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The lessons of Birmingham Schools

(212 Posts)
Mamie Tue 10-Jun-14 07:03:53

I think the issues around this are difficult and complex, but this article has a good attempt at untangling them.

JessM Tue 10-Jun-14 07:22:40

Thanks mamie. It is all very depressing. Too many people piling in and muddying the waters, to say the least. I feel very sorry for the parents, the kids and the people who have been trying hard to raise attainment. Its a huge distraction from that. And some of the criticisms are trivial - lots of schools segregate boys and girls at time and there are lots of completely segregated single sex schools.
No terrorist plots, not even the merest whiff of a smoking gun is good news.
The notion that "governors can be chosen for their skills" is ludicrous. In more affluent areas parents compete to be governors. In least affluent areas you struggle to find governors that are both from the community and can actually understand the role and the meetings, let alone contribute skills.
I still remember the "community leader" who got himself elected unopposed as a parent governor. Then didn't turn up because he had a restaurant to run. Then thought he could send along one of his cooks to meetings to deputise. sad
Anyone know if the OFSTED inspections were the standard 2 days? They usually give their verdict to the school on the third day.
It is very hard to run a school without the support of a decent governing body.

Mamie Tue 10-Jun-14 07:30:53

I do think the quality of governance is an important issue here. I worked in an LA that did masses of governor training and had a very good knowledge of and working relationship with, all the governing bodies. I can't help thinking that cuts to LA budgets will have made this level of support impossible to sustain. I am not blaming governors, many of whom do a brilliant job. Gove's recent remarks about governors spending their time drinking sherry and singing kumbaya were an appalling insult and demonstrated yet again how little he knows about schools.

Mishap Tue 10-Jun-14 08:03:59

I am a school governor and here there is NO LA support whatsoever. We buy into "Service Level Agreements" - i.e. the LA pays us our money to run the school and then we give it back to their outsourced body for things like HR and legal advice. A huge chunk of money goes on all this.

More and more duties are being placed on governing bodies as the LAs dwindle to nothing. For example, we have just received a 40 page document for us and the head to complete asking questions about the school's structural/electrical safety - how the hell would I know as an ex social worker and photographer!? It is madness. How would the head know? He is not a structural engineer. We will probably finish up having to pay someone to do this - even less money left for the children.

And as for governor training? - nothing. We pay another county to provide this for us. More money down the pan that was for the children's education.

All the things the LA used to do we now have to find elsewhere and pay for out of a very tight budget indeed.

We scratch around for governors in this scattered rural population. It just so happens that we have succeeded in getting a strong body - but it has been very hard work; and is pure chance that we were able to do this. Sometimes there have had to be hangers-on just to create a quorum.

Governors have too many responsibilities and too much power and they are not properly scrutinised. All OfSted wants to know when they visit is if we are checking up on the teachers' ability to meet targets by visiting school and looking at books and classroom activity. They are obsessed with the data.

As governors we work extremely hard, researching and ratifying a raft of policies, holding the head to account for performance, working on marketing, attending meetings (full body plus various committees), organising staff contracts etc. etc. etc. It takes up a huge chunk of my time and I am happy to do it as I care deeply about the school and its place in our community - but it is a bit of a poisoned chalice, so it is understandable that many people want nothing to do with it.

Mamie Tue 10-Jun-14 08:28:49

This is the harsh reality of cuts to public services, isn't it? People clamour for cuts, "get rid of the people in local government, what do they do anyway, give the money to frontline services" is what we hear, then the result is that there is no one left to support the kind of things you are talking about in your post, Mishap.
Similarly with the academy programme. All power centralised at the DfE, not enough locally based advice, support or accountability.
I wouldn't want to derail the discussion into one of government policies and cuts, because there are other huge issues here, but you cannot divorce what has happened from the policies of successive governments towards state education.

thatbags Tue 10-Jun-14 08:38:35

The conclusion of the article that the state school system is in "complete disarray" is unhelpful and inaccurate.

Mamie Tue 10-Jun-14 08:49:46

Yes, up to a point Bags. I think you could argue that the system itself is in disarray, given the mess over maintained / academies / free schools, cuts to local services, new and inexperienced providers etc etc. The schools themselves of course, are not. The vast majority of them are doing a fantastic job given a negative Secretary of State, an over-stretched DfE and a frequently hostile press. I do think there is real muddle and pain for some schools over forced academisation.
Obviously only the case in England.

