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Sat Mar 14th 2015 - A castle built on sand (surrounded by a rising tide):-
A castle built on sand (surrounded by a rising tide)

I don't know about you but I'm getting a strange feeling there could be some kind of election in the offing...

The other day I heard David Cameron talking about the Tories' plans to build another gazillion Free Schools if they get elected...apparently some report had been published saying how brilliant Free Schools are and how there should be many, many more of them. What a strange coincidence that it came out the very day he made his speech! And do you know what he was going to say in his speech? Oh, sorry, I just told you, didn't I?

It isn't the only coincidence I noticed. For example, the document was written and published by Policy Exchange - in their own modest and totally unproven estimation, "the UK's leading think tank". Who set up Policy Exchange? Michael Gove. Who's he? Oh, do keep up! Until recently, he was (unbelievably, I know) Secretary of State for Education, who promoted Free Schools and Academies over any other kind of school all the time he was in post. Because they are obviously really great, like Rick in The Young Ones. There are scurrilous rumours that he, rather than his replacement, the eternally-surprised looking (as well she might) Nicky Morgan, is still making all the running in education policy.

It's so great that the entirely independent report "A Rising Tide" (of....please finish that phrase for yourself) just happened to support and praise the tremendous work that Gove did as SoS for Education. And provide the PM with lots of ammunition for his (as ever) rousing speech.

Remarkably, another Policy Exchange paper called Primary Focus (October 2014) recommended that all schools should be forced to become academies as soon as possible or the world would end in disaster. How utterly weird that Michael Gove argued the same thing when he was in office.

Another strange coincidence is that the same person wrote both reports, with a different colleague each time. According to the blurb, "Jonathan Simons is Head of Education at Policy Exchange where he directs all research within the Unit. Prior to joining Policy Exchange, Jonathan worked at Serco Group, and has also been Head of Education in the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit (Oxymoronic? Ed.). He is chair of Governors of the Greenwich Free School..." Not that he'd allow any of that to cloud his judgement, I'm sure. I wonder if he mentioned to his old pal Cameron when his report was coming out...or maybe Cameron, through Gove, got him to write it so that it came out just at the same time as he needed to make his speech...surely not!

So, being a very open-minded sort of person, I thought I'd read the report to see how the arguments in favour of Free Schools taking over the world stacked up. Guess what? They don't. They really, really don't.

In his annual report at the tail end of last year, Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw wrote that: "Ofsted has now inspected 76 free schools. As with all schools, leadership in free schools is vitally important to their pupils' attainment. These new schools need highly able leaders who can get them to good quickly. It is still too early to reach a judgement on these schools as a group or compare their overall effectiveness with other types of schools(my emphasis)... our inspectors found that the weakest free schools have ineffective leadership that inhibits improvement, with little challenge to tackle poor performance. They do not do enough to ensure that pupils are kept safe, particularly around monitoring attendance and behaviour."

This view was supported by the authoritative Education Committee report on Academies and Free Schools published just a few short weeks ago. That hard-hitting report also said: "Current evidence does not allow us to draw conclusions on whether academies in themselves are a positive force for change." And "The Government should stop exaggerating the success of academies and be cautious about firm conclusions except where the evidence merits it. Academisation is not always successful nor is it the only proven alternative for a struggling school" And "There is at present no convincing evidence of the impact of academy status on attainment in primary schools".

Bearing in mind academies have been with us in one shape or another since 2002, (13 years ago, facts fans) and we still have no evidence that they make a difference, there is no way that anyone can seriously argue that Free Schools (only in existence since 2010) have yet had any effect on the system as a whole, good or bad. Let's not forget that Free Schools are academies too.

Apparently, though, they've got it all wrong. Yes, of course, it's too early to judge Free Schools by conventional methods, says Simons. Those idiots at Ofsted (criticised in yet another Policy Exchange paper last year) have no idea what they're doing, you see. No, forget results, progress, all that conventional nonsense. What really matters, what really tells you whether Free Schools are any damn use is whether they cause other nearby schools to improve. It's obvious, really, when you think about it.

You see, Free Schools are just so great that when you set one up near a few other rubbish local authority schools, those schools have to get better because....well, they just do, OK? Policy Exchange has done loads of really thorough research to prove it. Most of the research consists of them asking Free School heads just how great they are and how they've managed to improve loads of other schools just by being near them. And those heads say, yes, that's exactly right! This is known as "self-reporting". By the way, could I just "self-report" that this article I'm writing is just, well, brilliant! Great research there, from me.

Perhaps I'm being a tad unfair. Let's look at the key argument in the report:

"This question - the wider benefits or otherwise of Free Schools on their local communities and on education standards in their locality - is the focus of this report. In order to identify any possible competitive effects of Free Schools, this report constructed a dataset of the three geographically closest 'similar' schools within the same Local Authority to each of the 171 relevant Free Schools open so far...It should be obvious - but bears setting out explicitly - that such data cannot demonstrate conclusively that any changes seen are as a response to the new Free School (my emphasis). A school appointing a new Head; a change to Academy status; a glut of teachers leaving; a financial crisis - all of these can affect an individual school for better or worse. It should also be remembered that sample sizes in some of these categories is quite small, and correlation should not be mistaken for causation."

If I were Simons, I think I would have ended my report there and gone down the pub and considered a career change over a couple or four pints of Old Bullshitter.. Because not only has he effectively destroyed his own argument, he's not really bothered to think about it very hard at all. Here are few things he didn't bother to consider:

The relative performance of neighbouring schools influences each of them constantly, whatever their type, status, shape, size or colour. For example, if a school gets an outstanding Ofsted judgement, some parents move their children there. If another school gets Requires Improvement or is placed in Special Measures, some parents will move their children out and into other schools. The influx of those children will affect that receiving school's results, one way or another, and the capacity of the original school to improve its results.

If a new school is built, it will attract lots of parents and children, just as a new café in the high street attracts customers who previously patronised the older cafes in the area. Will that café still be open in a year, in five years, in ten? Who knows? It may raise the standard of service and coffee in nearby cafes for a while. It might cause one or two to go out of business. Then another new café might open and steal its business...Schools' fortunes wax and wane in similar ways, and sometimes very dramatically and suddenly. The point is, it doesn't matter what kind of school it is, because at the start it's really only about novelty. Novelty inevitably wears off. The best survive and prosper, the mediocre coast along and the weakest go to the wall. And then someone opens a new one and it all goes round again...

As far as I know no researcher has ever done before what Simons is up to, looking at the effects of new schools on existing neighbours. It's a shame it hasn't been done because it could prove what I've been asserting...sorry, "self-reporting". (By the way, don't politicians "self-report" to some kind of rigour-free standards committee of their peers when they get caught out on camera taking bribes or claiming they know the Queen personally and have loads of free time etc?) Maybe better researchers than Simons realised the inherent flaws in the project and decided to spend their time on something more worthwhile. Like having a snooze.

There is no control group in Simons' experiment. To be even halfway confident that Free Schools are having the effects he claims, he should have chosen an equal number of other non-Free Schools at random and compared their effect on neighbouring schools. But he didn't.

He might also have chosen some other factors, such as, oh, I don't know, maybe new Aldi stores. What effect does a new Aldi have on the educational performance of three nearby schools? Or a new "legal highs" shop. Or a new Tory election campaign office. Think of your own examples, dear readers.

Then, of course, he might have considered the effect of the Free Schools, like Al Madinah in Derby, that failed spectacularly. What effect did that have on the three nearest schools? Did it encourage lots of other parents, teachers and entrepreneurs to set up loads more Free Schools in the town...or maybe it showed them the dangers of placing far too much faith and public money in an untested and ideological experiment with children's lives.

So, on this non-existent basis of "evidence", Simons and his co-author develop a huge case for the expansion of Free Schools, telling government to loosen up the reins and Local Authorities to get out of the way of this brave new world...and you go back to the paragraph from the report quoted above and think to yourself...what is the world coming to?

You can find 'a rising tide.pdf' in the Academies section on the downloads page.

Mon Feb 9th 2015 - The DfE gets a good kicking:-
The DfE gets a good kicking

It's all gone a bit quiet since Michael Gove was hustled away from the scene of his crimes, hasn't it? His buddy the strange and gobby Dominic Cummings is also long gone but keeps lobbing grenades from a safe distance. Nicky Morgan has an air of constant surprise and has made some odd statements such as encouraging young people to study only maths and sciences but generally keeps quiet. She got a bit of a mauling by the Education Select Committee recently but is essentially a caretaker in the DfE till the election.

Meanwhile Sir David Bell who spent ten years in charge of Ofsted and the DfE a couple of years ago had a go at his old department and those who lead it during a speech about science at Reading University. Here are some tasty morsels:

"Education policy is still driven by short-term firefighting, ministerial personalities and electoral politics. Too often it lacks the rigour and proven evidence-base that scientists use day-in, day-out.

There have been dozens and dozens of pieces of legislation and statutory orders affecting schools in England over the years. And while there have been big improvements in standards, it is unclear of the long-term value of the vast majority of centrally-run programmes we have seen. At best, they are blunt instruments in guiding a complex system of 23,000 state schools. At worst, they undermine standards

Trusting the frontline should have been a priority in the enormous reform programme in English schools since 2010 - by ministers and the agencies accountable to them...This can only work by building alliances across the teaching profession, industry and higher education to achieve it.

The idea that academic excellence was only valued by a small coterie holed up in Westminster was as insulting as it was wrong. And allowing public debate to be couched in such language (ie The Blob) meant that goodwill and trust was undermined when, in a period of reform, it was desperately needed.

I worry, as many others do, about education policy being constantly at the behest of five-year electoral cycles and ministerial whims.

Because teaching practice, knowledge and skills evolve faster and more organically than Whitehall can possibly direct. That means we can end the ridiculous situation where some ministers feel compelled to sit in their offices drafting maths and science curricula. Particularly ridiculous if they have never taught a class of children or young people in their life. And while I am a big supporter of a professional civil service, the concept of an education system managed by career generalists in Whitehall is antiquated."

Take that, Gove and Cummings! Actually, Cummings gets off far too lightly, since he was a SPAD, not a civil servant. He coined the phrase "The Blob" which little Govey was only too eager to take up like a cowardly kid parroting the language of the playground bully while hiding behind him.

Hot on Bell's heels comes the long-awaited report of the Education Select Committee on academies and free schools. The DfE and associated ministers and organisations do not come out of it well:

The memorandum submitted by the DfE failed to address our terms of reference and instead presented a sustained paean of praise to the success of the policy. In consequence, we called DfE officials as witnesses to put on the record facts about the programme and how it was run.

The DfE is what used to be called a slow learner, it seems. It also changes the rules to suit its own agenda and ignores any evidence that contradicts its narrow world-view:

The Trust cited the DfE as regularly using improvement as a measure for sponsors rather than attainment and attainment for converters rather than improvement. This is exemplified by the evidence presented by the DfE to our inquiry which makes comparisons difficult and leads opponents to dispute the assumptions of success. It has led to criticism that the Government embarked upon an academisation programme in 2010 without the evidence to support the pace and scale of change.

The DfE is terminally confused about how the overall system of oversight is meant to work:

The NAO...concluded that "The Department has not clearly articulated some of the roles and responsibilities of external oversight bodies" and both the DfE and Ofsted have sent "mixed messages" to local authorities...The Department's policy is that local authorities do not need to monitor academies proactively and should not require academies to report performance data to them. However, Ofsted has interpreted local authorities' statutory duties differently, and has criticised authorities for not working effectively with local academies to improve performance.

Gove's White Paper on education in the early days of his regime made a number of references to improving the system in the interests of parents but that spirit evaporated a long time ago:

The DfE's original written submission to our inquiry did not mention parents except in relation to free schools...On governance within academies, one parent wrote that "parents are sidelined from all important decisions, both over whether schools convert in the first place, and over how they are run once they become academies".

A hallmark of the Gove/Cummings DfE regime was slash and burn, cutting the number of civil servants drastically, ignoring or politicising those that remained in the department and giving massive influence to SPADs, all in order to promote Gove's vision of mass academisation:

As part of this inquiry, we commissioned independent research from the Institute of Education into potential conflicts of interest in academy sponsorship arrangements. The resulting report noted that there was a sense amongst those interviewed that "the academy system lacks transparency, is heavily politicised and prone to favouritism"... Civil servants in the EFA have become very politicised. Public confidence in the academy process is undermined by having the EFA as both regulator and funder.

Every aspect of policy was skewed in favour of academes and free schools, allowing them to get away with ignoring their obligations:

The DfE has surveyed academies asking whether they support other schools and found that 91 per cent of converters say they do so. We note that they have not taken our advice to survey the recipients of the support rather than those supposed to give it...There is still therefore no formal monitoring of a converter academy's collaboration with other schools, nor is it formally set out in the funding agreement how deep or extensive that engagement should be.

We commissioned research from the Institute of Education which concluded that "conflicts of interest are common in academy trusts... [and] the checks and balances on academy trusts in relation to conflicts of interest are still too weak". This echoed the Academies Commission, the National Audit Office and the PAC in questioning the capacity of the EFA to monitor funding agreements and hold academies to account for the use of public funds...The EFA has refused to ban related-party transactions.

It chooses not to collect data about academies and sponsors because, it seems, they don't want anyone to know what's going on:

The NAO in examining the DfE's oversight of schools concluded that "The Department does not yet know why some academy sponsors are more successful than others". It found that "The Department challenges sponsors when it has concerns, but does not routinely collect information from sponsors on the types of support they give schools" and that the inability of Ofsted to inspect academy sponsors or multi-academy trusts means that "there is no independent source of information about the quality of their work".

The DfE's cavalier, if not desperate, approach risks significant dangers:

In England the push to expand the academies programme has resulted in a growth rate far in excess of this (5% per annum). Given that the DfE itself identified expansion rates of chains as a key risk factor affecting effectiveness, it is perhaps hardly surprising that a number of high profile chains have been found to be failing in the last year... Witnesses agreed that rapid expansion was at the heart of the problem.

Evidence to the inquiry suggests that the pressure to expand the academies programme rapidly, and the associated need to identify an increasing number of sponsors has led in the past to inadequate vetting by the DfE of potential sponsors prior to authorization. Robert Hill told us that the original accreditation scheme had been "torn up" because it "was too bureaucratic" and had been replaced by a scheme that "was almost too light-touch". The extremely high rate of sponsor approval (only 25 out of 704 applications to become a sponsor have been declined; 35 were undecided, as of November 2014) appears to support this view. At the same time, it appears that the DfE urged existing sponsors to take on new responsibilities even where it should have been clear that they were not in a position to do so. We heard evidence from the managing director of Prospects, a chain which had been capped and yet was asked by the DfE to transfer an academy into the trust just weeks before going into administration. He told us "[the DfE] thought it was going to be a better solution, but by the very nature of that transferring in that put Prospects Academies Trust into a more vulnerable position".

Given the expansion of some chains, the DfE needs to prepare for a failure on a wider scale. During our visit to the Netherlands in 2013, we heard about the serious impact caused by the collapse of a school board. It is not at all clear what would happen here in a similar situation. Frank Green told us that a protocol was being developed on the process to be followed with regard to individual schools when a chain failed, with the DfE learning lessons from the experience with E-ACT. He undertook to submit the protocol to us once it had been completed, although we have yet to receive it.

A culture of secrecy has become deeply embedded in this government department:

It has been argued that some of these difficulties may be in the past...However, it is hard to judge the effectiveness of DfE assessment, given the scant information published by the DfE on the performance of academy chains as opposed to the individual schools. It has published profiles of five sponsors but it has not released similar analysis which it is known to undertake on other sponsors. One journalist has been pursuing the DfE through Freedom of Information requests to release the grades awarded by the DfE to each academy trust/sponsor and the guidance on how these grades are allocated. The DfE has consistently refused to disclose the information on the ground that disclosure would prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs. This does little to improve public confidence in the system...The criteria by which academy trusts are monitored and capped are not in the public domain.

That secrecy includes an astonishing stubbornness in not allowing academy chains to be inspected:

In our report on School partnerships and collaboration, we recommended that Ofsted be given the power to inspect academy chains in the same way that they inspect local authorities. In the last year, Ofsted has begun coordinating the inspection of schools within a chain in some of the weaker academy trusts but Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools has made it clear that he would like to be able to inspect the chains themselves, right up to head office. During this inquiry, the issue was raised with several witnesses, all of whom-except those from the DfE-supported the granting of such powers to Ofsted.

The arguments in favour of inspection of chains by Ofsted are strengthened by the evidence we have received about governance in multi-academy trusts. As David Wolfe told us, the power of decision-making is all concentrated within the trust and no longer really with local governing bodies unless it is delegated down. That concentrates the power up to a large trust and then the trusts are not under any great direct scrutiny. They are not subject to direct observation from Ofsted and they are not subject to the sorts of public pressures that come from either democratic accountability or a wider public transparency...The Secretary of State has made it clear that she does not intend to extend Ofsted's powers in this way...We have listened carefully to the arguments put forward by the DfE against inspections of chains by Ofsted but we remain unconvinced.

Surprisingly, the Education Committee did not look at the costs of the academy and free schools programme. Had they done so, they would have found devastating evidence of the abuse of public money under Gove and Morgan.

It is remarkable that Secretaries of State can get away with this level of ineptitude, carelessness and deliberate obfuscation. Since David Bell's time at the DfE, things seem to have got a lot worse. Will they get better under a change of government? We can only hope so but I for one am not optimistic.

Thu Dec 11th 2014 - Not the Chief Inspector's Annual Report:-
Not the Chief Inspector's Annual Report

What Michael Wilshaw's latest annual report doesn't say (except when you look at the statistics and read between the lines...)

  • Local Authority maintained schools in the primary and secondary sector outperformed sponsor-led academies by a minimum 8% and a maximum 27%* in 2013-2014
  • According to Wilshaw's report: "Only 71% of secondary schools are good or outstanding, a figure that is no better than last year." The majority of secondary schools are academies. Therefore academisation has not brought about the improvement promised by Michael Gove. This is borne out by a recent report from NFER
  • Schools and governors are obliged to provide good value for money. The academies and free schools programme has cost huge sums of money, much of it diverted from maintained schools. Given the absence of evidence that academies improve outcomes, this is very clearly very poor value for money
  • Interviewed on the Today programme Wilshaw insisted that the key factor in academies is autonomy which should be protected and extended. Yet the most autonomous area of education is the independent sector in which, according to Wilshaw, "11% were judged inadequate - a higher percentage than for most other types of school". The report also points out that "Too many academies are isolated" - surely an obvious by-product of autonomous behaviour
  • The Coalition Government transferred the responsibility for careers education from the Connexions service to schools themselves. The result? "Careers advice was not of the standard required in three quarters of the schools we surveyed."
  • The DfE and Ofsted insist that socio-economic factors should not excuse poor performance or low expectations but schools in deprived areas which are most likely to be condemned by Ofsted are not attractive to the best teachers. The result? "Good teachers are in short supply where they are needed most"
  • Successive governments have reduced the capacity of local authorities to support and challenge their schools. LAs are forbidden from intervening in failing academies. The result? "Too many academies do not receive effective challenge and support" and "Without effective challenge, support and intervention, many underperforming schools do not improve."
  • Ofsted has been in place for 22 years now. Its mission is "Improvement through inspection". Judged by its own standards and the evidence of this report it is not improving fast enough, so requires improvement.
  • The report does not cover inspections since September 2014, when the bar was raised yet again. Inevitably, more schools will fail in 2014-2015. The bar will be raised again in September 2015. As a result more schools will fail in 2014-2015. Ofsted depends for its continued existence on what is portrayed as a failing education system. Michael Wilshaw will be long gone when the faeces hit the air distributor.
*Based on combined good and outstanding grades in tables on pages 36 and 37 of the report.

You can find the annual report in the Ofsted section on the downloads page.

Mon Nov 3rd 2014 - Follow the money:-
Follow the money

A snippet of a recent conversation:

"I'm not entirely sure that visiting the head office is actually going to yield more than going and talking to the people who are actually running the chains."

"You're kidding me. If you wanted to know what was going on at Shell you'd be quite happy to be told: no, don't go to the head office, just go around and visit their refineries?"

"That's not how I would audit Shell. I'd want to get right into the heart of the headquarters and I'd want to get right to the heart of finding out who's running the organisation."

"Going to look at an office is not actually going to help."

"That's a bit trite, isn't it? It's not the office, it's the people. Trying to find out who runs the organisation."

If you don't follow education stories as avidly as I do, you might be forgiven for thinking this might be a conversation between a couple of commuters on their way to work - but it's not. The first speaker is Nicky Morgan, Secretary of State for Education. The second is fellow Tory Graham Stuart, chair of the House of Commons education committee. They are discussing in public why academy chains are not inspected by Ofsted when local authority school improvement services are.

As well as telling Morgan one of her responses was absurd, Graham Stuart went on to say "I just think that it is an indefensible position and you haven't managed to convey to us in any way what would be lost by letting [Ofsted] go and do an inspection of an increasingly important component of British education, which is these academy trusts."

Later on there was a more public spat between Morgan and Sir Michael Wilshaw. Morgan insisted that Ofsted had the necessary powers to inspect chains and Wilshaw said the opposite.

All Morgan is doing, of course, is holding the line established by her illustrious predecessor. But why are Gove and Morgan so scared of academy chain inspection?

When first in office Gove was mad keen to get academy chains up and running as fast as possible. Like the previous Labour government he was desperate to find people with enough money and the right political connections to bankroll the project - but they were slow to come forward, just as Blair and co had discovered. Whereas the original idea was that these generous benefactors would stump up the bulk of the cash needed, the rules were relaxed and relaxed to the point where the government was virtually paying them to become sponsors.

In some cases this all went horribly wrong. The DfE had to investigate financial abuse at the Priory Federation in 2012: "The CEO has used the resources of the Federation to purchase training for his son, receive personal tax advice, purchase DVDs and other items using a Federation credit card and had items delivered to the academy address which were both personal and of an inappropriate nature. We were concerned that invoices appeared to have been altered to hinder identification of the recipient of the training that had been paid by the Federation, namely the CEO's son."

The egregious Sir (!) Bruce Liddington of the AET chain notoriously abused the system and was caught with his hand in the till. Many academy chains had the brakes slammed on to prevent them taking on more academies when the DfE realised they were not up to scratch. Large sums of public money have been squandered on failed academies and free schools.

Very recently an authoritative but largely ignored report from the National Foundation for Education Research showed that there is no evidence that academies improve results - as some of us have been saying for a very long time. So why does the government continue to promote academisation as the only solution for supposedly failing schools when there is apparently no money left in the coffers?

As the famous film about Watergate (All the President's Men) put it - follow the money. So let's follow the money and see where it leads. Of course I can't prove anything but...

It is well known that the Conservative party is funded largely through donations from very wealthy individuals and organisations, many of whom like to live in the shadows. Senior Tories pimp themselves out at fundraising events which attract some less than salubrious money men. The carpet manufacturers and digger and dump truck entrepreneurs splash the cash when the need arises. This is not a something-for-nothing culture, just as it wasn't under Labour. Donors are not always driven by selflessness and altruism. A knighthood here, a seat in the House of Lords there, a publicly-funded project for you - it's well-established common currency. It stinks but it's how things are done. What's in it for someone who becomes an academy chain sponsor?

There are many above-board academy sponsors with a sound record in education, driven by a genuine desire to improve the life-chances of our young people. There are others whose motives are possibly less than pure. Gove was always seen to be in favour of schools being run for profit should a Tory government be elected next year. Nicky Morgan has said she's not in favour of this, but I expect she'll do as she's told if and when the moment comes, if she's still in office. It is not beyond imagination that some academy sponsors are just biding their time till the market in school ownership opens up. And perhaps they aren't the sort of people who pass the marshmallow test, deferring gratification. Have they already been nibbling on the marshmallow when they thought no-one was looking?

The rules have been massively bent out of shape to favour academies and free schools and their champions and sponsors. Bail-outs of overspent projects and institutions are far from unheard of. Most recently the Observer has revealed some dark machinations relating to Gove's favourite academy chain (Ormiston Academies Trust) including alleged tip-offs about impending Ofsted inspections. The paper also revealed how the academy had spent some of its budget on up-market furniture and other less than necessary enhancements.

Who knows what scandals lurk behind the closed doors of the academy chains? Maybe there are no skeletons in the cupboard but when a nervous-looking Secretary of State stands in front of the cupboard doors and says there's really no need to look inside, there's nothing to see...well, who wouldn't want to move her aside and let the light flood in? And, of course, it's only a matter of time before it happens. I guess the hapless Secretary of State just has to hold the doors closed till after the election...

In the last few days we've learned of the death of the great Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post, whose paper broke the Watergate story. In a speech in 1997 he said:

"Where lies the truth? That's the question that pulled us into this business, as it propelled Diogenes through the streets of Athens looking for an honest man. The more aggressive our search for truth, the more some people are offended by the press...In a democracy, the truth emerges - sometimes it takes years - and that is how the system is supposed to work..."

Let's hope this particular search for the truth doesn't take years. We really need to know now. To quote a great deliberate mixed metaphor from Tom Stoppard: "The skeletons in the cupboard are coming home to roost."

Wed Oct 15th 2014 - The Ofsted problem:-
The Ofsted problem

Ofsted has been around for 20 years now. Before it existed, schools were rarely inspected and when they were, it was Her Majesty's Inspectors (HMI) that did the job. Funded by top slicing LEA (as they were called then) budgets, Ofsted trained inspectors from a wide variety of backgrounds. Many LEAs developed their own teams of inspectors. The inspection handbook was a mighty ring binder and inspections took several days and teams of inspectors. They came back on a regular basis.

A succession of chief inspectors included the notorious Chris Woodhead and the current incumbent, the bullish Sir Michael Wilshaw.

Over the years different aspects of inspection, such as safeguarding, have risen and fallen in importance. Lesson observations have come and gone and come back again. Changes have been made in the light of headline grabbing scandals like the Trojan Horse affair and the Al Madinah free school which exposed Ofsted's inadequacies as much as those of the schools inspected.

Inspection teams were put out to tender and the range of commissioning bodies reduced along with rates of pay. The old adage that if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys holds true in relation to a proportion of inspectors, by Wilshaw's own admission. Think Tanks have published papers criticising Ofsted and again Ofsted has changed as a result. It does have an alarming tendency to swing in the wind, especially under Wilshaw's leadership.

Politicians have been accused of meddling and seeking to influence HMCIs. Earlier this year there was a much publicised spat between Gove and Wilshaw and the innocent and effective Chair of Ofsted was removed in favour of a more Gove-friendly alternative. Now a leaked memo - see below - written by our old friend Dominic Cummings shows clearly that Gove and co wanted rid of the gung-ho Wilshaw.

They should have seen it coming. There is a freely-available verbatim record of his interview for the job and it makes for bizarre reading. A less rigorous interview would be hard to imagine as the panel of MPs encourage the oh-so-macho Wilshaw to revel in his disturbing Clint Eastwood fantasies. Once in the job he has made himself something of a media whore, loving the limelight and the attention.

Now, after countless revisions, HMCI Wilshaw is proposing yet another version of inspection from September 2015. It reintroduces more regular inspections, only relatively recently watered down to favour outstanding schools and academies. It seeks to standardise inspection across different institutions and age groups. Inspections will be conducted by HMI in the main and no longer put out to tender. By no means bad ideas, they do however feel like wild pendulum swings to anyone who's lived through the last two decades of inspection.

There are some elephants in the room that are ignored, especially the inspection of academy chains. This is not entirely Wilshaw's fault, since it is a political decision, but he could argue harder and more frequently for it. There have been some alarming scandals concerning some academy chains, though many are very good. The recent Policy Exchange paper "Primary Focus" argued that all schools should be forced to become part of academy chains - and that the accountability of those chains should be ratcheted up. It cannot be anything other than an ideological policy that chains are not currently inspected - and now Gove is out of the way, there is no reason why Nicky Morgan shouldn't make the necessary change. If not, why not, Ms Morgan?

In the meantime, we're all still getting to grips with the inspection regime introduced this September with its heavy-handed emphasis on teaching British values. Presumably if Scotland had voted for independence, we'd have seen an even more rapid revision, taking out any references to Britain and British and replacing them with...what?

Best be grateful for small mercies.

I wonder whether bookies are accepting bets on how much longer Wilshaw will survive?

Here's that creepy memo...

From: Dominic Cummings

Date: 23 October 2013

Subject: Ofsted: quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

I am increasingly alarmed about Ofsted... Nobody who we think is good - AND everybody else - say they are at best a poor organisation. I never hear anybody say they are good.

They have missed massive child abuse scandals under their noses, which they are very lucky not to have been hammered for. They are easy to con into giving inflated judgements. There has been an abyss between stated goals and practice and the actual behaviour of their inspectors. Wilshaw himself admitted when he took over that 'about a fifth' of his inspectors are 'no good'.

There is no evidence this has changed substantially.

Despite constant pressure from us and constant assurances, there is no evidence that he is substantially changing the organisation - and considerable evidence from a constant flow of blogs and emails that problems are either the same or getting worse.

People who talk to MW say they are not confident in his management abilities.

It seems he cannot break the cycle of speeches and media attention - this cycle continues regardless of however many times he is asked to focus. SM seems unable to change this substantially.

They are not accountable for their failures.

In short, I think that Ofsted is a serious and growing problem that requires the urgent attention of senior people in the DfE.
At the very least, MW needs a highly competent COO who can manage the organisation well and remove the x% who need removing.
But beyond that, it is worth thinking about the whole Ofsted approach with a blank sheet of paper.

No element of human life that works well - e.g Silicon Valley - works on an Ofsted basis. If you want excellence, you hold people accountable effectively for failure and channel incentives well - you do not issue endless instructions and have many sub-par performers trawling around with clipboards that don't reflect accurately what the real goals are.

Necessarily the discussion involved should be small but it should involve -

  • Summary of Ofsted's problems.
  • Which bits do we think are improving / not improving.
  • Options for a COO.
  • More radical thinking about a decade hence.

What do people think about this?

We should chat instead of lots of emails in order to consider what sort of advice/discussion we should have with the SoS (who is thinking hard about 'how can we help MW'). I know JN and Theo are very concerned about this too and they should be at discussion plus Tom S.

Difficult as it is, I think we must try to get ahead of this growing problem as I can only see it getting worse and worse.


Wed Sept 24th 2014 - On your marks...:-
On your marks...

It's September, so there's been a flurry of educational reports and papers recently. Most are not good news for the Coalition government and bad news for the recently departed Gove, M. and his very quiet successor, Nicky Morgan.

It turns out that some of their policies have undermined their stated aims of improving education for the many, not just the few.

One example is the abolition of a large number of Children's Centres set up under the previous government in order to prioritise the needs of the youngest children and their families. Whilst not every Children's Centre was a phenomenal success, the policy was clearly right. According to the author of a well-researched report on the readiness of young children for formal education, Sir Michael Marmot, the closure of Sure Start children's centres, which were set up to help families in deprived areas, is "not a good way to improve early childhood development". Which is a polite way of saying "misguided ideological vandalism" which hampers the efforts of schools to improve pupil performance.

Another is that successive governments have been wrong to blame "failing schools" for the stark differences in performance between poor and better-off pupils. The gap is just as high in schools ranked "outstanding" as those labelled "inadequate", researchers have found. Instead, the reason is likely to be "factors outside the school gates (in the home, wider community or peer groups)". "Even if we improved all 'inadequate' schools to the level of those judged 'outstanding' we would still have a free-school-meal gap and of much the same size as we do today," the study concludes. This is absolute dynamite. It undermines Ofsted's entire approach to improving schools. It means that any government education policy needs to be radically re-thought, if evidence-based policy is to be taken seriously. I look forward to seeing this highlighted in the election manifestos of each party in the lead-up to the General Election.

Ironically, alongside these well-argued evidence-based reports Gove's favourite and self-created right wing think tank Policy Exchange has just published a report arguing for the imposition of academy status on all remaining non-academies (mainly primary schools) as the best way to avoid schools failing to reach the government's floor standards. "Imposed autonomy" is an oxymoron which escapes the minds of the report's authors, one of whom set up the Pimlico free school from which the unqualified headteacher resigned within a few weeks of the school opening. Not a great credential. The absence of any convincing evidence that the majority of academies improve performance deters them not a whit. They don't consider that the complete standardisation of the nation's schools is on a par with the much - derided (by the right wing) comprehensivisation of secondary schools, which academisation was meant to unpick in order to create more diversity in the system. The spirit of Chairman Mao is alive and well at Policy Exchange.

