend training, read up on their subject, and map and design a challenging and stimulating curriculum across all age groups? Most teachers spend literally every minute of the day teaching other than their PPA designated time, which again is often lost or moved at short notice. Which means we are inevitably expecting our teachers to develop their knowledge either in the evening or at weekend. Which hurtles us headlong into a real conundrum. Elsewhere in the new framework there are clear references to the duty of employers and senior leaders to consider carefully the workload of their staff. There is an explicit threat that in Good schools where workload is onerous and staff feel bullied or intimidated the Section 8 inspection will be immediately converted to a deeper Section 5 analysis with the potential for a requires improvement or even inadequate outcome.

Already this term subject leaders at schools who have been inspected are reporting a forensic examination of their subject knowledge and curriculum implementation and impact. The so-called “Deep Dives.” OFSTED will doubtless justify this on the grounds of it being essential to ensure the quality of education is high. However it is, superficially at least, simply incompatible with the responsibilities to manage workload and well-being sensitively. All of which clearly gives a huge challenge to senior leadership and governors. This needs to be on the agenda of all governance meetings. Governors need to ensure that any requirement by the school for teachers to deepen their knowledge can be wholly accommodated within the school day. If not work-life balance is inevitably compromised. But then of course we meet another problem. Under the continued shameless underfunding of state education, few schools have the luxury of idle staff who can be parachuted into classrooms to cover for teachers busy on subject development. Some schools have virtually no teaching assistants left and we know supply cover can be extremely expensive and increasingly impossible to sanction under deficit budgets.

So my friends we have to make some tough choices here. If we are obsessed with receiving an Outstanding inspection judgement we will probably turn a blind eye as leadership turns the screw inexorably on staff already working up to sixty hours per week. However there are other choices. And in most cases they can be traced back to culture. The “why” you exist rather than the “what” or “how.” If your culture is robust, empathetic, and compassionate you can make different choices. You can draw your line in the sand on well-being and refuse to demand any extra hours or even minutes from staff. You can instead accept that the curriculum development and subject depth is a journey but not one that can be completed in hours. It may take months. Even years. Yes, the school down the road may publish an all-singing, all-dancing curriculum statement boasting of teachers with great subject expertise. But when those staff are exhausted and go off sick who will teach their children? And what will their governors say to them?

No, this isn’t easy. It takes courage. It takes a united board to stand up at the inspection and say we put whole school well-being before ANY other considerations. Look the inspector in the eye and say you cannot achieve instant depth of subject knowledge whilst protecting workload at a time of financial crisis. Tell them that your culture and ethos is clear. We value people before paper. Prosperity before progress. And tell them your firm belief that actually, if we do treat people properly then success will inevitably follow. Happy, contented staff deliver high standards. Stressed, overworked and undervalued staff deliver absences. So we have questions to ask of our leadership at our meetings. How do we expect staff to enhance their subject appreciation? How can this be arranged without an impact on workload? What are the resource implications for the school? Ultimately these and other related questions lead to a final and fundamental question. What sort of school are we?

 

 

 

Black and White or Shades of Grey?

shades of grey

Mr Lowry was the affable Marketing Director. He and his board colleagues had their offices located on the upper floor at the front of the building. My desk was located in the sales office, also on the upper floor but at the rear of the building, the two office blocks flanking a large warehouse of engineering products. A bridge across the warehouse linked the front and rear upper floors. It was very rare for the directors to honour us with their presence but even less so Jim Lowry whose brief gave him no plausible reason to visit either the sales or adjacent purchasing offices. One morning we were advised that Mr Lowry was escorting an important visitor around the building and that we should ensure the office was clean, and that we “looked busy.” Right on cue in walked the rotund director with an unassuming but cheery visitor. Our tactic was simple. We all dialled each other’s extensions and conducted fake conversations to give the appearance of inward orders being processed. Jim pointed at a couple of things, answered a question, then took his guest next door to Purchasing. Five minutes later we were tipped off that our distinguished guests were on their way back through. Jim pointed out a couple more things then courteously opened the door and escorted his visitor…..into the broom cupboard. The more professional of my colleagues managed to retain their composure. Sadly I, in common with the majority were forced to crawl under our desks all stifling the hugest of chortles. That day Jim Lowry passed into company folk lore whilst us mere minions pontificated that if the board were more regular visitors to our side of the building then his bemused visitor would not have faced the ignominy of making the acquaintance of a wet mop.

Thirty years later having retold that humorous tale for the umpteenth time, and now a Chair of Governors I reconsidered the criticism we heaped upon poor Jim all those years ago. Why should the directors have been regular departmental visitors? They knew we were a profitable and growing company. They knew the branch network we were supporting reported positively on our work. They had no reason to know HOW we did our work provided we were doing  it well. Quite rightly their minds were occupied in their plush front-facing offices considering product diversification, the threats posed by our competition, and the opportunities offered by a new Far East manufacturing plant.  Their job was to scan the horizon of the next three years rather than be preoccupied by operational considerations.

Of course school governance has a great deal of synergy with the scenario just articulated. We delegate the day to day running  of the school to the Headteacher or CEO along with their senior leadership team. Our priorities are to ensure that they have sufficient resources to deliver the outcomes we have agreed and the impact against which we are measured externally. As with the company directors we should be on deck looking out for icebergs. The moment we descend into the bowels of the ship to start rowing among the staff, we have strayed into areas where we have no remit. There is clear blue water between our respective roles. A specific delineation of responsibilities. Indeed much of the new governor induction and subsequent training programme we offer colleagues regularly reminds us all of our strategic rather than operational bias.