Lilygran Tue 10-Jun-14 10:44:43

The system is in a mess, I agree. And the main drawback is the lack of accountability, which has been highlighted before on Gransnet. Perhaps we should go back to having education boards?

thatbags Tue 10-Jun-14 11:18:02

I'm not sure The System hasn't always been a bit of a mess, thinking about the grammar/comprehensive ideological and political battle that were going on when I was still at school.

In a way, such a complex thing as our initially home-grown and now often politically motivated education system is always going to be messy.

thatbags Tue 10-Jun-14 11:18:21


thatbags Tue 10-Jun-14 11:19:33

The important thing is that we prevent as much inequality of opportunity as we can, and that we educate our young people in tolerance and other good values.

JessM Tue 10-Jun-14 12:52:34

Bigger mess now bags with local authorities being stripped of staff (I do not exaggerate - where i used to live all the advisors were made redundant along with all the senior level education experts apart from the head of children's services) ; academies in about 6 different flavours (sponsored, self managed, part of a local academy trust etc) ; faith schools; fee paying schools and now, just to add another chaos factor, free schools. Academies and free schools are not under the wing of a local authority - they are answerable to the Department of Education. Which of course plays not active role in supporting them. Some academy sponsors have grown so big that they have been told to stop growing for now and get their act together. They act like local authorities only with schools spread over a wide area.

Mishap Tue 10-Jun-14 17:57:45

It is a dreadful hotchpotch. Schools are just adrift now. When we lost our head, we followed government advice to try and federate with another school - but there was no guidance about this - we were just left to tout around for a school. No advice as to what we might be looking for, what we might reasonably expect, legalities, contracts etc. The one that said yes took our dosh and failed to keep its end of the bargain - the Head actually did a bunk!

We have retrieved the situation and things are looking good now - we found an outstanding person to take the school on and ignored all the advice to federate.

It is quite scary believe me!

JessM Tue 10-Jun-14 19:13:24

This federation lark is what happened to the schools now under fire - threat that their funding will be withdrawn/handed over to another Academy sponsor. One of them was doing so well a couple of years back that they were praised by Gove encouraged to take other schools under their wing and become an academy trust. All gone wrong. Hard to run one school successfully, but sorting out half a dozen no easy task.

Eloethan Wed 11-Jun-14 00:04:28

I had no idea Mishap of the huge responsibilities that governors are now expected to take on. I'm surprised that anyone would want to take on such a task, given the lack of training and guidance that you mention.

Aka Wed 11-Jun-14 06:22:40

Jess is correct inasmuch as there used to be strong LEAs who who would support school and those of us who worked in an advisory capacity knew exactly what was going on in schools. This isn't the case anymore as they have been stripped of staff and powers.

There has always been the potential for friction between governing bodies and Headteachers especially when the Chair of Governors had their own agenda and recruited like minded friends onto the board.

In some Birmingham schools, especially those demographically almost a monoculture, this has happened with hard-line Muslim parents. Heads have been forced out and replaced with those more 'acceptable' to the governors. This has allowed certain practices to develop in schools. Some examples cited include segregation of pupils by gender, narrowing of the curriculum, etc and in the case of one secondary school the call to prayer being broadcast over a speaker system in the playground and a primary school using £47,000 of school fund to send the pupils on a 'school trip' to Saudi Arabia.

I can see this happening again in areas of the UK that are monoculture.