Hey ho. Plus ça change...

Tue Sept 2nd 2014 - Back to school:-
Back to school

When I was a teacher I noticed that with each successive year the "back to school" notices in shop windows started appearing earlier and earlier in August. Very annoying, when you'd just started your holiday! Still, we're on the verge of a new school year and as ever there's a lot to think about.

A new Ofsted framework surfaced during the holidays. It feels somewhat rushed and could be seen as something of a knee-jerk reaction to both the Trojan Horse affair and the critical report of Policy Exchange. Watch out for some changed wording in relation to governors...

Another factor affecting the new Ofsted is the new National Curriculum and, especially, the radical changes to assessment. One immediate effect will be to make it virtually impossible to make meaningful comparisons of school performance pre- and post-new National Curriculum. This could work in the government's favour, if, as this year's results already show, academy performance is and continues to be pretty much the same as non-academy schools. It will be harder to ask the question why did we spend so much money on a project that hasn't really made much difference?

The House of Commons Education Committee owes us its report on academies, which is going to make interesting reading when it finally appears. During August there were newspaper reports of a whistleblower saying that one of the government's favourite academy chains had been tipped off about impending inspections, giving them time to manipulate the process in a number of dubious ways...

A new Code of Practice for SEN will be phased in starting this September, placing more emphasis on the needs and wishes of the child and its parents. Statements will be phased out to be replaced by EHCs - Education, Health and Care plans.

Probably most significant (or possibly not!) is the absence of the unlamented Gove, M. Sacked because of his toxic relationship with teachers and the blob, as he liked to call the educational world, let's hope for an extended silence from him while his replacement, Nicky Morgan, finds her feet. It is hard to see what she can achieve in the short time remaining before the next election other than not being Michael Gove, which shouldn't prove too challenging.

We can expect a lot of noise and posturing from the various political parties as their education manifestos start to emerge, though it may prove hard to see a lot of difference between them. I for one am particularly looking forward to UKIP's education policy. Let me guess... a grammar school (and three secondary moderns) in every town; revision of the National Curriculum to more accurately reflect the worldview of Farage, N; reintroduction of corporal punishment; gowns and mortar boards for every teacher...

Much more seriously, August has shown very graphically how children all over the world are abused, exploited, killed, starved, impoverished...including in the UK. I feel sick when I see images on the news, as I did just a few days ago, of huge guns in the hands of small children both in the context of ISIS and the US gun lobby. The world has become a startlingly more dangerous place in just a few weeks during the long summer break.

Very recent reports show what an incredibly elitist society we still are and that the gap between the richest and poorest in Europe is at its most extreme in the UK.

We have so much to do...

But to end on a more positive note, I hope readers have found time to listen to the excellent series on Radio 4 at the moment - The Educators. So refreshing, after years of ignorant and prejudiced sound bites and speeches from the last Secretary of State, to hear from a range of intelligent and thought-provoking interviewees who actually know something about education. Inspiring stuff, whether or not you agree with what they have to say.

Mon July 28th 2014 - When is research research and when is it really advertising?
When is research research and when is it really advertising?

Two long research reports came out very recently. One is called Chain Effects: The impact of academy chains on low income students, published by The Sutton Trust; the other is Do academies make use of their autonomy? published by the DfE.

One is a serious piece of research, based on thorough analysis of empirical data; the other a puff-piece for academies based on a short survey of the opinions of a small sample of academies.

One takes pains to explain and explore the complexities of the task set before reaching nuanced conclusions; the other breezes past any difficulties, such as the absence of a comparator sample (not enough maintained schools responded - no explanation given as to why not), and concludes that everything in the garden is rosy despite very public and recent examples of disastrous failings.

One publishes the names of the authors; the other is anonymous. This in itself speaks volumes.

The Sutton Trust's report is a serious piece of work which stands up to rigorous examination. The DfE's report is fatally-flawed and biased. It bears very little scrutiny.

"Chain effects" concludes that five academy chains are making a real difference to the outcomes for disadvantaged pupils but the majority are not. Indeed, "far from providing a solution to disadvantage, a few chains may be exacerbating it". In reaching this conclusion the authors analyse a mass of data in great detail, publishing their analyses and all the relevant data. They recognise the limitations of their conclusions: "This analysis no way be considered the final word on the effectiveness of any given academy chain, but as a basis for future discussion on how academies chains can best help to improve the prospects of their disadvantaged students."

The report offers a set of challenging recommendations to government, such as the long overdue requirement that Ofsted inspect academy chains.

"Do academies make use of their autonomy?" concludes, in effect, that yes they do - because they say they do. This conclusion is based on the responses of 720 academies (25% of the sample) to "a 15 minute online survey". We are not offered a specimen survey to see what questions were asked and, crucially for any serious research, the wording of the questions.

The report depends entirely on what the academies say about themselves - there is no way of checking the truth or accuracy of their responses. There is no control group. The report is therefore full of assertions about what academies believe to have happened - but no empirical evidence to back them up or contradict them.

It begs endless questions. For example, it provides some interesting statistics about the numbers of unqualified teachers employed in these academies but is silent on whether they have helped to raise standards or not.

Quotations look as though they are highly selective (impossible to be certain because we are not offered access to the full range of comments). The fact that they are almost entirely supportive of the DfE's policies makes them suspect even if they are genuinely representative, given the ownership and authorship of the report.

The main areas of autonomy offered to academies include freedom to offer non-National Curriculum subjects; varying the length and times of school days and terms and staff pay and conditions. Many have pointed out that these freedoms are also available to maintained schools. Despite earlier research suggesting that few academies had made any or much use of these freedoms, this report suggests the opposite. Can things have changed so fast and on such a scale? Possibly, but this report isn't robust enough to base any solid conclusions on. What is missing is any comparative evidence from the maintained school sector. Outside this context academy schools' self-reporting has little meaning or significance.

The only criticisms made by respondents relate to the demands placed on them for financial probity.

Recent reports by Ofsted and Peter Clarke on the so-called Trojan Horse affair in Birmingham highlighted the vulnerability of academies to abuse of their autonomy and the laxity of accountability and oversight by the LA (who are not allowed to pry) and the DfE (who are). When academies complain about the red tape associated with their financial reporting we should all breathe a sigh of relief that there is at least some external accountability left - though it didn't stop people like the odious sir Bruce Liddington royally abusing the finances of the E-act academy chain.

"Do academies make use of their autonomy?" bears all the hallmarks of Michael Gove's disastrous reign at the DfE - intense ideological bias against maintained schools and local authorities, a belief in autonomy as an end in itself, different rules for his favourites, selective use of evidence, a willingness to take what academies say about themselves at face value and a lack of intellectual rigour.

His long-overdue replacement, Nicky Morgan, should file the DfE report in the bin where it belongs, sack whoever wrote it, employ some serious researchers and act on the recommendations of the Sutton Trust report.

Sat July 19th 2014 - Gove but not forgotten
Gove but not forgotten

The late, great and much-missed Ted Wragg used to tell an amusing story about Kenneth Baker, the Education Secretary who introduced the National Curriculum. Baker was very unpopular with teachers and educationalists (pre-Blob) in general and was portrayed on Spitting Image as a large slug (or was it a snail?).

Anyway, a man goes into Sanctuary Buildings, home of the DfE and says to the receptionist:

"I'd like to talk to Kenneth Baker, the Secretary of State for Education, please."

"I'm sorry, sir. Kenneth Baker is no longer the Secretary of State for Education."

The man leaves but returns the next day and says to the same receptionist:

"I'd like to talk to Kenneth Baker, the Secretary of State for Education, please."

"I'm sorry, sir. As I told you yesterday, Kenneth Baker is no longer the Secretary of State for Education."

The man leaves but returns once more the next day and says to the same receptionist:

"I'd like to talk to Kenneth Baker, the Secretary of State for Education, please."

"I'm sorry, sir. As I told you yesterday, Kenneth Baker is no longer the Secretary of State for Education. Why do you keeping asking me the same question?"

"I know he's been sacked but I can't hear it often enough!"

For Baker, read Gove. Enough said.

Tue July 15th 2014 - Bigmouth strikes again
Bigmouth strikes again

(with apologies to Morrissey and the Smiths)

Sir Michael Wilshaw has been very vocal recently, castigating various groups and people. Before we take a look at that, let's take him to task about something else:

Put up or shut up

Once again (the third time, by my reckoning) he's said in public that he believes some governors should be paid. (You might want to go back to what I wrote on March 20th 2012 in News Archive)

OK - nothing wrong with raising this question (though it has been kicked around for at least the last 20 years without resolution). But what he never does is ask himself some really basic questions that should give him pause before trotting it out yet again, such as:

  • Which governors?
  • How much?
  • From which budget?

If he can get beyond the answers to those questions, how about a few follow-ups?

  • Name at least one organisation (other than some IEBs in schools) in which the introduction of paid governance has improved it, with convincing evidence.
  • Name several organisations where paid governance has done nothing to prevent dysfunction and occasional catastrophe.
  • Consider the negative impact on unpaid volunteer governors of paying some and not others.
  • Consider the possible unintended consequences of the new system.

Please, Sir Michael, do try thinking before speaking in future. I'd be only too happy to read your well-argued case for paid governance which takes account of the questions above when you get around to writing it. If you can't be bothered to challenge yourself in this way, please stop repeating yourself. You could do worse than read Jim Knight's argument for paid governance. (See the Ideas for different forms of Governance section on the downloads page) You'll see that he says many of the same things as you but in the context of a coherent argument. You may not agree with him but at least he made the kind of effort that you seem unwilling or unable to make in thinking the issue through.

I blame the scapegoats

Wilshaw is notoriously thin-skinned when it comes to any criticism of Ofsted (see You can dish it out - but can you take it? In Jan 28th 2014 News Archive) but loves to insult and blame virtually everyone else, often in an incredibly unfair way. For instance, he referred recently to a patently stupid idea of his whereby poor parents would be fined for, well, being poor parents. They let their children down so we must punish them into being better parents by taking away the little money they have.

Then, just last week he had a pop at council leaders for not challenging schools and academies robustly enough. There are 150 local authorities in England and they have suffered decades of cuts and staff reductions, especially in relation to school oversight and improvement. For example, in the council I used to work for, the last person with any knowledge of secondary schools leaves this summer. From September (as far as I know) there won't be anyone there with an understanding of the 30 plus secondary schools and academies in the area. Yet somehow LAs are meant to monitor all their schools closely and intervene as soon as things seem to be going wrong.

Let's not forget how our wonderful Secretary of State for Education has presided over some spectacular failures of free schools, academies and academy chains, all of which he's meant to be monitoring directly. Anything you want to say about that, Sir Michael, or is that a little inconvenient? You say that council leaders are in the last chance saloon - so is Gove tending the bar and pimping out the hookers?

Each school that becomes an academy takes with it a big chunk of money that used to be spent on all schools and school improvement. Indeed, the funding of Ofsted itself originally came from a big slice off LA budgets. Academies have supposedly been set free from LAs and LAs are not meant to interfere with them and Academies do not have to share any data with the LA. But Wilshaw now blames them for not spotting and intervening enough in failing academies.

For years Ofsted didn't inspect school improvement services, so didn't reflect or provide necessary evidence of the steady deterioration caused by government cuts - under the last government, as well as this one. Just recently, it has started doing so and, surprise, surprise - it's found that the service isn't very good. The notion of the self-fulfilling prophecy is alive and well.

Most recently he hacked off many thousands of governors by referring to their amateurishness, despite the fact that his own inspectors rate the vast majority of governing bodies good or outstanding. Governors ARE amateurs, by definition - unpaid volunteers with no knowledge of education, in most cases. That's what they're meant to be - in the words of the 1870 Education Act, a body of local people to represent the public interest in the school's affairs. The root of the word amateur is love - people do this increasingly thankless, time consuming and necessary job out of altruism and love of their school and community. That does not mean that they do the job in a slipshod, unprofessional way. Some do, just as some Ofsted inspectors do. But the majority are very professional in their approach and do not deserve the casual insults of an over-mighty and ill-informed Chief Inspector.

Once again, Sir Michael, put your brain into gear before engaging your big mouth.

Fri June 20th 2014 - A descent into farce...
A descent into farce...

Maybe the warmer weather's to blame, or the World cup or maybe an enlarged sunspot, but something quite strange seems to be going on at the top of the education pile.

Tempers seem to be fraying, blatant lies are told by the DfE and increasingly bizarre insults are traded as the Chief Inspector pulls off tyre-shredding U-turns and seeks to fine the poorest parents for being poor parents.

From the perspective of anyone who has a real job to do in any school in England who takes any notice of the madness at national level, it's all very disturbing.

Gove grovels to Cameron over his spat with May but then - pure coincidence, of course - his best bud Dominic Cummings spits bile about Cameron and others in an interview in Gove's old employer's newspaper. I recently made the mistake of reading Cummings's blog. It's a gobsmacking mix of apparent historical erudition and literary references, complete self-obsession, vicious insults and an absolute personal hatred of Clegg and David Laws coupled with unqualified adoration of Gove. Inevitably, it makes great copy but even the Daily Mail says "Cummings is out of control". It is worse than kids fighting in the playground.

Over the years there have been a few cases of schools falling dramatically from outstanding status to special measures but they are in a tiny minority. That so many Birmingham schools can be downgraded so quickly and spectacularly suggests collusion between Gove and Wilshaw, despite their vicious falling out earlier this year. As many, many people have noted, it's the young people attending these schools who have to make sense of what's happened and go on working hard in schools they're told are failing, even though they were outstanding the day before.

Whether it's true or not, the impression is what counts and will have long-lasting effects not just in the West Midlands but nationally for years to come. The unlamented HMCI Chris Woodhead had a very obvious personal vendetta against Birmingham's Education Chief Tim Brighouse in the 1990s, so history may be repeating itself as farce. Ofsted can retain any credibility if people see it acting fairly and non-politically.

Unabashed by any of this, Wilshaw then makes a speech referencing himself, as always, proposing that heads should have the power to fine inadequate parents. It takes a nanosecond to see why this couldn't possibly work and that even if it could, it would be entirely self-defeating. One can understand a politician like Gove or an apparatchik like Cummings talking nonsense like this to grab a headline and at least they don't claim to have ever worked in a real school dealing with real parents and children. For Wilshaw to do so is unforgiveable. What credibility does he retain these days?

Then the other day I heard a throwaway comment on the BBC radio news from a DfE spokesperson that academies are far outstripping maintained schools in terms of pupil performance. This went completely unchallenged despite the fact that it is an obvious and easily proved lie. The claim is true of a proportion of sponsored academies, especially those that were established in the Blair years, but not true of the vast majority of converter academies, which make up the bulk of all academies. Cummings, an ex-DfE insider, recently referred to officials in the DfE press office refusing to endorse Nick Clegg's figures (on Free School Meals) "because they knew they were lies." So a lie is not a lie when it's in support of Gove's policies. No surprises there.

This stuff makes me sick to my stomach.

Education should be the noblest human enterprise in which adults co-operate with mutual respect in the best interests of children and young people. As each year goes by, under whichever government has been elected by a pathetic handful of voters, the "education debate" becomes more and more tawdry and unnecessarily polarised. At the same time the behaviour of career politicians, their advisers and officials has to be seen and heard to be believed.

We all deserve much, much better than this - our young people, especially.

Mon June 9th 2014 - Who's a naughty boy, then?
Who's a naughty boy, then?

If Michael Gove were a child, his guardians would have been called in to see the head several times by now and he'd be looking at permanent exclusion.

He just doesn't seem able to get on with the other children for more than five minutes, does he?

People (mainly journalists) continue to refer to his politeness and charm, yet these qualities seem lost on anyone with whom he is expected to co-operate.

It goes without saying that he has alienated what he calls in his charming way The Blob - that is, a very large group of people who actually know something about education, having worked in it for many years.

He's been very rude about school governors on more than one occasion, peddling myths about them being ineffectual sherry-drinking local worthies - so they're no fans of his.

Then he had a spat with his fellow education minister David Laws which descended quickly into name-calling and yah-boo-isms. Gove's old chum the mind-bogglingly horrible Dominic Cummings was wound up and set running to insult the Lib Dem minister. Then they had to be made to make up and be friendly.

Now he's managed to fall out with Theresa May and the Home Office over the so-called Trojan Horse manoeuvrings of some Birmingham school governors. Headmaster David Cameron's got to come back from the Continent to sort out the mess.

And now he's having another pop at The Blob, via his favourite right-wing think tank, asserting that anyone who opposes his peculiarly narrow view of education must by definition be in favour of letting down the nation's children.

There's a lot of bad news these days about failing free schools and academy chains. Almost every day some new horror hits the headlines. The more wheels that come off his pet projects the more aggressive and hysterical he's getting. This cannot end well - though he'll be OK, of course. It's the children and our schools - all of them, not just academies and free schools - that'll suffer and it'll take years to sort out the mess after he's gone.

As one teaching union leader put it recently, Gove once described himself as a clever dick - he was at least half right.

Sun May 11th 2014 - The internet: better and better?
The internet: better and better?

I'm old enough to remember a time when there was no internet. I can remember when there was one but there was nothing on it for governors. Then I remember a time when there was...

Governornet was actually pretty good. Run by the DfE or whatever acronym it was going under at the time, there was a lot on it and more was added regularly. It was a bit clunky. Older materials didn't get taken off and it was sometimes hard to find what you were after. Sometimes what you needed was on sister sites, like Teachernet or the Standards site. BUT... it was a site specifically for governors and it lasted quite a few years.

Then we were told it was to be streamlined, along with the sister sites, into a DfE education site. This, too, was pretty good, once you got used to it. It was heavily dominated by Goveian self-publicity and massively skewed in favour of information on academies and free schools but still, there was plenty there for the average governor.

The National College for School Leadership also started a good library of governor materials on its website but then became an arm of government and things nosedived.

Then information and documents started to migrate to GOV.UK. This was OK while the education site was still in business as you could usually find what you wanted on one or other of the sites.

Yesterday I tried finding what I was after on the old education site and found out that the transition to GOV.UK is almost complete. I could not find what I wanted. I was after what used to be a treasure trove of useful tools and materials relating to value for money for schools and governors. It might just be me, but try as I might, I couldn't trace what I was looking for.

Try it. You can click on Education and learning and it comes up with just four items: apprenticeships, student loans, admissions and what you might think is what you need - schools and curriculum. Click on that and there's an interesting menu of choices. They seem aimed mainly at parents - holiday dates, after school clubs etc. Fair enough but what about education professionals, heads, governors, teachers?

The only obvious reference to governors is about how to become a governor, which is merely a link to School Governors One Stop Shop. Nothing wrong with SGOSS but where's the masses of stuff there used to be for actual practising governors?

OK - I can search for value for money in schools. What then comes up, amongst other things is become an academy, inheritance tax, El Salvador travel advice... it's like a website designed by a drunk or someone with a real butterfly mind.

There is, of course, a guide to assessing value for money in academies and free schools - a bit late, given what the National Audit Office said about the DfE spending at least double what they'd planned on free schools. And one genuinely useful document - effective buying for your school. But that's it. Where is everything else?

Recently the DfE restated what we used to call the three key roles of a governing body, putting renewed emphasis on the governors' responsibility for effective financial management and value for money. I don't have a problem with that but why then take away all the information that used to be available to help governors do that job?

These people are complete idiots, driving us all backwards over a cliff.

Mon March 31st 2014 - Striking while the iron's cold
Striking while the iron's cold

Recently ex-Secretary of State for Education Estelle Morris wrote a piece for the Guardian offering three pointers for improving governance:

"First, let's grasp the nettle and require governors to undergo some sort of training. Second, we need to resolve the conflict between providing a local voice and offering strategic leadership. Both are important and one shouldn't be traded against the other. Third, ask whether it is reasonable for schools to be allowed to "go it alone" as far as governance is concerned. Being required to establish some sort of alliance with other governing bodies might give them the capacity they need."

It's a thoughtful and timely article but my main reaction was - OK, so why didn't you do anything about this when you were Education Secretary? In particular, pleas for mandatory training for governors have been going unheard for the last two decades. Report after report has recommended it. Governor trainers across the country have supported the idea many, many times but the DfE's response is always "No, we can't compel volunteers to train" despite there being plenty of examples to contradict this assertion, such as St John's Ambulance and magistrates.

We can argue about what she means by "some sort of training" once the DfE grasps the nettle.

In reality there is no serious conflict between the local voice and strategic leadership. The DfE and Ofsted have been banging on for years about the need for smaller governing bodies and more professional (ie skilled) governors, despite the absence of any evidence to support their argument. This is essentially code for getting rid of parent governors who are seen to be almost wilfully ignorant and unskilled. Many governing bodies crammed to bursting with solicitors, estate agents, insurance salespeople and, yes, teachers, don't have the slightest idea what strategic leadership means in the context of school governance. Focused and high quality training could make all the difference for the supposedly "professional" and "unskilled" governing bodies - but where's it going to come from these days and what if the governors don't take it up?

Gove's answer appears to be the academy chain, the much more professional and highly skilled body to replace the hated left-wing, lazy, bloated state apparatus of the local authority and the local worthies on the governing body. How's that going, E-Act?

How about the proposal to "establish some sort of alliance with other governing bodies" as an improvement measure? Sounds like a good idea and one that has been promoted for many years in many local authorities with variable success. The core problem is time - and lack of it. Many governors feel overstretched in meeting the demands of being a halfway decent governor in the first place, let alone having to work with other governing bodies. As always, it's the hardest working governors that will attempt to do it and they are by definition in a minority.

Governance is messy and far from perfect. What sound like simple sensible remedies tend to fall apart in the face of real life, unfortunately. Compulsory training is the one idea that could really have an impact - but you should have implemented when you had the chance, Estelle. There's no way Gove will ever contemplate it, being the anti-stateist he is.

Sadly and too predictably, the only comments that followed Estelle's article on the Guardian's website were vitriolic attacks on the whole concept of governance and the main proposal to get rid of governance altogether. Autonomy, isolation and the absence of local accountability are clearly appealing to too many people and are right up Gove's street.

By all means let's deal with poor governance. But let's not throw out the last remaining bastion of local democracy and accountability.

Tue March 18th 2014 - Preposterous, ridiculous?
Preposterous, ridiculous?

Social mobility and inequality continue to dominate headlines and commentaries in the press at the moment - quite rightly, given how the gap between the highest and lowest paid has expanded enormously under recent governments.

Michael Gove famously commented that: "in every single sphere of British influence, the upper echelons of power in 2013 are held overwhelmingly by the privately educated or the affluent middle class" and much more recently added: "At the beginning of the 20th century, the Conservative cabinet was called Hotel Cecil. The phrase 'Bob's your uncle' came about and all the rest of it. It is preposterous...(the proportion of old Etonians in the cabinet) doesn't make me feel personally uncomfortable because I like each of the individuals concerned, but it's ridiculous. I don't know where you can find some such similar situation in a developed economy."

Commentators have pointed out that this latter statement is a pop at Boris Johnson but whether that's the case or not, Gove seems to be on a bit of a mission. He and his partner Sarah Vine have decided to send their child to a state secondary school, which has sent shock waves through the Tory party, apparently. It turns out, though, that it's not just any old secondary school and certainly not the nearest to where they live, but the decision is undoubtedly significant.

What doesn't seem to add up, though, that Gove's chief SPAD, now that Cummings has gone, is Henry de Zoete, a contemporary of Prince Harry at Eton. Who appointed him to that post? Step forward, Mr Secretary of State. Obviously the appointment had nothing to do with Henry's highly privileged upbringing and education - he was clearly the best person for the job of advising on state education - not. When Gove is handed the opportunity to do something about social mobility he ducks it. Physician - heal thyself.

For more on social mobility, see the news archive (now this page) Nov 18 2013.

Wed February 5th 2014 - So Michael Gove, want state schools like private ones? Fine - if you can spare half the English countryside:-
So Michael Gove, want state schools like private ones?  Fine - if you can spare half the English countryside

Gove's prescription for state schools - and his crusade against the educational establishment - is driven by an instinct for good headlines, not evidence of what works

Guardian 3 February 2014

On Monday 3rd February Eddie Mair likened Gove's many pop-up appearances in the news over the previous few days to a Splat-the-Rat kind of test of skill. However many times you try to splat the rat it pops up again out of a new hole. Gove's become truly manic recently and I can't keep up with the stream of idiocy. I read this piece by the excellent Peter Wilby and realised I could add nothing to it, so many thanks Peter - you've saved me a job!

It is sometimes hard to know whether to take Michael Gove seriously. In a speech in London on Monday, the education secretary said he was aiming to achieve a situation where, if you visit a school in England, "standards are so high all round that you should not be able to tell whether it's in the state sector or a fee-paying independent".

So as parents visited, say, Marlborough College (founded 1843), they would ignore the demand for £27,420 for a year's teaching and nearly another £5,000 for boarding. They would breeze into classrooms and wouldn't notice that, for 870 pupils, Marlborough has more than 150 teachers and assistants, a ratio that, if applied to all England's 8.2 million schoolchildren, would require the teaching workforce to be tripled to roughly 1.3 million. Then they would wander the grounds and somehow fail to clock 11 rugby pitches, eight cricket squares, 14 cricket nets, 12 tennis courts, an eight-lane swimming pool and .22 rifle range, a variety of facilities which, if extended to every state school, would require (according to one calculation) 33m acres, or more than half the English countryside.

Gove is a former journalist and, like many contemporary politicians, aspires to good headlines rather than good policies, using techniques that made him a competent Times columnist for news-starved Monday mornings. You can't beat "I'll make all state schools as good as Marlborough and Eton" or, to take another theme from Monday's speech, "I'll tell teachers how to tame unruly children". But even his natural allies have started to chide him. "Mr Gove must be careful not to mistake gimmicks and gestures for real policy," warned a Mail on Sunday leader. Matthew Parris, former Tory MP and now Times columnist, wrote that he feared his friend Gove was becoming unhinged. Sir David Bell, the judicious and discreet former permanent secretary at the Department for Education, now vice-chancellor of Reading University, advised Gove: "don't believe your own hype".

Bell, writing on the academics' website The Conversation, noted what you could call Gove's meta-headline: his battle against "The Blob" - formerly "the education establishment" - which comprises bureaucrats, academics, unions, teacher trainers, local authority officers and advisers, and many teachers who supposedly eschew academic rigour for a leftwing, child-centred, progressive agenda. The Blob, as featured in a1958 film starring Steve McQueen, was an amorphous alien mass, indestructible and unstoppable. The more it consumed, the more it grew. According to some critics, it was a metaphor for communism and one can see that, in Gove's political universe, The Blob plays a similar role to the "red menace" in 1950s America. Even after nearly 40 years in which both Tory and Labour politicians claimed to be eradicating child-centred teaching, it's still lurking under your child's desk.

Gove and his allies suspect it's devoured the school inspectors at Ofsted, who dare to criticise some of the teaching in academies and free schools established during Gove's term of office. That explains why the unBlobbish chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw - whose latest guidance to inspectors states, for example, that "on occasions... pupils are rightly passive rather than active recipients of learning" - was targeted in a briefing campaign. After Wilshaw publicly complained of "intimidation", Gove pledged "full support" but he has nevertheless dispensed with the services of Lady Morgan, the former Tony Blair aide whom Gove himself appointed as Ofsted chair barely three years ago. Gove thus assures Tory activists and middle England parents that he has not abandoned the anti-Blob struggle.

How far Gove genuinely believes in the Blob, and the need to defeat it, is hard to say. His crusade has some serious consequences. The extension of the school direct scheme, whereby new teachers are recruited by schools rather than through Blob-infested university teacher training threatens to undermine education as a significant academic subject. His undermining of Ofsted, a body that isn't very popular with teachers anyway, risks replacing it with something worse: an inspectorate dominated by employers and rightwing ideologists who take a narrow and utilitarian view of what children should learn.

As Bell politely observes: "The Blob is a useful political tool." It conveys the idea that Gove is on the side of ordinary people who, in a world of unsettling change, want a straightforward, traditional, "no frills" education for their children. The wiser employers agree with what "progressive" educationists have been arguing for years: rote-learning of facts and theories within a narrow academic framework isn't good enough for the digital age. As one recent report, from a group wholly uninfected by the Blob, put it, "non-cognitive skills and attributes such as team working, emotional maturity and empathy... are as important as proficiency in English and mathematics". But try making a headline out of that.

Tue January 28th 2014 - You can dish it out - but can you take it?:-
You can dish it out - but can you take it?

What a strange and apparently short-lived little spat it was.

Sir Michael Wilshaw was "spitting blood" because he believed the charmer Gove's attack dogs had been briefing against him and Ofsted.

An illuminating reaction to criticism I've seen mirrored in schools following what they regarded as unfair Ofsted inspections. But Ofsted is pretty impervious to any criticism and brushes off any suggestion that it could ever be wrong about anything. So it was quite enjoyable seeing HMCI getting a taste of his own medicine and behaving like an outraged maiden aunt.

I don't recall him saying anything in public about previous outbursts of bile from Gove's buddies against other critics (see News Archive Feb 20 2013, for example).

And what was upsetting Sir Michael, in particular? One little phrase jumps out - accusations that school inspectors are trapped by "progressive" 1960s approaches to learning. That can only have come from the DfE and is so in tune with the kind of ideologically-inflected nonsense Gove comes out with that it's impossible not to see his fingerprints all over this. For example, very recently he, a non-historian, was having a go at what he called left-wing historians' versions of the history of the First World War. Given that most of his thinking on education is rooted in the 1950s it's not surprising that he's against all this progressive 1960s malarkey.

The main criticisms of Ofsted are supposedly enshrined in two as yet unpublished right-wing think tank reports (can't wait!), one of which was set up by Gove and employed some of the worst of his attack dog SPADs. But, of course, Gove has denied all knowledge of anything untoward, would never sanction such dreadful behaviour etc etc. Yeah, right. Apparently Wilshaw has now calmed down after Gove met up with him. It can't have been the offer of a knighthood, as he already has one. Still, Lord Wilshaw has a bit of ring to it, doesn't it?

And isn't it odd that the original article that so upset the Chief Inspector was published in The Times, (previous leader writer Gove, M, of this parish; columnist Sarah Vine, wife of this charming man and publisher Murdoch, R, fan of Gove's "reforms") often seen as the uncritical Tory Party bugle? This bears the unmistakable stamp of the Tory political smearing machine.

What seems to have hacked off Gove and his coterie of mad SPADs was Ofsted's criticisms of the woeful free schools Al Madinah and Discovery. Doesn't Sir Michael understand his role - to support Gove's policies come rain or shine, whatever the evidence?

Whilst finding Wilshaw a hard man to like or admire, I can't help but notice that he does have significant advantage over the Secretary of State when it comes to credibility - he has actually been a teacher and headteacher in real schools.

So the betting starts now on the identity of the next Chief Inspector. The main qualifications for the job appear to be unqualified support for all of Gove's policies, extreme right wing ideas, a man and...well, that'll do for now.

Here are my front runners:

  • That mad UKIP bloke who maintains that recent awful weather is the result of gay marriage
  • That mad UKIP bloke who leads the party but hasn't read his own policies (which include bringing back grammar schools) and then tears them up when confronted about it
  • That mad UKIP bloke who calls women sluts in public and, oh, I don't know, something about cleaning behind the fridge
  • President Assad of Syria
  • Michael Gove
  • Sarah Vine
  • Dominic Cummings
  • Rupert Murdoch
  • Chris Woodhead
  • Jim Davidson

Titter ye not. I'm not joking.

Wed January 8th 2014 - So much reform, so little change:-
So much reform, so little change

Not long before Christmas two reports were published nearly simultaneously. One was an Audit Commission report called Establishing Free Schools. The other was a review of the phenomenal success story that is Tower Hamlets: Transforming Education for All: the Tower Hamlets Story. They could not be more different.

