For much of 2014, a number of schools in east Birmingham have been under the spotlight after a copy of an anonymous letter containing allegations of extremism in Birmingham schools and a description of a “Trojan Horse” plot was delivered to Birmingham City Council.
The National Governors’ Association (NGA) was part of the Review Group set up by Birmingham City Council to consider the findings of Ian Kershaw, the independent chief advisor commissioned by the city council.
It was clear from the early days that poor governance practice was going to be highlighted, but now we have spent considerable time reviewing all the reports – Ofsted’s, the Education Funding Agency’s, Ian Kershaw’s, and that from Peter Clarke to the secretary of state for education.
The reports contain much in common and can be said to complement and reinforce each other. Their emphases and language are slightly different, but the main conclusions are overlapping. Peter Clarke concluded “that there are a number of people, associated with each other and in positions of influence in schools and governing bodies, who espouse, endorse or fail to challenge extremist views”.
Extremism is defined as “the vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs”, and includes “calls for the death of members of our armed forces, whether in this country or overseas”.
Ian Kershaw investigated whether the five stage process to remove headteachers and gain control of schools described in the Trojan Horse letter had occurred and found “while elements of the five steps were present in a large number of the schools ... the evidence collated to date does not support a conclusion that there was a systematic plot to take-over schools”.
It is of course of great concern that small groups of activists attempted to use the role of school governor or academy trustee to subvert the ethos of some schools in east Birmingham to emphasise the differences between cultures, rather than fostering tolerance and equality. The reports also raise big questions which remain to be answered in detail, such as how schools, including academies, are overseen (between inspections) and the role of faith and worship within our schools. However here I will confine myself to considering how we ensure the governance role is not again abused in this way.
Governing boards are the guardians of the school’s ethos, although this came as some surprise to some commentators and even to some headteachers. The three core functions set out by the Department for Education of governing boards are:
Setting vision, ethos and strategic direction.
Holding headteachers to account for teaching, achievement, behaviour and safety, and challenging and strengthening their leadership.
Ensuring finances are managed well leading to probity, solvency and effective use of resources.
And while headteachers move on to other schools, the governing board as an corporate body remains in perpetuity as the accountable body to ensure the school delivers the education its pupils deserve.
It is the check on the executive’s power, particularly on an otherwise individual headteacher’s untrammelled power. However in these few cases the role of the governing body failed to provide this protection.
Principles of public life
It should go without saying that the best guarantee for ensuring these situations do not occur is for all those who participate in governance to act according to the seven principles of public life, now more usually known as the Nolan principles: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, and leadership.
Every governing body should have a code of conduct – and if you do not, take a look at the NGA’s model. Also review what information you have on the school’s website about governance: is it clear who is involved in what capacity and how they can be contacted.
Be very careful about potential conflicts of interest; there are too many schools which are not alert to conflicts or what are called “related party transactions”. If in doubt, just avoid getting friends and relations involved. This was at the heart of the Trojan Horse take-overs, but it is actually a practice used in whole numbers of schools without people understanding the predicaments which may arise.
When governors enter the governing board room, they must leave all their baggage outside: they do not represent anyone, but are there in their individual capacity to use their own judgement to the benefit of the school. However this can be a difficult thing to do, whether a member of staff, a parent or a political party, and therefore it is unhelpful to complicate with a friend or relative with an agenda.
As governors, we need to have courage and challenge each other as well as senior leaders: these are two of the NGA’s eight elements of effective governance.
The first of those eight is to ensure that you have the right people around the table. And all governing boards must now review their governor or trustee recruitment practice.
Who appoints who – and how? A diverse board will be stronger and healthier. The NGA has guidance on good practice, but one of the key factors is to ensure that there is turnover and succession planning.
Some of the central players in the Trojan Horse schools had been involved for many years, allowing them disproportionate influence. The NGA promotes maximum lengths of service for chair as six years and governors as eight. At the end of the first four-year term, there should be a review of the governor’s contribution before appointment for a second term.
The governing board also needs to be open to a range of views, engaging in dialogue with parents, pupils, staff, the wider community and other schools, and encouraging school leaders in their outward facing work.
Strategic not operational
The investigations reported governors and trustees becoming involved in the day-to-day running of some schools. There is no excuse for this – there is very clear advice available about the role of governance, for example in the NGA’s Welcome to Governance guide.
Each governing board should expect members to be inducted before they join the board, and this includes headteachers and staff governors too.
We know in some schools that headteachers encourage governors to get involved in management activity, such as recruitment of staff below senior leadership. That is not governance.
Ofsted is not immune from some misunderstanding about the role of governance either, and we will be discussing this again with chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw this month. It cannot be allowed to continue that some Ofsted inspectors give governors and school leaders the wrong impression of the role and in particular the role of visits to school. Again this is an area on which the NGA provides more guidance.
Governing boards needs to consider whether the school’s curriculum is broad and balanced, and provides for the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of their pupils. As part of that, parents are asking for improvements in sex and relationships education. Some governing boards may need to have a discussion about the role of assemblies.
Emma Knights is chief executive of the National Governors’ Association. This article is a summary of the NGA’s briefing on the lessons of Trojan Horse. For details, see www.nga.org.uk