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Guest blog from Fiona on local school governance

Posted on 22 November 2010 | 9:11am

Every now and then, I get a comment from someone saying they prefer blogposts to be short rather than long. I suppose it gives them the chance to hoover around the place and digest a few more.

But whilst brevity can sometimes be the best, every now and then you need a bit of length to go into things properly (Oh dear, as I read that back, I worry I am still in Bad Sex in Literature mode — vote for me — but I’m in a hurry so I can’t change it now).

Anyway, for a bit of variety, please welcome my partner Fiona Millar, and a blog she has posted on her own website (the truth about our schools) this morning.

And meanwhile, the campaign to save school sport appears to be taking off. Anyone who knows the benefits that sport can bring to young people should get involved and help force a rethink on the ridiculous Cameron-Osborne-Gove decision to axe School Sports Partnerships

Now please welcome someone who was doing Big Society type work for local schools when Dave was barely off the playing fields of Eton (not to be axed I suspect).

“Last week I stood down as a governor of my local primary school. It wasn’t an easy decision to make. I became a parent at the school in 1991. Our eldest son was offered his nursery place in the week Margaret Thatcher resigned. I became an elected parent governor when he joined the reception class in 1992, became chair in 2000 and stood down from that post this September, a year after that same child left university. I believe the story of my time at Gospel Oak Primary School has lessons for many of us as we wrestle with how to get a high quality school system that works well for all our children.

When we became parents at the school, it was at the tail end of a glorious period in its history.  Gospel Oak had been the school of choice of many affluent, influential local parents throughout the sixties and seventies. Two members of Harold Wilson’s cabinet sent their children there and Michael Palin, another local resident and parent, apparently used to joke that Gospel Oak and William Ellis school, where my sons later went and where I now also chair the governing body, were the ‘ Eton and the Guards’ of North London.

As is so often the case, the school had been led by a charismatic head in its heyday, only to be followed by a less effective successor. A slow exodus of parents in the late eighties had left the school increasingly vulnerable to the new ‘market’ in education introduced by the Thatcher government. We didn’t ‘choose’ the school. It was the closest to where we lived and it never crossed our minds to look elsewhere. I became a governor largely out of guilt. I had two small children, a part time job as a feature writer on a national newspaper; I was co-writing a book and managing a hectic freelance career. Becoming a governor would, I believed, ensure I knew something about what was going on in my children’s daily lives.

I have already touched on some aspects of what happened next, most recently in this column in Guardian Education, and some years ago in a film The Best for My Child, made for Channel Four about school choice.Within months of joining the governing body, it was clear there was something badly wrong. The school was led by a weak, but devious, head teacher who conspired to let us know as little as possible about what was going on. Governors meetings would often run late into the night, but go nowhere in a grim war of attrition between newer governors who wanted more information about what was really going on in their children’s classrooms, and those who colluded with the head to keep us in our place.

We were one of the first schools to be inspected in 1994, under the then newish Ofsted regime, and the result was shocking, but with hindsight not surprising. Inspectors shone a bright light into some very murky corners and revealed a dysfunctional, poorly led institution, in which many class teachers were floundering and pupils failing. One former parent recently reminded me that a Year Six teacher, who specialised in art, ‘didn’t believe in teaching Maths’

The then head departed, ironically to buy a small prep school at which the son of one of my oldest school friends, who couldn’t face putting her children in a state sector, was a pupil. Since then I always take with a large grain of salt the claims of universal excellence in the private sector.

We, meanwhile, rather naively thought that our problems were over. They weren’t. The then chair of governors, who we had fought to get elected, removed his children from the school, along with several other governors. Over the next six years the school haemorrhaged parents, teachers and pupils. Our FSM numbers doubled from 27% to over 60% and we slumped to the bottom of the league tables. Heads came and went. My two predecessors as chair of governors fought valiantly to keep the school afloat as confidence in the local community plummeted. Vacant places meant we were taking in pupils that other schools found ingenious ways of rejecting.