One is a cool dismemberment of a wasteful, ideological political campaign to set up a new kind of school, often where there is no need for one. The other is an academic success story of a 16-year sustained campaign to align a series of partners to improve the education of all the children in a part of the country needing it most. The overriding message of both reports is that the education policies of any modern government at best tend to hinder and at worst threaten to destroy real, solid, long-term improvement.

The Free school campaign, already costing double what it was meant to cost, has wasted large sums of money that could have been spent on improving maintained schools (eg £700,000 written off in failed start-ups) and is too new to be able to show any real success, though some spectacular failures are already well-known, such as the Al Madinah Free school in Derby. The report is full of alarming insights into the cavalier attitude of the Secretary of State, the Education Funding Agency and the DfE:

"To date, the primary factor in decision-making has been opening Schools at pace, rather than maximising value for money."

"The Department intends that the Free Schools Programme should encourage innovation... The Department has not yet collected or assessed how Free Schools' use of broader freedoms are meeting its goal of innovation."

"The (Education Funding) Agency depends on high levels of compliance by Schools for information to support funding and oversight. Compliance has not been consistent in the Programme's early years."

"When setting the budgets, the Department makes no reference back to the indicative estimates prepared at the approval stage because of the uncertainties surrounding these. Our analysis revealed that latest forecast outturn costs were higher than indicative estimates for 60 per cent of Wave 2 and 3 Schools, with forecast costs more than double for 20 per cent of Schools. In total, forecast costs were £110 million more than indicative estimates of £745 million."

The Tower Hamlets success story involved ignoring or keeping at arm's length the most damaging of a series of ill-conceived government strategies and is currently threatened by current policies that value independence and autonomy for some over collective and co-ordinated action by all.

"The experience of Tower Hamlets since 1998 is inspirational. It shows that improvement is not only possible but achievable, that improvement in some schools does not need to be bought at the expense of others and that improvement, once attained, can not only be sustained but surpassed. As a result, it is not unreasonable to argue that what Tower Hamlets has created are some of the best urban schools in the world. This is a genuinely exceptional achievement, worth celebrating, worth understanding, but, above all, worth learning from."

If a government were truly serious about raising standards for all it would learn the powerful lessons from the Tower Hamlets experience that change takes time and concerted joint effort by all the key players in an area. This is, of course, a very unfashionable view, since it argues for a co-ordinating and supporting local authority to galvanize the work of schools, support agencies, heads, governors and teachers. It would require any Secretary of State for Education to admit that even a five-year term of office is too short to effect real, lasting change. He/she would also have to admit that we have known for a very long time now what it takes to improve schools - and it isn't renaming them or coming up with yet another type of school.

The Tower Hamlets report quotes Charles Payne, the author of So much reform, so little change, on what we know brings about real improvement:

"Give them teaching that is determined, energetic and engaging. Hold them to high standards. Expose them to as much as you can, most especially the arts. Root the school in the community and take advantage of the culture the children bring with them. Pay attention to their social and ethical development. Recognise the reality of race, poverty and other social barriers but make children understand that barriers don't have to limit their lives... Above all, no matter where in the social structure children are coming from, act as if their possibilities are boundless."

It is very saddening that, while for most of the 16 years of sustained improvement in the London Borough no schools chose to take on Academy status and there were no Free schools in the area, just recently this has changed. There are now two academies and plans for three Free schools. There is no explanation for this in the report but apparently the academies are still working collaboratively with other schools. Why should anyone want to set up a Free school in what is clearly the most successful urban LA? How can this do anything but undermine success?

There has been a deafening silence from the usually voluble Gove and his apparatchiks about both these reports. Has he read them? Does he understand them? Will anything change as a result of them?

The chances are that his destructive policies will continue to undermine the success of Tower Hamlets while he wastes even more taxpayers' money on an unproven and already wasteful pet Free schools project. The only consolation is that he probably has only a few months left to continue the blitzkrieg.

Wed December 18th 2013 - End of term exam: Maths and statistics:-
End of term exam: Maths and statistics

Q1     How long is two years?

A     It depends on who you are. If you're at school, it's a short Key Stage. If you're a governor, it's half your term of office. If you're Michael Gove it's the average term of office of a secretary of State for Education. You have therefore already overstayed your welcome.

Q2     How long does it take to prove that academies and free schools are brilliant?

A     It depends on who you are. If you know anything about education, you understand that any substantial change can take at least five years to take effect and for convincing evidence to be established. Even Michael Wilshaw recognises this. His latest annual report shows that the only academies to show solid evidence of real improvement are those established under the Labour government. For all the others it's too soon to tell. This has not stopped Gove and his friends at the DfE from claiming every year that academies are much better than other schools.

Q3     The UK is falling behind global rivals in international tests (PISA) taken by 15-year-olds, failing to make the top 20 in maths, reading and science. Michael Gove said since the 1990s, test performances had been "at best stagnant, at worst declining". He blamed the previous Labour government's policies for the decline, claiming that it was too soon for his own wonderful policies to have taken effect even though he claims the opposite is true for academies and free schools.

What does this prove?:

A     it's all Labour's fault
B     it's all Gove's fault
C     PISA tables are based on a flawed and misleading statistical model

A     None of the above or all of the above. It's better to compare apples with apples and pears with pears. That pig won't get fatter by weighing it.

Q4     Wilshaw's annual report shows that "Good and outstanding schools make up 78% of all schools inspected in England. As well as being an increase from 2011/12, this is the highest proportion of good or better schools in England since Ofsted began".

What does this tell you?

A     it's all because of Labour's excellent education policies
B     it's all because of Gove's excellent education policies
C     Either Wilshaw is right or PISA tables are right. Or however much our schools improve, schools in other countries will always be much better. Or PISA tables are based on a flawed and misleading statistical model. Or whatever.

A     My brain hurts. I'm going for a long lie down in a darkened room.

Happy Christmas!

Mon December 2nd 2013 - The amazing Govio:-
The Amazing Govio - now you see it, now you don’t...oh, hang on, there it is again!

Michael Gove reminds me of an inept child who got a magic set for his birthday and is still struggling to master the basic techniques but cannot resist showing off to the family.

When he first came to office he had a go at the school Self-Evaluation Form which he said should be "ditched", in order to ingratiate himself with a minority of heads who'd been complaining about how long it took to fill in - never mind the fact that any organisation worth its salt sees self-evaluation as a key to success. And if you carry out thorough self-evaluation you need to record what you find. You might refer to that document as a self-evaluation form, perhaps. And so self-evaluation as a process didn't come to an end. And neither did self-evaluation forms, just the one that Ofsted had been promoting. Currently Ofsted offer a summary self-evaluation form. Sleight of hand? Smoke and mirrors more like.

More importantly, the Guardian recently broke a story about Gove finally restoring a middle tier to the education system which implicitly acknowledges that the DfE cannot run all the country's academies and free schools itself. Gove has gleefully watched over the wanton destruction of local authority support for and oversight of schools and education - the middle layer which any thinking person must acknowledge is essential. For an intelligent, well-informed discussion about this see Robert Hill's excellent "The Missing Middle" (find it in the Government policy section on the downloads page).

And now it's back...and was on its way, anyway, in the form of overmighty, unaccountable academy chains...but here's the new version:

"A new cadre of powerful school regulators called chancellors (what a pompous title - Ed) are to be appointed by Michael Gove in an attempt to oversee the burgeoning number of free schools and academies, with the power to seize control of failing schools. According to internal Department for Education (DfE) documents seen by the Guardian, the plan will see England split into eight geographical regions separate from local councils, with the free schools and academies in each region supervised by a new body to known as a Headteacher Board (HTB) and headed by a chancellor. The plan to create a middle tier between individual schools and the DfE in Whitehall comes after months of wrangling as the DfE has struggled to oversee the rising number of academies and free schools. The new school boards would be made up of a chancellor appointed by the DfE and six members, who would be the headteachers of successful local academies and free schools, elected by the heads of all the schools in the region. The chancellors and boards would be granted powers delegated by the secretary of state, allowing them to investigate and change the sponsors and management of failing academies or free schools."

What could possibly go wrong? Oooh, let's think...

  • Might the new Chancellors be paid huge, undeserved salaries, funded from the schools budget?
  • Might they all turn out to be largely unqualified buddies of the Secretary of State for Education?
  • Might we discover too late that the new system costs a lot more than the equivalent LA provision?
  • Could the Chancellors' attempts to deal with failing free schools and academies be inept and expensive, as they have no serious experience of dealing with the complexity of the task?
  • Might there be costly duplication of effort between the new chancellors and what's left of LAs?
  • Might the Chancellors be inclined to replace any failing academy principals with their buddies rather than the best person for the job?
  • Could we find out after a few years that a hugely expensive, wasteful and ineffective bureaucratic system has been created (only to be dismantled by the government of the day, to be replaced by something even worse)?

Or might it turn out to be the best thing since sliced bread?

Hey presto!

Hang on, The Amazing Govio ...isn't that real blood dripping from your magic saw?

Mon November 18th 2013 - When getting on your bike and looking for work is not the answer... :-
When getting on your bike and looking for work is not the answer...

Social mobility is high on the news agenda this week and is embarrassing the Coalition government no end - as well it should. What should have sparked it was the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission's recent excellent and terrifying State of the Nation report, which few have read and fewer still have even heard of. Only when John Major referred in a speech to Norfolk Tories to a quotation from, believe it or not, one Gove, M of this parish did the media and the prime minister wake up. What Y-fronts man actually said was this...

"I remember enough of my past to be outraged on behalf of the people abandoned when social mobility is lost. Social mobility is essential to end ghettos and to end towns without hope. ..They can't get on their bike and go and find work if there is nowhere to live when they get there. And social mobility needs another ingredient - education. As Michael Gove has pointed out. In every single sphere of British influence, the upper echleons of power in 2013 are held overwhelmingly by the privately educated or the affluent middle class. To me from my background, I find that truly shocking. Our education system should help children out of the circumstances in which they were born, not lock them into the circumstances in which they were born."

Sadly, the redness will drain fast from Cameron's shiny face as events move on. He is reported to have said: "I do believe it's not good enough to make changes and sit back, you've got to get out there and try and attract talented people. Don't just open the door and say we're in favour of equality of opportunity, that's not enough. You've got to get out there and find people, win them over, raise aspirations and get them to get all the way to the top." Who appointed all the old Etonians and other millionaires and ex-public schoolboys to the Cabinet, DC? Astonishing hypocrisy.

Anyway, let's move on. Far more important for school governors is Alan Milburn's report, especially the chapter on schools. Here are the main points, in case you haven't had time to catch up:

"...good schools can transform education prospects for less well-off children. School standards and examination results have both risen over recent decades across England, but there remains a worryingly 'long tail' of underachievement. There are stark regional differences which need to be addressed. Since the late 1990s there has been a major shift in the geography of educational inequality in England. London state schools now perform best ...but many of the weakest schools for poor children are in Middle England - places like Peterborough, West Berkshire and Herefordshire. The worst performing major ethnic group among children eligible for free school meals is White British pupils, with other ethnic groups having improved more quickly in recent years.

The report attributes blame for the current dire state of affairs to successive governments of all complexions, not just New Labour, as Major inevitably did.

It identifies some areas of risk which, if not addressed, could jeopardise progress in closing the education attainment gap, including:

Variation in teacher quality - Many of England's half a million teachers do an excellent job but disadvantaged students are not getting their fair share of the best teachers.

Failing schools and poor standards - The Government is seeking to raise standards through a more rigorous curriculum and qualifications. But regional gaps widen further at higher attainment levels.

School choice - research suggests that school choice matters most for disadvantaged students....The Commission is concerned to ensure that greater school autonomy doesn't lead to poorer students being shut out. While free schools have the potential to address education inequalities, we note that in the first tranche, only two of 24 had a proportion of students eligible for FSM the same or higher than their local authority rate. The Commission believes free schools should have an explicit objective of narrowing education attainment gaps.

Low attainers - the Commission is concerned that there is a missing piece in the Government's approach to life chances: the fortunes of children who are low attainers, but neither well off enough to be insulated from its effects by their parents' resources, nor badly-off enough to qualify for additional support on grounds of poverty... Schools should have some flexibility to use the Pupil Premium for disadvantaged students, and for low attainers.

Preparing pupils for work - the Commission is very concerned that, following the devolution of responsibility for careers advice to schools, three-quarters are failing to provide an adequate service.

Closing the gap - the Commission believes it is imperative that schools give equal priority to raising the bar and closing the gap.


  • The UK Government should ensure that raising standards and closing attainment gaps are the twin objectives for all teachers and all schools in England - free schools included - through the standards it sets, the inspection regimes it sanctions, the league tables it publishes and the reward mechanisms it deploys.
  • Local authorities, schools and the UK Government should focus harder on eliminating the geographical lottery in school performance in England by introducing new area-based approaches like London Challenge, adopting reforms like academies, strengthening incentives for the best teachers to teach disadvantaged students in poorly performing areas and broadening the school failure regime.
  • Schools, local authorities and the UK Government should prioritise low attainment as a threat to children's life chances including enabling the pupil premium to be focused on low and middle income children who aren't necessarily poor but who are at risk of failing on core benchmarks at school.
  • The UK Government should provide additional resources to schools to provide high quality careers advice, schools should build long-term relationships with businesses and improve work experience opportunities and Ofsted should assess and report on their performance.

The report's main recommendation for school policy is: ..."we urge schools to adopt a dual-mandate of raising the bar on standards and closing the gap on attainment with more help for low attainers from average income families as well as low-income children to succeed in making it to the top, not just getting off the bottom."

If you can find the time read the whole report. If you've only an hour or so, read the chapter on schools. It's a real eye-opener.

What should trouble the current and any future government is that the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission will continue to publish annual updates on the subject. It's not going to go away any time soon, whatever politicians may wish.


You can find the full report 'State_of_the_Nation_2013.pdf' in the Big picture of education section on the downloads page.

Tue October 15th 2013 - Cummings and goings?:-
Cummings and goings

Some notable events in the weird universe inhabited by Gove, M. recently. First, the untrained and unqualified head of Pimlico free school resigned suddenly - who'd have predicted that? According to the Guardian:

"Annaliese Briggs was appointed principal of Pimlico primary in central London in March by a charity set up by a government minister. She had no teaching qualifications and little experience in running a school. The new free school is sponsored by the Future Academies charity set up by Lord Nash, a junior schools minister and one of Michael Gove's closest allies... Pimlico primary confirmed that Briggs had left her post to "pursue other opportunities in primary education". She will become a governor at the school instead. The school began admitting pupils for the first time last month. Sources close to the academy say she was finding it difficult to cope with the workload."

Gove, of course, is all in favour of appointing untrained and unqualified teachers and heads - probably on the basis that he, as an untrained and unqualified Secretary of State for Education, is doing such a marvellous job. He is, of course, infamous for appointing the untrained and unqualified Dominic Cummings as his SPAD in chief who is leaving the DfE at Christmas, possibly to set up another free school - maybe with him as head teacher?

He recently wrote and published a bizarre 237-pages long piece about education and other topics which is of no comfort to Gove. Patrick Wintour of the Guardian describes it thus:

"His 250-page screed sprawls across a vast canvas about the future, education, Britain's place in the world and disruptive forces ahead... It is either mad, bad or brilliant - and probably a bit of all three."

I have read it and wish I hadn't really. Just a couple of examples: he claims on the basis of no evidence and in contradiction to the work of Ofsted that most teachers are "mediocre" and claims that a child's performance has more to do with genetic makeup than the standard of his or her education. Interestingly he admits that the lack of a requirement for teachers who work in free schools to be qualified could land them in trouble. "Some [free schools] will fail and have predictable disasters from disastrous teaching to financial fraud." Funny, that.

Cummings says there is "strong resistance" in the education establishment to "accepting scientific evidence on genetics" and complains that despite research showing that up to 70% of a child's performance is related to his or her genes, there has been little interest in the issue. I wonder what the admissions policy at his free school will look like?

That this man has had so much influence over education policy is shocking and scary. That Gove will now have to come up with some ideas of his own is even scarier.

Wed October 9th 2013 - When is a woodpecker really a cuckoo?:-
When is a woodpecker really a cuckoo?

Dear Michael G started the new academic year with a characteristically vitriolic and hyperbolic attack on those notorious enemies of education and standards, the teaching unions. He did this, of course, in the context of his favourite right wing think tank, the Policy Exchange. The speech made headlines mainly due to his mistaking one school for another and getting his facts wrong. There has to be a first time for everything, doesn't there?

Gove claimed that "In schools like Woodpecker Hall primary... far more children than the national average are registered as having special educational needs. But every child - regardless of the challenges they face - achieves far above the national average in numeracy and literacy.

As Janet Downs pointed out, that must mean that every child in the school achieves Level 5. (Level 4 is achieved by around 80% of 11 year olds and thus cannot be "far above the national average".)

The DfE performance data reveals that the proportion of children at Cuckoo Hall achieving "above the national average", level 5, was 36%. That is a long way from "every child".

Apparently Gove did not mean Woodpecker Hall but Cuckoo Hall. At Cuckoo Hall "90% and 94% of their pupils achieved at or above the expected level in numeracy and literacy."

Maybe Gove should employ Bill Oddie as a special adviser in future.

See more at:

The liberal establishment is alive and kicking - in the private education sector

Two more recent speeches in the news have led my some strenuous eyebrow raising on my part. Who do you think said the following?

"Education is increasingly in the grip of central government and, worse, increasingly at the mercy of much-favoured commercial providers who would like to expand their operations".

One of those rabid Trots in the NUT or NAHT? Nope.

It was Tim Hands, the head of Magdalen College school who takes over as chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (the private sector's union), who also told the group's annual meeting that excessive interference and obsession with league tables had "emasculated the education system of this country".

He then referred to the Department for Education as "the office of the Supreme Goviet, which boasts a huge central atrium - ominously symbolic, one might fear, of a departmental philosophy with not a child, but a hole, at its heart".

Ouch! Take that, Govey!

Not to be outdone, Anthony Seldon, master of Wellington College, held forth on the recent Daily Mail attack on Ralph Miliband: "If the Mail speaks for Britain, it is not a Britain I want to be part of...It sets a very bad example to young people to belittle someone who is dead. I think it is nasty, it lacks taste and decency, and I worry about antisemitism. Everything that I value and try to get across to young people here, this seems to cut across. It is antithetical to everything I try to teach our pupils."

Ex-right wing journalist Gove naturally defended the Mail's right to publish the revolting poisonous garbage it churns out every day.

What a strange world we live in.

And finally...

This is what Warwick Mansell wrote in the Guardian on 8th October:

Uneven performance

...12 school had the unfortunate experience of moving from "outstanding" at their previous inspection to "inadequate" during 2012-13. Of those 12 schools, three were academies, all of which had previously been "outstanding" as non-academy schools before taking on academy status and then moving into special measures.

Overall, Ofsted's data shows a mixed picture for academies. Among previously good or satisfactory schools, academies fared slightly better on average in their 2012-13 judgment than non-academies. But that position was reversed among schools previously rated in one of Ofsted's other two categories: outstanding or inadequate. In total, higher proportions of academies - 24% - saw their inspection judgment fall back in 2012-13 than did non-academies (18%), while more non-academies than academies improved.

Those three previously outstanding schools now in special measures include one whose former headteacher is Charlie Taylor, now chief executive of the National College for Teaching and Leadership. The last inspection report on the Willows School Academy Trust, a special school in Hillingdon, north London, seems to suggest a period of turmoil since Taylor left to go on secondment to work for the DfE as its "behaviour tsar" in 2011. Taylor left the school permanently in August 2012.

Sat September 14th 2013 - Eyes up, hands off:-
Eyes up, hands off

Governors are often told to be strategic, not operational - captured in the phrase "Eyes up, hands off". It's good advice but hard to get right, and as my friend and governance expert Phil Hand argues, governors sometimes have to be operational in order to be strategic. For example, making decisions about practical building improvements to the school may be strategic but unless governors have visited the school and seen it in action, which could be seen as being operational, they are unlikely to make wise and well-informed strategic decisions.

This has become very graphically apparent to me in my other life as the owner of a café. It's been open for 14 weeks now and the original plan was that I would have some direct involvement in it but mainly at a strategic level. That illusion lasted a few seconds as events took their course and my wife and I were sucked deeply into the operation. Between us we've learned to be publicists, cooks, cleaners, bar staff, waiters, accountants, designers, odd-job people, human resources managers, trainers, planners, potwashers, front of house personnel, security experts and more. We've coped with a variety of challenges, many of them simultaneous, such as losing our head chef, both ovens breaking down, loss of gas supply and staff going sick.

This week we've finally managed to extricate ourselves from a gruelling routine of 120 hour working weeks. We still find it hard to create sufficient time to talk to each other, let alone assess where we're going and what we need to do next. We know that we need to gain height and create space to be much more strategic and that if we were able to do so, we'd avoid some of the practical problems that have engulfed us. It's a classic Catch 22 situation that many governors find themselves in - the solution is to be more strategic but the operational issues take up so much time they cannot be strategic.

So as the new term begins, governors will have to do all they can to keep their eyes up and their hands off - if only events don't overwhelm them.

Mon August 5th 2013 - I Gove you all:-
I Gove you all

A recent series of short letters has been appearing in the Guardian based on the misspelling of "love" as "Gove" in song titles, leading to amusing and alarming images. Taking the idea further in my head while walking the dog, I thought I'd share some with you:

Contrary opinions

Gove will keep us together or Gove will tear us apart


What's Gove got to do with it? I want to know what Gove is... Could you be Goved?

That Gove effect

Gove is all around, Everlasting Gove and Endless Gove leading to a Gove hangover

The scary stuff

Secret Gove, The power of Gove, Stop! In the name of Gove, You can't hurry Gove, To sir with Gove

The critics attack

Tainted Gove, Bleeding Gove, Crazy little thing called Gove, Gove for sale, Gove on the rocks

The fanbase strikes back

You give Gove a bad name because clearly What the world needs now is Gove and All you need is Gove. Don't throw your Gove away. Despite your accusations I Can't buy me Gove

The stalkers' obsession grows

Warm Gove, Puppy Gove, Hot Gove, Addicted to Gove, I Gove you Gove me Gove, When Gove takes over, The Greatest Gove of all... but even these crazies have their limits: I'd do anything for Gove but I won't do that

Surreal images of the Secretary of State for Education

Gove can build a bridge, Caravan of Gove, Big hunk o' Gove, Under the moon of Gove, How deep is your Gove?

Wishful thinking

A world without Gove, Gove don't live here anymore, Where did our Gove go?

A thought I wish I hadn't had

When you're in Gove with a beautiful woman, it's hard

And one I rather like...

Gove is a rose (but you better not pick it - it only grows when it's on the vine). Gove's wife is Sarah Vine - see what I did there?

Mon July 15th 2013 - Another government, another governance report... :-
Another government, another governance report...

In May 2011 Neil Carmichael MP, co-authored one of the most ill-informed reports on governance ("Who governs the governors?") ever written. However, he has persisted in trying to draw attention to school governance by setting up an all-party parliamentary group to discuss the issues, initiating a Commons debate on governance and playing a part in ensuring that the Education Committee wrote a new report called "The Role of School Governing Bodies". For all that, he deserves much respect and praise. He and his colleagues have clearly learned a great deal in the process and early ignorance has been replaced by well-informed definitive statements many of which challenge the beliefs about effective governance of the DfE, Ofsted and the National College.

The report doesn't pull its punches on some issues, such as: "Despite the DfE's clear preference for smaller governing bodies, there is no evidence base to prove that smaller governing bodies are more effective than larger ones." Will this stop the main perpetrators of the myth (DfE, Gove, Ofsted, Wilshaw, National College et al) from repeating it as if it were a self-evident truth? Don't hold your breath.

In other places it is feeble, such as: "We welcome the Government's commitment to raising the profile of governors and we look forward to seeing the details of how it intends to attract more good quality governors." One might detect a whiff of gentle sarcasm in that wording but it's not strong enough: the government has had three years to do something about it and hasn't lifted a finger yet. On the contrary, both Gove and Wilshaw have made speeches in the last year which insulted governors. It would have been heartening if the Committee had challenged the way these important people talk about governance in public.

Governor training is recognised as being hugely important yet the government is effectively scrapping the main traditional source of that training - local authority governor services - by year-on-year cuts to budgets. Wilshaw recently made a speech arguing for the importance of governor training yet takes a gung-ho approach to LA school improvement services in general, knowing full well that they are less and less able to do their job because of the government's overt and covert destruction of local authorities. Such cynicism and hypocrisy deserves to be exposed in a report such as this. The report advocates a more widespread use of LA intervention powers, including the setting up of IEBs. Having chaired an IEB, I think I can see why they are not used more often - they require a huge amount of time from skilled LA colleagues who are pulled in many different directions as LA capacity shrinks. Small LAs are simply unable to muster sufficient IEB members of the necessary calibre and even large ones are increasingly challenged to do so.

This is the elephant in the room: school governance has been neglected for twenty years or more and has only survived and been reasonably effective because of the dirt-cheap but good quality support of local authority governor services teams. It's time this fact was recognised - but it's already too late to stop the wanton, counter-productive vandalism of this ignorant and arrogant government.

The report rightly emphasises the need for professional clerking - as has every other report on governance - yet fails to make the case as strongly as it should. Large sums of public money have been invested in the national training programme for chairs and National Leaders of Governance but nothing has been spent on clerking - ever. There is a very strong case to be made for the serious professionalisation of clerking in order to raise the quality of school governance - but it can't be found in this report, despite the right noises being made. An open goal missed.

The final recommendations on academy governance are very welcome. It was interesting to note that in the recent case of the spectacular failure of E-ACT academies whose director general, the delightful Sir Bruce Liddington, resigned last month that its systems of internal financial control were weak and lacking rigour - and noted that the governance of the group was "unusual". The government has taken a very cavalier attitude to the governance of academies and this report demands change.

Overall, it is a very good report - well-informed, tackling the right issues, in the main, forthright and comprehensive. It is, though, just another in a lengthening series of reports over recent years, all of which have made similar recommendations and nothing has changed as a result. It is difficult not to feel sceptical about the prospect of any real change given that there will be an election in 2015. The fate of the last report of similar status (The 21st Century School: Implications and Challenges for Governing Bodies - A report from the Ministerial Working Group on School Governance, 2010) was sealed by its long delayed publication and the last general election. I hope I'm wrong, but even if some of the recommendations were acted upon, it's already too late to stop the rot.


NB readers may have detected a slowing-down in the number of articles and downloads added to the site in recent weeks. This is the result of my wife and I opening a licensed café, which has taken up a great deal of our time and energy - though we're finding more time for life outside it now. This website will continue and I fully anticipate more regular additions in future. If you're interested, visit our website at and maybe we will see you in the café one of these days!

Weds June 26th 2013 - A Twigg speaks... :-
A Twigg speaks...

Having been deafeningly silent for many, many months while Gove and his poisonous dwarves wreaked havoc on the education system, Labour's feeble education spokesman finally broke cover recently to make an announcement about future Labour education policy. You might want to sit down at this point. Here it is:

"How would a future Labour government deliver an excellent place for every child in every school? I want to make three radical reforms. First, where a school freedom promotes higher standards, we will extend those freedoms to all schools. So if a freedom is afforded to an academy and it drives up standards, that freedom should be available to all schools. A school should not have to change its status to earn the permission to innovate.

Second, no one cares more about a school than the community it serves. Therefore, we will deliver a radical devolution of power from Whitehall. It is not feasible, nor is it desirable, for thousands of schools to be accountable only to the Secretary of State. Local communities will have a greater say about education in their area.

Third, we will ensure that every school plays its part to raise standards across their area and meet the needs of their community. Schools working in collaboration. A proven recipe for success. Networked schools in a networked world. No school left behind. That's how we raise standards across all schools."

That's it, then. I had hoped that throughout the months of saying nothing, young Twigglet might have been doing some really hard thinking about education. It appears that he was doing nothing of the sort. What exactly has he been doing? There has been no shortage of opportunity to take potshots at the hopeless Gove.

Has the word "radical" now lost all its meaning? One of his "radical" changes is to carry on doing what's already happening - school to school networking. It's been going on for decades, Twigg. It's not radical, though it is one of the few effective school improvement initiatives pursued under successive governments.

How exactly does one identify a "freedom" that has driven up standards? All the evidence so far shows that academies have used none of the supposed freedoms that supposedly lured them away from the dead hand of local accountability and there is precious little evidence of any of them having raised standards. What if it could be done, though? Say one academy in one town chooses to pay staff less or more than the going rate and standards improve. Would that be definitive proof that changing pay raises standards and therefore all schools should be allowed to do it? What if that happens and standards in some schools decline? Think things through, Twiggy, my boy...

Does no-one really care more about its school than the community it serves? It's a good soundbite but I've worked in schools where the community, with a few notable exceptions, couldn't give a flying one about their school. Didn't Gove promise a radical devolution of power in his White Paper "The Importance of Teaching? Yes, he did. He and Eric Pickles promised "localism, localism, localism". Politicians of all parties are incapable of real devolution of power, since power is what they crave and abuse.

I feel very depressed. Is Twigg really the best Labour can do?

Weds June 5th 2013 - A new handbook for governors:-
A new handbook for governors

It may have escaped many governors' attention but the DfE recently published a very helpful handbook for them.

It replaces the Governors' Guide the Law, which had been published regularly in many different forms over the last two decades. Whilst it was never a document to love, nevertheless it was an invaluable guide to the finer points of the law as it affects schools and governance. Clerks to governing bodies and Co-ordinators of Governor Services relied on it.

It has been under threat for some time, though, including from a group of headteachers whose report "Good Governance" in 2012 never managed to refer to by its proper name. They dismissed it as "the 256-page governor manual" and claimed that it was "unread". The clue is in the title: it is a work of reference. Why did they not also call for the abolition of dictionaries and encyclopaedias? These, too, are largely unread and very long - but they have a vital purpose.

Michael Gove, with his mission to end red tape and bureaucracy, apparently told civil servants to reduce it to 4 pages. Is there no limit to the man's ignorance? Fortunately wiser councils have prevailed and the revised Handbook is surprisingly good. Its first section is a masterly and overdue restatement of the purpose of governors, their roles and responsibilities. All new governors should read this, preferably twice, as part of their induction into the role. More mature governors should also read it and make any necessary readjustments to their priorities.

Further sections go into more detail about roles and responsibilities and their source in legislation.

The whole thing is just 97 pages long, a triumph of editing and concision. Inevitably some of the finer detail has been lost and the reduction in the number of DfE staff, especially those with a profound understanding and knowledge of governance, should be a cause of concern. But for the majority of clerks and governors, most of the time, the Handbook should be a very useful tool.

It's a shame it hasn't had more publicity, though. You can download it from the downloads page, or by clicking here, or directly from

Tues May 21st 2013 - Just how bad does Gove have to get before he's sacked?:-
Just how bad does Gove have to get before he's sacked?

A good friend of mine who, unlike me, is a kind, balanced and practising Christian said recently, "I love everybody but I draw the line at Michael Gove."

Just this week, we've learned that one of Gove's favourite academy chains has been found to be hopeless at managing public money, allowing the ghastly Sir (no surprises there) Bruce Liddington to spend large sums of our cash on himself and his buddies. He has now resigned. Will we ever get our money back? Will he be prosecuted? What took the government so long? The Guardian was raising these concerns back in 2011. Academy chains are accountable in theory at least to the Secretary of State for Education. How did he let this debacle happen? Why hasn't he resigned? This is abject failure on a grand scale.

The Education Funding Agency's report on E-Act follows hot on the heels of the damning report of the Public Accounts Committee on the financing of the whole academies project. Again the footprints in the snow lead back to just one igloo and it's not Eskimo Nell's.

Gove is unlikely to take any responsibility or be sacked for any of this, of course. Don't expect a U-turn on academies or the DfE's policy that from 2014 primary schools failing to reach the raised floor standards will run the risk of being taken over by an academy chain. Will E-Act still be in the running to do so? Why the hell should they after such a dire performance? Why doesn't Gove simply ban them from having anything to do with education? Can you imagine what he (or his clone at the head of Ofsted) would say if a local authority performed as badly? Utter, stinking hypocrisy.