I believe when schools are working to optimum capacity in every way, then it is relatively simple to keep this separation in place. When children are progressing well, staff are happy and energised, parents are advocates for the school, and finances are healthy, governors can afford to take a step back conducting the orchestra rather than tuning the violins. That doesn’t mean of course that we can ever totally rely on the reports from the Head exclusively. There are several ways in which we can and do validate the information received from senior leadership. Firstly we have access to data both in terms of external measurement and also internal tracking. There will always be a core of governors comfortable with extrapolating the headline messages from this data and disseminating this in meaningful soundbites to their colleagues. There is an expectation that governors will be familiar faces during the school day so they can see at first hand the impact of their strategies on the daily life of the school. We have access to independent reports from the school adviser, from OFSTED, and in some cases from a Diocesan inspection. All of these sources, and others, offer governors ample opportunity to triangulate the information received regularly from senior leadership. And of course it goes without saying that for this partnership between operational and strategic to function at its best, it has to be founded on the rock of mutual trust. One where all concerned are comfortable with challenging questions and occasionally courageous conversations, safe in the knowledge that we are all pulling in the same direction and are members of the same team.

Sadly this cosy, idyllic scenario is not always evident in all our schools and academies. I guess if it were we would not have inadequate inspection judgements or schools requiring improvement. The reasons we have schools in such categories are plentiful, often complex, but occasionally entirely local and unique. In this blog I want to look specifically at inspection reports where leadership and management have been criticised or given cause for concern. Most of us, if not all would agree that there is an absolutely inextricable link between effective leadership and positive outcomes. So when this is labelled as problematic where and how has this gone wrong?

There is no doubt that some boards have failed to understand their core function and have all too easily succumbed to the temptation to become operational. There are a number of Heads who have confided in their advisers their concern about operational input from governors. Why might this happen? Firstly perhaps a collective failure to access training and therefore a lack of of clarity around their role. Secondly it might be that they have always strayed into the “doing” and have failed to keep pace with the changing priorities of governance. Thirdly it might well be that the balance of challenge and support is not in equilibrium and that governors are attempting to exert too much control in a micro-management way.

But are there occasions when the opposite situation exists? Where the Head keeps governors deliberately at arm’s length seeing them as a necessary evil to be tolerated and carefully managed to minimise their influence. Recently a vice chair contacted me to query whether an annual review and strategic planning session was advisable. He was seeking my counsel because the Head had been forthright in asserting this was not the done thing and that the board would get anything it needed to know from him. You could justifiably point out that this particular board should have a much greater awareness of tails wagging dogs than it clearly does but I have been struck when working with boards this year just how often when I ask a question there is a universal deferment to the Head to answer it. This suggests an over-reliance on the Head which of course can also be dangerous.

Several weeks ago I became aware of a school that was inspected and found to require improvement. Not an  unusual outcome in itself but one that was very interesting once you started to read the report under the different descriptors. The most damning criticism came under leadership and management where it appeared there was a breakdown in the relationship between staff and the Head but that governors were blissfully unaware having been constantly reassured everything was rosy in the garden. Local intelligence has subsequently informed me that the Head is a charismatic figure, hugely popular with parents and presides over a school where the data does not indicate any underlying issues. Yet here is an experienced inspector highlighting this situation as a clear breakdown in leadership, especially governance. The report is quite unequivocal in stating that governors should have been aware of the prevailing mood between the adults in the school. Of course it’s very easy for us to adopt a judgemental position here and look down our noses at the governors in question. But for me it creates a really interesting debate about the limitations of a simply strategic focus.

Let’s consider how this might work. Unhappy staff have correct channels through which to articulate their concerns. This is right and proper and common to other sectors although inevitably in a small school community governors often find it difficult not to hear the bush telegraph. You might argue that the staff governor has a role to play here. Why didn’t he or she speak out? We will never know the answer. Perhaps fear of upsetting their line manager might be a genuine obstacle? Perhaps they didn’t subscribe to the wider staff mood? Perhaps he or she DID raise those staff concerns either publicly at a meeting or in private to the Chair? For one moment let’s imagine the latter happened. What would governors do in such circumstances? Presumably they would ask the Head if staff concerns were present and whether there was any validity. If the Head denies there is an issue and refutes any specific points raised where do governors go next? They could theoretically approach staff to validate the Head’s assertions but in doing so would they then be straying into operational waters? What would it say about the degree of trust in the Head by the board if it went behind his or her back arguably saying “we don’t believe you?” You might think there may be other factors evident that would suggest staff discontent. Is there a disproportionate turnover of staff? If so governors are entitled to ask why but if a plausible reason is given for each departure then typically governors would be expected to trust in the senior leadership’s version of events. Similarly if specific concerns raised are seen as the workings of a trouble-maker or the excuses of an under-performing teacher then it is difficult for the board to delve any deeper.

Normally when I write a blog I do so to make a point. In this case I genuinely don’t have an answer. I do subscribe enthusiastically to the theory of the strategic v operational divide as it gives a clear remit to both board and senior leadership. However, I believe it can only work harmoniously when mutual trust and integrity are evident. If the board is dabbling in matters that are not within its remit without due cause, this is a recipe for disaster. Similarly if the Head is keeping governors at arms’s length and using the “don’t get operational” mantra as a method to keep them in the dark then this is potentially fatal too. Ultimately my feeling is that when things are not right then the lines may need to become a little blurred. Governors may need to be resolute in their commitment to really know what is going on rather than being easily put off. Governors may need to ask for more evidence if concerns remain. This is not to say they don’t trust the senior leadership but given in some cases they are the employer, they have a clearly defined responsibility to their staff, children, parents and wider community. Governors may very well need to become more “hands on” for a period to assure those stakeholders that they are there for them, have their fingers on the pulse of the school, and are ensuring the values and ethics of the school are being lived daily by all concerned. If we ignore the warning signs simply because we might stray over an arbitrary line once in a while we run the very real risk of finishing up in Jim Lowry’s broom cupboard. What do you think?