I got used to other local parents averting their eyes when I told them where our children were at school. My lowest moment came during the 1997 election campaign, when I was working for the then leader of the opposition Tony Blair. On a day off from the campaign and out with my third child, yet to start at the school, I ran in to two other parents. The most recent league tables had revealed that barely half the pupils had reached the required KS2 level in Maths (that figure is now over 80%).

Would everything be OK, they asked me tentatively. The truth was I didn’t really know the answer. What I did know was that if I appeared to be losing faith, so would they. I did my best to remain positive and encouraging. I often think of that moment and my immense gratitude to those parents, and others, who stuck loyally by the school. I am still friends with many of them. Nearly all our children have finished university  and still report their days at Gospel Oak as being amongst the happiest of their lives, although as one friend pointed out recently that may have been because they never did any work.

However my own anecdotal research suggests that our children didn’t suffer unduly. They have gained hugely from being educated with children from every part of our local community; nearly all have gone on to do broadly similar degrees, at the same universities (including Oxford and Cambridge),  as the children of those parents who bailed for the private or more selective state schools. When Professor Charles Desforges conducted his research reviews into the influence of home background on the outcomes of primary age children, he concluded that what went on in the home was six times more important than what happened at school. That is no excuse for failing schools but it is a recognition that the children of aspirant, educated parents with books, conversation and a positive home learning environments can overcome  some weak teaching. The reason the rest of us stuck with Gospel Oak was that it was clear the children who didn’t have those advantages were being short changed.

Making the school better became almost an obsession for me, and a group of other parents. This wasn’t just about our children, it was about our community and the life chances of the less well off. I often think about those days when I hear politicians banging on about the Big Society . It has been around a lot longer than some politicians care to admit. The parents and governors at Gospel Oak were one of Cameron’s ‘little platoons’ long before he dreamed up the Big Society as an election slogan and what is more, we know that our particular brand of community activism worked, and it didn’t need an outside provider, a profit making company or a sponsor. Our school is still a local authority community school.

Much has been written about the iniquities of both Ofsted, testing and the league tables and the negative effect the latter have on the breadth and quality of education children receive in their later primary years. However there is no doubt that the desire to scrape ourselves off the bottom of the league tables, and to get a clean bill of health from Ofsted, were strong incentives for us to improve. So accountability matters, maybe not enshrined in such high stakes testing or in an inspection routine that values exam and test results above all else, but parents and others in the wider community, including future parents, have a right to know how their schools are doing.

However the idea that competition and ‘the tools of the market’ alone will deliver good outcomes for all children is fanciful. It just won’t happen without great teachers  and support staff and, more importantly, without great heads with high expectations and the ability to motivate and manage the performance of adults and pupils in their schools.

And it probably won’t happen while we have so many ways for individual schools to use ‘the tools of the market’ to manipulate their intakes. Good schools need balanced intakes and a critical mass of children who are interested in learning. Schools that cream off either the most aspirant and supportive parents, or the most able pupils, within their local communities, deprive other local schools of that vital mix.

Throughout all my time as a parent and governor I have watched all the escape routes and tricks used by parents and schools to manipulate admissions criteria to their advantage. I am proud that at Gospel Oak we got better without doing this and has always taken the children who live closest to the school regardless of race, faith, social class or special needs. That rich and diverse mix is one of the things that makes the school great today. One of the greatest dangers I see in the increased ‘freedom’ and autonomy being offered to schools now, is the potential for more subtle social and academic selection, leading to more,  not less, segregation in our  communities.

Six months after I finally became chair in 2000, our third head in ten years resigned. The school had got better and our Ofsted ratings improved, but all school success is a fragile commodity -remember that when you hear Michael Gove claim this week that some schools don’t need to be inspected. It has become fashionable to rubbish the overly bureaucratic, centrally directed initiatives of the Blair /Brown governments, but on balance they were right for schools like ours.

New buildings, extra resources and extended services were rightly matched by a requirement for better teaching, leadership, higher expectations, more rigour, accountability and transparency. Maybe only those of us who remember the late eighties and early nineties fully appreciate what has been done. I think I can write the script for what will happen in schools where more freedom is given, where light touch or nonexistent inspection is required, particularly if a good head or chair of governors is replaced by a  less competent one. Autonomy is a great tool in the hands of a good head, but will be a disaster in the case of weak ones.