We also learned that he referred in a speech to "survey after survey" showing just how bad history teaching is in order to justify his changes to the national curriculum. It turned out that the surveys were piddling little affairs carried out for Premier Inns and UK Gold. So - a major (utterly flawed) educational reform is based on flimsy or no evidence.

No apology or acknowledgement from Gove that he's a lying toad and an embarrassment to the world of education that teaches children to base their judgements on sound evidence.

Then it seems he seized on and utterly misrepresented the work of an individual private school teacher in setting a task for students to explain an aspect of German history to 10 year olds using a Mr Man approach. This, for Gove, was further evidence of dumbing down rather than an imaginative and innovative way of helping students to reinforce their learning, which any decent teacher knows to be essential.

No apology or acknowledgement from Gove that he lied, bullied, deceived and misled. Or that he is a complete ignoramus about real teaching and real classroom practice.

He is without doubt the worst education secretary in living memory, well beyond parody or satire and, unbelievably, gets worse - and more brazen - with each passing week. If Cameron weren't so feeble and so ignorant about education he'd sack this rival for his job with immediate effect. The one consolation in all this is that while DC remains in office (though not in power), it keeps Gove out.

Mon May 13th 2013 - UKIP if you want to... :-
UKIP if you want to...

I was intrigued, though not surprised, to learn that UKIP were looking around for "off the peg" policies since they appear not to have the wit to write their own. The last time I could be bothered to look, their education policy was conspicuous by its absence.

Maybe I can be of some assistance? Here's a simple 10-step programme (one previous careless owner, nice little runner)...

Step 1: appoint an Education Secretary, such as that bloody good bloke from the Frog and Europhobe who bangs on about bringing back the grammar schools and corporal punishment - he seems to know what he's talking about - what's his name again?

Step 2: insist on the basis of no or flimsy evidence that educational standards are not good enough and/or falling, especially in comparison to (insert name of another country here, if you've heard of one)

Step 3: invent a "silver bullet" solution (eg a new kind of school, such as a Ukademy or Gratis school)

Step 4: waste a great deal of money on promoting the silver bullet solution which only a few money-grabbing headteachers are unprincipled enough to accept

Step 5: appoint a new head of Ofsted who agrees with your solution (or more likely lacks the moral fibre to resist a large salary in exchange for promoting a solution he/she knows to be stupid)

Step 6: ignore all the evidence piling up that Ukademies make no difference, cost 5 times as much as any other decent school and often fail

Step 7: change the rules of Ofsted inspection so that even more schools fail and claim this as evidence of rising standards

Step 8: force the silver bullet solution on all the failing schools

Step 9: run out of money but steal more from all the other schools' budgets to keep the programme running

Step 10: lose the next election so that by the time the faeces collide with the air redistributor some other mug has to clear up the mess and the ex-Education Secretary takes up a nice fat salary as Director of a Ukademy chain (1 day per week plus expenses)

Job done! Trebles all round!

Tue April 30th 2013 - Compare and contrast:-
Compare and contrast.

July 2010:

Michael Gove said the £55bn Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme, which he cancelled was "overly bureaucratic and inefficient". He said "The justifiable anger that was felt was at the way in which a project that originally had been supposed to cost £45bn ended up costing £55bn. Everyone involved in this process said to me: 'Make sure you ensure that this faltering and failing project ends'. And that is what I have done. I inherited a mess from you (ie the previous government), and we are clearing it up."

April 2013:

The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee reports on "Managing the expansion of the Academies Programme":

"The Department has incurred significant costs from the complex and inefficient system it has used for funding the Academies Programme and its oversight of academies has had to play catch-up with the rapid growth in academy numbers... In the two years from April 2010 to March 2012, the Department spent £8.3 billion on Academies; £1 billion of this was an additional cost to the Department not originally budgeted for this purpose. Some of this expenditure led to unnecessary extra money being used by the Department which was not recovered from local authorities... The Department must improve the efficiency of its funding mechanisms and stop the growth in other costs... the Department has yet to establish effective school-level financial accountability for academies operating within chains... While it is too early to assess the impact of the expansion on school performance, the Department will need to be able to demonstrate whether value for money has been achieved. It has yet to state how it will do so, or when. The Department should set out what outcomes it aims to achieve from the expansion of the Programme, and how and when it will demonstrate whether progress is on track and value for money has been achieved...

A large part of the £1 billion additional cost since April 2010 has been caused by the excessively complex and inefficient academy funding system which has reportedly led to overpayments and errors in payments to Academies There was around £350 million extra paid to Academies which was not recovered from local authorities. This system does not operate effectively alongside the local authority system, and makes it hard for the Department to prove that academies are not receiving more money than they should. The Department has not yet brought other types of cost growth under control, for example academy insurance... Key information on what academies actually spend is still only available at trust, rather than individual academy, level. This limits the ability of parents to scrutinise how their child's school is spending its money, and of communities to hold their local school to account. The Department must publish data showing school-level expenditure, including per-pupil costs, and with a level of detail comparable to that available for maintained schools, so that proper judgments can be made and comparisons drawn to assess value for money. The Department should state how it will make robust, line-by-line information on individual academies' expenditure publicly available in the most cost-effective way...

Irregular expenditure by academies and gaps in the oversight framework led the Comptroller and Auditor General to qualify the 2011-12 accounts of the Department and the Young People's Learning Agency. Academies' compliance with mandatory monitoring is not good enough, and it is not yet clear how well revised audit arrangements will address these issues in future... We are sceptical that the Department has sufficient resources to properly oversee the expanding Programme, especially as schools now joining are less high-performing and may require greater oversight and scrutiny.

You won't find this report on the DfE's website.

On the basis of this evidence, why hasn't Gove scrapped the academies expansion programme for being "overly bureaucratic and inefficient"?

Sat April 20th 2013 - Come again?:-
Come again?

I was painting a window frame in a large room full of builders listening to Radio 2 yesterday when Jeremy Vine introduced a discussion about Michael Gove's latest comments on shortening school holidays. Two women from the polar opposites of opinion then had a row about the topic and various people phoned in with other heated comments.

I have to say that I was none the wiser by the end of the "debate" and was relieved when the next song came on.

As always, finding the actual text of what Gove said - which was at a conference organised by The Spectator magazine - proved impossible. It may appear in due course but until it does, one is left at the mercy of the papers and the news media for their take on what he said or didn't say. His speech isn't available on the DfE's website, nor on The Spectator's - at the time of writing.

According to my newspaper of choice, the Guardian, "Gove has called for longer school days and a cut in the length of holidays, which he said would improve performance and make life easier for working parents. The reforms could allow state schools to choose to stay open until 4.30pm and introduce a shorter, four-week summer holiday for pupils from September next year, representing a profound change for parents used to tailoring their working hours to the classroom timetable. Gove said the school system had been designed for a 19th-century agricultural economy and risked leaving British children trailing those in Asia."

A Whitehall source is said to have added: 'We can either start working as hard as the Chinese, or we'll all soon be working for the Chinese.' I wonder whether that was our old friend Dominic Cummings? It sounds like it to me.

I'm no fan of Gove's, as you may have gathered, but I don't have a problem with the idea of restructuring the school year to minimise the disruption to children's learning caused by breaks of unequal length - a topic that has been debated many times over the last few decades. Whether longer school days lead to improved learning is much more controversial. More is not necessarily better. Vague references to Asian children's progress and attainment don't convince, especially in the absence of any consideration of the social and psychological effects of hothouse education on the children themselves.

As far as I can tell, Gove isn't about to impose longer school days and shorter holidays, just suggesting that schools could consider doing so. Academies and free schools have this freedom now but are not choosing to use it. The whole furious debate on Radio 2 seems to have been a complete red herring, as I guessed at the time of hearing it.

The main aspect of Gove's yet to be published speech that annoyed me - if he said it - is the suggestion that one of the main drivers for the changes is making life easier for working parents. That seems to me to be the worst possible reason for change, since it relegates education to the status of child minding. In that case, teachers would become the best paid carers in the country - but Gove shouldn't expect improved test results as a consequence.

More light and less heat would be very welcome.

Tues April 2nd 2013 - Performance related pay - the issues for governors:-
Performance related pay - the issues for governors

The main teachers' unions are very upset with Michael Gove and Michael Wilshaw - and about the introduction of performance related pay for all teachers from September. Governors might be wondering what all the fuss is about.

Teacher appraisal isn't new. It's been a part of school life since 1991, with changes implemented in 2001 and 2007. From September 2012 appraisal and capability procedures were linked for the first time. For a very readable overview, download "Knowing Your School: Governors and staff performance" from this website (Downloads).In its last report (2012), the School Teachers' Review Body (STRB) recommended the extension of performance related pay to all teachers on the main scale - not just those who have moved beyond the threshold. This is what the STRB recommended and Michael Gove accepted in full:

  • Retention of a broad national framework, including the higher pay bands for London and Fringe areas and an Upper Pay Scale as a career path for experienced teachers who had made a wider contribution in the school.
  • Replacement of teachers' annual pay increments based on length of service by differentiated progression through the Main Pay Scale to reward excellence and performance improvement.
  • Extension to all teachers of pay progression linked to performance based on annual appraisals against a single set of teacher standards and individual objectives, with a strong emphasis on professional development.
  • Abolition of mandatory pay points within the pay scales for classroom teachers, to enable schools to make individual pay decisions with pay points remaining in place for reference only in the Main Pay Scale to guide career expectations for entrants to the profession.
  • Replacement of the threshold test for progression from the Main to the Upper Pay Scale, with simple criteria based on one set of teacher standards. That would create a consistent progression path from graduate entry to the top of the Upper Pay Scale and allow schools to promote the 'best' teachers more rapidly.
  • Local flexibility for schools to create posts paying salaries above the Upper Pay Scale, enabling some of the 'very best' teachers to remain in the classroom and lead the improvement of teaching skills.
  • More discretion for schools in the use of allowances for recruitment and retention and freedom to pay fixed-term responsibility allowances of up to £2,500 a year for time-limited projects.
  • Reinforcement of the responsibility of head teachers to manage staff and resources and of governing bodies to hold school leaders to account for managing and rewarding the performance of teachers in the interests of pupils.
  • A much simplified School Teachers' Pay and Conditions Document, including a brief guide to the national framework and the flexibilities open to schools.

What issues does this present for governors?

The changes increase the responsibility of governors, senior and middle leaders for making and justifying decisions on the pay of individual teachers. Before September 2013 schools will need to adopt revised policies on recruitment, pay, appraisal, professional development and other related matters. Model policies may be made available by HR service providers.

Performance related pay will have implications for the school budget over time. The precise implications will depend on the nature of each school and its staffing profile. Similarly, whether the changes are seen as threats or opportunities will depend on the nature and attitude of the staff of each individual school. Performance related pay must be linked closely to whole school improvement plans and fair access to continuing professional development opportunities.

Ensuring consistency between the judgements of different appraisers will be a significant challenge and is key to the credibility of the system. A fair and transparent appeals process will be essential. Pay is just one of the factors that influence teacher performance and may not be the most important. Schools need to take account of the other drivers that affect teachers' behaviour and ensure that a variety of incentives are in place, not just those of a monetary kind.

One of the main concerns of the headteacher unions is that governors may not be up to the job. The STRB is clear about the challenges:

"It is already obligatory for governing bodies to agree a school pay policy and they should ensure they are competent to consider the implications of pay decisions taken at school level. They may wish to consider steps to ensure they have access to independent expert advice, e.g. by collaboration with other local governing bodies; by ensuring that at least one member has experience of remuneration management from their professional background; or by buying in remuneration advice. This will ensure teachers and the wider public have confidence that decisions on pay reflect a teacher's contribution and that finite resources are used effectively."

To order an online eBook with a much more detailed analysis and with many useful resources to aid the implementation of the new policy, visit

Tues March 19th 2013 - Bunker mentality:-
Bunker mentality

The bunker, midnight. Enter Sir Michael of Ofsted, sweatily...

Michael: Great news, Mein

Michael: Oh, yes, Michael? Pray tell.

Michael: More schools are failing than ever before! plan is working!

Michael: Indeed, Michael. We must limit success if it is to be truly valued.

Michael: And I've told off all those useless governors who waste their time worrying about horsemeat in children's lunches instead of forcing their schools into becoming academies. Bloody amateurs!

Michael: Good work, Michael. My plans to force thousands more failing schools to become academies have moved up another gear.

Michael: How so, Michael?

Michael: By taking a leaf out of your book, Michael, and making it harder to succeed and easier to fail. I can't pass a floor standard without wanting to raise it.

Michael: I know, I know. Me, too. I hate those schools that are doing OK. How dare they?

Michael: Want to know what the problem is? I'll tell you. Teachers. And heads. Especially the qualified ones. Bloody professionals!

Michael: Bastards!

Michael: Exactly. What this country needs at this difficult time, which is all Labour's fault, by the way...

Michael: Oh, I know, I know...

Michael: more unqualified people in professional roles, like in Free Schools and academies. You may find this hard to believe, Michael, but before I became Secretary of State for Education I knew nothing about the subject!

Michael: And look what a...

Michael: Never met a teacher, never visited a school...and they smell awful, apparently, the Council ones, especially in east Durham. No idea why. I've never been there.

Michael; So...the problem with schools is that they're run by professionals?

Michael; Precisely! They're all part of the Trotskyist conspiracy against my brilliant plans!

Michael: (uncertain) So...we should replace all the professionals with untrained amateurs?

Michael: Oh do keep up, you thicko! What school did you go to? I bet it was a bloody comp! Of course! It's exactly the same as you've been saying about governors.

Michael: (Nervously) Actually, my liege, I wasn't saying that, exactly...

Michael: Weren't you? I thought you were.

Michael: No, no. What I said was that we need more professional people doing the amateur work of governors.

Michael: That's bollocks!

Michael: Is it?

Michael: Isn't it?

Michael: I don't know, I don't know...I get so confused these days. It's all these appearances before parliament and these U-turns they force me to do. They distract me so much from my vital, vital crusade to turn every school into an academy.

Michael: How's that going, by the way?

Michael: Oh, brilliantly, brilliantly. Really well. Yes, great. Nearly 13% of all schools are now academies. At this rate it will only take till 2030 before they're all academies.

Michael: And they're all fantastically successful, of course, aren't they?

Michael: Well, you should know, Michael - you're the chief inspector.

Michael: Am I? I am! Sorry - like you, I'm so focused on my next job that I lose touch with the one I'm supposed to be doing.

Michael: (impatiently) I do so love our little chats, Michael, but to business, to business...

Michael: Yes, my lord?

Michael: By the way, Michael, how come you're a sir and I'm not? Don't answer that. Anyway, we have a problem. Well, not so much a problem as...

Michael: A challenge? An exciting opportunity?

Michael: It's OK, Michael, you can drop the political correctness - no-one's listening.

Dominic Cummings and Henry de Zoete: (from behind the arras) We are, master!

Michael: Oh, shut the fudge up, you two. You've already landed me in enough hot water to keep me in baths for the next ten years. AND STOP BLOODY TWEETING!

Cummings: Yes, Henry, stop bloody tweeting.

De Zoete: You first.

Michael: Go away - NOW!

Cummings and de Zoete: Yes, your Highness. (They stay)

Michael: You were saying?

Michael: Oh, yes. Apparently - and this is all Labour's fault, of course...

Michael: Of course.

Michael: ...there aren't enough school places for all the bloody oiks the unemployed keep podding out and they're all so fat we need twice the space for them as before. What can we do?

Michael: Easy-peasy, Mr Secretary. Take a tip from Duncan Smith.

Michael: Sorry? I'm not getting this.

Michael: The bedroom tax? Or whatever euphemism DC's come up with this week.

Michael: Go on...

Michael: There's loads of spare desks in all those wonderfully popular free schools you've wast...dedicated so much money to, aren't there?

Michael: (nods)

Michael: So we tell all the schools with one or more spare rooms that we're cutting their funding or they have to move to a smaller place or both. They can't afford to stay so they fill up all the spaces in the free schools. Simples!

Michael: Michael, I've said this before but I'm saying it again, you're truly some kind of genius.

Michael: I think that, too! Coincidence?


Tues March 5th 2013 - Dash it all, Sir Michael!:-
Dash it all, Sir Michael!

In his recent speech* to the right of centre Policy Exchange, the head of Ofsted had quite a lot to say about school governors. As usual, it was mainly negative, insulting, ill-informed and lacking in any practical detail.

As evidence of the need to do something to improve governance he quoted from six recent Ofsted reports, including these comments:

  • 'The governing body has not paid enough attention to ensuring that the Pupil Premium funding is used effectively to improve the achievement of those students eligible for support.'
  • 'Performance management systems have not been scrutinised closely enough by governors.'
  • 'In recent years members of the governing body have been too accepting of the school's view of its performance. Until the local authority intervened they were unaware that pupils' achievements and the quality of teaching were inadequate.'
  • 'For too long [governors] have not had enough information to enable them to monitor patterns in pupils' achievement, oversee improvements in teaching or make confident decisions on salary progression.'

Let's look at each of these in turn.

The requirement to scrutinise Pupil Premium spending was introduced in September last year, long after the Pupil Premium was introduced. It's not clear that most heads had been monitoring that spending closely, since it all goes into one big budget pot. Where governors have not scrutinised the spending sufficiently it may well be that the head is at least partially culpable, too. This does not in itself suggest any long-established weakness in the school's governance.

Similarly, for many years governors have been directly responsible only for the head's performance management process. They were told "hands off" in relation to teachers' performance management. Also, last September the DfE removed the requirement for the head to report annually to governors on how performance management was working in their school (getting rid of more red tape, of course), so how exactly are governors meant to scrutinise performance management systems? This is a failing of government, not governance.

In the third case, Wilshaw inadvertently shows up another problem created by the government who put him in his job - the decline of the local authority. Without external evaluation and advice no governing body can be sure of its judgements, especially where a powerful head (such as Wilshaw was) insists that everything is wonderful and fails to share any contradictory evidence with governors. It looks likely that more and more academy governing bodies will be starved of the full details of school performance in the absence of any external evaluation apart from Ofsted visits.

If governors "have not had enough information to enable them to monitor patterns in pupils' achievement, oversee improvements in teaching or make confident decisions on salary progression", is it their fault? Who should have provided the information? Again, it's the headteacher who should be the subject of criticism, not the governing body.

On the basis of these flimsy examples, Wilshaw makes some sweeping and insulting assertions about governance:

"So let's be clear - poor governance focuses on the marginal issues and not the important ones. In other words, too much time spent looking at the quality of school lunches, and not enough on attainment in maths and English... In the worst cases, I'm afraid, governors can be rather like the jury that was dismissed from a high-profile trial last week: ill-informed and not able to make good decisions."

As many other commentators have pointed out, in a body of 300,000 volunteer governors, it is inevitable that a proportion may not be up to the job. Wilshaw could and should have based his arguments on hard evidence not just six random cases, four of which do not prove his case. Like his predecessor Chris Woodhead, he is fast becoming the living embodiment of the opposite of everything an inspection regime should practice.

His proposed solutions to the "problem" are equally vague and weak:

"Firstly, we need a more professional approach in some governing bodies, especially in our most challenging schools, often serving the most deprived communities. It is not good enough, and often too late, to introduce professionalism into school governance when a school fails. The first sign of decline should trigger intervention by the local authority, academy sponsor or the Department for Education with additional professional appointments being made."

What is this first sign of decline? What form of intervention and by which of those three bodies? How does this sit with autonomy? What does the phrase "introduce professionalism" mean? No answer, no detail.

"I have said it before and I will say it again, we should not rule out payment to governors with the necessary expertise to challenge and support schools with a long legacy of underperformance."

Yes, you have said it before and you've now had plenty of time to think about how exactly it would work. But you have nothing new to tell us. Which governors should be paid? How much? How often? From which budget? What if they don't improve? Oh, and by the way, it's already happening. Governors on Interim Executive Boards (IEBs) can and often are paid. Has Ofsted reviewed the effectiveness of IEBs and assessed the impact of paid governance? Of course not. Facts can be so inconvenient.

"Secondly, given the increasing complexity of school organisation, we need to make sure governors are given the appropriate training... With the spread of academies and the reduction of local authority funding, we have to ask whether the right structures are in place to support governor training."

Spot on, Sir Michael. It's not enough to ask the question, though - what's your answer? During the short lifespan of the Coalition government that appointed you, support and training for governors has declined very dramatically as yearly cuts to LA budgets for governor training have hacked away at provision. Governor training has always been run on a shoestring with no ring-fenced funding and has never been made compulsory despite 20 years' worth of appeals to make it so. What do you think is going to change now? The fact is there is less training than ever before when it is needed most.

The one area in which Wilshaw has done something positive is in the introduction of the data dashboard for parents and governors. This would have been in place for three years now had the Coalition government not been elected, since it was under development by the outgoing Labour government. Still, better late than never. But you might have mentioned this fact, Michael.

Finally he can't resist having another pop at local authorities: "since 2007, nearly half of local authorities have not put any Interim Executive Boards in place, and 70 LAs had not issued a single warning notice."

He doesn't ask why this might be nor whether there is clear evidence of the effectiveness of IEBs. It's worth reminding ourselves of what Wilshaw said in his most recent annual report:

  • Schools in England have improved considerably over the last decade... Seventy per cent of all schools are now good or better compared with 64% five years ago.
  • Standards are rising steadily.
  • Inadequate schools are being transformed successfully.
  • Some schools achieve very well despite challenging circumstances.
  • Sponsor-led academies can make a positive difference.
  • School management is generally efficient... although accountability is not yet as prominent as it should be.

Might his own evidence suggest a reason why there haven't been more IEBs? Schools and governors aren't half as bad as Wilshaw likes to claim. But also putting in an IEB is meant to be the final resort and can only be done by an LA with the Secretary of State's blessing. Setting up an IEB is expensive, time-consuming and the membership is often dependent upon high quality LA officers, many of whom have been made redundant because of government cuts, and those who are left are pulled in many competing directions. And there's no provision for an IEB to be established in an academy with failing governance. Oh, sorry, such an occurrence is simply not possible, of course.

Overall, then, Wilshaw's speech just about scrapes a Grade 3 - requires improvement. No, hang on, we're meant to be more rigorous, aren't we? Inadequate, then. Time for a new Chief Inspector.

*Sir Michael Wilshaw - Creating a step change in school accountability: Equipping parents and governors with the information needed to assess school performance

Weds February 27th 2013 - Challenge and support... or support and challenge?:-
Challenge and support... or support and challenge?

A few years ago the word order was different - support came before challenge. Now all the emphasis, especially from Ofsted, is on the c-word. It's hard to disagree that that's where the emphasis should be but there's a danger that governors could neglect the support side of the balance.

But what does it mean in practice? How are governors meant to support their school these days? Schools are under greater pressure and scrutiny than ever before in a world in which the old certainties are being shredded. Teacher morale is very low. A national funding formula is creating losers as well as winners and school budgets are at standstill, at best. Government education policy moves at a furious pace, often unravelling as it goes, adding to the confusion and sense of remorseless change.

Your school is bigger than the staff, the head, the children and the governors, but all those people matter and potentially need and deserve our support. That could be taken to mean that governors should be in school more, helping out, fund raising and hearing children reading. Whilst some staff, parents and governors might see this as a clear sign of the governors doing their job, they are mistaken.

Governors can and should support their school in a number of ways.

First, they should be very clear about where the school is headed and what sort of school they want it to be in the future, then do all they can to make sure the head and staff help them achieve that vision.

Second, they need to be good at what they do. That means being clear about their role and how it differs from the head's and keeping their own performance under review. Individuals need to be diligent, reliable and committed, with the chair of governors harnessing the collective talent and effort of the team.

Third, they need to reward and praise staff when praise is due. But occasionally the best support they can give is in dealing with difficult staffing issues in the best interests of the children.

Fourth, they can provide a two-way communication channel between parents and community and the school. This can include dealing effectively and promptly with complaints*, helping to market the school and tackling any problems in school-community relations at an early stage.

Fifth, through the chair, they can offer a listening ear to the head, enabling the testing out of ideas in a safe space.

Sixth, they can encourage an outward-looking attitude by working closely with other schools and governors in the area, promoting collaboration alongside the inescapable competition.

So, should governors never be seen in school?

No - governors will never understand their school unless they see it in action. Governors are not meant to be educational experts even though expectations of them have risen steadily over decades. An old definition of the function of governors deserves to be dusted off - "a body of local people to represent the public's interest in the school", bringing "the precious light of ordinariness" to schools.

If this sounds a little twee and out of tune with more demanding times, consider the Mid Staffordshire NHS scandal. All the statistics showed the hospital to be meeting its targets. Yet patients were dying from neglect on the wards. Where were the trustees and governors? If they'd gone into the hospital and walked around, seeing what was going on, "the precious light of ordinariness" might have shone on the terrible tragedies and the "body of local people" might have pointed out what was obviously going horribly wrong...

*see the latest video in which Stephen Adamson and David Marriott talk to each other about the sort of complaints that school governors may have to deal with and the best ways of doing so.

Weds February 20th 2013 - How many SPADS does it take to change a lightbulb?:-
How many SPADS does it take to change a lightbulb?

It seems that education policy in England is made by just three people, in practice - Michael Gove and his two special advisers (or SPADS), Dominic Cummings and Henry de Zoete. And by far the most influential is Dominic Cummings, a man even the disgraced Andy Coulson regarded as a liability. Coulson believed that three months before the Coalition was formed, when Cameron, George Osborne and Gove held private discussions in Notting Hill over failures of Conservative policy, Cummings had leaked details of the meeting.

In the words of the Financial Times's Alex Barker in January 2011, "On the day the coalition was formed, Michael Gove entered Downing Street with his consigliere Dominic Cummings. Only one of them left with a job. It was one of the clearest demonstrations of Andy Coulson's power. On Coulson's advice, David Cameron offered Gove the position of education secretary on the condition that he sacked Cummings. Gove did not take it well."

With Coulson out of the way, Gove was free to reinstate his ideological right-hand man. Gove later said of his SPADs: "Above all I'm grateful to members of a much-maligned tribe: my two special advisers, Henry de Zoete and Dominic Cummings. They are the real heroes of reform. I am just the front man." It looks as if he's not joking.

Like me you may be wondering what Cummings looks like. His face never appears alongside any article about education.

Here he is:-

Picture of Dominic CummingsWho the hell is he?

He says of himself: 'Dominic Cummings was born and educated in Durham. He took a First in Ancient and Modern History from Oxford in 1994. He worked in Moscow and Samara."

According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, before entering politics Cummings worked briefly in journalism and was brought in at one time to kick-start the Spectator website. One of Cummings's first moves was to publish forbidden cartoons of the prophet Mohammed. His bold initiative must have impressed, today he is engaged to the Spectator's deputy-editor Mary Wakefield.

Cummings holds ideological credentials Gove values: campaign director of the 1999 anti-euro campaign, setting up the campaign for a referendum on the EU constitution, establishing the New Frontiers Foundation which pushed for an alternative to Britain's partnership with the EU.

Cummings finally took up the £69,266 a year special adviser role under Gove not long after Coulson left No 10, embroiled in the News of the World phone-hacking scandal. Given Cummings's subsequent behaviour, it looks as though Coulson was right about him.

Cummings prefers to work in the shadows but is increasingly finding himself in the spotlight.

Before joining the DfE emails from Cummings revealed that he had urged the department to find a way to fast track money to the New Schools Network (NSN), which promoted Free schools and academies. Cummings later went on to work for NSN, first as a volunteer and then as a paid freelancer from July to December 2010. He received one of the four parliamentary passes that Gove, as a minister, is allowed to issue, from August 2010. The passes provide unrestricted access to parliament and holders are also allowed to escort up to six guests into the houses of parliament. Cummings breached parliamentary rules by failing to register his employment at NSN while holding a parliamentary pass.

The Guardian alleged that Cummings told a senior civil servant, 'NSN [New Schools Network] is not giving out to you, the media or anybody else any figure on 'expressions of interest' [from people wishing to set up free schools] for PQs [parliamentary questions], FOIs [Freedom of Information requests] or anything else. Further, NSN has not, is not, and will never answer a single FOI request made to us concerning anything at all.'

In September 2011 the Financial Times reported leaked emails showing Mr Cummings urging colleagues to use their gmail accounts rather than official departmental emails. The implication was that this approach was used to conceal government business and information from public and civil service scrutiny.

The Governor recently shared stories about Dominic Cummings and Henry de Zoete who "were believed by senior Tories to be running an anonymous Twitter feed called @toryeducation, which pumps out political propaganda and smears journalists and any others who raise questions about the wisdom of Gove's policies." So far the list of those attacked in the crudest and most personal terms includes Toby Helm, Suzanne Moore, Alastair Campbell, Michael Rosen, Tim Loughton and Chris Cook. Unsurprisingly, so far Cummings has not answered the direct question as to who wrote the Twitter comments.

It also came as no surprise to learn that the charming and courteous Michael Gove - who under the ministerial and special advisers' codes is responsible for the behaviour of his Spads - denied knowledge of any allegations of misconduct during an appearance before the education select committee.

James Cusick, writing in The Independent on Friday 15 February 2013, said:

"The conduct of Cummings...has been criticised after episodes that have contributed to (DfE) staff simply walking from their jobs. Two separate Fleet Street editors are alleged recently to have told Gove that he should end Cummings' reign as a special adviser for the good of the party. Gove dismissed the advice as misplaced.

...the director who carried out the internal report (into a disciplinary case involving Cummings) said "the department handled the situation in a regrettable way". The report...(saw) Cummings singled out as "widely known to use obscene and intimidating language". The complainant referred to Gove having created a culture of "untouchable entitlement" surrounding the Spads, with the belief that "their behaviour is not open to challenge".

Would you want this man on your governing body - or anywhere within 100 miles of your school?

And would you trust a Secretary of State who gave so much power to someone like Cummings, whose salary we pay - unelected, unaccountable and out of control?

Tues February 12th 2013 - Gove's bad hair week:-
Gove's bad hair week

Almost as soon as I posted the last lead article "I'm worried about Michael..." this charming man executed a pirouette and crunched his gears into reverse over the EBC. Nothing to do with my article, sadly...

He told BBC's The World at One that he'd been "too ambitious" - not just plain pig-headed and wrong, of course.

It is quite a feat to unite so many disparate parts of what he calls "the blob" - the education establishment - by pursuing a plainly stupid policy in the face of all logical and practical arguments. Let's not forget that his first murmurings about changing GCSEs were actually a thinly disguised bid for the Tory leadership - absolutely nothing to do with education. He achieved 24 hours of support from the papers he loves to court but very quickly had to climb down over the idea of going back to O levels and CSEs. Being Michael, though, he couldn't just let things lie and so pursued his predictably disastrous EBC idea despite its obvious major flaws.

Somehow, he still managed to get a reasonably positive press over his climbdown, even from the left-leaning papers. The general view seemed to be, well, at least he admitted he got it wrong and stopped doing it.

But why was he doing it in the first place? And why did it take the possibility of exam boards suing the government, rather than all the other educational arguments against the policy to get the man to take his foot off the gas at last?

I just don't get it.

It's obvious that he has had no experience of education beyond attending school himself and his only notable previous career was as a journalist for a Murdoch rag (and Murdoch remains one of his biggest fans, along with Nigel Farage). He's never run any organisation, let alone a major department of state. Some seem to feel that this is acceptable and explains and excuses his behaviour: how could any reasonable person expect anything different from someone with such a limited skill-set?

But aren't politicians meant to be good at "the art of the possible"? How could he not have seen what a disastrous policy he was pursuing when so many people and organisations were telling him he was wrong? He's reputedly very intelligent - but he seems to have no common sense or basic political nous.

Maybe he's like the other Michael, the one who runs Ofsted, notorious for his comment that low morale in a staff room is a sure sign that a head's doing a great job. For Gove, maybe 100% opposition means he must be right. What a bizarre alternative reality this must be.