The Right People Round The Fable

victorian meeting

It’s that time of year when many governing boards and trusts are finalising their structures and arrangements for the next academic year. Amidst the all too familiar cries of “Where did the year go?” we look at our likely priorities and how we can ensure close governor oversight of these key areas. But before we even begin to apportion roles to individuals it is also a great time to ensure we are relevant. Fit for purpose. And critically aligned to the constituencies we represent and the stakeholders of our school. Coincidentally therefore I have seen a few related issues discussed this week that have stimulated my curiosity and led me to jot down some ramblings on paper.

The first little Twitter exchange that got me thinking wasn’t actually around governance but about the speaker list at an educational event. Questions were raised about the diversity of those who would be publicly contributing whilst others in the exchange strongly stated their belief that the demographic identity of the speaker was less important than their ability to engage an audience and make a positive contribution to the event. To be fair this is a sensitive issue which always carries a range of impassioned views and one to which I don’t have sufficient knowledge to contribute. However, it did get me thinking about the membership of our governing boards and their relevance locally. Should our board be representative of our local school family? Most would say yes and hence we should see different races, nationalities and cultures represented, both genders, people living with disabilities, and volunteers from across the age spectrum? Or, where local communities like mine are 99% white British is this a cop-out and should we be pioneering in ensuring an even broader church on the board? I know there have been initiatives in recent times to persuade governors to look at the make-up of the board and target missing characteristics when recruiting. I wonder how successful that has been? How many boards have governors under the age of thirty? Perhaps more controversially how many boards have sought to include the gobby single mother from the council estate (stereotype I know) when it’s so much easier to work with the doctor’s wife who lives in the big house down the affluent lane on the other side of the village?

The second story that attracted my attention was the leaked letter from a county council education portfolio holder to the Secretary of State in which she asked him to reconsider the decision to place a failing school in the hands of a multi academy trust due to apparent widespread opposition from parents. The letter suggested the strict disciplinary regime allegedly favoured by the trust  was not in keeping with their wishes. Since the news broke the trust has somewhat predictably made noises about legal action but it begs the question around culture, ethos, vision, and values. I have long since advocated that these key elements, the very soul of a school, the “why” it exists in the first place, cannot ever be imposed by a Headteacher or board of governors. It might be well-written, plausible, even attractive to the outside world, but if it doesn’t carry the full support of the school community it fails its most basic of stress tests. For local authority schools this is something very much within their own control. Schools choosing to join a MAT can spend many hours of due diligence ensuring their new “host family” is a good fit. However, those schools which are forced to academise as the result of being deemed failing have no such latitude under current arrangements. The report published today by the National Governance Association looks at this and related issues and poses the question as to whether due consideration has been given to the scope of governance as the sector has expanded under clear ideological impetus from the government. It simply cannot be right that the parents and carers of our children have no say in the choice of trust into which their schools are parachuted or equally importantly have no ongoing voice in the direction of travel of their children’s education.

That rather well-worn phrase “the right people around the table” has been aired again today in the discussion around the report. My view is that whilst this is clearly aspirational it fails to take into account the reality for many of our governing boards. The government has, not unusually,  a detached and somewhat romanticised view of school governance. A model where the global Financial Director of Glaxo Smith Kline kindly volunteers to join the board of St Hilda’s Primary, saves the a fortune in budget efficiencies, and is rewarded with a bottle of Veuve Cliquot from the parody formerly known as Lord Agnew. There are few dissenting voices anywhere to the claim that the responsibilities of governance have increased significantly in recent years. At the same time people are working longer hours and hence have less time to volunteer and benefit philanthropic causes. So whilst we would all accept that a broad balance of skills and expertise is ideal, the reality I find on my travels is that most boards are running under full capacity. We are seeing parent governor elections becoming less common. I have worked with schools where they cannot find a staff governor such is the current workload being imposed on our people. Recruitment and to some degree retention of governors are real issues within English education and ones I believe require some new thinking.

Let me tell you about my own board of governors. We currently have a vacancy for a foundation governor appointed by the Bishop to protect the Diocesan interest in the school. Until recently we had two spaces but we have managed to persuade a teacher from another school to join us for next term. The criteria imposed by the church to recruit are absolutely understandable from its perspective but the reality is it narrows the reservoir of potential talent to something approaching a Saharan water-hole in the middle of a drought. The fact is weekly church attendance across all denominations is decreasing to the extent where few families can be seen among the scattered, predominantly aged congregation. Our constitution allows us to have two parent governors and we are blessed to have those positions filled by two wonderful professionals. However we have received an expression of interest from a parent who is an expert in construction at a time when we are considering the perimeter of the school, and the potential development of a nursery. Yes we can look at co-opting or affording associate status but this impacts on the necessary foundation majority on the board.

So where is this tortuous ramble going? I guess there are few people involved in education who wouldn’t agree that excellent governance is essential to the future healthy status of English state education. So it is critical therefore that we have vibrant, dynamic, innovative boards full to capacity and serving the needs of their school communities with which they are closely aligned. But for the reasons cited in this blog we are struggling in some cases. We know that our boards should be representative of the stakeholder groups we serve in terms of demographics. We know we should be seeking those with finely-honed commercial and professional skills and knowledge. We know we should be in tune with the beating heart of our communities. Yet we have to achieve these things often handcuffed by mandatory structures that arguably have not kept pace with recent developments both in governance but also the social fabric of the country. I truly believe the churches who still have a huge vested interest in our schools need to be more realistic about the governors they appoint to represent their financial and ethical interests. By insisting on weekly church attendance they immediately virtually dash any hope of wider community representation.  It must be within the grasp of clever people to agree an appointments process where ALL governors in church schools sign a commitment to uphold the Diocesan interests at all times thereby hugely increasing the potential to fill vacancies. I would go further and say relax the constraints on boards to have a designated number of governors from a particular constituency. For example if you can’t recruit a staff governor but have an additional parent who can add significant strength to the collective then why not? A good board can seek the views of staff with regards to its strategic work in other ways than direct representation.

