Assurance: It’s not sexy, but it’s important

Written by: Mark Wilson | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

From boilers to putrefied rat remains, from magic buckets to burglar alarms – assurance is not well understood in education and the consequences can be catastrophic. MAT chief executive Mark Wilson explains

Assurance. Perhaps not the most exciting subject on the face of it, but please stay with me!

This is an area of school management that in my experience has meant danger, trepidation, near misses – and even the horror of putrefied rats (more about that later).

As chief executive of a large multi-academy trust, I talk a lot about assurance. The concept is generally not well understood in the schools sector, and this represents a problem. At its most basic, we are talking about the process of confirming that an organisation’s requirements are being met and enabling it to operate effectively and efficiently.

For a school, this means everything from making sure the boiler is serviced to ensuring the future investment strategy is appropriate, to monitoring what health and safety risks exist on the site and identifying how effective the HR, estates, finance, governance and IT support services are. In short, staying on top of the detail.

We all know headteachers are under enormous pressure, with competing demands on their time and myriad challenges to tackle every day. Is it any wonder that the burglar alarm check can get missed? Perhaps not, but the little misses can add up and can lead eventually to some much larger issues – issues that might not come to light until it is too late.

The Wellspring Academy Trust is currently a community of 25 schools. Other than our newly built schools, all were under previous administrations – local authority or trust . We have had a front seat view of the widespread difference in assurance across the education sector. While some schools have been managed exceptionally effectively over time, others have not. I am not talking about the quality of education or teaching, or even the first impressions of a school building. I am referring to how well schools are managed holistically; their buildings, their safety, their services, their systems, their resilience and suitability for serving communities of children into the long-term.

Near misses

Two recent “near misses” demonstrate how the absence of assurance can pose immediate dangers. In one, an air conditioning system installed shortly before we sponsored the school was found to be held in place only by the live electrical wiring that the contractor had wrapped around it.

In another, live electrical wires had been left unterminated in a suspended ceiling. In either case, a simple wrong move could have proved catastrophic.

In one of the examples, a local authority was the previous responsible body. In the other, a large MAT. Issues of this type exist agnostic of the previous operating authority.

A more gruesome example of how grim things can get concerns the putrefied remains of long-dead rats and a magic bucket. Not the product of a diseased imagination or a year 6 Halloween-themed creative writing task, this tale is 100 per cent real.

Our due diligence inspection sparked several areas for our curiosity. First of all, an unusual discolouration of ceiling tiles and, second, a bucket in an IT server room that caught drips of water from the ceiling but that mysteriously never needed emptying.

Investigations led to the disturbing discovery of putrefied rat remains above our heads staining the ceiling tiles, along with a water leak from the same area that dripped down into the server room and filled the bucket, which never needed emptying because the heat from the computer equipment caused it to evaporate. Water which passed by dead rats was being vaporised into the air of a modern-day school. This school was rated outstanding by Ofsted at the time.

Procedures in place

We have to take a fundamental look at how our schools are managed and maintained. The procedures in place in many schools and among many responsible bodies currently fall short.

We have developed a sophisticated assurance methodology based on our learning from near misses, the products of our due diligence investigations and simple experience gathered over time. We judge school effectiveness in a holistic sense rather than looking solely through a “school improvement” lens.

School improvement, to me, focuses on the inputs and outputs of what happens in classrooms. School effectiveness takes account of the performance of the HR, finance and estates support, leaders’ future thinking and planning, the maintenance regimes around key infrastructure; all the services that are required for a school to run properly, right down into the detail of it.

We do not believe that having a clean front of house excuses a filthy kitchen any more than we believe that fabulous wall displays negate a deficit budget or an unserviced boiler that will break down during the first cold snap of the winter.

As a trust, we have invested in experts to support our school leaders on the technical detail, giving them greater freedom (and assurance) to focus on the inputs and outputs of what happens in classrooms.

I believe that the Covid-19 experience gives us pause to look backwards and forwards. We should be talking about what we want from our schools as public resources in their broadest sense and about how we measure their effectiveness. I do not agree with measures that can tell parents their children attend an outstanding school if they are breathing contaminated air, are sitting beneath unterminated live wiring or if the school budget is seriously out of control. We rightly put a significant focus on safeguarding in inspections but have a blind spot when it comes to the systems that give school leaders, their governors and responsible bodies assurance in all the basic functions of the school.

Financial implications

In addition to basic safety, there are serious financial implications to assurance blind spots. Having to fix things after the event is significantly more costly than staying on top of them. In one school, the lack of maintenance of the intruder alarm system only raised its head when thieves broke in and stole the boiler and pipework. We were surprised to discover that, in any event, the system only covered classrooms – an expensive way to discover that the school was not as secure as basic common sense would naturally assume.

This is not about blame. Thirty years of government policy has moved the control of – and responsibility for – these matters onto headteachers and governing bodies. So, where do you start? I believe that we should start by considering school effectiveness holistically, with school improvement being one (albeit very important) component of it.

The systems that give the headteacher and governing body assurance of the effectiveness of all functions of the school are as important to the sustainable effectiveness of that school as the things that can be deduced from standards data and a two-day inspection snapshot.

  • Mark Wilson is chief executive officer of Wellspring Academy Trust, a MAT that manages 25 primary, secondary, SEND and alternative provision schools across Yorkshire and Lincolnshire.

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