As for the generally easy time the media give him, a comment by "Portsmouthbubblejet" in response to a piece by Nick Cohen on the thuggish advisers Gove employs offers a believable explanation:

"It's too easy to say that print journalists still perceive Gove to be "one of their own", someone who proves that their profession could turn their hand to just about anything in life and make a success of it. (Gove's only qualification for being Secretary of State for Education is that he used to be a child.) But it's been noticeable that the praise that Gove has received in the past has centred largely on journalistic virtues. He's a future leader of the Conservative Party, it appears, because he constantly generates headlines, giving the impression of activity while failing to grasp that a half-formed idea that would be forgotten next day if it appeared in The Times has a massive impact on children's lives when you are Secretary of State for Education. And Nick Cohen's admiring comments here about Gove being "well-read and a good writer" are important to journalists, but completely irrelevant to parents, teachers and pupils alike. What matters to the public is the impact that his policies have on civic society - which Cohen hardly deigns to mention.... Look at Gove's policies. Then report on the impact of the policies."

I don't see any sign of Gove having learned anything from this debacle. Another aspect of his supposed charm is that he leads a charmed life. It seems that only those with greater power than his - Downing Street, the courts - can curtail his worst and most disastrous adventures with the nation's education system. There's a great deal of damage he can still do before they are forced to intervene again.

Weds February 6th 2013 - I'm worried about Michael...:-
I'm worried about Michael...

Who do you think said/wrote the following?

"(He) opposed transparency on child protection and sided with those all over the country who want to maintain a culture of secrecy... strongly opposed Gove, special advisers, and officials... His approach to child protection... was disgraceful. (He) spent his time pandering to pressure groups so they would praise him on Twitter. (He) was a lazy incompetent narcissist obsessed only with self-promotion."

"Take a Twitter detox because it's melting your brains, focus on what's important, stop behaving like eight-year-olds..."

Both comments emanated from the Department for Education recently. The first was from an anonymous 'senior DfE source', the second from Dominic Cummings, special adviser to the Secretary of State. The first one was about MP Tim Loughton who was moved from the DfE in the last reshuffle and went on to talk about how Gove had downgraded children and families in departmental priorities. The second was directed at The Observer's Toby Helm and the Financial Times' Chris Cook, who had written articles critical of government education policy.

I've got used to reading about how courteous and charming Michael Gove is. I saw him once, on stage at a pre-election education debate. He was courteous to fellow speakers (including Ed Balls and the thief-of-taxpayers-money David Laws) and amusing. It's an act, I'm sure, because it's totally at odds with the rudeness and viciousness with which he talks about his opponents. He has the politician's dubious ability to be disarming, making it much easier to stab people when their guard is down. But depending on who it is, he sometimes dispenses with the charm altogether.

Let's not forget that Mr Justice Holman said this of Gove's actions over the scrapping of the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) initiative "In my view, the way in which the secretary of state abruptly stopped the projects ... without any prior consultation... must be characterised as being so unfair as to amount to an abuse of power." This charming man...

It glanced off Gove's charming Teflon-skin.

The sacked Tim Loughton MP referred in his evidence to a parliamentary committee to his charming ex-boss's frequent 'soliloquies' - as opposed to the debates on education policy he expected to participate in.

Mr Charm-Itself described as 'Trots' ordinary people - parents and governors - objecting to his despotic takeover of Downhills primary school.

He talked about some governors in these terms:

"Local worthies who see being a governor as a badge of status not a job of work. Discussions that ramble on about peripheral issues, influenced by fads and anecdote, not facts and analysis. A failure to be rigorous about performance. A failure to challenge heads forensically and also, when heads are doing a good job, support them authoritatively."

In another speech he attacked more of his enemies:

  • Teaching union leaders who deny there is any such thing as a bad teacher who needs to go - and so hold back freedom and recognition for those good teachers who deserve our praise and promotion.
  • Subject association leaders - like the man in charge of the National Association for Teaching English - who argue that it is oppressive to teach children grammar.
  • Professional leaders - in the unions and elsewhere - who object to being held to account objectively for getting children to learn.
  • Union leaders who object to poor schools getting help from those with a track record of excellence because it offends their ideology.
Good knockabout stuff? Easy when you're winning and the targets are so soft.

Recently evidence has been piling up that his policies, such as those on school sport, school food standards and the reform of the National Curriculum are falling apart at the seams. A case in point is the Ebacc and scrapping of GCSEs. Not only has Wales decided not to go along with the vandalism but an all-party parliamentary committee has systematically undermined every argument Gove was able to muster in support of his knee-jerk 'reforms'. The committee is chaired by a fellow Tory. Probably another Trot, under the skin.

The charming Education Secretary (following the lead of one D. Cameron) has roundly insulted the civil servants on whom he depends to enact his policies, accusing them of being obstacles to progress and plans to sack up to 25% of those working in his department. Last year he ran out of money for his beloved academy project and had to find a cool billion extra.

Another year on and the only credible evidence of success in academies is seen in those set up under the previous administration. More and more schools will be forced into academy status in order for the numbers to start to look more positive. What in 'The Wire' they call 'jukin' the stats'.

I'm worried about Michael. He's losing it, isn't he?

He may be able to maintain his charm offensive for a while longer but his shrinking band of disciples is becoming more desperate and abusive to anyone daring to suggest that maybe all is not well in the DfE.

For more detail, see the latest documents under the Government Policy section on the downloads page.

Tues January 29th 2013 - I blame the scapegoats:-
I blame the scapegoats

John O'Farrell coined this handy phrase for one of his excellent books and it often occurs to me when reading about education policy.

A classic example of this happening is when I recently read a short article describing Ofsted's latest campaign against local authorities. In his first annual report, Chief Inspector Michael Wilshaw identified discrepancies in school performance according to local authority areas and published a league table to name and shame the worst offenders. That the best performing LA (Camden) has resisted the government's favoured method for raising standards - mass academisation - failed to dent his enthusiasm for the policy should come as no surprise to Wilshaw-watchers.

But isn't it a bit rich to be blaming local authorities in this late stage of their emasculation?

The restriction of the influence of local authorities over the schools in their area began with Local Management of Schools back in the 1980s and has continued ever since. Most recently, of course, the Blair and Brown governments promoted the notion of "intervention in inverse proportion to success" and introduced sponsored academies and the School Improvement Partner, telling LAs that their job was to commission rather than provide services for schools, including school improvement.

The Coalition's continuing slash and burn approach to LA funding and capacity has led to the disappearance of school improvement teams in many areas, with some larger authorities just about hanging on to a few key officers until the next round of savage cuts. Although LAs have some statutory responsibilities for the quality of education in their schools, they lack the means to fulfil them, as a direct result of government policy.

At the same time, their use of abrasive and prejudiced language of "setting academies free from LA control" leaves no room for nuance: the government pursues a "four legs good, two legs bad" ideology. They want all schools to become academies. It's all about autonomy because autonomy is good for you. And if bad schools are too stupid to seize autonomy for themselves, then autonomy will be thrust upon them, whether they like it or not.

Academies are supposed to seek out and support weaker schools, to help them improve, but all the evidence shows that few, if any, actually do this and the government turns a blind, indulgent eye.

So when Wilshaw sends his storm troopers into places like Derby and berates the local authority for failing in its duty to improve standards, will he bother to find out if there's anyone another than one man and his dog left at the Town Hall? And will he also castigate any academies in the area for their abject failure to carry out their legal responsibility to support failing schools?

Of course not. Wilshaw, like his puppet master Gove, blames the scapegoats.

The Ministry of Truth

George Orwell is being celebrated on Radio 4 at the moment so he's very much on my mind. I caught a bit of "Animal Farm" the other day and realised how much Michael Gove reminds me of Squealer, the pig-master of propaganda. The DfE's biased and misleading interpretation of the latest statistics on secondary school performance also put me in mind of "1984" and those Ministries whose names meant the exact opposite of their real purpose.

I'm old enough to remember a time when government departments published reasonably objective information for their citizens but the propagandist rot set in with Blair and Campbell. What were formerly straightforward education guidance documents started to become infused with political rhetoric and facts obscured or ignored if they didn't suit the political message. It's got much worse since then.

The DfE's statement about secondary school results includes the following:

"Secondary school performance statistics published today reveal how Government reforms are raising standards across the board. They show how introducing tougher floor standards, giving greater freedom to heads and teachers, accelerating the academy programme, the Pupil Premium, and encouraging take-up of key academic subjects is (sic!) driving improvement in education."

Any educated reader is bound to respond with "Oh, really? How very convenient for Michael Gove" and ask for the evidence to support such outrageous claims.

Let's take a look:

"The figures... show how academy sponsors are dramatically turning around the under-performing schools they take over. The secondary school performance tables show that standards are rising in sponsored academies at a record rate; and more than five times as quickly than in all state-funded schools. Across all state-funded schools, the proportion of pupils who achieved at least five good GCSEs (including in English and maths) rose by 0.6 percentage points. In sponsored academies, the increase was 3.1 percentage points."

Let's put this in context. According to the Academies Commission:

"Of... 2456 (secondary academies), 536 are sponsored, meaning that over three quarters are 'converter' academies...This is important to note, as much public commentary continues to focus exclusively on sponsored academies, albeit they now comprise only a small fraction of the total... Certainly some... have demonstrated stunning success, but this is not common... Results in 2011 for pupils in sponsored academies were broadly the same as in a group of similar, statistically matched, schools. However, if equivalence qualifications are excluded, results in sponsored academies were slightly lower than in a group of similar schools... The clearest improvement in performance can be seen in a small group of 33 sponsored academies open for at least five years... The message here is that change takes time."

As regards this latest statistical release and commentary, Henry Stewart of the Local Schools Network points out that:

"It is technically true that the benchmark GCSE results for academies grew, on average, by 3.1% compared to 0.6% for all state schools. However this is not comparing like-with-like and simply reflects the tendency of results for more successful schools to grow at a slower rate (or fall). It is a gross distortion of the data to claim this as a conclusion from them. This analysis is before including the effect of GCSE equivalents (such as BTECs), the use of which is regarded by Michael Gove as 'gaming'. The benchmark GCSE figure falls by 12% for sponsored academies once these are excluded and by only 6.6% for non-academies. It can be expected, therefore, that the comparison would be still less flattering for academies if the GCSE only figures were used... Converter academies, which were not included in the DfE press release and whose results fell overall, have not been included in this comparison."

Gove is up to his usual tricks. It is truly Orwellian that the man responsible for education is such a manipulator of the truth to suit his own political prejudices.

Tues January 15th 2013 - Academy secrets and lies... and interviews for chairs?:-
Academy secrets and lies... and interviews for chairs?

"The DfE... provided evidence that 40 academies were 'red-rated' in 2011, and eight pre-warning notices were issued to academy sponsors. According to the National Audit Office (2012), at July 2012 the Office of the Schools Commissioner was monitoring the performance of 166 academies, with 30 of these classified as causes for concern. Yet the public remains uninformed about this."

This alarming piece of information lies buried in the recent report of the Academies Commission ("Unleashing Greatness"). The 150 page report is well worth reading in full but if you're pushed for time, just read the Overview which provides a reasonably succinct summary.*

When the report hit the streets just last week, the papers and media focused on the hard-hitting chapter on admissions and the way some academies bend the rules to skew their intake in a more favourable direction. It's understandable that the media took this route, but it didn't do justice to what is both the most comprehensive and balanced picture of the current education landscape and a thought-provoking estimation of the big issues emerging in an increasingly academised system.

The report tends to confirm what many critics have been saying about the dangers of the DfE's headlong rush to make every school an academy: "lack of transparency" (or lies, misinformation and secrecy, to put it more simply); rules bent out of shape to favour academies and free schools and a frightening lack of rigorous accountability. It warns us about a tendency some of us have been writing about for the last few years - "academies are in danger of being regarded by politicians as a panacea for a broad range of educational problems".

It also nails some pervasive myths, most importantly about academies raising standards. There simply is no compelling evidence that the majority (or even a small minority) of academies do so. They may do, in time, but nobody can be sure: "... the Commission notes that almost half of sponsored academies are rated by Ofsted as requiring improvement ('satisfactory' before September 2012) or inadequate (the latter standing at 8% of sponsored academies) (NAO, 2012), raising questions as to the view that the number of academies at high risk regarding performance is 'very small'.... The clearest improvement in performance can be seen in a small group of 33 sponsored academies open for at least five years... The message here is that change takes time."

A weakness of the report - and a serious one - is that it has little to say about the financing of the academies project as a whole beyond an excellent chapter on the financial accountability of individual academies. Since the report is predicated on an assumption that the vast majority of schools will become academies (over an unspecified timescale), it begs the question whether this is a likely or possible outcome.

We know from the Audit Commission that it is likely that by 2015 25% of schools will be academies. At the same rate, it will therefore take until 2030 for all schools to be "academised". There will be at least 3 general elections during that time.

The academies project is costing a huge amount of taxpayers' money. Spending on academies increased by 190.8% and on free schools by 1,121% in 2011-2012 alone, according to an analysis in The Guardian. The DfE had to find an unbudgeted-for extra £1 billion during that year to cope with academy expansion. This is obviously unsustainable. A cynic might question whether the government really wants full academisation or whether it is deliberately creating a favoured sector of academies within the overall state school system knowing that the project can never be achieved in full - a two-tier system.

The chapter on academy governance should be compulsory reading for all school governors since it raises some universal issues. However, many of the recommendations are, frankly, pie in the sky: "the process for appointing chairs of governing bodies should become more professional and rigorous, in order to ensure high-calibre appointees. Chairs' posts should be advertised, as is widely the case with other public sector Board roles, and schools should be expected to have at least one independent person on the selection panel for a new Chair. All chairs should have to meet explicit criteria around (a) understanding of the role and responsibilities; (b) preparedness to engage in continuing professional development; and (c) ability to challenge the headteacher when necessary. In addition, any new Chair should be expected to undertake formal training within six months of being appointed."

The three main authors of the document are experienced and respected educationalists but I wonder how many of them have ever served as a governor in a real school? If they had they would see the foolishness of their proposal - few governors relish the prospect of chairing the governing body and even fewer have the time and commitment to do it full justice. The prospect of having to undergo an interview for the privilege of taking on a thankless and financially unrewarded job would reduce the number of candidates to virtually zero.

*Subscribers to my document summary and commentary service can access my latest addition on this document. The full report can be found on the downloads page, under Academies.

Thurs January 3rd 2013 - New Year honours:-
New Year honours

Almost three-quarters of those honoured in the latest New Year's honours list are ordinary people who have made a notable contribution to their community, often without recognition. Amongst the 526 people in that category, just 5 school governors received recognition, according to a list published on the DfE's website.

In the White Paper, The Importance of Teaching, Michael Gove wrote:

School governors are the unsung heroes of our education system... To date, governors have not received the recognition, support or attention that they deserve. We will put that right.

We're still waiting, Michael.

It is baffling that school governors, the largest volunteer force in the country, are invisible to so many people - nationally, in their local authorities and even in their schools. Most people have been to school, so they know what teachers and heads do - even if things have moved on since they sat in a classroom. Few will recall seeing any governors, except, perhaps, on a speech day or other awards ceremony. Who knows what governors are for and what they do?

At school level there are wide variations in the profile of governors. Each governing body has its own priorities and self-publicity is usually way down the list. Some governors are only interested in their own school, not the place of governors in the wider community or on the national stage. A natural modesty can work against their real achievements being celebrated publicly. Isolated governing bodies may not even know when they've achieved something worth celebrating.

So can anything be done to redress the situation?

One very powerful way of drawing the public's attention and increasing their understanding is through storylines in soap operas - whether it be child abuse or domestic violence, for example. Surely there must be school governors in Walford or Coronation Street? There have been stories in The Archers about the Parish Council but, to my knowledge, never anything about the primary and secondary school governing bodies. Sadly, the closest we've ever got is probably in the Vicar of Dibley - not a good advertisement for governors! It's time we saw a good juicy story about governors handling a tricky problem in a soap school. There are plenty of real life examples on which to draw, not least in relation to parental objections to school meals, for example, or segregation of students.

A few years ago somebody wrote and published a murder mystery set in a governing body. It hasn't been televised or made into a film... yet...

The national Teaching Awards used to include an award for the governor of the year, funded by the DfE. That's been dropped. The NGA's governing body of the year award is newer and lacks the resources and media exposure of the Teaching Awards, but is another very positive celebration of governance.

Locally, governing bodies qualifying for Governor Mark can be worthy of media and public attention, but so far only a handful have done so. Governor Service teams often celebrate long standing governors though this can sometimes reward stamina and inertia, rather than inspirational governance.

Closer to home, what can governors do to raise their profile in their own school and community?

  • Many governors have their photographs displayed on school notice boards alongside the staff. A team photograph can help convey the sense that the governors work together and are a friendly bunch.
  • Make sure all key school documents (eg the prospectus) give space to the role and purpose of governors and add a little detail about who they are.
  • Governors can make sure they have a presence at all major school events attended by parents, taking the opportunity to talk to them about what they do.
  • One or more governors could lead a question and answer or training session on their roles and achievements for the head and staff.
  • Governors could be interviewed by young people about who they are and what they do.
  • Governors could attend staff meetings and staff training days.
  • A regular slot in the school newsletter and a presence on the school website can keep governors in parents' view.
  • In addition to the regular feeding of information and stories to the local press about what the children are doing, try to include stories about governors and their work.
  • Opening up governing body meetings to prospective new recruits and parents generally can help raise awareness of what we do.
  • Collaborating with governors in our local cluster to raise our profile can be more effective than all of us working alone.
  • Whilst I would never suggest creating one deliberately, a crisis resulting in a public meeting led by governors can do wonders for bringing us to the immediate attention of our community.

Our role and achievements deserve to be better understood and more widely known. We need to start with ourselves and our own patch. Why not make raising our profile a key area for development over the next twelve months?

Related video:
Have a look at a new video I've added to the videos page in which I talk to Stephen Adamson about ways of giving public recognition to the work and achievements of school governors - and whether governors really want it.
Tues December 4th 2012 - And another thing... :-
And another thing...

In the last lead article (see the News archive), we learned that up to 80% of the DfE's work is focused on just 12% of our schools. We now know from the Audit Commission (which unsurprisingly Michael Gove wants to get rid of) that total expenditure by the DfE on the Academies Programme from April 2010 to March 2012 was £8.3bn, of which £1.0 billion was the estimated additional cost of expanding and operating the Programme. That's right, folks, not only does the DfE spend a massively disproportionate amount on just 12% of the nation's schools, it robbed other school budgets of a further £1 billion because it got the sums wrong. Why aren't the 88% on the march, asking for their money back?

The report "Managing the expansion of the Academies Programme" also refers to "a rapid ten-fold increase in the number of academies since May 2010. This is a significant achievement, although it is too early to conclude on whether this expansion will ultimately deliver value for money."

At the same time, Sir Michael Wilshaw published his first annual report as HMCI, which includes new league tables on a local authority basis. Very inconveniently for both Wilshaw and Gove the tables show that the best LA in the country has very few academies and encourages families of maintained schools to work together to raise standards. As Luca Salice, Chair, Camden chairs' and governors' forum wrote in a letter to the Guardian:

"Camden has now been recognised by Ofsted as having the best outcomes in the country, with 92% of primary-school children attending a school rated good or outstanding. The "Camden model" is based on the recognition that schools thrive not by making themselves independent of the local education authority, but by being part of a "family of schools" that works closely in partnership with the LEA. A partnership that is based on mutual challenge, not on control from the centre.

In Camden there are hardly any academies and free schools. In other words, the Camden model is the antithesis of the worship for schools' independence that has been advocated by successive governments. The same worship of independence that forms the basis of the academy-conversion programme... Camden has not followed the siren calls for greater "freedoms" and independence that have been made over the years by the likes of Tony Blair, Andrew Adonis, David Cameron and Michael Gove. And Camden's children and young people get a better education as a result."

Should we now anticipate a screeching U-turn by the Secretary of State, a man committed to evidence-based policy, it seems?

Incidentally, Private Eye tells us that James O'Shaughnessy, the author of the recent Policy Exchange paper advocating the handing over of failing academies to the private, for-profit education sector has set up a firm, Mayforth Consulting, to act as an "educational entrepreneur"...

Tues November 20th 2012 - 80% of the DfE's work is focused on just 12% of our schools:-
80% of the DfE's work is focused on just 12% of our schools

My recent calculations show that currently academies make up just 12% of all schools (see the Academy Stats page for those calculations).

A recent review of the DfE (The Department for Education Review Report by Chris Wormald, Nov 2012) suggested that "By March 2015 around one-quarter of schools will be Academies or Free Schools if conversion continues at its current rate." This would mean the number of academies would double in the space of 2 years, which seems unlikely, although Gove and Cameron are forcing ever greater numbers of schools down the academy route. As the Prime Minister announced this month:

"Time and time again we have seen how academies, with their freedom to innovate, inspire and raise standards are fuelling aspirations and helping to spread success (NB no evidence given to support this). So now we want to go further, faster, with 400 more under-performing primary schools paired up with a sponsor and either open or well on their way to becoming an academy by the end of next year." This is pretty ambitious, if not foolhardy, since there is still a long way to go before even the original 200 forced conversions are complete, as I know from direct experience.

Bearing in mind that a significant proportion of these academies are answerable to and will be directly managed by the DfE, it is a little disconcerting to read in the review that the numbers of elves in the DfE is to be slashed:

"The... growth of the Academies and Free Schools programmes (has) shifted the balance of our work from strategy creation to delivery, with around 42% of all DfE staff focused on delivery... The review found that around 20% of the Department's current work is strictly mandatory... The other 80% is discretionary and is driven by Ministerial priorities... Of these, the most resource-intensive are the Academies and Free Schools programmes... While there is no formal headcount target this is likely to mean that by 2015 the Department will have fewer than 3,000 posts, around 1,000 fewer than we have now."

Let's just note what we've learned: up to 80% of the DfE's work is focused on just 12% of our schools. That 12% will go up to 25% in two years, when there will be 25% fewer officials to support them. Does that reassure any sensible person about this government's educational policies?

Various eminent critics and commentators have reflected on the DfE's capacity to directly manage academies and free schools, including ex-DfE super-elf Jon Coles: "We can easily foresee a time when that 1,800 could be 18,000 as Academy status becomes the norm nationally. Now, if there's one thing I know about my former colleagues in the Department, it's that they love a challenge. So, I don't deny that they would give the task of holding to account and intervening in 18,000 schools a pretty good go. But in the end, that isn't a sensible job to give anyone." (Jon Coles, the former Director General for School Standards in the DfE and now the chief executive of the United Church Schools Trust and United Learning Trust, quoted in Competition Meets Collaboration by James O'Shaughnessy.)

James, as we know, is a free marketer and enemy of bureaucracy, so he believes that "surely the correct position is that those schools should be made accountable to parents?" Er... they are already, and have been since 1988, James, through their governing bodies.

Tues November 13th 2012 - How many schools are there? Does anyone know for sure?:-
How many schools are there?  Does anyone know for sure?

I've just created a new page for academy statistics which I will update every month - but here's a funny thing. I wanted to find out how many schools there are and assumed it would be easy to find out. Surely the DfE would know. And if they didn't, Ofsted surely must...

The DfE's website says: "There were 24,605 schools in January 2010, a decrease on January 2009 when there were 24,737." As far as I know, it's now November 2012. A direct call to the DfE resulted in an admission that they didn't know how many schools there are now - but gave me a link to some spreadsheets that might help. They did, but the 17 spreadsheets have to be analysed in some detail to find the sort of basic numbers I'm after. And it's all 22 months out of date, being based on the annual return from schools in January 2011. The same census was carried out in January 2012 (wasn't it?) so why haven't the spreadsheets been updated? Is it part of Gove's crusade against unnecessary bureaucracy?

So, I discovered from the out of date spreadsheets that there were 16,884 primary and 3,310 secondary schools (including academies) in January 2011. It may well be my fault but I couldn't find the total number of special schools from the 17 spreadsheets.

I checked with Ofsted. In its annual report for 2010-11, it refers to a total of 21,845 schools - but no further detail was provided. I looked at the Ofsted website which lists schools by category but unfortunately they include schools which have closed and the replacement academy, where relevant, so there's some double counting going on. Checking through the details of over 20,000 schools is not something I have the time or will to do, so I'm still in the dark. However, before my patience was exhausted, I was able to ascertain that there are 838 special schools.

This is a bit of a scandal, isn't it? There's a difference of 2,760 between the headline DfE and Ofsted figures. They can't both be right and I'm not convinced either is correct. Adding together the number of primary and secondary schools in January 2011 and the more recent number of special schools, I calculate there are 21,032 schools in England. But why should I have to do the calculations? Shouldn't basic information like this be upfront on the DFE website? And if the DfE doesn't know this basic information, what faith can we have in their financial calculations and priorities?

Each month the DfE updates and crows about the number of new academies and free schools, providing detailed spreadsheets to substantiate their figures, never putting these numbers in the context of the total number of schools, which they clearly don't know. On the basis of my calculations, academies make up just 10-11% of all schools. There could hardly be a more graphic illustration of the distorted priorities of the present Secretary of State for Education.

Tues November 6th 2012 - MPs talk sense - shock!:-
MPs talk sense - shock!

You may be forgiven for not noticing that there was a debate about school governance in the House of Commons recently. More surprisingly, the participants talked a fair amount of sense, with some noticeable exceptions. (See "MPs debate governance Oct 2012" in the Government Policy section on the Downloads page).

Neil Carmichael was responsible for the debate and good for him, though his "Who governs the governors?" remains the worst ever piece of writing about school governance, beating even the Policy Exchange's frequent barmy flights of fancy.

Inevitably the dead issues of small versus large governing bodies and skills versus representation took up more than their fair share of the debate and Carmichael returned to his mad idea of parents voting (how? Like they do in the X factor?) to replace whole governing bodies (with whom, one might ask?). He's also fond of the idea of an IEB in every school - ignoring the fact that they are often made up of very experienced LA officers who are increasingly being made redundant by the government in which he serves and therefore impossible to replicate on a much wider basis. This has also escaped the attention of Ofsted, so he's not alone in his ignorance. He wants to see governors being paid, with no consideration of where the money would come from or the logistics of doing so.

On the other hand he raises the vital issue of raising the quality of clerking, which most other contributors to the debate ignored, sadly, apart from Tristram Hunt and Andrew Stunell, who referred to them several times as "school clerks", rather missing the essential point that they are clerks to the governing body. Tristram Hunt got it right, though: "To act properly... governors require the right support. They need professional induction training and professional clerking services... that requires greater professionalisation and dedication on the part of governors, it also requires wider respect for that role from the Secretary of State and the Government."

Ian's very pleased with himself in one respect: "I managed to persuade the Education Committee to conduct a full-scale inquiry on school governance... and I am pleased that we have an inquiry under way and that the first evidence session will take place in January." Just what 300,000 governors are crying out for - another inquiry into governance! It'll result in a report saying the same things as the 7 or 8 other reports on governance published in recent years and on which no action has been taken by successive governments.

Ben Bradshaw demonstrated some of the current weaknesses of accountability via an example from his own constituency (Exeter) and praised the excellent work of Devon's governor services team "the very good public servants at Devon county council who were responsible for supporting and training governors". Arguing strongly in favour of compulsory training for governors (predictably rejected by Elizabeth Truss, speaking for the DfE) he said: "I urge her to at least consider the pleas from the very good public servants around the country who support governors and provide governor training."

Tristram Hunt weighed in against Gove's centralising tendencies:

"Since the Education Reform Act 1988 came into force, the Secretary of State has accrued an extra 2,000 powers, including on questions of local school governance. Indeed, the Secretary of State, not Parliament, has almost total de facto control over what schools do, even including the curriculum, thereby subverting the role and contribution of a governing body. There are now often no intermediate bodies or forms of civil society standing between the head teacher and the Secretary of State. That is a recipe for the arbitrary misuse of power-something that the Tory party was originally established to fight against in the late 17th century. Surely good school governance is about respecting local democracy and civic engagement. It is about having the right people round the table with the right composition of skills and a balance of capabilities, and providing effective strategic oversight, not day-to-day management... As the Government's reforms grind on and local education authorities are stripped of their functions, the role and importance of the governor will only grow... The Government-a Conservative Government, of all things-seem concerned with denigrating governors' volunteerism, undermining their capacity and transferring all power to Whitehall functionaries rather than local champions. If we want true governors creating great schools, we should focus on capacity-building, training and raising their esteem."

Kevin Brennan highlighted the dangers of transferring too much autonomy to headteachers: "We have already seen such incidences, whereby powerful head teachers, without mechanisms in place to hold them to account, have been able to misuse public money. In some cases, criminal charges are involved, so we cannot talk much about them here, but I worry, as does my right hon. Friend, about the vacuum of accountability that is developing rapidly as the academies programme proceeds without sufficient thought having been given to the issue of governance."

In responding to these important issues the newly appointed Elizabeth Truss said "I will take up the issues raised with Lord Hill". Not much comfort there for governors - he's done nothing of any note to improve our lot in the last two years. As Kevin Brennan joked during the debate: "Lord Hill might benefit from some assertiveness training for the next time he tries to speak to the Prime Minister and resign, so that he is more successful than on the previous occasion."

Tues October 23rd 2012 - I was shocked!:-
I was shocked!

Poor James O'Shaugnessy, up until very recently one D. Cameron's personal policy wonk, admits that "On leaving government, I have been shocked by the widespread disillusionment among academy leaders with the quality of governing bodies." Ooh er, missus!

Er... how many academy leaders was that, James? No answer.

Apparently, "many" (still no details provided) "have commented that the requirement to have teachers, other staff and parent representatives can inhibit open discussion and make the process of decision making more difficult." Diddums, academy leaders. Head between your knees and deep breaths, James.

James doesn't question why the decision-making process shouldn't be open to debate and disagreement by those with a stake in the school. He doesn't entertain the possibility that those leaders might have an agenda of their own, such as complete and unchallenged autocracy. He may think that that is a good thing but we'll never know, because he's not going to tell us.

But it's not just the many leaders who are saying this, it seems. He's read a report of a survey of some academy leaders - I wonder whether they were the same ones he mentioned earlier - who say the same thing. Clearly this provides much-needed evidence for a massive shake up of governance: "The DfE should allow the best academies and chains to pilot new approaches to governance, including smaller remunerated governing bodies that mirror the boards of private companies." He does not explore any of the practical implications of this argument such as the small matter of where the money might come from when we're in the middle of a double dip recession. Maybe those many academy leaders will reach into their deep pockets to fund it.

Woe betide schools falling foul of the draconian new Ofsted regime: James wants to force 'requirement to improve' schools to become academies. If that fails to raise standards then the academy has to join a chain. If that fails, then the governing body is obliged to hand over the running of the school to a "proven educational management organisation" (EMO) which would operate the school on a payment by results basis. He doesn't say what should happen if that fails, however. Presumably this does not compute. Private sector failure is impossible, as A4E and G4S will tell you. Never mind the autonomy, here's the Policy Exchange.

He asserts that "Academies work" and academy chains work even better. No nuancing there, or recognition that some don't. Clearly some, maybe many, do. Many non-Academies work, too. Some Academies are failing, as are some maintained schools. James doesn't seem to know that in 2011 only one in 33 academy pupils achieved Ebacc. On average, of pupils nationally who got 5A-Cs with English and Maths, 33% achieved Ebacc but in academies, the proportion was 12%. It was even worse (about 8%) once you remove academies which are former independent, grammar or other very high achieving schools. This year results at four schools run by the academy chain Ark were down on last year, out of five Ark schools with children taking GCSEs.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Read the whole damn thing (Competition Meets Collaboration: Helping school chains address England's long tail of educational failure) (downloadable from the 'Big picture of education' section on the downloads page) if you must but be prepared for pearls of ahistorical wisdom such as: "The abysmal record of most local authorities in providing education" - 100 years of social and educational history dismissed in 10 ignorant words.
This deplorable nonsense is published by Michael Gove's favourite right-wing think-tank Policy Exchange, which claims that it takes "an evidence-based approach to policy development".
Maybe they should tell James that.

And read the stuff he writes.

And not publish any more of it.

Tues October 9th 2012 - New Ofsted - a bridge too far?:-
New Ofsted - a bridge too far?

"You won't get people coming forward as governors anymore" said several governors following recent presentations on the new Ofsted framework and its raised expectations of governors. I sympathise but don't necessarily agree with them.

