The consequences of the Trojan Horse affair

Written by: HTU | Published:

Successive governments have viewed the governing body as a means of keeping schools in line. However, with autonomy being abused in some cases, is it governors who now need reining in?

New guidance from Ofsted advises inspectors to “conduct a brief internet search as part of their pre-inspection planning to see whether there are any safeguarding or other issues – for example governance – that may need to be followed up during inspection”.

This proposed online investigation may have its foundations in the Trojan Horse affair that occupied education columns during the summer term. Governing bodies, the protectors of educational settings from the blob, are starting to cause some concern.

The Peter Clarke report

Peter Clarke’s July report into the Trojan Horse allegations is clear that the governing bodies of the schools investigated had overstepped the mark. This included:

  • The take-over of the governing body by like-minded people.
  • Nepotism in staff appointments and appointments to the governing body.
  • Rapid advancement of new or inexperienced governors to the role of chair.
  • Bullying and intimidation of senior teaching staff, and in particular headteachers.
  • Previously highly regarded headteachers made subject to criticism and complaint by governing bodies.
  • Interference by the governing body in the curriculum and the day-to-day running of the school.

He found that some governors were not clear about their roles or exceeded their responsibilities and that there was a cross-over of governors. Some governors served on different governing bodies and staff governors at one school might be parent governors of another – a situation that needs careful monitoring.

It may not be the first time that governors have been criticised for inappropriate actions. However, the high profile of this case alongside the increasing autonomy experienced by many governing bodies makes it all the more concerning.

Recommendations

In his report, Peter Clarke recommends that:

  • The Department for Education (DfE) should review guidance on governor appointment to make it clear that there is a difference between setting the strategic direction and running the school.
  • There should be a presumption that an individual will only be a governor at a maximum of two schools at any one time.
  • All schools should include details on their websites of their governing body, including the full name of the individuals along with any committees they attend and method of appointment.

Mr Clarke is critical of Birmingham City Council who he suggests should take steps to improve the running of its governor support service so that it makes effective appointments and trains governors better. 

There should be improvements in the understanding that the governing body has of its role in setting the strategic direction of the school and holding the head to account in appropriate ways. 

He advises that the DfE should consider the benefits of requiring academies to notify changes in the governing body to the Department, along with stronger powers for the secretary of state to bar an individual from taking part in the management of any type of school.

When holding to account becomes taking over

Finding fault in the way these governing bodies were operating has, arguably, pulled the rug out from under one of the main foundations of the current accountability system. The same expectations of governing bodies that are indicated in the School Inspection Handbook (April 2014) are perhaps not that far removed from the critical comments made in Peter Clarke’s report.

At what point does “ensuring clarity of vision, ethos and strategic direction” (Ofsted’s School Inspection Handbook) become “the take-over of the governing body by like-minded people”? (Peter Clarke’s report).

When does “providing challenge and holding the headteacher and other senior leaders to account for improving the quality of teaching” become “bullying and intimidation”? 

Or “contribute to the school’s self-evaluation and understand its strengths and weaknesses” become “interference by the governing body in the curriculum and day-to-day running of the school”?

There are discernible lines and thousands of governing bodies have found the right balance. However, there will be many headteachers who will feel that their governing bodies have, perhaps, lost the equilibrium.

Even the mission to “raise standards” is implicated, as Peter Clarke describes it: “I found evidence in Birmingham that some governors ... used the argument about raising standards to justify increasing the influence of faith in those schools.”

Time for an overhaul?

The general direction of travel has been to give governors even more influence in their schools. In the DfE’s statutory guidance document, The Constitution of Governing Bodies of Maintained Schools, published in May, the intention is that there is closer matching of governors with the skills needed and the development of more cohesive and dynamic groups. There has even been a push to see governors being paid. 

Sir Tim Brighouse wrote an article in The Guardian recently identifying five key issues in the Trojan Horse controversy, one of which was that the system of school governance needs a total overhaul. He suggests that groups of governors can find themselves forming a “bullying clique” and may need reminding of their respective roles. He wrote: “In short, the weight we are putting on voluntary governors in autonomous schools is too great for them to bear.”

Sir Tim suggests that “some form of local democratic accountability for all schools, separate from governors” should be introduced. In relation to academies, Peter Clarke suggests: “The Department’s systems need to be more sensitive to detecting changes in governance and more effective in responding to warning signs to ensure that academies deliver the provision for which they are contracted.”

A role for Ofsted 

Peter Clarke recommends that consideration should be given to whether the existing inspection framework and guidance is capable of detecting indicators of extremism and ensuring that the character of a school is not changed substantively without following the proper process. 

The emphasis on schools’ good performance in relation to achievement has perhaps masked some of the underlying issues that lie beneath the results. 

The new inspection handbook includes some new expectations of governors. They should:

  • Carry out their statutory duties, such as safeguarding, and understand the boundaries of their role as governors.
  • Ensure that they and the school promote tolerance of and respect for people of all faiths (or those of no faith), cultures and lifestyles; and support and help, through their words, actions and influence within the school and more widely in the community, to prepare children and young people positively for life in modern Britain.
  • Be transparent and accountable, including in terms of recruitment of staff, governance structures, attendance at meetings, and contact with parents and carers.

Governors are warned in the new guidelines not to hinder school improvement by failing to tackle key concerns or developing their own skills. 

There will be some who feel that in terms of the power of the governing body in autonomous schools, this does not go far enough. Others might wonder how such expectations can be properly judged in a two-day inspection.

Inspectors do not have the local knowledge that the local authority once had. It looks as though instead, in an attempt to keep our governing bodies in check, Google must play a helping hand. 

References and further reading


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