Why can’t boards effectively decide who joins them at any given time? I can almost hear the warning shots being fired across my bows referring to Trojan Horses but these things happened anyway under the existing protocols. If the government truly wants us to be more professional then it needs to trust us to develop our boards in the way we think best suits our community and most importantly delivers for our children. We need all interested parties to ensure that governors, senior leaders, teachers, and support staff are the best they can be given our children only get that one chance. However we also need to ensure that our stakeholders, especially our parents and carers come with us on the journey. We have to end the current practice of a regional schools commissioner, often sat in an office miles away, recommending the attachment of a “failing” school to an academy perhaps geographically but certainly ideologically distant.

At a time when are schools are under unprecedented threat from central government underfunding, we more desperately then ever need innovative, dynamic, and forward thinking professional governors to work with teachers and leaders to develop the highest standards of education. But we must do so in partnership with all of our stakeholders so that our efforts are united, and our ownership collective. Indeed my next job after this blog is to write to our staff asking them for creative ways in which our school can better market our unique selling points. We will make similar representations to parents. And if we are to do these things to the best of our ability we have to work under a system sufficiently flexible to meet the rapidly shifting priorities our schools face. Let’s get the right people around the table. Let it cease to be a fable.

Broad and Balanced

seesawThe Headteacher of Ravenswood Primary School, Philomena Keating, sat back in the uncomfortable Year Four chair with her arms folded. That bloody twenty eight page report had taken two evenings to write, one of which had necessitated missing Morris dancing rehearsals in the Beaver and Dam. Now these confounded amateurs, tenuously masquerading as school governors, had the absolute gall to ask questions. Why? The data looks good. The school adviser, despite being an old crow, wasn’t as miserable as she might have been. Parent complaints have gone down. Most of the staff have come back from their stress absences. What else in God’s name could they want? Thankfully as her blood pressure rose betrayed by blotches on her rounded face, Sarah Smithers, Chair of Governors came to her rescue. “Guys, it’s getting late. Mrs Keating’s report is detailed and shouldn’t require further explanation. The figures are ok apart from Year Three and we know most of them are thick anyway. Attendance is back over eighty per cent and it’s two months since I’ve been accosted in the playground.” Local authority governor Marjorie Barnard, meek at the best of times, knew this was going nowhere and immediately decided to shelve her proposed questions about the school’s curriculum offer in light of the imminent changes to the inspection framework. Her concerns had been raised by her niece Kitty who said school was boring and that all she knew about were fronted adverbials and improper fractions. But Sarah was formidable and this was not a battle Marjorie was prepared to wage in front of her colleagues. Through the corner of her eye Marjorie could have sworn she saw the Head smile triumphantly as the line of inquiry was halted before it started.

Those of us, like me, who spend far too much time on eduTwitter will probably testify that much of the discourse revolves around how children are taught rather than what they are taught. I ascribe this obsession to a battle of egos around which pedgaogy and methodology works best when in truth the vast majority of teachers I have ever spoken to change their method or approach to fit the subject or context. Now it would appear OFSTED has raised the stakes. The 2019 inspection framework will now require inspectors to look at the quality of education rather than mere progress and attainment data, important though they remain. It is suggested that those at the helm are concerned that some schools may be concentrating far too heavily on those subjects which are tested to the detriment of others. We have all seen creased copies of a Year Six timetable consisting almost exclusively of English and Maths lessons, the only concession being to those subjects that require mandatory inclusion in the school week. The obsession with “hitting the figures” and the undoubted high-stakes accountability has sadly led to some senior leaders trying to play the system to the clear disadvantage of their children. And whilst that might be unforgivable it is to some extent understandable given the pressures to achieve.

Hence the announcement of a much clearer focus on what is being taught has been welcomed almost universally. Education is far more than the forced imposition of facts to be absorbed by young minds. Education is far more than memorisation of times tables and the ability to recite a Kipling poem in the dinner hall to order. Education is about exposing children to the beauty of learning. Education is about offering the broadest variety of subjects and topics possible to draw our children in, engage their interest, and in the process develop that lifelong love of learning in all its forms to which most of us aspire. Education is about instilling in children a responsibility for the environment and the world in which they live. Education plays a critical part in preparing our children for adulthood. And we must never forget our children only have once chance at that education.

The requirement to develop a curriculum that meets the minutiae of the new framework but more importantly the needs of our children will be integral to governance from this point onwards. Whilst we have been warned off straying into the operational aspects of school leadership, and rightly so, such is the importance of this renewed curriculum concentration that we must have clear oversight of what our school is delivering. Yes we must avoid asking “How” subjects are being taught but we absolutely have a duty to ask “What” is being delivered in our classrooms. And we need to ensure that our offer is clear, finalised, and in place from September of this year. In other words as governors we cannot wait until the new academic year before we start to explore this issue with senior leadership. The intent, implementation, and impact of what children are learning must be explicit in the minds of all governors and teachers before we depart for Tuscany or Tenby in mid July.