"If local democracy had worked, if local governing bodies had worked in the most challenging schools and for the most disadvantaged children, we would never have needed academies" said Michael Wilshaw in an interview not long before he became the new Ofsted Chief. Clearly, he takes no prisoners.

Although it's true that the revised framework does raise the bar for effective governance, much of what's now expected has been in place for a very long time but not always done well enough. At the heart of the matter is the governors' ability and willingness to challenge the school, which in effect means challenge the head. This is not new at all. I can't disagree with Wilshaw's insistence that governors do this well.

But there are new expectations, too, not least in relation to governors judging whether teachers and heads have deserved pay rises on the basis of performance management if pupil performance is not improving.

More schools will fail as a result of the new inspections because nothing less than "good" is now deemed to be acceptable. This means that what? 40%? 50%? of schools will not be good enough. Which means that those governors are not good enough.

Clearly, weak governance can pull down a school in practice as well as in relation to Ofsted's judgement. Heads are and should be very nervous about the quality of governance in their schools.

Will this drive governors away and stop new ones coming forward? Having lived through every version of Ofsted, I've heard the opening sentence of this article before, but the stats remain stubbornly fixed. Year after year the governor vacancy rate nationally sits at about 11%. That simply reflects natural turnover, not a hole in the system.

So will we see the 11% creep or shoot up because of the new Ofsted? I doubt it…but I'm less sure I'm right than ever before. What makes it different this time is that ramped up expectations are coinciding with the biggest ever decline in support and training for governors as LA Governor Services teams are decimated or eliminated altogether - a trend set to continue for at least two more years.

For years government ministers have been banging on about smaller being better when it comes to governing bodies. They may see their wish come true much sooner than expected - but for all the wrong reasons and with potentially disastrous consequences.

Weds September 26th 2012 - The downside of autonomy:-
The downside of autonomy

"The Department for Education should adopt a "Plan A+" (Autonomy-Plus). By removing cultural and regulatory barriers to autonomy and innovation, the Government can pave the way for all schools to innovate further and faster, rapidly developing best practice to raise standards that can then spread throughout the system." This gung-ho recommendation was voiced in the publication PlanA+: unleashing the potential of academies (published in March this year by Reform and The Schools Network).

It came to mind as I was watching Panorama on 24th September. The programme featured hundreds of schools that had been royally ripped off by a bunch of crooks leasing IT and photocopying equipment. In some cases the schools owed millions and some of the heads had resigned or had been suspended.

The point was made that while schools were part of the Local Authority, such scams couldn't succeed. Only the new autonomy had made this possible.

It also became clear that in some cases the heads had signed off on deals without consulting or getting the approval of their governing bodies. Quite rightly, they had suffered the consequences in terms of their career prospects.

It's not just those heads who are to blame, though - long before the Coalition government came to power successive Education ministers talked of giving heads more money - an oft-repeated little slip that boosted heads' egos enormously. It is the governing body that has the legal responsibility for the school budget, not the head. This is even more pronounced in academies, but we almost never hear it mentioned.

The Panorama programme followed on from a story published in the Financial Times back in January "Eight academy schools in financial difficulty were rescued by a Department for Education quango over the past 18 months at a cost of £10.7m, intensifying concerns in Whitehall that state schools moving outside the local authority system were not being adequately supervised by officials."

The DfE had to investigate the Priory Federation of Academies Trust and published its damning report in March this year:

"Poor financial management and misunderstandings on responsibilities are mainly the reason why concerns have arisen as to whether expenditure incurred was legitimate. The adoption of liberal policies towards credit card usage, confusion over what was classed as Trustees expenses, unclear policies on the purchase of meals and alcohol and inadequate procurement policies and practises have led to concerns that fraud may have taken place."

Panorama invited Michael Gove to comment. He declined.

Of course, most schools and academies have not walked into scammers' traps and are well led and managed by heads and governors. But it seems inevitable that more will make costly mistakes, as more academies and free schools are established and politicians pander to heads' egos in "setting them free" and cutting red tape.

Sadly, in the end, it will be the children who suffer the most.

PS I was very sad to hear of the death of Mike Baker recently at much too young an age. He was everything that most Secretaries of State for Education are not: knowledgeable, modest, wise and humorous. A very sad loss indeed.

Weds September 19th 2012 - Mission creep:-
Mission creep

Some military terms can be applied very usefully in the education world. "SNAFU" springs to mind. The saying: "No strategic plan survives first contact with the enemy". "Mission creep" conveys how an originally limited and practical intention can expand rapidly, usually ending in disaster as soldiers try desperately to accomplish the impossible.

The phrase sprang to mind when I read this in Ofsted's subsidiary guidance to inspectors on the new inspection arrangements:

"During autumn 2012, Ofsted and the National College are piloting external reviews of governance in 'requires improvement' schools where governance is judged to be ineffective…The pilot work will involve a National Leader of Governance or a National Leader of Education designated by the National College conducting a short review of the quality of governance at the school, and discussing with the school options for improving governance."

National Leaders of Governance (NLGs) are experienced chairs of governors who volunteer to take on the task of acting as a mentor to new chairs or those experiencing particular difficulties. The first cohort of 50 has been in place only since early summer this year. The National College is currently recruiting a second cohort.

Nowhere in their job outline does it say anything about reviewing failing governing bodies.

They are not trained to do this job. They have not signed up for it. They are not paid to do it.

Do NLGs know what's in store for them? I'm sure they'll do their best if asked but I'm also sure they'd be the first to acknowledge their limitations.

At the same time, a group of National Leaders of Education (NLEs) were behind the recent National College's "Good governance" publication which called for the abolition of the Governors' Guide to the Law (though they couldn't remember its proper name). When one of the inevitable aspects of any worthwhile governance review is the extent to which governors fulfil their legal responsibilities, this does not inspire me with confidence in NLEs' ability to do the job.

Does the National College know what Ofsted intend? Have they raised any doubts or objections?

There is a simple solution. Many school governance professionals are trained and qualified assessors of Governor Mark, a well-established governing body self-evaluation process and standard. Local Authority and Diocesan school governance teams are experienced in the evaluation of governing bodies in their locality.

Ofsted hasn't bothered to invite them to do the job. Either they don't know such people exist or they are deliberately ignoring them.

Whatever the explanation, it doesn't say much for Michael Wilshaw's knowledge or wisdom. In this respect I'd say he "requires improvement".

Tues September 11th 2012 - What's the point of dictionaries?:-
What's the point of dictionaries?

"The 256-page governor manual... is an unread document... (that) fails to inspire... (and) should be replaced by online high quality support."

This exciting proposition is one of the core proposals put forward in "Good governance" a new National College for School Leadership document. The College asked a group of National Leaders of Education (NLEs) - headteachers, basically - how to improve governance. I wonder whether they're planning to follow it up with "Good headship", written by a group of school governors. Don't hold your breath.

The fact that they don't even know the name of the "manual" should be sufficient evidence of their woeful ignorance but let's explore this a little more closely. They're talking about getting rid of the Governors' Guide to the Law, a document available online only, so the number of pages is irrelevant. They acknowledge that "Since 1988, school governing bodies have had increased responsibilities, with a more important role as schools have gained increasing autonomy. Theirs is a voluntary role, and they are drawn from parents, staff, business and the wider community. As a corporate body, governors have significant responsibilities in law for the strategic direction of schools, and specific legal responsibilities for aspects of the school's safe running, curriculum, leadership appointments and financial health."

So, the NLEs' logic goes like this: 300,000 non-education experts with very significant legal responsibilities should be let loose with no access to a guide to those legal responsibilities. Training will be sufficient as an alternative - but that training is not compulsory and doesn't exist yet.

If that doesn't guarantee improved governance, I don't know what will.

The Guide to the Law is a work of reference, like a dictionary or encyclopaedia. Nobody in their right mind reads one from cover to cover. That's not its purpose. Dictionaries are therefore largely unread and, arguably, uninspiring. Should they be abolished, then, and replaced by high quality online training that's not compulsory?

It is no coincidence that "Good governance" contains not a single reference to the clerk to the governors, the one person most likely to understand the purpose and value of the Guide to the Law and refer to it when the governors are unsure what to do about a thorny issue. Maybe this is because clerks often have a dual role as the head's PA. If so, it tells you a lot about the esteem in which heads hold their immediate work colleagues and their understanding of the roles they fulfil.

It's tempting to think to oneself that none of this matters, since no politician has acted on the recommendations of the seven (count 'em) major reports on governance since 2008, most of them much more convincing and evidence-based than this latest one. The difference this time is that the previously semi-independent National College is now very firmly an arm of government. That doesn't guarantee implementation but if it does happen, governors and clerks won't be the only people to suffer. Heads, too, may live to regret the passing of the one free, easily accessible and dependable source of legal guidance for governors written in comprehensible language.

You can download "Good governance" and "Guide to the Law" from the Downloads page (in the 'Recent reports on Governance' and 'Guide to the Law' sections).

You can also subscribe to my summary and commentary service, which includes "Good governance" - see the Services page for details.

Weds September 5th 2012 - Gove stays put:-
Gove stays put

OK, so Gove stays put after all. This is probably a good thing only in that it means "the invisible man" (as Michael Rosen recently described him, owing to his absence through the summer when various problems of his own making bit back at him) should still be around when the inevitable crises arise from his ill-thought-out policies. Maybe he'll not be able to duck the consequences for once.

On the other hand, Elizabeth Truss has snuck into the DfE along with David Laws. Neither of them has a teaching background. Laws is a millionaire ex-banker; Truss, according to Wikipedia, worked in sales and as an economist, before becoming deputy director at the think-tank Reform. Recently Gove was proudly claiming that more ex-teachers were in positions of power in the educational policy field, as though this were a good thing, which it probably is. At the same time, he quietly let it slip that academies, like free schools, no longer needed to employ fully qualified teachers. I don't know about you, but I'm struggling with this. You really can't have it both ways, can you? Either experience as a qualified teacher lends credibility in the politico-educational field or it doesn't. Either any fool can teach or our children deserve properly trained staff.

It's the lack of logic and evidence-based decision making I can't stand, especially from someone supposedly responsible for the education of our young people. I console myself by watching a YouTube clip* of Gove tripping up and blaming the pavement, to the accompaniment of a vocal bystanders. It's not much of a consolation but it'll have to do till something more spectacular comes along.
It can only be a matter of time.

*"Michael Gove falls over"

Weds August 29th 2012 - A new term... of office?:-
A new term...  of office?

As the new school year begins, change remains the prevailing theme.

David Cameron's cabinet reshuffle is anticipated any day now with most of the focus on the continued role of Gideon Osborne as Chancellor - but what of our beloved Michael Gove? He's not had a good summer as far as news is concerned.

The biggest current issue is the last minute grade boundary change for GCSE English leading to thousands of young people failing to make the predicted and probably deserved A-C grades. Nothing to do with Michael, of course. He wouldn't dream of interfering. Mass remarking of papers could be the outcome, costing a lot in time and money - and some mud is bound to stick to the Secretary of State. Last year the DfE were quick to crow about the supposed better rate of improvement in academies as measured by GCSE results, though a later and more thorough analysis by Dr Terry Wrigley showed a much more complicated and far less persuasive picture. Academies have been hit by the lowered grades as much as other schools and many of Gove's supposed disciple Academy heads have turned on their master over the issue.

Several Free Schools have not opened as expected, as a result of failing to attract sufficient numbers - the most dramatic of which is a free school in Bradford which lost its government funding a week before it was due to open its doors. According to the Guardian "Co-founder Wayne Jacobs said he was shocked by the DfE's 11th-hour decision to withdraw funding. He said: "We are completely baffled and stunned at this decision by the DfE and absolutely devastated for the parents, children and staff of the One in a Million free school." Nearly two-thirds of an initial 50 student places had been filled and the charity said it been assured by the DfE in June that its funding was on track for signoff by the education secretary, Michael Gove, but it was told last Friday that the department had decided to recommend funding should not be approved."

In the background are examples of Academies with very significant staff turnover - such as one where 43 staff left in the course of last year. The new Ofsted regime takes effect in a few days' time and will inevitably lead to an increase in the number of failing schools and, therefore, in the number of schools forced to take on Academy status. How long will the funding set aside for Academies and Free schools last, given the stubborn refusal of the economy to respond to the Osborne magic touch, increasing demands on the creaking system for many more school places overall, especially in the primary sector?

As a large pile of excreta flies towards a fast-spinning fan, it looks like a good time for Michael to move on to pastures new. The average shelf life of Education ministers is about 29 months. Cameron must have checked Gove's "use by" date which must be approaching very fast. Elizabeth Truss is tipped as his replacement. Who she? She's one of a small number of hard right wingers in the Tory party Free Enterprise Group who hit the headlines recently when a line about British workers being 'among the worst idlers in the world' "leaked" from their forthcoming publication "Britannia Unchained - Global Growth and Prosperity".

However unlikely it may seem right now, if she does take over, it might not be long before we're feeling a little wistful over lovely Michael's departure, even wishing him back in, OK, maybe a step too far...

Thurs August 16th 2012 - A level and GCSE results 2012:-
A level and GCSE results 2012

Don't blame the stink of inequality on Oxbridge
Lucy Mangan
The Guardian magazine; Saturday 11 August 2012

It's just a few days to go now until the A-level results come out. (Oh God, good luck everybody. It's been nearly 20 years since I took mine and I still have anxiety dreams about turning up and realising that I forgot to go to a single lesson beforehand. The only thing that's changed is that I now wake up in a cold sweat instead of screaming. I suppose we can call that progress.)

This means, of course, that we are also just a few days away from the traditional furore about the number of white, upper-class, privately educated, male students who get into Oxford and Cambridge, compared with the percentage of non-pink, non-posh, non-privileged, non-penised people who go on to study in the land of dreaming spires or a punt-strewn idyll. It happens every year, and every year it is a bigger waste of time.

It is true, of course, that in some quadrangles you cannot throw a stick without hitting an Old Etonian. This is what makes throwing sticks in quadrangles such fun. And it is equally true that the dominance of such people at these (and other) universities is unfair, inequitable and unconscionable.

But it's also a great, jangling distraction from the real issue, which is that Oxbridge is only the final step - and a relatively tiny one at that - in an unfair, inequitable and unconscionable educational filtering system that begins at the moment of birth. One child gets a happy home - carefully chosen in a decent catchment area - filled with books, musical instruments and bank statements detailing the Child ISA and Young Savers accounts opened by generous grandparents to buffer their beloved offspring's even beloveder offspring from the harsh realities of life they sometimes read about in the paper. Theirs - rightly, wonderfully, thankfully - is the world, and everything that's in it. Another child is born into a disharmonious home bereft of social, cultural and fiscal capital, and arrives at school already running on empty, their physical, emotional and intellectual fuel depleted by the daily fight for survival. Theirs - woefully, unrelentingly, indefensibly - are the harsh realities of life they don't need to read about in the papers.

That not everyone is born into equal circumstances is something even the most idealistic of us has probably come to terms with as an immutable aspect of the human condition. That those inequalities of opportunity are then not just accepted but further encouraged and entrenched by government after government and policy after policy stinks. And the reek will be worse this year than ever, as free schools and assorted other ideas farted from the ever-noxious bumhole that is Michael Gove pollute the atmosphere and fog the once-shining vision of an egalitarian, comprehensive education system so thoroughly that it is hard to perceive even its outline any more.

Oxbridge can't remedy a lifetime of unfairness at a single stroke during a selection process, and in terms of the numbers it affects, Oxbridge doesn't matter. It matters only as a tangible symbol of this subtle, pernicious, destructive system we live with and, by and large, accept. Pick a big stick and hurl it as hard as you like, by all means. But aim it at the Old Etonian in charge. And all those who, as things stand, will come after him.

Tues July 24th 2012 - End of term report:-
End of term report

As schools close for the summer holidays, let's look back at a torrid year for school governors and think about what's coming next...

Michael Gove

Could do a lot better. Ended the year alienating most governors through some ill-judged insults. Desperate to be the Mekon and increasingly looking like him. Back to the future ideology rampant. Wants to bring back O levels and grammar schools and allow profit making from schools. Lambasted private education but did nothing to change it. Sent a Bible to every school - though no-one had asked for it. The Olympics reminded everyone of the way he destroyed school sport when he first took office. Embarrassed by Saint Jamie over the absence of any food standards in academies, he commissioned yet another report on the subject from the founders of the (excellent) Leon chain. It's called kicking a turkey twizzler into the long grass. Rumours he'll be moved to the Home Office in a September reshuffle, to be replaced by Elizabeth Truss. (Me neither).

Free schools

The recent collapse of Newham Free Academy before it opened, due to lack of parental demand, is the latest blow to Gove's ambitions, following hard on the heels of Beccles Free School's inability to attract more than 37 applicants. Three of the Free schools due to open in September will "be run by groups with creationist views", including one with a document on its website declaring that it teaches "creation as a scientific theory" according to the Guardian. Robert Hill recently described Free schools as "unguided missiles" for school improvement, due to their random geographical locations unrelated to real educational needs. Far from being free, they cost a packet, with the money coming from the budget for all other schools. Expect some revisions to the programme once Gove's in charge of homeland security. OMG!


Significant growth, especially in the secondary sector, with chains developing fast. Much less so in the primary phase, since it's far less economically attractive or viable, but expect more pressure from DfE and Ofsted, forcing Academy status on unwilling participants. Meanwhile watch out for some spectacular Academy implosions detonated by hopeless financial management. Results will deteriorate, inevitably, as more and more schools become Academies and the average stabilises. Expect an announcement of a new kind of school which will raise standards faster than academies. The competition for the new name starts here. "Scholarges", anyone? "Edu-farms"? "Truss schools"? Go on then - you do better. Remember the old saying - today's bollocks is tomorrow's policy.


An even tougher inspection regime from September will see many more failing schools, departing heads and lengthening deadlines as Ofsted staff struggle to keep pace with the growing list of failures. This will be hailed as evidence of rising standards, until another increase in GCSE results is condemned as a sign of declining rigour. I give Wilshaw 12 months.


Governance will continue to change as the number of Academies grows but is unlikely to result in the universal smaller, skills-based model so desired by Ministers. A very mixed picture is emerging, with some governing bodies increasing in size and many staying about the same, even with academy conversion. Reduced direct responsibility will weaken governance in chains and multi-academy trusts and threaten more catastrophic failures of corporate governance in the largest provider organisations. Don't expect to be paid to be a governor anytime soon - unless you're part of an Interim Executive Board or the government changes primary legislation in the next parliament. See the video below for a discussion of this topic.

Expect another governance review, never to see the light of day.

Happy holidays!

Tues July 10th 2012 - Those who can... :-
Those who can...

Apparently Michael Gove thinks teachers are really important. In his recent speech to FASNA he said:

"A teacher led our review into teaching standards. Teachers - dozens of them - helped us develop our new draft primary national curriculum. A teacher is chief inspector. And another teacher is Chair of Ofsted. A teacher will lead the nation's teacher training body - the Teaching Agency. A teacher is in charge of our academy policy... Teachers are in charge of training and developing talent in the profession..."

So why is the Secretary of State not a teacher? Gove hasn't taught nor been a school governor. He is a public schoolboy who became a Murdoch journalist. That, apparently, is sufficient preparation to equip him to make massive changes to the education system and make ignorant, insulting comments about people who know a lot more about real schools than he will ever know. At one point in the speech, eight (count 'em) consecutive paragraphs begin with "I". He must be the only person on the planet whose ego can be seen from space.

One of the key indicators of educated people is their ability to base their thinking and decisions upon real evidence rather than prejudice and ignorance. Gove insists, on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, that "We all know what good governance looks like." Apparently it looks like "Smaller governing bodies" for example. Nonsense. Pure ignorant prejudice. Ofsted's authoritative "School governance - learning from the best" (May 2011) did not conclude that the governing body's size had any bearing on its effectiveness.

"And, all too sadly, we also know what bad governance looks like.... Discussions that ramble on about peripheral issues, influenced by fads and anecdote, not facts and analysis."

It is true, of course, that amongst the oft-quoted figure of 300,000 school governors, it is inevitable that one will find a proportion who are not particularly good. In 16 years of working with governing bodies and serving as a governor myself I cannot think of a single occasion of governors being influenced by fads. What fads, anyway? What is he talking about?

His hypocrisy is breathtaking. His own speech is littered with examples of his own fads, such as Free Schools, recently described by the magisterial Robert Hill as "unguided missiles" and highly selective references to particular schools to demonstrate the rightness of his policies. There are very few facts and little analysis but plenty of crude insulting references to the teaching unions.

He insists that "freedom has driven standards up" and complains about the equivalence of some vocational GCSEs to the more academic qualifications included in the English Baccalaureate (Ebacc), ignoring Dr Terry Wrigley's objective analysis of last year's GCSE results which concluded that "only one in 33 academy pupils achieved Ebacc - even though most of their pupils are not disadvantaged. On average, of pupils nationally who got 5A-Cs with English and Maths, 33% achieved Ebacc. In academies, the proportion is 12%. It is even worse (about 8%) once you remove academies which are former independent, grammar or other very high achieving schools."

He also claims that "We know - from the subsequent embrace of academy freedoms by more than half the nation's secondary heads - that the attractions of autonomy are now clear to leaders responsible for educating more than half the nation's children." Yet the recent Schools Network and Reform survey of 478 Academy heads found that 78% chose to become an academy for additional funding. They are not the "mini-mes" he likes to think they are. Their decisions were pragmatic and, in some cases, entirely mercenary.

I could go on. And on. Like Gove's speech.

The last Secretary of State for Education who had a teaching background was Estelle Morris. She stood down, admitting with a becoming display of modesty so sadly lacking in the present incumbent that she couldn't do as good a job as she would like. She continues to speak and write on education with a quiet wisdom and persuasive, intelligent style.

Those who can, teach. Those who can't, often become Ministers of State.

You can find Gove's speech in full under the Government Policy section on our downloads page.
Tues June 26th 2012 - Is yours a website for sore eyes?:-
Is yours a website for sore eyes?

"The good head... thinks carefully about how to prepare for an inspection by ensuring the website is up-to-date with information on school evaluation, development planning, the school timetable, etc."

So spoke Sir Michael Wilshaw, in a speech to the Independent Academies Association conference on 24 February this year.

And from September, schools will have to publish online details of their pupil premium allocation and how it will be spent; the curriculum - content and approach, including phonics and reading schemes; admission arrangements; policies on behaviour, charging and SEN; links to its Ofsted reports and DfE school performance tables and the school's ethos and values.

So how good is your school's website? When did you last look at it? What's on it? How up to date is it? How easy is it to use?

Many school websites tend to lie dormant with occasional refreshment. That's a guarantee that few people will actively use it on a regular basis - yet clearly more emphasis is going to be placed on it, not least by Ofsted inspectors who will seek information from it and probably check compliance.

It's time to take a really critical look and make sure the website's updated regularly - at least weekly.

And what does it say about the governors? I looked at 30 secondary school websites searching for information about their governors. It was very disappointing and frustrating. Often it was hard to find anything much beyond a basic list and perhaps a short summary of what they do. The worst one had details about an election of parent governors but no information about the governing body or what it was for.

But the best ones had a prominent section to themselves, with photos, pen portraits, lively current information and sound explanation of their purpose and priorities. It's not difficult to achieve but it needs someone to do it - regularly.

Weds June 6th 2012 - Support for governors:-
Support for governors

Recently I was working with a group of Co-ordinators of Governor Services on a draft submission to the National College for School Leadership for a licence to offer chairs of governors access to a new national development programme. As we did so, I was reflecting on the strangeness of the situation. Having spent 15 years devising, commissioning and delivering training for governors on a wide variety of topics with no interference or help from other education agencies, it was a new experience having to seek the approval of a body not yet renowned for its deep and historical understanding of school governance.

It's no bad thing but it's a sign of the times. For too long governor training has been run on a shoestring - often very effectively but largely unseen by national educational bodies. Now many organisations are getting in on the act, not least via academy chains.

Will this improve the quality, value for money and accessibility of governor support and training? The answer is unclear at the moment but governors are likely to have to pay more for less accessible training in the future. LA governor service teams provided and in many cases continue to provide a wide range of training events in different formats, in local venues at low cost. Whilst in some cases this was subsidised by council funds, many teams were and are fully traded. Governors are often unwilling or unable to travel far for training and reluctant to spend more than a small amount of the school budget on their own needs.

The danger is that as LA services shrink as an inevitable consequence of continued cuts to funding, governors will not be trained to the same extent as before since they are unlikely to buy more expensive provision and/or travel further to access it. This at a time when demands upon them are increasing as schools become more autonomous.

It's a subject I discussed recently with Stephen Adamson - take a look at the video below to find out what we said.

Tue May 22nd 2012 - Public Money, private enterprise:-
Public money, private enterprise

In the video below I talk about the pros and cons of schools being run for profit. This has been brought into sharp relief in the light of the DfE's Investigation Report on Priory Federation of Academies Trust* (March 2012) which concluded that:

"The desire to drive the ethos and branding of the organisation has not always been linked to the fact that they are in receipt of considerable levels of public funding and that probity and regularity are also responsibilities that they need to discharge in a way that demonstrates public accountability."

Whilst it could be argued that this was a one-off and was dealt with appropriately, it raises questions about the wisdom of Michael Gove's obsession with setting all schools free of local accountability and about the robustness of internal accountabilities of autonomous schools. We know that a further 8 academies have already had to be bailed out at a cost of £10.7 million because of poor financial management.

At the Priory Federation: "The CEO has used the resources of the Federation to purchase training for his son, receive personal tax advice, purchase DVDs and other items using a Federation credit card and had items delivered to the academy address which were both personal and of an inappropriate nature. We were concerned that invoices appeared to have been altered to hinder identification of the recipient of the training that had been paid by the Federation, namely the CEO?s son."

Is this kind of corruption more or less likely in a for-profit school? I think the answer is probably less likely, since one would hope that financial controls in a more obviously capitalistic education organisation would of necessity be stronger - though considering what happened to, and continues to happen in the world of international banking, one cannot be very confident.

As ever the question is "What on earth were the governors doing?"

"Assumptions were made by the CEO and Chair of Governors that the annual audit would have looked at financial and accounting in detail so had taken assurance that, as no issues were raised, there were no problems. However the areas where issues have now arisen were not seen by the accountants as material to the accounts."

Hmmmmm.... how often have we heard this before?

Assumptions made... taken assurance that... no problems...

The core lesson for all governors is - never take anything on trust. Always challenge, always double check.

*The whole report is available on the Downloads page.

Sat May 5th 2012 - Skills audits for governors:-
Skills audit for governors

A couple of years ago skills audits were being promoted in different reports as a key tool for improving, as momentum built against the stakeholder model of governance and towards smaller, "professional" governing bodies.

Whatever your stance on the classic skills versus representation debate - and these are not mutually exclusive - a skills audit may have a valid role. But not in isolation.

Governors need skills to do their job but are not meant to be experts: they are volunteers and part of a collective group whose strength lies in their combined wisdom. They bring to schools "the precious light of ordinariness", to quote Joan Sallis. Even a highly skilled governing body has a limited amount of time to carry out its work and should not seek to take on tasks that are rightly the preserve of the school's leadership and management team.

That governors can and should seek to identify and enhance their skills is not in doubt. It matters, though, that they do so for practical reasons in the wider context of other aspects of their work and purpose. These can be summarised as the seven S's identified by McKinsey:

  • Strategy: the plan devised to achieve the vision

  • Structure: the way the governing body is structured and who reports to whom

  • Systems: the common activities and procedures that governors engage in to get the job done

  • Shared Values: the core values of the governing body shown in its culture and general work ethic

  • Style: the style of leadership adopted

  • Staff: the governors and their general capabilities

  • Skills: the collective and individual skills and competencies of the governors

There is no point focusing on our skills to the exclusion of everything else, especially if we're unclear about our shared values, which underpin everything else.

The video clip below includes a discussion about skills versus representation.

Look on the downloads page for the document "Skills Audit for a Governing Body" which will guide you through the process and make sure you're doing it in the right context.

Weds April 25th 2012 - Most secondary schools are now academies:-
Making use of social media

Governors, like everyone else these days, are using social media to chat amongst themselves, sharing information, ideas, opinions... and it's a good thing, of course. The speed and convenience of Facebook, Twitter and all the rest make a lot of sense to busy governors. Governors can easily become part of a much bigger network than their own governing body and community. It is definitely to be welcomed.

There are some dangers and downsides, too, though. Governing bodies deal with many topics, matters and some individual cases, many of which have a greater or lesser degree of confidentiality about them. Whenever we tweet or post a comment, we need to double check that we aren't risking any breach of confidentiality or inadvertently letting slip something which should not be in the public domain - because there's no more public domain than the twittersphere. Because the medium is fast, it's easy to press send without thinking sufficiently.

We might make a comment about something which in our view has no bearing on governance but which offends one or more other people who then question our right to remain as a governor having expressed that personal opinion. If others have access to our mobile or laptop, we could find some of our private information leaking beyond its necessary boundaries. We could engage in a debate amongst a small subset of the governors which rightly demands a full debate by all governors - not illegal, as such, but unwise and potentially damaging to the unity of the overall body. And comments remain "on file" for a very long time to come, long after we made them and are soon capable of interpretation out of the original context.

As a general rule of thumb, governors need to behave on social media as if they were speaking in public, conscious of who's listening and who could be offended or upset by what we say.

Governing bodies might be wise to include a paragraph or two in their Code of Practice to cover the use of social media.

But let's not stop using them!

And while we're on the subject of modern communications, welcome to the first of a series of video comments and discussions on a variety of topics that will be posted on the site over coming weeks and months. The first one is me talking about.... governors and social media. Your feedback is always welcome - use this sites contact page to respond.

Tue April 10th 2012 - Most secondary schools are now academies:-
Most secondary schools are now academies

Most primary schools aren't academies, and won't be, unless they're forced

"Figures published by the DfE reveal 50.3% of the country's 3,261 state secondaries are now academies - or have applied to be... (but) just 5% of primaries are, or are about to become, academies..." Thursday 5 April 2012.

Education Secretary Michael Gove and the DfE are keen to present the transition in terms of a rejection by schools of local authority control and an eagerness for independence and autonomy. Yet a very recent survey of academies* showed that "78% chose to become an academy in part because of a perception that they would receive additional funding. 39% said this was the main reason for their conversion." The decision was largely pragmatic. Once more than 50% of secondaries become academies, a tipping point has been reached and it's just a matter of time before all such schools take on that status. Academisation has been a secondary phase phenomenon from the start, when the previous Labour government first introduced the idea.

Gove wants all schools to become academies but unless he introduces legislation to force them to do so (which wouldn't surprise me) primary schools are unlikely to convert at anything like the same rate as secondaries. A recent report on academy chains** gave a compelling reason why primary schools were reluctant to take on academy status - it's all to do with economies of scale: "a critical mass of around 1,200 pupils (the equivalent of around 6 primaries) is necessary" for a chain to be economically and organisationally viable. The Guardian article went on to point out that "Last month, government officials registered a spike in applications for academy status from schools, with more than 140 bids - the largest number since May last year. Critics say this coincides with a drive by Michael Gove... to force schools to become academies against their will."

There is another major obstacle: if every school were to become an academy in the near future, it would bankrupt the education system - unless, of course, Gove removed the main incentive to convert - money. It's not a happy prospect - the vast majority of primary schools forced into academy status with no additional money. The Blair government was all about increasing choice and diversity in the system in which academies were just one type of school amongst many: where's the choice when every school is an academy?

And, while we're on the subject, Gove's championing of academies is based on the false assumption that they gain better results for their pupils. While this is true in some cases, the recent secondary school league tables showed that it's not true of the majority, especially if one uses Gove's favoured method of judging schools against the EBacc. Inevitably, the more academies there are, the harder it will be to show that they do better than other schools. When all schools are academies, results overall will still follow the normal bell curve.

When we reach that point - if we ever do - what new kind of school will have to be invented to stand out from the "bog standard academy", to misquote Alastair Campbell?

* Plan A+ Unleashing the potential of academies

** The growth of academy chains: implications for leaders and leadership

Both documents can be downloaded from the Downloads page. To access a summary and commentary on these and other documents, subscribe to my service, described on the Services page.