School governance has improved enormously since the early 1990s but that is partly because governors are held directly accountable via the current Ofsted framework. We have so much more information than we had back then but if we don‘t use it to challenge our schools effectively, we get rapped over the knuckles, quite rightly.

However in spite of our improving governance the holy grain of being a good / outstanding was still eluding us at Gospel Oak. Why? Because we still hadn’t found the right head teacher. By the time we were embarking on our final head teacher recruitment process in a decade, I had become chair and had made a mental note NOT to appoint until we found the right candidate. It is a risky strategy when parents and teachers are clamouring for an appointment, but worth the wait, rather than risking the damaging and disruptive process of parting company with the wrong appointee.

The first field was disappointing but we had recently starting working with an excellent link inspector at our local authority, an ex head who was an advisor to our recruitment process. I could see that he was as lukewarm about the candidates as me, and in a throwaway line, as we agonised about whether to re-run the process, he mentioned that the school had such potential that he was tempted to go for the job himself. That was enough for me. We wrapped up for the day and I e-mailed him at 8 am the next morning to ask if he would consider applying for the job. He immediately agreed and was subsequently apppointed. The school has gone from strength to strength, the governors’ decision not to take second best, to understand fourth time round what type of leader we needed for our school, was vindicated.

There is now so much evidence about the vital role strong leaders play in schools, the latest being this Mc Kinsey Report, yet the importance of leadership both by the head and governors is perpetually sidelined in the  political debate. At my last governors meeting I was asked to sum up the story of Gospel Oak for newer members, and inevitably ended up by singling out the qualities that our present head Alan Seymour has brought to the school; consistently high expectations, an ability to delegate but performance manage staff, teaching and behaviour rigorously, a belief that all children are equal, regardless of their background, race or class, and a strong sense of social justice. We don’t top the league tables but the quality of teaching and behaviour is consistently good, we offer a broad and enriching curriculum which isn’t simply driven by coaching for KS 2 tests; parents, pupils and staff are fully engaged in the school’s life. One reason why I felt so angry at the London teacher who spoke at the Conservative party conference about the ‘excuses culture’ rife in schools today was that, while an ‘excuses culture’ may be prevalent at her school, it isn’t at ours and in many others across the country.

I am standing down now because we have a good governing body; the school will face new challenges in the years to come, including the recruitment of another head teacher in due course when the current incumbent retires and I believe getting the next chair in place first is a smart move. I am not giving up altogether, having recently taken on the chair of another school which has been through a difficult period. I hope my experience at Gospel Oak will help to shape that schools bright future.

And I am taking many important lessons with me, all of which are at the forefront of my mind as we await yet another White Paper, another Education Bill, another reconfiguration of Ofsted, more changes to teacher training and school funding.

It is probably right to re-focus Ofsted’s attention more robustly on teaching and learning, but equally important not to give up on the other roles schools play in the lives of communities and children who lack the cultural and economic advantages  more affluent children can take for granted.

Leadership matters and that mean heads and governors. Both need to be accountable, not just to current parents in the school, or indeed a narrow band who may be given their own school under this administration’s policies, but to the wider community.  Without strong and consistent leadership, it is unlikely that any school will get strong and consistent teaching. But my observation from the chair is that being a head in an unenviable and lonely task, like conducting a huge orchestra day in day out, constantly seeking improvement and then sustaining that process.

And finally parents do matter. One reason our school survived and didn’t just go under was because parents became empowered. They believed things could get better, they joined the governing body , they kept the equally vibrant PTA alive. My belief in the power of parents to effect change in this way is one reason why I, with others, have now set up the Local Schools Network for people who want to support their local schools rather than rush off and start new ones.

I deplore the idea that the right course of action, in our case, would have been to let the school die. This idea, which has been around since the quasi market in education was introduced in the late 1980s, was resurrected in this Telegraph article previewing the forthcoming White Paper and suggesting that a national funding formula could help unpopular schools to ‘die out’.