For governors there are a number of questions or even threads which we need to start asking with immediate effect. With regards to the intent, what is the rationale behind the school’s curriculum and do all subject leaders have sufficient expertise and understand what is being taught in that subject through the school and why? Do we have a governance structure that offers us a clear insight into what is being taught and a method of both scrutinising and challenging or do we need to amend how we operate? Are we ensuring that we are not adding to staff workload and if there are additional challenges, are we trying to compensate in other areas? If inspection does not seek to validate internal data what information should governors be receiving from school leaders and how often, especially when considering the excellent “Making Data Work” paper by Professor Becky Allen? Are we developing vocabulary and reading skills effectively in the Early Years and is reading pivotal across the broader curriculum? How does our curriculum promote personal development, well-being of both children and staff, and take into account our responsibilities as global citizens in a precious but threatened environment? Are there any immediate or longer term training and development needs for both staff and governors to ensure we have sufficient depth of knowledge in future? And perhaps most importantly of all, is our curriculum accessible to every child in the school irrespective of perceived ability, or whether they live with disability?

There will be  large number of schools inspected in the autumn term and curriculum cannot be viewed as a long term project or work in progress. It has to be in place, being effectively implemented, and be able to demonstrate impact right from the start of the Autumn term. If your school is awaiting “the call” then are you having these discussions with leadership NOW? If you don’t have a Curriculum Committee have you considered structural change? Are you currently reviewing your nominated governor roles to ensure they meet the revised priorities of the school? Will you ensure your website accurately represents what is being taught to each year group from the beginning of term? And are you asking the questions in the previous paragraph with particular emphasis I suggest on the quality of subject leadership?

By and large I believe this new direction of travel will be largely welcomed by those of us who love to witness and read about the joy of education. The careful intertwining of subjects around a theme that promotes the key educational skills of reading, writing, and numeracy but hooks children in via the wonder of experiment, exploration, and collaboration. It is a long awaited opportunity to bust the myth of having to teach to the test and to prepare our children fully for life in our changing world. From a governance perspective we are pivotal in shaping what we teach our children in 2019-20 and we must be absolutely involved in developing and tweaking the content without getting involved in just how that is delivered on a daily basis. Yet another challenge for hard-pressed volunteers and as always the remuneration remains unchanged. However we are not driven by materialistic gain but by the knowledge that children are thriving and maturing every day in the safe, welcoming, exciting, and developmental environment we  help to provide. What a legacy that will be when we hang up our highlighter pens!

 

 

The Last Train To Inadequacy

train crash

It was 9.24pm in the Year Five classroom of Lovely Lane Community Primary School. The meeting of the full board of governors had reached item seventeen on an agenda of twenty six. It had been typically slow going since the meeting started late, as ever, at 7.07pm. The turgid progress through the business at hand had no effect on the oblivious chair of governors, Jim Kellett who by this stage had risen to the full height of his pomposity. A small but proud man with a shiny head, he puffed out his barrel chest and proclaimed “This item is for noting only and is a reminder to Link Governors to look at the updated training programme.” He attempted to move on to noting the new model complaints policy when a meek voice from across the table politely enquired “What’s a Link Governor please Jim? Do we have one?” The question came from Mrs Winifred Bowater, the baby of the board with a mere seventeen years service to the school. “Good question Winnie” retorted Jim whose tone betrayed the fact he believed it was anything but good. “It means the Training Governor.” “Ah I see” said Winnie, “We don’t need one of those do we? After all we’ve no new governors.” “Exactly” said Jim, “Who needs training with all the experience around this table?” There then followed a fifteen minute reminiscence of the board’s most recent training experiences being ruined by finger nails on blackboards, and difficult to read overhead projector acetates.

The inexorable ramble towards midnight was broken by a timely intervention from the clerk, a wise lady with unlimited patience which in the case of Lovely Lane Primary was most certainly a virtue. “I appreciate you feel there is no need to engage with the training programme but you need to ensure you are all up to date with your safeguarding awareness.” If Jim regularly talked bull, this was a red rag. “Safeguarding awareness? Absolute nonsense Felicity. You take the minutes for us. You know we have a new five foot fence around the school with padlocks on all entrances. Nobody can get in and to the eternal gratitude of our neighbours none of our brats can get out!” He guffawed in self-importance missing the fact that at that very moment three governors discreetly checked their watches. Or was it their pulses?

Six months later to the day the OFSTED inspection report for Lovely Lane was made public. The school was deemed Inadequate in each of the grade descriptors. The report detailed how on the day of the inspection a child chasing an errant football into the street was knocked down by HMCI thankfully with only superficial injuries. It recounted how the Chair waxed lyrical about the Single Central Record and how governors were proud of that day in the studio with Year Four putting the song together. It told the story that when asked about the Pupil Premium governors insisted their numbers hadn’t come up in the monthly draw. And that one governor, when quizzed about British values confidently answered “Three pounds fifty seven.” Jim Kellett raged against the report, plagued his local MP at the golf club bar, and then blamed his colleagues for their incompetence. He refused to accept the imposition of an Interim Executive Board until he was promised that the school’s public speaking award would henceforth be dedicated to him.

In the finest traditions of governance I must declare an interest here. I am currently a tutor employed by the Governor Services department of our local authority. And whilst I may be biased I have to say that the breadth and quality of the provision is excellent. Traditional knowledge-based courses on such subjects as finance, safer recruitment, and the role of the Chair are now being increasingly supplemented by skill-based sessions such as asking challenging questions and how to make difficult decisions on panels. The vast majority of maintained schools in the county have a service level agreement for training. Yet incredibly over half never access a single course. The obvious question therefore is why? In times of acute financial hardship why are so many schools effectively throwing hundreds of pounds down the drain.