Tue March 20th 2012 - Should governors be paid:-
Should Governors be paid?

"My view is that when a school is doing poorly, we need to think about paid governance."
Michael Wilshaw, Chief inspector, Ofsted

"Most governing bodies pay for their clerks... we should also move to paid chairs of governors."
Lord (Jim) Knight, ex-Schools Minister

Two voices in recent days called for change - for different reasons but the same old basic argument. (Some) governors aren't good enough. They lack the right skills to do the job. You have to pay to get the right people with the skills to do the job.

Whereas Wilshaw was speaking somewhat off the cuff, Knight had thought his argument through. He acknowledges that to make it affordable, you'd have to radically cull the overall number of governors by at least 90%. But there's no evidence to suggest that only one in ten governing bodies are any good. And there's little evidence that paid governors in other sectors are any better than the volunteers in education. Wasn't there a massive failure of corporate governance in the private sector recently - the banks, the media? The civil servants overseeing MPs' expenses were paid but it didn't stop Jim and his mates getting their snouts in the trough. Paid Directorships are a nice little earner for ex-Ministers but it's about boosting the company profile, not strengthening corporate governance. I wonder if Lord Jim has ever read that novel about him?

At the moment governors are not allowed to be paid. The National College has recruited 50 National Leaders of Governance to support chairs of governors around the country but they're not allowed to pay them directly for the work. That does seem perverse - but it's a different argument, a different case. There is an exception to the rule. LAs and the DfE can remove a failing governing body and replace it with an Interim Executive Board (IEB) and pay the chair and/or other governors. It's strange that Wilshaw doesn't seem to know this, since it's the solution he's arguing for. There has been no serious study of the effectiveness of IEBs to show any correlation between school improvement and paid governance. Until there is, we'll never know whether the money makes any difference.

In past years governors' opinions have been surveyed reasonably regularly and the majority is always opposed to being paid. The arguments are consistent and compelling: we can't afford it anyway when the economy is in such a mess; it's unfair to pay some governors and not others, even the chair; we don't do this job for money; it would change the whole ethos of governance for the worse...

Cameron may have ditched the Big Society but school governors haven't. Long may it prosper.

Tue March 6th 2012 - Going paperless:-
Going paperless

It's amazing that tens of thousands of ordinary people continue to give up their free time to serve as school governors. It's even more amazing that many of them carry on doing it even when their governing body isn't well organised, wastes time, reams of paper and seems stuck in the mud of old ways of getting things done. It doesn't have to be like that.

An effective governors' intranet is the key to becoming a paperless governing body. There are quite a few models on the market. First call should be your local Governor Services team or Local Authority who may well offer their own version which will be free or cheap. If that doesn't get you anywhere or you don't like the look of what they offer, here are three links to explore: (Note: 11 Dec 2014 - this site no longer exists and has not been replaced, so external link removed)

My personal favourite is Governors Virtual Office from school Leadership Systems. It harnesses the power of modern information technology to streamline the management of governing body business - to everyone's benefit. Even better, those using it are pioneering new ways of working not anticipated even by the people who invented it.

"The head used to read out his report during the meeting - it took ages. Now GVO makes the report available well in advance of the meeting so that governors spend their time asking relevant questions, not wasting valuable time listening to the report." Shillingstone primary school's chair Susie Poe also tells how, before they used GVO, a building project had led to more than 200 emails being exchanged between colleagues, making it incredibly hard to keep track of who said what and when. "It could never happen now that GVO provides a central location for communication."

It's not just at Shillingstone that precious time is being saved. Governors often spend far too much time writing and rewriting policies, circulating and recirculating drafts and redrafts. Peter Surtees chairs the governing body at Storrington First School in West Sussex and he told me how the process of signing off a school policy was shortened dramatically by posting a draft on GVO's discussion zone. All governors contributed to the e-discussion so that by the next meeting the new policy had already been agreed. No confusion over which was the latest version and no time wasted in the meeting going through the policy line-by-line. The efficiencies and time saving aspects of GVO helped Peter recruit a new clerk for the governing body. She can now carry out her work when it suits her and she doesn't have to go into school regularly.

It's often the clerk to the governing body who bears the brunt of any inefficiency in the way the governors operate, so they are usually the people who most fully and directly appreciate the benefits of GVO:

"GVO has had a huge impact. We definitely wouldn't go back to how we used to do things and I'm always telling other clerks how good it is" says Karina Tasker, clerk at Staverton primary school in Wiltshire. She adds that her governors have "a young attitude" and GVO keeps communication very fluid.

Anita Shelton works as the clerk at St Mary's RC primary school in West Sussex and says that "governing body meeting agendas often have 20 or more supporting papers with them. GVO means I don't have to copy and send out masses of paperwork, saving lots of time and money". Because every governor can access GVO, none of them can say to the clerk that they weren't sent a particular document, so it makes everyone more responsible and accountable. If and when she moves on, it will be so easy to handover to the new clerk, because of GVO.

Chris Whitfield, the clerk at Shillingstone primary school, says minutes of all committee meetings are now accessible by all governors, so the whole governing body is more aware of everything going on. He likes being able "to put things on the site quickly and let governors know they're there - it's all done in a flash."

Getting new governors up to speed quickly is a doddle with GVO. The induction of new governors at St Nicholas Primary School in Oxfordshire includes access to GVO which allows them to look at relevant documents at their own pace. Clerk Jane Dymock says that she recently provided access to GVO to a new governor on a Saturday and "by Monday morning he was well enough informed to ask some pertinent questions about aspects of the governing body's work." Peter Surtees agrees: "I run two induction evenings for new governors and I've adapted them to include a look at GVO. This gets them up and running straightaway."

Some governors are pushing the envelope even further.

Working toward paperless meetings, Susie Poe and Sarina Wickens (chair at St Mary's RC primary school in West Sussex) both use an electronic whiteboard during governing body meetings to display the agenda, minutes and other documents on GVO, which ensures mainly paperless meetings and focuses governors' attention, guaranteeing that "we're all looking at the same document".

Can a head use GVO to improve governance?

Headteacher David Jackson (St Nicholas primary school, Oxfordshire) decided that one of his personal development targets would be to introduce and use GVO as a way of involving and motivating every member of the school's governing body. He sees it as "almost Facebook for governors". He says "I regularly post something on GVO and check to see who's commented on it and what they've said. About 80% now log on regularly, most of them now add comments and they are really embracing new technology."

Can GVO even help governors get a better inspection grade?

Ofsted says in outstanding governing bodies "time is used efficiently... systems are in place for sharing information and reporting back to the full governing body... meetings are well organised and governors receive the information they need in good time... a clear structure for the work of governors... ensures that their time is used appropriately." During a recent inspection Peter Surtees gave Ofsted inspectors a temporary password so they could access GVO for themselves and see just how active and well organised the governors are, for example, by their training record and documentation of their self-evaluation. The inspectors had a thorough look at this electronic evidence base and were very impressed with the contribution of the governing body to the effectiveness of the school, leading to an outstanding grade.

Everyone I spoke to agreed that GVO means more efficient (therefore money-saving) administration; more efficient meetings; improved communications; greater access by all and a huge reduction in paperwork. "It's superb!" says Susie Poe.

Sun February 19th 2012 - Get your acronyms together!:-
Get your acronyms together!

One of the most confusing things for a new governor is the plethora of acronyms that crop up in documents, meetings and in training. RAISEonline, NLGs and ECAR seem to have been invented with the sole purpose of catching out the unsuspecting newcomer. And so many sound the same. What exactly is the difference between NLE and an LLE? Is the IT in ICT the same IT as in ITT? It can take ages to understand and remember them all. Even then, you can't afford to relax. Just as you've reached a stage where SIP or SEF trip off the tongue as easily as "industrial tribunal" and "deficit budget", they change or disappear. Like a Gorgon's head, get rid of one and several new ones sprout in its place.

It can drive you round the bend unless you make acronyms work for you. The most important thing is to have fun with them. If, like me, you're a crossword puzzle addict, you'll see straight away that acronyms lend themselves to hours of innocent pleasure. Bored with yet another governing body discussion about the drainage in the lower field? Reach for that handy list of educational acronyms provided by your friendly governor support team and get your brain in gear. A pocket dictionary and thesaurus can also add to the experience.

Here are a few games you can try.

Alternative acronyms

Fairly obviously, any acronym could stand for one or more phrases other than the official version. Look round the room and focus on one or more fellow governors. Andy Wears Pink Underwear could just as easily be the meaning of AWPU as Age Weighted Pupil Unit. Or how about Another Wearisome Pointless Utterance? Test your creativity with some of the more recherche acronyms on the list, like NCSLCS. If you've a slightly rude turn of mind, make a beeline for acronyms containing particular letters of the alphabet. I think that's enough of a hint for now...

Catch me if you can

Peppering your conversation with acronyms can make you sound as if you know what you're talking about. It can also make you sound like a pompous twerp. It's a good wheeze to catch out the worst culprits by asking them what that last acronym they mentioned actually stands for. The chances are, they'll have forgotten, if they ever knew in the first place. You need to choose your moment carefully if you don't want egg on your face, though. Some acronyms are easier to unpack than others.

Blue Peter

Why are there so many acronyms in education? It's because they're easy to make up. So why not make up a few for yourself and start introducing them into your conversation? Don't go over the top to start with. Most acronyms have only two or three letters, so avoid the longer ones to begin with. Try something like SOP or NEL before EEYORE or LXVZQRJ. Make sure you have a plausible explanation of what it stands for in case you're challenged (see Catch me if you can, above). TLA (Three Letter Acronym) is a good starter for ten. This game also utilises the skills you developed in playing alternative acronyms. It's what's known in educational circles as the reinforcement of learning (TROL) or the spiral curriculum (TSC). You've won when somebody else uses one you made up earlier (OYMUE).

A cross stick

An acrostic is a piece of writing - usually a poem - in which the first letters of each line, when read vertically, spell out a word or phrase. Try one, starting with a short acronym - or, better still, someone's name, such as GOVE or WILLETTS. The advanced player will strive to ensure that content matches style, so that the poem captures something of the essential character of the person or thing named vertically. A rhymed poem wins extra points. Deduct points for crude abuse.

Annie Gram

Some of the longer acronyms can be reordered to produce interesting variations, but to be honest, most aren't long enough to give you much scope for invention. On the other hand, people's names work really well...

Doctor's orders

Education isn't the only profession to generate an endless series of impenetrable acronyms. Your GP has limited space to note observations about you on your medical record, so acronyms and abbreviations come in very handy. See if you can guess what these stand for: FLK; OAP; PAFO; TEETH; GOK; SIG and TUBE. Answers at the end.

So, you see, acronyms can be fun. Instead of groaning when some bright spark at the DfE (Doom for Everyone? D for Effort? Dead fish Escapade?) invents a new one, welcome it for what it is - a new opportunity to amaze your friends and liven up a dull meeting.

One final thought: what does ACRONYM stand for?

        Answers (to Doctor's orders above):

		FLK				Funny Looking Kid
		OAP			Over Anxious Parent
		PAFO			Pissed and Fell Over
		TEETH			Tried Everything Else, Try Homeopathy
		GOK			God Only Knows
		SIG				Stroppy Ignorant Git
		TUBE			Totally Unnecessary Breast Examination
Tues February 7th 2012 - What's wrong with making a profit from schools?:-
What's wrong with making a profit from schools?

On 29th January 2012 the Observer reported: "Last week the education secretary, Michael Gove, gave the green light to Breckland Middle School in Suffolk to be renamed IES Breckland and run under a £21m, 10-year contract by Swedish for-profit firm InternationellaEngelskaSkolan (IES).... The development is set to open the floodgates."

My initial reaction was not one of shock, since privatisation is what Conservative politicians do, just as dogs can't help but lick their genitals. It was only a matter of time. But it made me challenge my own prejudices against companies profiting from state-funded schools as I asked myself the question in the title.

My answers are these:

There is a difference between schools buying services from for-profit companies and companies taking over schools in order to make a profit, and it isn't just a matter of scale. Schools buying services are democratically accountable for their spending decisions. Companies buying schools for profit are accountable only to their shareholders who demand that they prioritise making as big a profit as possible.

To make a profit, schools will have to be seen to be successful in relation to exam results. The schools that achieve the best results are selective (either explicitly or implicitly), shunning the students that need the most - and therefore most expensive - support. Those students will be shunted into underfunded second class schools that cannot hope to compete. Unless all schools are privatised, a gaping void will open up between the private and public education service, further entrenching the odious inequalities that already scar our education and society. And by the way, where else in the world can one find the Orwellian "public school"?

If earlier privatisations - take the railways, for example, or the power companies - had led to improved services, happier customers and lower prices, one might be more sanguine about applying the same thinking to education (and health, let's not forget). The facts are glaring every time one takes the train or receives an electricity bill - privatisation makes a few already wealthy people much, much wealthier but everything else worse, more expensive and hacks customers off.

Inevitably, market forces lead to cartels and monopolies, not a thousand flowers blooming. Power becomes concentrated in a few huge businesses who exercise it in favour of shareholders and their political allies, excluding ordinary people from the education process and corrupting democracy.

Finally, whereas the earlier privatisations were part of a clearly signalled political programme for which a majority voted, the selling off of state schools to the highest bidder was advertised in no party's manifesto. No-one voted for this. Schools belong to us, the public. They are not the Coalition governments to sell.

Weds January 25th 2012 - The muddle in the middle:-
The muddle in the middle

At the top there's the DfE. At the bottom, there are schools. The middle, until now, has been the local authority.

The middle is falling to bits. For years, successive governments have undermined and cut the local authority. Now the cuts are drastic and hitting hard - but unevenly. I was at a conference in 2010 where Estelle Morris said words to the effect that there will always be a middle. If LAs disappear, something will always fill the gap because the education system depends on it. Not least because the government and schools need a scapegoat when things go wrong.

At present, the LA is still in the middle, in most cases, but is thinner and more stretched. The government has planned cuts for the next 3 years. Inevitably, some LAs will not survive and those that do will be very lean and mean - and/or increasingly commercialised, competing with the new entrants to the education marketplace.

Who are the new entrants? Many are not so new, in fact, as some LAs had already contracted out services to organisations like Babcock 4S or Serco. A growing sector is represented by the Academy chains (ARK, Harris and others) which are fast establishing themselves as mini-LAs. Over the horizon are the big for-profit educational services companies (mainly American) which currently may not operate legally here. It seems just a matter of time before the rules are relaxed and they swoop down to pick up the juiciest morsels from the educational wasteland.

Very tellingly, last week Sweden put one of their free schools up for sale on their equivalent of E-bay.

In my experience governors largely looked to their LA Governor Services as the first port of call when they needed help. Whilst some services were better than others, there was no audible call from governors to get rid of those services. But that is what's happening.

The National College, which will, from April, become an arm of government, has recently been given responsibility for training for chairs of governors. As a general principle, it makes sense that at long last the National College for School Leadership be given a brief for governance as well as headship, deputy headship and so on. But the College would be the first to admit that it is not the expert on governance and has a good track record of working closely with those with the necessary expertise. The College also knows that it doesn't have the resources to deliver all the training directly, so will employ those with expertise to do so. It will fill part of the vacuum in the middle.

So - good news, bad news. The middle is fast becoming a muddle - but is in no danger of disappearing. For governors, the middle they relate to locally in future will depend on local factors. In the larger LAs, they may be little change. In the smallest, it's anyone's guess as to who will fill the gap. For the rest of us... wait and see.

A final thought on recent changes - today I read that Katharine Birbalsingh has opened a free secondary school in London and has appointed herself as headteacher - no other candidates; no appointment process. I was, notwithstanding my customary scepticism, utterly dumbfounded by the news.

Free schools are able to appoint staff with no teaching qualifications. How long before the first totally unqualified person appoints him/herself to the headship role in a free school? And where are the governors in all this? But at least the government's got rid of all that pesky bureaucracy, eh?

If I believed in God, I'd be looking for an intervention.

Weds January 11th 2012 - A modern parable:-
A modern parable

Once upon a time every city, town and village had its own highly individual shops. Some were good, some were hopeless and some were really excellent. No-one could travel far for their shopping so the shops survived or prospered. Some shops were so good that people would travel to them from quite a long way away.

One of the more successful shops decided to buy another shop in the same town, took it over and turned it into a copy of itself. Because the shopkeeper had two outlets in the same town, he could lower his prices slightly and still make more money than the other shopkeepers. This worked so well that he bought another shop in the same town and did the same. Then he tried the same thing in another town and it worked again. Before long he was very rich indeed and was able to buy up shops in every town. And all his shops were the exactly the same.

Some other shopkeepers noticed what he was doing and copied him. Before long every city, town and village had exactly the same shops and the people who owned them were the richest people in the kingdom. All the original shops had disappeared and people grew to hate the big shops for destroying all the interesting and different shops they remembered. But the few shopkeepers left were so rich they could pay lawyers and local officials lots of money to make sure they always got what they wanted.

And the people were very sad that they'd lost everything they really liked about the old shops. But there was no way back now. They realised what fools they'd been - but it was too late.

Then a funny little man called Mr Glove, who looked just like a ventriloquist's dummy, had an idea. He loved the big new shops that controlled everything and made their owners very rich indeed. He wanted to be like them. His job was to run the school system in the country. He knew he'd only have that job for a short time, so he got to work quickly. He liked the few big new shiny schools that had been set up by the person who had done his job before him. He thought to himself "Wouldn't it be great if every school were like these?" He decided to call them "TestCo schools" because they loved to put the children through lots of tests all the time.

First he persuaded a few very good schools to try it for themselves and they jumped at the chance, especially since he gave them lots of money to do it and told them they been set free to do whatever they liked. Mr Glove was very pleased with himself. But he soon grew angry with the other schools. Why weren't they queuing up to become TestCo schools? He decided to bend the rules and allow any school, good or bad, to become a TestCo school. A few more came forward but Mr Glove was still not happy. He talked to a few good friends of his, like Mr Skiddington, and gave them lots of money to help him out by buying up several of the TestCo schools each and making them exactly the same as each other, just like the shops he loved best.

Because they were all linked and worked together, the groups of schools would be called "chain gangs" or "gangs" for short. Each gang had a separate name, like Bark or React, to appeal to customers. The people who ran the chain gangs were known as "gangsters" and they all became millionaires within a year or two.

Where did the money come from, Johnny? What a good question! Well, it turned out that he'd stolen a little bit from all the other schools in the country, who didn't notice what he'd done or if they did, didn't make a fuss. That meant that he could steal a bit more next time, and the next...

Some people saw what he was doing and told everyone what a bad man he was but he stamped his angry little feet and told them all off for daring to criticise him. "Hands off!" he shouted. As far as he was concerned, anyone who opposed him was a narrow-minded bigot, an idea that came to him when admiring himself in the mirror.

Anyway, the people who worked in and ran each school loved the new freedom they had to be exactly the same as every other school in their group. It made them feel safe and special. And it didn't matter if they got worse because kind Mr Glove had told them they never had to be inspected again, because all TestCo schools, by definition, must be excellent. All the other schools were obviously rubbish and he made sure they knew it by choosing a new Inspector who had run a TestCo and worked for a chain gang. But being a very kind and modest man at heart, Mr Glove sent them all a Bible that he'd improved by adding his foreword to it.

The heads of the schools felt very important indeed, so much so that they decided that the ordinary work of running their school was beneath them. They employed a new set of very well paid managers to do the work they used to do. This work included things like deciding on school uniform and buying things for the children to help them learn. They were free to choose whatever uniform they liked, as long as it was identical to the uniforms in every other school in their chain gang. They could buy things for the children from anywhere they liked, as long as it was from the one place the owner told them to buy it from. Each school cost much more to run than before.

The people who ran the schools that weren't TestCos or in a gang started to notice that they had less and less money, as it was all going to the TestCo schools and Mr Glove's elves began to worry that soon there wouldn't be enough money to go round, but that didn't stop him. Oh, no!

Because he knew he would soon be moving on to another very important job, he didn't care what happened to the naughty schools that hadn't made the right decision. He forced 200 of them to become TestCos just to teach them a lesson. Then he did the same to another 200, then another 200, and so on and so on. People told him "There's no money left, Mr Glove! What are we going to do?"

Now Mr Glove had some very important friends like his old boss Mr Turdoch, one of the richest yet humblest men in the world. Mr Turdoch was always looking for new ways of making money even though he couldn't possibly need any more than he already had. Mr Turdoch was very interested in Mr Glove's suggestion that he take over all the TestCos and chain gangs in the country. Although this was against the law, Mr Glove and Mr Turdoch didn't care, because their friend Mr Camouflage could change the law just like that - and he did, boys and girls! What a clever man he was!

Soon every school in the country was part of the Turdoch TestCo International Chain Gang. Each school was exactly the same as every other school, with twice as many leaders as teachers, costing five times more to run than before all this happened. Mr Glove moved on to several other important jobs until, as Lord Glove, he became the Director of the Turdoch TestCo International Chain Gang. He was now the richest man in the country and was even more pleased with himself than ever before. But he still looked like a ventriloquist's dummy.

And the people said to each other "Whatever happened to our little local school that we all loved?" They were all very sad that they'd lost everything they really liked about the old schools. But there was no way back now. They realised what fools they'd been - but it was too late.

Tues January 3rd 2012 - What to look out for in 2012:-
What to look out for in 2012

Some trends to look out for in 2012


The new Ofsted framework comes into force at the beginning of January and the first of the new inspection reports could appear before the end of the month. Schools will be watching these with interest to see how far the bar has been raised again and to get a feel for the likely nuances of the inspection process and outcomes.

The influence of the new Chief Inspector will start to be felt early in the New Year. He is a proponent of Academies and sees governance as a problem. He has already proposed the establishment of a team of local commissioners employed to identify institutions that should lose their academy status and find headteachers who should be replaced, reporting back to the Secretary of State on the performance of schools in their area. He also suggested that some school governors should be paid in a bid to improve their performance and that scruffy teachers could be reprimanded. He was quoted as saying: "These people (ie the commissioners) would be non-political, in other words they would not be like LEAs responsible to a council, they would be people who would report directly to the secretary of state...then bring in other agencies to improve those schools." The Secretary of State is, of course, completely non-political.

Despite Wilshaw's desire to identify failing Academies it remains unclear what will happen to any that lose their status. Will they be returned to the cash-strapped local authority and if so will they have to give back the money they took when they became an Academy? Will they be taken over by an Academy chain or is this even possible if they're no longer an Academy? Nobody seems to know. I am still waiting for a reply from the DfE to this question. I suspect it's because no-one there is allowed to contemplate the failure of Gove's dream schools.

Schools previously judged to be outstanding are unlikely to be inspected for several years or longer, so the focus will be on coasting schools and those falling below the new floor targets.


Halfway through 2011 3.5% of all schools and just 0.6% of all primary schools were Academies. At that stage Michael Gove expected one-third of secondary schools to be Academies by the end of the year. This would equate to 1042 schools. There were in fact 792 by December 2011. 333 primary schools had become Academies by the same time. This is 1.96% of all primary schools.

Just over 200 "failing" primary schools are about to be forced to become Academies since the Secretary of State now has that power. The first one in the country to be forced is Downhills primary school which local MP David Lammy attended as a child. He described the Secretary of State's intervention as "undemocratic and aggressive". Local opposition, possibly including legal challenges to imposed Academy status, may check or halt this development since there is no reliable evidence yet of Academy status raising standards in primary schools.

No doubt more schools, especially secondaries, will become Academies by the end of 2012 but there are no convincing signs yet of a mass opting in by primary schools.

National College

The previously independent National College for School Leadership is now very much an arm of the DfE - the "provisional wing" as one wag described it. It will therefore be seen to promote Free School and Academy agendas. More importantly, it has an expanded brief which increasingly encompasses governance and governor training - though it clearly lacks the resources to deliver the training itself.

The first solid outcome of this will be the national Chairs' training package due in April. Early indications suggest that the package will be very demanding of trainees' time and somewhat theoretical. It will be interesting to see how many or how few delegates come forward to undertake it. Alongside the training is the development of National Leaders of Governance or NLGs for short. Criteria for eligibility have been drafted and training is in development. The College website will be overhauled to provide better resources for governors generally.


The Department's Business Plan is the key source of information about what's on the DfE agenda. Unfortunately, it has not been updated since May 2011, so most of the actions do not extend beyond December 2011. Can it be that they've run out of things to do? Don't hold your breath.

School finances

School funding for 2012-13 will continue on broadly similar terms to those applying in 2011-12 but significant changes are due in 2013-2014 following consultation and new proposals.

However, according to a report in the Guardian: "Pupils are being denied careers advice at a time of record youth unemployment, schools are scrapping projects to help the neediest children catch up on their reading, and teachers of music, art and sport are losing their jobs... The education secretary, Michael Gove, claimed last year that the government was "protecting the frontline" and the coalition says schools and colleges will manage to save £1bn between now and 2014 just by trimming back-office functions. However, research by the Guardian indicates that shrinking budgets are already significantly reducing the range and quality of education on offer to all pupils across England, from toddlers to teenagers. Even schools in deprived neighbourhoods have to make swingeing cuts, despite receiving the pupil premium, which this year has equated to an extra £488 for each child who receives free school meals."

LA finances

Local authorities face another year of cuts as part of a four-year austerity drive and some of the smaller ones may well have to end the provision of any services other than those which are statutory or self-financing. Governor Services teams will stand or fall according to how well they manage as traded services in a landscape where new rival commercial service providers are emerging. The key advantage LA teams have is local knowledge and what rivals lack is the capacity to replicate the personalised services traditionally associated with effective Governor Services teams but as those teams shrink, their ability to deliver becomes more challenging.


On 1 December the DfE laid revised Admissions Codes before Parliament. Subject to the views of Parliament, these Codes will come into force on 1 February 2012, affecting the 2013/14 admissions intake. The Codes were drafted following a long consultation period. However, some critics have identified late additions that were not part of the consultation. Fiona Millar wrote in the Guardian on 12 December that: "something very sneaky happened between the end of the consultation period and the publication of the new code...A new clause has been inserted, which bans objections in two key areas: where governing bodies have decided to increase their planned admissions number (PAN) and where independent state schools have been allowed an "agreed variation" to the requirement that they follow the admissions code in their funding agreements. It is pretty obvious why this is the thin end of a very long wedge. There are already thousands of independent state schools and technically there is nothing to stop any of them reinstating an array of dodgy admissions practices that years of campaigning managed to outlaw, if the secretary of state will permit it.
...Even more worrying is the potential for the gradual expansion of academic selection. Grammar schools can now expand at will, and it is not inconceivable that a future Conservative secretary of state could give non-selective schools the permission to introduce partial or even total academic selection, which always favours the better-off, via the funding agreement route."

National Curriculum

Michael Gove has (to no-one's surprise) pushed back the timetable for revising the National Curriculum by a year: "In light of the far-reaching and complex nature of the Expert Panel recommendations, and to allow for more radical reform of both curriculum and qualifications, I have decided to change the planned timetable for the introduction of the new National Curriculum. Instead of new curricula for English, mathematics, science and PE being introduced from 2013, and the remainder in 2014, the new curriculum for all subjects will be introduced in 2014." I wonder who'll be Secretary of State when and if the new National Curriculum ever arrives.


The exam boards are under sudden close scrutiny following the scandal exposed by the Daily Telegraph whereby examiners were seen sharing secrets with teachers for money but also because of a series of errors in exam papers written by different boards. It was pointed out at the time that when boards were privatised (under a Conservative government, I recall) and encouraged to compete with one another for business, this kind of result was inevitable. The only surprise is that it has taken so long to emerge.

Michael Gove's recent letter to Ofqual didn't rule out a major overhaul of the system: he wants to know if there are "fundamental issues with the market in GCSE and A levels which act against the effectiveness of rules and regulation". Maybe the clue is in the word "market", Michael: have you already forgotten what happened with the banks?

APPG report on governance

The All Party Parliamentary Group on governance met several times during 2011 following publication of the worst ever report on governance "Who governs the governors?" by an MP and a writer for a recruitment company, neither of whom have any experience of state school governance. The group includes some colleagues who do know something about the subject and its deliberations are due for publication early in 2012. Just what governors need - yet another report. Nonetheless, it will drive whatever the Coalition decides to do next about governance, provided it costs nothing.

Tues December 13th 2011 - Overlooked: raising the profile of governors - the hidden givers - pt.3
Overlooked: raising the profile of governors - the hidden givers - part 3

The first in this series of three articles identified the recommendation in a number of recent reports on governance that the profile of governors should be raised. It then looked at arguments for and against raising that profile. The second article looked at what's already in place, what's been tried, what's been suggested but not tried and what works against raising the profile of governors. In this final piece we look at who might be responsible for raising the profile and what governors themselves can do to help.

Whose responsibility is it?

At national level the Department for Education (DFE) carries some responsibility for publicising the importance and contribution of governors to education in general. Its website includes a section on governors but the school governance team has been steadily reduced over the years, along with a significant reduction in resources to promote governance.

Successive governments and education ministers have made all the right noises about the importance of governance but have almost never backed up their words with actions. The current government and its ministers are no exception. Following the dire "Who governors the governors?" report, yet another parliamentary commission was established to look at governance. The last thing that's needed is yet another committee report. Governors deserve action on the common recommendations of all the other reports published in the last five years. This lack of action is a symptom of the disregard politicians have for this huge group, one of the key components of the Big Society and, one might think, agents of Localism, so prized by Ministers.

The National College for School Leadership (NCSL) should, by definition, include governance in its brief but does not. Nonetheless, in recent years it has provided some useful materials for governors, such as those on succession planning and has been contracted to develop new national training for chairs of governors, due in 2012. Yet this is a drop in the ocean compared to what it could do, if its resources and efforts were directed towards the promotion of governance.

Ofsted doesn't really have a responsibility in this regard and yet, ironically, has probably done more than most organisations to recognise the centrality of governance to the success of failure of schools. All Ofsted reports currently grade the effectiveness of the governing body and nearly always include specific references to them in the detail. Its recent report "School governance: learning from the best" is a celebration of outstanding governance.

The National Governors Association (NGA) represents governors nationally and does a great job with minimal resources, including the awards noted above. It is frustrating, though, that the voice and influence of governors on education policy is in direct disproportion to their huge numbers - 350,000 nationally.

Regional Governor Associations struggle with minimal resources to ensure adequate governor representation at Council level but some have succeeded in influencing local education policies.

Governors can be their own worst enemies, of course. Giving freely of their time and commitment to their local school is enough for most. Many struggle for consistent attendance because of the pressures of their lives. Asking volunteers to become more active in the promotion of governance beyond their locality is a bridge too far for the majority, so their potentially powerful voice remains silent or mouse like at best.

Local Authority Governor Services teams are being decimated and starved of resources as a result of Council budget cuts. Even those who have consistently done everything possible to promote governance are now struggling against the odds. As the marketplace for services to schools and governors becomes more fragmented and competitive, any focus on raising the profile of governance locally will probably disappear.

So, in the end, it comes back to governors themselves.

Sometimes it takes a local problem or issue to bring governors to the notice of parents and the local community. The death of a child on a school trip, for example, or a crisis over school closure sees the governors taking centre stage for once, facing down an angry crowd or articulating the grief of a community. Whilst one would never wish for such events, they can bring some unexpected benefits, such as the recruitment of parent governors, once the parent body sees how vital the governors can be.

On a less dramatic and traumatic note, governors can seize many opportunities within their school to promote themselves and the cause of governance, but, again, often miss a trick.

Almost every school runs its own website. They vary in quality from the very basic static single page version to the all-bells-and-whistles variety. I recently had cause to search through about 30 school websites looking for information on the governing body. I was struck by the difficulty I encountered in finding just where the governors were on each site. The worst example was one where there was an advert for a parent governor election but absolutely no information about the governors themselves or what they do. In most cases, a bit of a search tracked down a list of governors which might include a little additional information such as dates of expiry of terms of office. The best included a full list but also presented pen portraits of the governors and explained their role and significance. Even in this case, though, it wasn't immediately obvious where to find the information.