JessM Wed 11-Jun-14 06:52:57

There is much in what you say aka but I think "enthusiastic and devout" might be a less judgemental way of describing governors that are keen for Muslim children to attend a school that follows the traditions of their culture -which on the spectrum of Muslims is quite moderate.
I think hard line might be better reserved for the Saudi Arabians, the Taliban and the guys that have just captured Mosel.
The only system for monitoring what governors are up to is OFSTED. Inspections take place on a 3 year cycle. Local authorities used to provide a clerking system, so if there were problems a savvy clerk would alert the manager in charge of governors. Not sure whether this still happens - but of course most secondary schools have been pushed in the direction of self management for the last 10 years and probably employ their own clerks.
On an OFSTED inspection the chief inspector meets with 2 or 3 governors for 10-15 minutes. They do have access to all the committee minutes but on a 2 day inspection there is limited time to scrutinise them.
Governors have huge responsibility. The biggest one is appointing the head. They could do this without any expert advice in some kinds of schools.
Secondly they set the objectives for the head each year and agree whether or not he/she deserves a pay rise, again in some types of school they could do this without external advice. They also agree all school policies and monitor the management of the budget, which in the case of even a small secondary might be around £4million pa. They are also, jointly, the legal employer in many types of schools so if there are any disciplinary problems they have to listen to cases, and to appeals. If someone makes a serious complaint about the head the responsibility falls to the Chair of Governors to decide whether to suspend them and how to proceed. In academies with sponsors they are a bit less powerful as the academy appoints all governors and would probably get rid of any awkward ones. In other schools there are complex formulae - parent governors, community governors, staff governors etc - so the governing body does not in theory get to choose its own members.
There are schools in affluent areas that have parents with high-level professional skills queuing up to volunteer. In poor areas this is not the case. Sometimes you get no nominations at all for parent governor vacancies. The reality is that governors who are not used to meetings and professional work struggle to keep up and struggle to contribute. And that a strong personality or two can have disproportionate power.

JessM Wed 11-Jun-14 07:05:27

Sorry, Mosul.

Aka Wed 11-Jun-14 07:18:20

Sadly I think it is more sinister than that Jess. The OFSTED reports (which are available on line) make it clear that these Board of Governors have been following their own agenda in the recruitment of teachers. Mainly young men, who may be 'devout' or perhaps a bit more than that. I've read all the reports and their finding are disturbing. Staff have been intimidated including some senior leaders.

I find it more than 'devout', in fact downright sinister than one school spent £55,000 on hiring a private firm to investigate teachers' emails!

As you say the Chair of Governors have great power, some would say too much, power. And yes, disproportionate power.

Mishap Wed 11-Jun-14 10:08:33

There is an almost complete absence of regular scrutiny of governors. When an OfSted comes around, there is an item on leadership and management and the governors come into this. Their minutes are viewed and there is a meeting with governors of about half an hour. As far as our inspector was concerned, all she was bothered about was whether we had been looking at children's books to check they were meeting their targets.

A governing body can wreak a lot of havoc in 3 years before their next inspection.

The government has allowed the LAs to dwindle and the result is that governing bodies and schools are unsupported and unscrutinised and we are reaping the rewards of that short-sighted policy. Creating a hotchpotch of different sorts of schools demands more not less scrutiny and support.

rosesarered Wed 11-Jun-14 10:24:56

Good posts AKA and I agree entirely.

JessM Wed 11-Jun-14 18:21:24

That is heroic aka reading all the reports. Maybe at the weekend. Still think it better to moderate ones language.
There is no "allowing them to dwindle" involved mishap there has been a concerted strategy to get rid of local education authorities - started in the previous government with "foundation schools" academies etc

Aka Wed 11-Jun-14 19:02:43

I stand by my term 'hard liners' Jess .... I'm not talking terrorists, just those with hard line views from the Wahabi or Salafi sect.

Iam64 Wed 11-Jun-14 19:30:30

Thanks to Mamie for this post, and for the link to the Guardian article, which I had not seen. I read it with interest, as it's the first non polemic I've had chance to read this week due to mum in law's illness.

I genuinely don't want to create a polarised debate on this thread, because it's such an interesting read, with well expressed opinions. I live in a former mill town, with a large Muslim Pakistani community. We seem to have managed over the last 30 years plus to learn to live side by side in relative peace. One of our local high schools has a predominantly Muslim Pakistani intake. The day after 9/ll a group of 6th form students put up a poster in praise of the attacks, and celebrating Asama Bin Laden. I was surprised to hear that there had been discussion amongst staff about whether it should be taken down. It was.

I do believe there is a difference between someone who is devout in their faith, and those who politicise it. I include those American Christians who believe that shooting doctors who perform abortions is what god would want them to do.

I hope I haven't offended anyone.

JessM Wed 11-Jun-14 22:39:41

Interesting distinction Iam64. Though I guess you could argue that many laws are derived originally from religious laws. We notice it most when there is a difference e.g. abortion being illegal in Ireland and the justification for this is religious. Instead of allowing abortions and leaving it to the individual to decide whether it is allowed by their religion. That would make an awful lot of Irish catholics hard-line. Not sure if i am making sense, bed time.