The answers I think are complex. Firstly we should always acknowledge that governors are volunteers and hence training will usually compete with work and family commitments in addition to attending meetings and school visits. All of course unpaid. There is also anecdotal evidence that some governors find attending central venues with a room full of strangers is daunting especially when their confidence in their ability might be fragile to start with. More concerning is the attitude of some boards that training is not for them. Schools like Lovely Lane where there is huge experience but also a mistaken assumption that they therefore know everything and would hence find training a waste of their time. And highly professional boards with a Carlsberg collective skills audit who believe they are above demeaning themselves by sharing a training room with the oiks from the school down the road.

So how should we go about convincing colleagues that training is critical to individual and collective development? Well firstly the status and kudos of training needs to be elevated beyond “ought to do” to “cannot miss.” Government can make an immediate and significant impact here by making induction training for all governors and trustees compulsory within three months of taking on the role. This makes it explicitly clear that self-improvement is at the heart of good governance. OFSTED needs to ramp up its exploration of board training records at inspection and factor in to the overall judgement the commitment of the board to access training.

Compelling that these may be they are extrinsic motivators and in all likelihood would only ever result in minimum compliance. The real trick is to develop a tangible, genuine desire within each individual and hence each board to be the absolute best they can be. We can pull at heartstrings by reminding colleagues that we are advocates for children who only get one chance at their education and hence it is critical that each and every one of us performs at our optimum to maximise their outcomes. We can remind each other that we are highly skilled employers responsible for significant budget, human resources, and performance management elements which require us to be completely up to date in our knowledge base. We can constantly look at skills deficits and knowledge gaps and ensure we develop a culture of training and upskilling so these are always being plugged. We can also remind hard working colleagues with precious free time that it is even possible to access online training whilst stuck in a room on the fifth floor of the Hemel Hempstead Holiday Inn.

All too often staff training and continuous professional development is one of the first casualties of severe budget constraints. “What happens if we pay for this course and she leaves?” is a common cry whereas “What happens if we don’t pay for it and she stays?” is a much more fitting response. The same arguments are applicable to governor training. Yes, money is in short supply everywhere. Yes, boards are having to make really tough decisions in many areas. However we must resist the temptation to make governor training a front-line casualty of government underfunding at all costs. By investing in our development and hence improvement we put ourselves in a much better qualified and knowledgeable position to deal effectively and efficiently with the challenges we face. We must do this. Our children deserve nothing less.

A Time To Move On

brexit shambles

Let me be explicitly clear about what I think to begin with. In 2016 I voted to Remain in the European Union and did so confidently and enthusiastically. I won’t pretend I knew the financial implications and risk to industry and business that will in all likelihood ensue, but I was comfortable in a collaborative organisation that had helped to shape peace since 1945 and had opened up the continent for all generations to exploit cheap air travel and thus enjoy opportunities not afforded our family predecessors. I was also very concerned about the growing anti-foreigner discourse and the Islamophobia shamefully whipped up by the right wing media. You see I don’t have a problem with people of different faiths, cultures and ethnicities. I don’t care if you have a black face. I don’t care if you talk like Arnold Schwarzenegger. I see only people. And actually lots of people who have enriched our communities through their culture, cuisine, and willingness to work hard to support our NHS and agricultural sector amongst others.

Most powerful of all I saw Brexit as a regressive, backwards-looking policy predicated on fear and, in some cases ignorance, that sought to recreate the good old days of the 1960s when we were enjoying the last vestiges of our Empire. In truth those days probably weren’t ever that good anyway especially if you were female, black, disabled, or poor. No. I saw nothing in leaving the European Union that met the challenges of a 2019 global and technologically expansive British society. That enabled the hopes and aspirations of our younger generation to be realised. That delivered a business model in any way superior to the mature agreements we already had in place.

Three years ago I don’t think any of us could really have guessed just what an awful mess the country would have made of the easy, smooth and orderly transition we were assured. Very quickly it became apparent that those who had led the cacophony around leaving had not told the truth. The bus was the biggest liar of all. One by one the loudest ran away fastest leaving others, including our hapless Prime Minister to deliver the promised milk, honey, and unicorns. They lurked in the shadows poking their strident but less savvy colleagues like Rees-Mogg, Francois, and Redwood and using them as John Bull mouthpieces.

Since that fateful day I have campaigned fervently for a reversal of the decision or at least another opportunity to gauge public opinion. I have spent hours researching and studying, listening to business leaders, experts, and those in Europe still shaking their heads in disbelief. I have been tireless on social media challenging the vaguest of Leave promises now reduced to “It will be alright,” “Britain is great,” and of course the robotic “WTO terms.” All of course flagrant nonsense.

Then recently on my way to Damascus something happened. The truth dawned upon me. But first let’s go back in time a little to understand my sudden change of realisation. Europe has always polarised Britain. Nobody has ever seemed to like or dislike Europe a little bit. Outright Europhilia or Europhobia appeared the dominant positions. Thus when this hugely complex question was reduced to a far too simplistic binary vote in 2016 the continued and entrenched polarisation was guaranteed. Had either side won by a landslide then the referendum would have been long since consigned to the dustbin of irrelevant political history.

In reality we got almost the worst possible outcome. A margin of victory so narrow it solved nothing. Sadly the architects of Leave bolstered by their champagne-sharing media mogul friends dressed the result of as winners versus losers. Where a hugely complex and consequential process was reduced in common parlance to the outcome of a football match suffixed quickly by the words “get over it.”

I sat there one Friday morning recently still shaking my head. Nay, anguish that despite the overwhelming weight of seemingly incontrovertible evidence that people seemed hell bent on sleepwalking our nation into economic and financial ruin. Then it happened. Then I realised. This was never about facts. This was never about logic. This was never about the force of argument. This was about raw emotion, sometimes passed down from previous generations. This was about a feeling we do not belong in Europe. This was about the notion our country had lost its identity in the wake of globalisation and immigration. This was always about the heart and never about the mind. This was about a willingness to accept huge potential economic fall-out just to be able to say we won, we are free, and we are great.