Given the power, responsibility and key roles of school governors, should they not be very prominent on a school website? They are, with the head and leadership team, the school's leaders. A website enables governors to explain who they are, what they do, what they are currently engaged with, how they work…anything you like, almost. It's a golden opportunity to raise the profile, but it's being missed.

There are, of course, many other avenues open to governors to publicise themselves, including school newsletters, their own newsletters, attendance at a range of different sorts of parents' meetings and events, and, dare I say, an annual report? Governors of Academies, which are businesses in their own right, are required to prepare an annual report in the same way as any other sizeable concern. Non-Academy governors could do likewise, enjoying the freedom of not having to include any prescribed content. As well as publicising who they are and what they've achieved, governors could focus on the year ahead, laying out crucial decisions that will be made at various points, what plans are in place to improve the school and anticipating forthcoming vacancies as opportunities for new people to join.

Perhaps, in the end, it doesn't really matter that governors are invisible as long as they fulfil their function effectively but clearly there are things a governing body can do, with a little effort, to make themselves and their role in school more noticeable. If they're waiting for someone else to do it for them, they'll be waiting in vain.

Monday December 5th 2011 - Overlooked: raising the profile of governors - the hidden givers - pt.2
Overlooked: raising the profile of governors - the hidden givers
The first in this series of three articles identified the recommendation in a number of recent reports on governance that the profile of governors should be raised. It then looked at arguments for and against raising that profile. This article looks at what's already in place, what's been tried, what's been suggested but not tried and what works against raising the profile of governors.

What's been tried?


  • The annual national Teaching Awards include a category of governor of the year, selected from regional nominations. The ceremony has a high profile and is broadcast on BBC2 each autumn. While most categories are sponsored by private and public organisations, the governor of the year is sponsored by the DfE - evidence that other categories have a greater appeal?

  • The National Governors' Association (NGA) runs awards for Governing Body and clerk of the year. Last year's presentation was at the House of Commons

  • Governors are occasionally nominated for and awarded titles and honours as part of the national honours system but the process by which this may be done remains obscure and possibly under-used through ignorance of the appropriate procedure

  • Some local authority Governor Service teams run awards, often to recognise long service. Without wishing to detract from such long term commitment, it isn't in itself a guarantor of excellence, more an acknowledgement of and admiration for stamina!

  • Governor Mark, the national quality standard for governance, remains available as a form of accreditation for conscientious and reflective governing bodies prepared to invest in self-evaluation. Getting on for 70 governing bodies have achieved the "badge" so far and many more (precise number unknown) have used it as a form of self-review without accessing the formal accreditation route. This suggests that governing bodies are modest and self-critical by nature.

Local authority representation

  • Local authorities have to include Parent Governor Representatives (PGRs) on various committees. The PGR's role is first and foremost to represent parents rather than governors but nonetheless the PGR role enables the possibility of a governor perspective in discussions. Other governors take up places on a range of LA committees, such as Schools Forum. Where there is a thriving local association of governors from which nominees can be identified, there is some reassurance that those nominees are representative of governors as a whole and of some form of two-way communication between those representatives and the main body of governors in an area

  • Many local councillors are also school governors and could potentially help to raise governors' profile locally and at Council level. This can, though, be a mixed blessing, as reported in The Hidden Givers (University of Bath, 2010):

"There was evidence that local councillors acting as local authority governors/
members of governing bodies bring both advantages and disadvantages. There was evidence that local councillors in the local authority governor role can bring important expertise and experience and can have a helpful wider policy perspective. In other examples, there were problems, typically about conflict over roles."

This feels like a missed opportunity to promote both governance and the general principle of volunteering, a policy close to the heart of the current government

Accounting to parents

  • Until relatively recently, governing bodies were required to publish an annual report and hold a parents' meeting at which the report would be discussed. In theory, this meant that the governors would appear before the public at least once in the year. In reality very few parents attended the meeting, so it and the report were scrapped. This means that it is now possible for parents never to meet any governors in person, except by accident, but most governing bodies make some effort to ensure they listen to and speak with parents - and many do it very well

What's been suggested but not tried?

  • Where are the local governors in Eastenders or Corrie? Soap operas have a good track record of raising awareness of social issues, so have the potential to focus on school governors. Archers' fans are familiar with the dramatic power struggles on the Parish Council but we never hear anything about the governors at any local schools. The problems are that writers themselves are probably unaware of school governance, unless they happen to have served in that capacity and even if there were a relevant storyline, it would doubtless have to exaggerate the reality of the job in order to make good drama, so it could be counter-productive

  • Many people in the public eye, like John Snow, are or have served as governors. Potentially they could use their fame to promote governance but once again, their altruistic motivation to be a governor militates against publicising the fact, as it does in relation to the many charities famous people support.

What works against raising the profile of governors?

There is such a thing as bad publicity. Following publication of the recent report "Who governs the governors?" the Times Education Supplement included a lead article which was dismissive of governance and downright insulting to the thousands of excellent governors around the country. Like the report, the leader was ill-informed, misleading and damaging to the cause. There are few positive stories about governance in the media.

Government Ministers are often eager to publicise any additional funding they can find for schools, especially when it's scarce. Instead of talking about the money going to governors, whose ultimate responsibility it is, they always refer to giving heads more money. This downplaying of governors' responsibilities is depressingly common, despite the protestations of those who know better.

As we've seen, governors can be their own worst enemies, choosing to hide their light under a bushel even when they've made a major contribution to school improvement.

In the next and final part we'll look at whose responsibility it is to raise the profile of governors and what governors themselves can do to achieve this.

Monday November 21st 2011 - Overlooked: raising the profile of governors - the hidden givers
Overlooked: raising the profile of governors - the hidden givers

Recent reports on governance and last Autumn's White Paper "The Importance of Teaching" have noted the general lack of recognition of school governors by society at large and recommend or commit to action to address the profile-deficit.

"Governing our schools" (Bath University 2008) said clearly that governance was
"Overlooked - what governing bodies are responsible for and how they should function has not received enough of the right kind of attention and the work of governing bodies goes largely unnoticed."

It went on to recommend that: "The status of governing bodies should be enhanced, their contribution more widely recognised, and greater publicity given to school governing in all sectors of society especially the business community."

The simultaneous report by Business in the Community (also called "Governing our schools") echoed those views and made a more specific recommendation:

"The public profile of school governing should be raised. Companies and all 'non-school' work organisations should be encouraged to play a part in recruitment. Where schools or groups of schools have a business and higher education partner, the partners could be represented on the governing body" and "We recommend that employers should support a national campaign aimed at getting employers (particularly large and medium-sized employers) to recognise the value and importance of supporting their employees as school governors."

Two years later there was apparently* no sign of change or action on the recommendations: "School governors give an enormous amount to the education system in England, yet their contribution is largely hidden from public view." ("The Hidden Givers", Bath University 2010). The Coalition government's White Paper "The Importance of Teaching" (2010) accepted this view and promised action:

"School governors are the unsung heroes of our education system. They are one of the biggest volunteer forces in the country, working in their spare time to promote school improvement and to support head teachers and teachers in their work. To date, governors have not received the recognition, support or attention that they deserve. We will put that right."

* The Education and Employers Task Group on Governance did follow through on the recommendation of a national campaign to persuade organisations to promote governance with some success

Why should the profile be raised?

The original Bath University report asserted the need for the profile of governance to be raised without really saying why. The assumption seemed to be that because governors do a good job and yet people don't know who they are or what they do, this must be wrong. Whilst many involved in governance will instinctively agree with the recommendation, it deserves greater scrutiny.

Governors themselves do not make a big issue about it, because they don't become governors in order to win public approval and acclamation - it is a voluntary activity and their motives are largely altruistic. Their concern is for their school, in the main, rather than governance per se. Other large groups of volunteers, such as carers, seem to feel the same way about public recognition. There is, unfortunately, a small minority of "badge collectors" amongst governors - that is, people who take it on because it looks good on their CV and/or is a paving slab on the path to a particular job.

One argument raised by the BITC report is that greater public recognition of governance would lead to greater numbers of high quality volunteers coming forward to become school governors. Yet by and large there is not a problem with governor recruitment. There are regional and seasonal peaks and troughs but data collected by National Co-Ordinators of Governor Services over 5 years show that the national average vacancy rate tends to stick between 10 and 12%, which reflects a reasonably healthy turnover rate as much as anything. SGOSS has done a good job in recruiting and deploying volunteers as governors and there is some evidence that other campaigns, like A Local Lawyer in Every School (ALLIES), contribute to maintaining a low vacancy rate.

The not-so-hidden agenda, though, is the move to get more "high quality" people into governing bodies - for which, read "professionals" - based on the assumption that many current governors are not up to the job. Ofsted have noted a decline in the proportion of governing bodies achieving an outstanding grade, as HMCI Christine gilbert wrote in her annual report for 2009-10: "Governance is one of the weaker aspects of leadership inspected this year, being good or outstanding in 56% of schools. In just over a fifth of the schools inspected, governance was judged to be less effective than leadership, which suggests that there is potential in many schools for governors to make a greater contribution than they do at present to improving outcomes." Whether this can be explained purely in terms of a failure to recruit "professional" governors remains unexplored.

There is also a political argument that says a group as large as this should have a much louder voice and influence over policies that affect its members and those for whom they are responsible. Raising its profile would help to achieve this.

Recent national and international scandals involving the banking and media sectors have highlighted the drastic consequences of ineffective scrutiny and corporate governance. One might have expected a renewed effort to insist on much more effective governance in all institutions, including schools, but it has been conspicuous by its absence. Nonetheless, the public cannot have failed to notice that the absence of effective governance has a real impact on everyone's lives.

Does it matter that governors have a low profile? Readers will have their own views. For the purposes of the rest of this sequence of 3 articles let us assume that it does and that there are strategies available for greater public recognition of governors.

More soon...

  Sunday November 13th 2011 - How accountable are Academy governors?:-  
How accountable are Academy governors?

At a recent conference I asked the Academy governors present what mechanisms were in place to ensure regular accountability, in the sense of giving an account to parents and other interested parties. None knew. This may be because the Academies had converted only recently but it got me wondering about how accountability is meant to work in Academies, especially when part of a chain.

According to Helen Flynn, contributor to the Local Schools Network ( "academies have a corporate structure, being charitable companies, and the Members of the Trust Board and indeed the Governors are in fact directors. Going further, the members of the Trust Board are also shareholders, and once they have been appointed, can continue as long as they like (as long as there are no transgressions), there being no lengths of term of office stipulated. If you refer to the UK Corporate Governance Code 2010 (which Academies must fall under now), you will notice that one of the three basic recommendations is: "each board should have an audit committee composed of non-executive directors". When I trawled through all the academy statutory guidance, Articles of Association and draft funding agreement, etc, there is no mention made of a requirement for an academy to have an audit committee."

Hmmmm. The possibility of confused and confusing lines of accountability seems very high. I then looked at some Academies' websites to see what information they provide to parents.

In the FAQs listed on the website of Rawlins Community College, Leicestershire, it lists the main accountability safeguards, but each seems weak:

"Governors would remain accountable to our parental body" - but there is no formal requirement or format for this. Currently in maintained schools, this continues to be a weakness, ever since the Annual Report to Parents was abolished under the last government.

"Governors would also be monitored by Ofsted" - except that schools judged outstanding by Ofsted will not be inspected in future, and many Converter Academies are outstanding. The new Ofsted framework from January 2012 does not include a separate judgement on governance.

"Parents would still be able to trigger inspections by complaining to Ofsted" - this happens very rarely indeed and there is no reason to suspect that it will increase as a result of the new Ofsted framework.

"The YPLA (Young Peoples Learning Agency) would monitor school finances" - this has been identified as an area of weakness by the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee. The YPLA will be replaced by the EFA in future but there is currently no information about what it will do.

"The LA (Local Authority) has the right to refer an Academy to the Secretary of State if they have concerns over standards" - but Academies have been "set free" from LA control and School Improvement Partners have been abolished. If it wishes, an Academy can close itself off from the LA.

"Parents would also retain the right to complain to relevant ombudsmen depending upon the issue, for instance: admissions". Perhaps, but again, one questions how often this would happen or the complaint be upheld. A new Admissions Code is currently out for consultation and may undermine this right.

Oddly, missing from this list is any mention of financial accountability to Companies House, which in some ways is one of the strengths of Academy accountability, in contrast with mainstream schools.

On the face of it, governors' accountability in Academies is poorly defined and understood, lacks formal, strong mechanisms to ensure compliance, is hermetically sealed within the organisation and is in danger of being weakened still further as Academy chains grow larger and more powerful. It is very much in the hands of the governors and Trust Board members themselves to insist on robust and transparent accountability systems and processes, not least for their own protection in ever more autonomous schools.

Sunday October 30th 2011 - Do Academies lead to improvement?:-
Do Acadamies lead to improvement?

If my school becomes an Academy, will it improve?

Based on statistics yet to be checked by schools, the DfE boasted proudly that "Academies see double the increase of other maintained schools at GCSE" (20 Oct 2011).

It failed to remind us that there are two very different sorts of Academies and they were only talking about one sort.

Sponsored Academies were set up mainly under the last Labour government where all other attempts to improve them had failed. They were given new buildings and funded very generously. Michael Gove abolished Building Schools for the Future and the generous funding of that phase of Academies. The Academies referred to in the dramatic DfE headline comprise 166 Sponsored Academies with results in both 2010 and 2011.

Converter Academies were introduced by the Coalition government, initially based on already outstanding schools and with much less generous funding and usually no new buildings. Few have been going long enough to be included in the latest statistical release.

Serious statisticians take great pains to compare like-with-like and ensure absolute clarity when defining terms. Not so the DfE.

If they show anything, the statistics imply that any improvement in Academy results is a direct result of the previous government's policies in schools starting from a very low base of achievement. It is, of course, a matter of celebration that those policies have led to significant improvement and the staff and pupils deserve acclaim. But not all Sponsored Academies have achieved this "doubling" of improvement and sustaining such a rapid rise over more than one year is near impossible.

Since the first tranche of Converter Academies were outstanding schools (based to a large extent on exam results and rates of progress), there is no chance that once their results are included in future analyses the claimed "double increase" will be maintained. The logical implication is that at best their results will stay the same or decline. Even when combined with the results of the Sponsored Academies, there is no chance that the doubling effect will be achieved again.

Young people spend five years in their secondary school. Few, if any, of the students achieving the dramatic results trumpeted by the DfE will have spent their whole secondary education in an Academy. To make fair comparisons, one should wait to see the results of Academies after five years of operation. But by then the Coalition government will no doubt be long gone.

So, if my school becomes an Academy, will it improve? It might, but I wouldn't bank on it.

Price Waterhouse Coopers (2008) systematically reviewed and evaluated the distinctive features of sponsored academies, put them in their wider context and set them beside local and national comparators. They concluded that there is no simple uniform academy effect, since there is a complex range of variables interacting within each academy.

Academy status, in and of itself, makes no difference: improvement depends upon the usual suspects - leadership, teaching, learning...

I'd be surprised if anyone's surprised by that.

Tuesday October 25th 2011 - Too Old? Too White?:-
Too Old? Too White?

A report in the Guardian (19.10.2011) says:
"There's a gaping divide between chairs of school governing boards and the communities they are meant to represent, a new study shows.
Researchers at the University of Bath, who've gathered information on 2,200 chairs of school governing boards, say 97% are white and British. Many are over 60 (33%) - just 8% are under 40.
These are stark figures which paint a picture of a monoculture in charge of school governance. But they aren't actually that surprising."
For the whole article, go to:-

  Wednesday October 19th 2011 - Ofsted's new boss:-  
Ofsted's new boss

Sir Michael Wilshaw is to be the new head of Ofsted.

He was very critical of governing bodies in an interview in The Guardian recently: "If local democracy had worked, if local governing bodies had worked in the most challenging schools and for the most disadvantaged children, we would never have needed academies," he says. "Often governing bodies are the problem, actually."

The article points out that he is also the education director for the Ark chain of Academies.

Mike Baker writes in the Guardian 18.10.2011 ("Come back, LEAs, all is forgiven?"):

"The spread of academy chains brings another problem. Some have big ambitions. The charity E-ACT, for example, wants 250 academies. Others, such as ARK and Oasis, plan chains running well into double figures and the Harris Federation already has a powerful concentration of schools in south-east London. The big question is this: what happens when one academy chain runs the majority of schools in an area? At what point does this become a monopoly undermining the intended market reforms? So, now policy advisers are privately mulling the tricky question of whether central government should impose a limit on the percentage of schools one academy chain is allowed to run in any locality."

Under Wilshaw's leadership, Ofsted will continue to inspect governance within the quality of leadership and management according to the new draft framework for inspection published recently. There's also a new set of descriptors for this aspect of the school but no separate one for governance.

Of course, one shouldn't assume he will have the same degree of autonomy and power enjoyed by his notorious predecessor Chris Woodhead, so perhaps governors shouldn't feel too endangered a species.

On the other hand, though, shouldn't he at least declare his interest in Ark's plans to expand?

Tuesday October 4th 2011 - Often governing bodies are the problem, actually:-
Often governing bodies are the problem, actually

Sir Michael Wilshaw, described as "the super-strict head at Mossbourne academy in Hackney, and rumoured to become the new head of Ofsted", was very critical of governing bodies in the Saturday Interview by Susanna Rustin in The Guardian on Saturday 17 September 2011. You can read the whole interview at

Rustin wrote: Governance is Wilshaw's other theme, and he is scathing about anti-academies campaigners who complain about the schools' lack of democratic accountability. "If local democracy had worked, if local governing bodies had worked in the most challenging schools and for the most disadvantaged children, we would never have needed academies," he says. "Often governing bodies are the problem, actually."

Many governors may flinch instinctively at such forthright criticism and take a defensive stance. Even if the criticism has some truth in it, academies aren't necessarily the answer - the jury is definitely still out because it's much too soon to tell how effective converting academies are. Sponsored academies, such as Wilshaw's, enjoyed all the benefits of the last government's generous funding, including a state-of-the-art famous architect designed new school. They are in a very small minority. This is not to deny the school's success but to question Wilshaw's generalised and opinionated criticism - not encouraging to see in a potential Ofsted chief.

In a more recent Guardian article, ("Labour could build trust by committing to evidence in education policies" Monday 26 September) Estelle Morris argued persuasively for evidence-based policy making in education, with an arms-length independent body to guarantee neutrality, akin to the NHS's National Centre for Clinical Excellence (NICE) and treasury's Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR).

"The government is fond of quoting the success rates of chains of academies like the Harris schools in south London. Again, this is true. Based in challenging areas, Harris schools have produced some outstanding results and are a real example of what can be achieved. Yet so are the results of schools in Tower Hamlets, the poorest borough in the country, which now regularly outperforms the national average - and has no academies. What is this evidence telling us?"
It is too simplistic to blame governors alone for schools' failures, though they do bear some significant responsibility. Challenging the professionals in school is incredibly demanding and difficult to get right and heads like Wilshaw are very skilled at minimising governors' impact, if they so choose.

Susanna Rustin herself asked a series of questions challenging Wilshaw's world view, including "If school governors aren't good enough, why aren't they offered training?" This naive question will have irritated every Local Authority Governor Services professional in the country, since governor training has been available everywhere for at least fifteen years - but is now under severe threat as a result of local government cuts. Governor training is not compulsory, despite repeated demands from governance professionals and support organisations, backed up by a series of recent authoritative national reports.

Ofsted's recent report "School governance: learning from the best" provides solid evidence that governors can have a huge impact on school improvement and that LA governing training plays a significant part in enabling them to succeed. Evidence-based and positive about governance - has Sir Michael Wilshaw bothered to read this report from the organisation he hopes to lead? If not, isn't it about time he did?

Tuesday September 20th 2011 - What is a good GCSE?:-
What is a good GCSE?

Earlier this month David Cameron announced that "By the end of this Parliament, an underperforming failing school will be deemed one where less than fifty per cent of pupils are getting five good GCSEs."

A brief history lesson for school governors

Before there were GCSEs, there were GCEs and CSEs.

Before there were comprehensive schools, there were grammar schools, technical grammar schools and secondary modern schools.

The majority of young people failed the national test at 11 years of age - the Eleven Plus - and went to secondary moderns. The test was predicated on a kind of quantity theory suggesting that there is a fixed amount of intelligence in any generation. Only the brightest of those "failures" got to sit GCEs.

O levels

The GCE O level exam (O for Ordinary, as opposed to A for Advanced) was designed to test the top 20% who went to grammar and independent schools. Grammar school children were usually "streamed" according to their supposed ability. The range of grades available stretched from 1-6 or A-E depending on the exam board. In 1975 the range was standardised as letter grades, when grades A-C were classified as "pass". So, of that original 20% of students, a much smaller proportion achieved a pass.


The CSE exam was introduced in 1965 as a form of accreditation for non-GCE students - mainly those in secondary moderns who made up 80% of the school population (and for the lower streams in grammar schools). Prior to that, those students left school with few or usually no qualifications, since few were available.
There were five CSE pass grades ranging from grades 1 to 5. Grades 1 to 3 were recognised as being equivalent to the four (later 3) lowest O-Level pass grades. A CSE grade 1 was equivalent to O-Level grade 3 on the earlier O-Level grading system. Pupils could take a mixture of CSEs and O-levels.


Introduced in 1988, the GCSE, as its name suggests, merged GCE and CSE to provide a qualification to reflect the attainment of the whole range of young people in comprehensive schools.

At the end of the two-year GCSE course, candidates receive a grade for each subject that they have sat. The pass grades, from highest to lowest, are: A*, A, B, C, D, E, F and G.

In common parlance a good GCSE grade is anything between A*-C, which were said in 1988 to be equivalent to the preceding full range of O level grades. Grades D-G were equivalent to the full range of CSE grades.

History and the previous logic of the accreditation system suggests, then, that roughly 80% of young people are likely to achieve grades D-G, which are regarded as not good GCSE grades. Not good is equivalent to bad or worthless.

GCSE comparison Table

Grade boundaries

For any grading system to work, each year it has to be decided what range of marks constitutes any one grade in any GCSE subject. This "grade boundary" may vary from one year to the next, so that a score of x one year might achieve, say, a D grade, whereas the same score the following year might result in an E grade.

Also in the past only a fixed proportion of candidates would be permitted to achieve each of the grades, no matter how well that year's candidates performed. This preserved the notion of a grade range and protected against "grade inflation" if more and more students performed better and better. In recent years we have seen a bizarre phenomenon whereby annual increases in the number of A and A* grades have triggered headlines about falling standards, on the basis that the exams must be getting easier to pass, not that students are improving.

If, as David Cameron has said, we now expect 50% of the school leaving population to achieve 5 or more good GCSEs, we will still be labelling the other 50% as failures. That's better than 80%, of course, but history and grade definitions are not on his side. And if he succeeds, how long will it be before we have to introduce a new grading system to differentiate between the "even-gooder" GCSE grades achieved by the top 50%, so that the success of the best can continue to be defined in terms of the failure of the majority?

Our educational tradition, unlike that of nearly all other countries is still rooted in an outmoded academic model which depends for its success on the failure of a huge proportion of our young people. No amount of Free School and Academies will ever put that right.

Tuesday August 30th 2011 - How's your corporate governance?:-

how's your corporate governance?

"Corporate governance has been gaining more predominance around the world over the last decade. However the last year or so... has seen an unprecedented interest in some of the areas that are central to corporate governance: executive remuneration; boards of directors, independent non-executive directors; internal controls and risk management; the role of shareholders."
Chris Mallin; Feb 2009

Major national scandals affecting the banks, the police, MPs and the press have often highlighted the failures of corporate governance in each institution. But what is corporate governance?

Principles of Corporate Governance
Source: the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, an attempt by the federal government in the United States to legislate several of the principles recommended in earlier Cadbury and OECD reports:

  • Rights and equitable treatment of shareholders: Organizations should respect the rights of shareholders and help shareholders to exercise those rights. They can help shareholders exercise their rights by openly and effectively communicating information and by encouraging shareholders to participate in general meetings.
  • Interests of other stakeholders: Organizations should recognize that they have legal, contractual, social, and market driven obligations to non-shareholder stakeholders, including employees, investors, creditors, suppliers, local communities, customers, and policy makers.
  • Role and responsibilities of the board: The board needs sufficient relevant skills and understanding to review and challenge management performance. It also needs adequate size and appropriate levels of independence and commitment to fulfil its responsibilities and duties.
  • Integrity and ethical behaviour: Integrity should be a fundamental requirement in choosing corporate officers and board members. Organizations should develop a code of conduct for their directors and executives that promotes ethical and responsible decision making.
  • Disclosure and transparency: Organizations should clarify and make publicly known the roles and responsibilities of board and management to provide stakeholders with a level of accountability. They should also implement procedures to independently verify and safeguard the integrity of the company's financial reporting. Disclosure of material matters concerning the organization should be timely and balanced to ensure that all investors have access to clear, factual information.

    If we apply those principles to school governing bodies, adapting the language slightly to reflect the educational context, we could test the quality of our corporate governance by asking these questions:

  • Who are our shareholders/stakeholders?
  • What are our obligations to them and how well do we fulfil those obligations?
  • Does the GB have sufficient relevant skills and understanding to review and challenge management performance?
  • Is it an adequate size and are there appropriate levels of independence and commitment to fulfil its responsibilities and duties?
  • Is integrity a fundamental requirement in choosing our chair, vice chair, clerk and GB members (where we have a choice)?
  • Do we have a code of conduct for us and our leadership team that promotes ethical and responsible decision making?
  • Do we clarify and make publicly known the roles and responsibilities of the GB and school management to provide stakeholders with a level of accountability?
  • Have we implemented procedures to independently verify and safeguard the integrity of the school's financial reporting?
  • Is the disclosure of material matters concerning the school timely and balanced to ensure that all interested parties have access to clear, factual information?
  • Let's hope the answer's yes to all these questions. If not, we need to raise our game.

Thursday July 28th 2011 - Govey's Dream School:-
Govey's dream school

One of the main lessons of the News Corp debacle is said to be the recognition of the importance of corporate governance. Ethical corporate governance implies diligence, disinterestedness and robust challenge against published standards.

The Murdoch empire appears to be constructed in such a way as to ensure that the family, operating in its own interests, is largely unaccountable and holds all the real power. Whilst journalists can investigate, police can interview and government can accuse, only shareholders and customers can really inflict lasting damage on "our thing". Everyone agrees it has all gone much too far and should never have been allowed to happen in the first place.

Ex-Times leader writer Michael Gove (married to another Times leader writer) and erstwhile friend of Rebekah Brookes (and Jamie Oliver who calls him "Govey") might reflect on this lesson for his project to turn every school into an Academy. Mad keen to free up "outstanding" and other schools from local authority oversight (unnecessary bureaucracy, in his opinion) and hand them over to sponsors from the private sector, relieving them of the tedious business of regular inspection, he should begin to consider the longer term implications of such a cavalier policy.

Academies have to be based on a Trust. The Trust decides on the structure and membership of the governing body. If the Academy has a sponsor, the sponsor appoints the majority of governors. Substitute "the Murdochs" for "the sponsor". Does this ring any alarm bells yet? The Academy project is not yet mature enough for a definitive assessment of its effectiveness . In time, many Academies will doubtless prove to be highly successful. Others will fail, probably spectacularly. When they do, inadequate corporate governance will inevitably be identified as a root cause. The local authority, if it still exists, will be left to pick up the pieces, just as the taxpayer had to bail out the banks. And Govey will have moved on to other things.

In maintained schools, governing bodies are based on the stakeholder principle, whereby key groups with an interest in the school are represented according to set proportions. They are subject to regular inspection by Ofsted and are part of the local authority family of schools. Things still go wrong in these schools, but at least the necessary checks, balances and oversight are in place. Corporate governance ensures proper accountability.

Time for another U-turn?

Wednesday July 13th 2011 - When will we see some action?:-
When will we see some action?

When will we see some action, Mr Gove?

Last autumn's Education White Paper The Importance of Teaching promised action to improve the lot of school governors:

School governors are the unsung heroes of our education system. They are one of the biggest volunteer forces in the country, working in their spare time to promote school improvement and to support head teachers and teachers in their work. To date, governors have not received the recognition, support or attention that they deserve. We will put that right.

So far nothing has changed. There is no sign that it will. This may not come as a surprise.
There have been some excellent reports on governance in the last few years - and one really crap one, described by Michael Gove as "superb", which tends to confirm one's worst suspicions about the man and his poor grasp of reality.
If we look at the good reports, the common recommendations are:

  • We need greater clarity over roles, especially headteacher and governing body
  • Professional clerking should be the norm
  • Mandatory training for new governors, chairs and clerks is essential
  • Wider representation on governing bodies would go a long way towards improving them
  • The work of GBs should be recognised and their profile raised
What have we got instead?

Yet another review of governance, via an All Party Parliamentary Group on Governance, which will no doubt take years to report, like the last one, and will reach the same conclusions as the bullet points listed above and by which time there will be a new secretary of State for Education who will no doubt commission a new review of governance, and so on, ad infinitum.
We don't need another review, we need some action.
Get on with it, Gove!

Friday June 10th 2011 - New report "gob-smackingly awful":-
New report "gob-smackingly awful"

A new report "Who governs the governors?" by Neil Carmichael MP and Edward Wild has recently been published. You can download the report from here or from our downloads page.

It is gob-smackingly awful. The authors show no personal knowledge or experience of governance in an ordinary school and have read just a few of the many authoritative reports on governance in recent years, ignoring the most important ones, such as the comprehensive University of Bath study "Governing Our Schools".

Many of the "facts" on which they base their conclusions are wrong; for example LEAs (sic) have not disappeared; traditional school governing bodies do not "typically number anything from 15 to 30". They don't even get the language of governance right, referring to "boards" throughout instead of "governing bodies". The vast majority of "experts" consulted represent the private sector and other non-mainstream educational schools and organisations. They have clearly not spoken to the National Governors' Association or any Diocesan Education Boards, to name but two well-informed bodies.

They make outrageous statements based on nothing at all - "Too often schools have sacrificed quality in order to ensure proportional representation from parents, local politicians and particular professions to the detriment of other groups or individuals who may not easily fall into a specific category." They have not the slightest idea how governors are appointed and elected in the vast majority of schools; they ignore the fact that the existing model of governance is enshrined in legislation accumulated over the decades since the 1980s and regurgitate some tiresome old canards about governing body size and remuneration.

They propose a database for people to volunteer as governors, not seeming to realise that the School Governors One-Stop Shop has existed for 10 years to do just that. They don't realise that a Ministerial working group tackled some of these issues just a year or ago and published a detailed report.

Parents are, for these authors, part of the problem, not the solution:

"We did not find any evidence to demonstrate the benefits of a fixed number of governors who are parents of pupils within a school, nor did we see a board without current parents as being in any way less effective than one with a number of them" and yet: "We want to make schools boards increasingly diverse, without sacrificing expertise." But not so diverse as to include parents.

Governing bodies, under current legislation, are accountable, first and foremost, to the parents who choose to send their children to the school. This is why there are parent governors, to see from the inside what's happening and to take on proper responsibility for ensuring the school is run well and in the interests of its young people and the community.

And they manage at the end to say nothing new at all. In answer to their slightly altered opening question, "Who should govern the governors?" they conclude that "Boards should become self-regulatory with an external eye". Why not, eh? It worked so well in the banking sector, didn't it?

Read it and weep.

Weds May 4th 2011 - New school governor website launches:-
New school governor website launches

Welcome to The Governor, the website for all school governors. The Governor is where to find everything you could ever want to help you in your role, in one place - much of it free.

Run by David Marriott, the Governor is based on the core values of public service:

Integrity - Honesty - Openness - Leadership - Accountability - Selflessness
We are constantly looking for new ways to enhance the site to ensure you can find whatever you need, when you need it. To begin with, we’ve gathered together a library of free downloadable guidance and resources. We comment on the latest news from a governors' perspective, saying the things that need to be said. We point you towards other sites and sources of information according to your needs.

As the site develops we will offer a range of unique services and products for you to buy, from consultancy and training to publications and advice.

We’re not here to undermine or undercut what help, training and support you can get from your local council governor services team: it’s always the best place to start from – but as services disappear or become more and more expensive or unreliable, we’re here to help.

You can contact me at:-

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