Schools aren’t shops that can open and close at will with little consequence other than for the unfortunate proprietor. They are living, breathing institutions and a long slow death is a very unpleasant experience for the children left in them, who will usually be the offspring of the least vocal in society.

Outstanding leadership, good teaching, decent facilities, good governors and (as far as possible) socially and academically mixed intakes may be more prosaic than ‘free’ schools and eye catching, though barely proven, initiatives from oversees, but if we could ensure every school had those key features who would want anything ‘ new’? We would finally be giving most parents what they really want – a good local school.”

  • Teresa

    Fiona I felt emotional reading your blog, you care so much.

  • Malcolm Halls

    I actually like your longer blogs. I think when you tweet short, as you have to , that is great, but I come on here for a bit of depth so don’t worry about people saying go short. Good to have guest blogs too, though don’t stay quiet for long!!

  • Kirsty Dell

    Saw you on the school sport scandal on Channel 4 News last night … good to see you, because I have a little feeling the Tories will get a bit worried if you put your weight behind a campaign like this. I totally agree with you when you said theyjust have not thought through the consequences. And I agree with what you said on twitter yesterday that maybe footballers can use this to show a more positive side, and argue and fight for something other than their wages

  • Accountability for schools, heads and governing bodies is paramount. We certainly recognise the scenario of:

    ‘The school was led by a weak, but devious, head teacher who conspired to let us know as little as possible about what was going on. Governors meetings would often run late into the night, but go nowhere in a grim war of attrition between newer governors who wanted more information about what was really going on in their children’s classrooms, and those who colluded with the head to keep us in our place.’

    Incidentally, have you ever tried to complain about a head and chair of governors in a school that has this problematic leadership scenario? A culture of silence? We have. The LEA had to ‘devise’ a new procedure for it, in which I was to be ‘questioned by a panel of the chair of governors’ peers!’ Strange to tell, I didn’t go for this and they were very frustrated!

    This all happened to us a very long time ago. What we must now focus on is the future. The consultation for our own children’s school’s plans to become an academy was not what you would call extensive and the governor allocated with collecting comments from parents was less then welcoming when approached. The culture of schools that ‘do not need inspections’ is not one to be encouraged. All schools are liable to make mistakes in their running and we need to have absolutely transparent (forgive me for using a Coalition catchphrase) processes associated with Education. The trouble with what the Minister for Education is doing is this: he is disassembling our Education system bit by bit with no clear plan as to what will replace the discarded structure. It appears that he will willing to do anything to fund his free schools pet project and it is looking to me as if the academies plan is simply somthething that will give him total authority over school funding ie which bits can be scrapped to fill the Free Schools coffers. He is making it up as he goes along. I used to think Gove was drunk with power. Now I wonder if he is just drunk?

    Ellen P

  • David Kingston

    Excellent analysis of what makes a successful school. Gove’s simplistic model can only ever work in a minority of schools and often these have weaknessess masked by parents who are able to buy extra teaching. Leadership is the key and as a governor I have also been in the situation of persuading colleagues to wait for the right headteacher, which we now have. This is also the view expressed by Maggie Atkinson when she visited my school and saw a school in a deprived community where “What can you expect of kids round here?” is simply not accepted. In a short time Parkside Sports College now regularly has every sixteen year old leaving with 8 A* to C GCSEs. Management and governance of schools is unrecognisable compared to 1997. It is no coincidence that schools are better than ever. The drive by Labour to raise standards is yet another success that Tories hate and now seek to denigrate so that they can impose their policies on to satisfy their core supporters.