So how has this changed things for me? Up until last month a fierce advocate of a second vote, I have now changed my mind. I am certain a second vote would carry a Remain majority. Some people have undoubtedly been swayed by facts rather than feelings. But I suspect not many. Not enough. A second vote would not carry a hugely different result from 2016. And then what? It would be the Remain camp crowing about winning whilst millions of understandably embittered people would be labelled as losers. It changes the result but changes nothing.

No. Through gritted teeth I say we have to deliver Brexit. Because we voted for it. Because we deserve it. Redundancies and all. Potential Irish instability and all. But not I must emphasise a No Deal exit. A No Deal exit would be the greatest act of political treachery since Tommy Blood ran off with a bag of gold, silver, and diamonds. A No Deal exit on those parroted W.T.O terms would devastate business for years, would impact hugely on farming, would threaten vital medical supplies, and would plunge the neediest into deeper poverty whilst its proponents will still sup vintage Krug in the golf club bar with retired army colonels from Chipping Sodbury and Abinger Hammer, laughing at the utter gullibility of the peasants.

The only solution to getting us out of this whole Brexit mess is for nobody to get what they want. Nonsense? I’ll go further. The only solution is for us to all agree something we don’t agree with. It may be the beleaguered and incompetent Prime Minister’s version or a hybrid Norway Plus Plus Plus alternative. It needs to be something that gives us law-making freedoms, agricultural and fisheries control, and, if we must, greater controls over immigration. But it must also protect jobs and businesses so we can transition with the minimum pain possible. For European supporters like me that would stick in my throat. But it would also be hated by the arch-Brexiteers who despise France and Germany with every bone in their bodies (unless on holiday there) but would still be forced to trade with them.

The truth is today isn’t important. The damage has been done. Never in my lifetime has a single issue divided households and workplaces to the point where people now deliberately avoid discussing it for fear of causing a row. Never have so many people been blocked on social media. Never have so many people especially politicians been insulted.It is the future that is important. A polarised issue with a binary choice and divided electorate could never be delivered. Brexit or Remain in any of their most pure forms were always impossibilities. The time has come, for the benefit of our children and theirs, to agree on a solution that none of us actually wants but acknowledges, like in the most acrimonious of marital breakdowns, that neither party gets the whole house. We need, if there are any left, statesmen and women to come together at this, the eleventh hour in a spirit of consensus and putting dogmatic behind pragmatic. We need to say enough is enough. We need to draw a line in the sand and allow us all to concentrate once again on those critical issues such as education which have been shamefully neglected for three years. We finally need an exit from Brexit.

Cultivating The Lawn

overgrown lawn

My two most recent humble offerings have concentrated on the issues of culture and ethos within schools and the role that governance can and should play in shaping both. I make no apology for expeditiously revisiting this turf. You see I am troubled by a couple of things I have read recently. The first is the allegations stemming from a couple of Multi Academy Trusts that students are being systematically humiliated by trust staff in order to create a baseline of total compliance with school rules. The second derives from alleged comments from an OFSTED inspector praising a school’s positive and inclusive ethos but bemoaning the fact it will not have sufficient impact on attainment outcomes for children. If culture truly does eat strategy for breakfast then both of these issues cause a problem for governance. Whilst the school culture should have shared community ownership you should be able to trace the roots of that process back to strategic governors searching their souls and agreeing a concept for the DNA of their school. What they are about. Linked to their core values. But how many of us setting out our vision for the culture and ethos of the school then follow that through? How often do we ask the Head for evidence that school life on a daily basis accurately mirrors the key principles of our culture? Or do we create a culture because it’s en vogue on social media but only on a tokenistic basis where we then never think or bother to challenge whether or not those values are being lived within our school community?

The title of this piece is the opposite of the alleged practice of “flattening the grass” which supposedly has been common practice within a couple of trusts. I say alleged because thus far we only have the word of those who previously worked their and “friends of friends.” I can only imagine if safeguarding principles are enshrined within those teaching communities that at least one concerned staff member will have referred this matter under whistleblowing and hence is currently under investigation. I would also very much hope this is on the radar of the relevant regional schools’ commissioners and OFSTED simply because, if it is true, it is difficult to construct a narrative other than around emotional abuse. The fact that one trust has supposedly hired a crisis management company to deal with the fall-out from this social media frenzy is an interesting development.

In proceeding here therefore we still have to be careful as thus far there is no independent corroboration of these appalling claims. But let’s for a moment assume they are true. That Mr Walton, the trust’s deputy CEO waltzes triumphantly into the staff room at St Aloysius’ where he isn’t actually a staff member and high fives the Head of Humanities shouting “I’ve finally broken that gobby Robinson kid in Nine Alpha.” I am sure that there are those on edu-Twitter who are fairly ambivalent about such practices should they exist. They see compliance and control as key drivers for learning and may, possibly, hold a view that the end justifies the means. Behaviour is still clearly an issue in many schools although it should be noted that the majority achieve high standards of respect and conduct without having to resort to silent corridors and micro-management of students. There is also a fairly obvious but also well-researched link between good behaviour and positive educational outcomes.

