Gove versus Governors?

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Our Government – which just lurves localism – hopes to fundamentally undermine the influence of democratically-elected local authorities in the education system by encouraging as many schools as possible to become academies.

Once a head decides they quite fancy getting academy status, governing bodies represent one of the few potential obstacles. Parents, councillors, the public do not need to be consulted – governors do. For those of us concerned that Michael Gove’s academy-enthusiasm will result in more organisations seeking profits from running schools, education becoming wholly unaccountable to local communities, and state schools competing with each other even more so than they do already, it’s very important that governors do their job properly.

The problem is, being a governor isn’t a job. Governors aren’t professionals. I should know – I’m one! Being an active governor could be a full-time occupation. Middle-class busybodies though we are, most governors can’t spend every waking hour establishing how each detail of Government policy will affect their school. Governors meetings are crammed full of items for discussion – so much so that I’m sure it can be tempting to try to get home in time for dinner by simply neglecting to challenge staff by asking awkward questions. Plus there’s the instinctive feeling that teachers are the professionals so just trust the head’s opinion.

I am therefore worried that some schools may become academies not because it’s especially appropriate for the school but because the governing body does not fully understand the implications of the academies policy and fails to thoroughly scrutinise the head teacher’s decision.

In the Commons recently Lib Dem Simon Hughes asked: “Could the follow-up to the Secretary of State’s letter to outstanding schools such as ours include a letter to the chair of governors setting out the advantages and disadvantages of academy status to schools, and the advantages and disadvantages, if any, to local authorities and to diocesan boards of education?”

Schools Minister Nick Gibb glibly replied: “I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. Of course the advantages of academy status are very clear: this is about trusting professionals to run their schools without interference from politicians and bureaucrats, either locally or nationally. I am sure that all the people he refers to will be aware of that.”

Au contraire, variation in school structure seems quite complicated to me and the possible consequences of encouraging huge numbers of schools to become academies could be very significant. As a governor, I would actually appreciate being provided with as much information on the policy as possible. If the Government truly is so confident that academy mania is on balance a good thing for education, why not be brave enough to honestly set out the advantages and disadvantages?

The fact that Hughes’ suggestion was ignored makes me think that the Government hopes governors will not do too much reading up on academies. Indeed, Gove’s dream governor is someone who has never read the education section in the Guardian, has forgotten the head teacher’s name so is too embarrassed to ask questions,  and anyway hopes to avoid starting arguments because they need to get back in time for Coronation Street.

Academy sceptics will have to engage with governors of their local schools. Well-informed and well-motivated governors are vital to keeping a check on Gove’s Conservative revolution in the state education system.

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