The question is here what can or should we as strategic governors tolerate or ignore in the name of operational behaviour management in our schools. Well my view is that depends completely on your culture and ethos. If you believe the operational outcome of compliance is supreme then you will accept any methodology that gets you there. In other words not just flattening the grass but even the daily application of the heavy roller. If however, as I do increasingly, you believe that culture and ethos MUST supersede any operational methodology then you would simply not allow such heinous practices to play any part in your school life.  Of course the Head or CEO might whinge about you muddying your hands in the “doing” bit of school life but in my view such intrusion is wholly justifiable. How can we sit there and create a culture of respect, compassion, integrity, and inclusion then allow these educational ideologues to promote, at least initially, a reign of terror and an absolute abuse of authority? If we do then I’m afraid our culture is hollow. It is the straw house of the first little pig. It is the seed that fell on rocky ground. It has no roots, no foundation, no meaning. It should be laid bare for what it is. A wholly cosmetic exercise constructed by theorists for whom education is about the control of children not about the joys and wonders they bring to our lives.

All of which brings me on to the second concern I have felt in recent days. Whilst not as emotive perhaps as the first it is probably even more frustrating. And that is the alleged inference from an inspector that an inclusive, holistic, and positive culture is a wonderful thing but one that ultimately will have no bearing on the outcome of a formal inspection. Just let’s think about this for a minute. We are saying here that a school that takes in the SEND kids other more “ambitious” schools find an inconvenience will be compromised. That the school which offers a safe and nurturing haven for our most disadvantaged and often sad children will receive no credit. That the school which uses Pupil Premium money to enrich the narrow lives of children such as taking them to the seaside for the first time in their lives will not have those wonderful smiles on faces acknowledged because they haven’t reduced the attainment gap by three points in a SPAG test?

In some ways this is a far more common conundrum for governance than any ethical discussions around behaviour policies. All of us explicitly realise the high-stakes accountability from external testing, school league tables, and independent inspection. The bald facts are thus. If you fall below floor standards the regulatory microscope is firmly trained on you. If you fall below neighbouring schools in terms of narrow educational attainment the likelihood is the Trip Advisor mentality will send prospective parents elsewhere. And if the inspector concludes your provision requires improvement then in a flash you have the Monitoring and Intervention Team crawling all over your classrooms and you haemorrrhage both children and teachers, the former with an inevitable detrimental impact on your funding. So yes, whilst we may not like the tent it is all too often preferable to be inside it peeing out rather than vice versa. Hence we see Year Six timetables crammed with English and Maths, lunchtime and after-school boosters, and even holiday revision classes. Governors may not always be exactly comfortable with this but have reluctantly and expediently accepted it for the greater good of performance. Happy to sacrifice the joy of education at the high altar of attainment. A greater worry of course would be in those schools where governors or trustees are blissfully aware of the constriction and strangulation of the curriculum to placate the system.

This issue above all others I believe poses a huge dilemma for governors. The reality is the current educational landscape shows little sign of changing its emphasis although the OFSTED consultation around “the quality of education” is for me a wholly positive development but one which I fear may bring the inspectorate into conflict with the current government. A government whose gelatinous schools’ minister continues to expound the virtues of traditional teaching and is entirely focused on standards of learning in core subjects even though his boss in the DfE bizarrely trumpets a totally different agenda. There is a powerful lobby that certainly has the ear of government. They espouse strict behaviour policies. They have firm views on returning our classrooms to the ambience and style of 1960s oak-panelled grammar schools. They are suspicious of children’s rights, discussions around mental health, and are uniformly unprepared to challenge the government on its woeful dereliction of duty when it comes to funding. They want academies. Lots of them. All of them. They collectively bask in the reflective glory of PISA tables whilst sneeringly denigrating any concerns of the impact of their preferred regimes on children. They are poking their noses into early years provision challenging play-based learning and instead espousing much more formal learning at the age of four. And they build this traditionalist agenda on research. Lots of research. Research that supports their arguments whilst conveniently ignoring any counter-arguments.

This therefore is the prevailing narrative against which governors have to make huge decisions. Do we offer a rich, diverse curriculum promoting the joy of learning in all its forms, inside and outside the curriculum, during and outside the traditional school day. Or do we go with the inevitable, inexorable flow and channel all our energies into ticking boxes come July on some data sheet somewhere?

I cannot answer that admittedly huge question for you. It takes enormous bravery, some may say suicidal tendencies, to put at risk exam results, league table positions, and inspection grades. I must stress I am not for one minute here diminishing the great importance of ensuring children leave our schools and colleges able to read fluently, write persuasively, and having mastered the basic Mathematical rudiments. Clearly these are critical. But what about a thirst for learning in history and geography acquired for life? What about the ability to converse fluently abroad in a modern foreign language? And of course the ability to act dramatically on stage, pass your Grade Four piano exam, or represent the district at cross country. The reality is for many children this wider exploration of what schools CAN offer will be of far greater subsequent value than the ability to write about the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet or solve a quadratic equation in ten seconds.

And it is there for me where the answer lies to this highly complex challenge for governors. We have an overarching duty to meet the needs of ALL children. It is my belief that when we narrow the curriculum, make learning joyless, and fill children’s leisure time with yet more revision that we let some of them down. The less academically gifted. Our precious Special Educational Needs and Disabled children. Those whose futures will not be shaped by meeting the expected standard in reading and comprehending a piece of writing. If we govern for all then culture, as well as eating strategy for breakfast, trumps academic performance obsession every single time. It means being brave. It means having really courageous conversations in the boardroom and possibly even in the staff room. It means accepting that your provision may not be sufficiently valued by a visiting inspector but at the same time the absolute knowledge that what you are offering ALL your children is right for them. It means understanding that some parents may take their children away or even refuse to enrol them in the first place but that ultimately you will gain. It means potentially tough discussions with school advisers, local authorities, and Dioceses but being resolute in your determination. Most of all it means being able to sleep at night knowing that the culture of your school is being lived every single day in every single way by every member of the school community. That I contend is fundamentally why we govern.