  • Olli Issakainen

    I cannot understand why the coalition always looks to countries like Ireland and Sweden or the US as an example.
    Finland (I am a Finn living in Finland) has been chosen as the most prosperous country in the world. Our economy will in all probability be the strongest in EU next year. And Newsweek recently said that Finland is the best place to live in the world.
    Our president is a woman. Our PM is a woman. 11 members of our Cabinet are women – 9 men. People in Finland, an equal society, are happy.
    Finland´s school system is the best in the world. Year after year we win OECD´s PISA comparison.
    Our system is based on free comprehensive school common to all. We have only a handful private schools like Steiner schools and religious schools.
    Everyone in Finland has the same opportunity when it comes to schools regardless of wealth. We do not waste talent here.
    Finland as a small country with little natural resources has to be sympathetic when it comes to education. Our schools are encouraging and teachers competent and committed.

  • Steve marsh

    Excellent report.My daughter’s part time post is funded by the Sport in Partnership scheme and is under threat.Olympics legacy and Obesity issues do not sit comfortably with this plan.

  • Jenny

    Fiona, I totally agree. I was a school governor for 8 years at our local comprehensive – the second largest in Wales. In years gone by the school had developed an unenviable reputation for poor discipline and bullying amongst other things, but by the time our daughter started there the governors had appointed our local version of Alan Seymour – an inspirational headteacher called Paul Mulraney. Things had turned around.

    At my first meeting with Paul, when I was thinking of standing as a parent governor at the end of Ellie’s year 7, he talked to me about what the school stood for. At the heart of Paul’s philosophy was the importance of valuing all children equally and giving them all the chance to develop and achieve their full potential in an atmosphere of mutual respect, tolerance and understanding. He believed it important to maintain a safe and happy environment, give as many varied learning opportunities as possible and that the school should be an integral part of the local community.

    In case this sounds a bit wishy-washy and ‘liberal’ he was also committed to maintaining a culture of high expectations and excellence for all, leading to good exam results and students going on to Oxford, Cambridge, etc. Academic success led to success in attracting sixth form students (and hence extra funding) – the school now have 550 in the sixth form and work in partnership with other local schools to provide the widest possible curriculum at post-16. Not bad for a local comprehensive. Despite this, Paul was always exhorting the staff to “squeeze the pips” (no – not another reference to Bad Sex – just his way of saying ‘let’s keep improving’).

    Paul did not, I know, always have it easy. I guess that goes with the territory of running a £3.5million budget, with a staff of over 100, 1600 pupils and a distinct lack of support from the LEA. Not only that, but schools in Wales are significantly under-funded compared to English schools when you work out the amount the school gets per pupil and leaking roofs etc were a constant headache. However, he never lost sight of those core values and restated them to all of us – staff; governors and students- at every opportunity so that we wouldn’t forget them either. This was invaluable when dealing with the politics of, for example, agreeing to host a pupil referral unit on-site so that young people with emotional and behavioural difficulties could have specialist support, whilst being integrated into mainstream classes when they were ready.

    Paul was also supported by a strong and committed governing body (well, the rest of them anyway). I think we all felt it was a privilege to do our bit, and we certainly all got involved well over and above just going along to termly meetings of the full governing body. The Big Society was certainly alive and well as we gave our time to sit on interview panels, attend inspection meetings, give out prizes, judge competitions, work on strategies and attend disciplinary appeals amongst other things. The two Chairs in post whilst I was there were both ex-teachers, and both brought tremendous knowledge, wisdom and insight; the very best of ‘critical friends’ which was what we felt our role to be.

    I’m sure Gospel Oak was lucky to have you for all that time and will no doubt miss you as much as you’ll miss them. Good luck for the future and to your new school.

    BTW, Alastair sat with pupils from ‘our school’ (as I still call it four years on) when he nipped over the border into Flintshire recently. As ever I think they did us proud.

  • Sarah-Dodds

    What we are talking about here is the ethos of the school. It’s a really undervalued word, and can be considered a bit wishy-washy if not understood. But what is it that creates that buzz when you walk into a school? What is that feeling you get from walking from class to class and seeing children engaged, happy and hard working? What creates that feeling in the staffroom, when everyone from TAs to teachers to cleaners to lunch time supervisors are happy? What is it that makes teachers, already stretched to the limit, work even harder at after school clubs, choirs, school productions etc etc? What is it that makes kids motivated and keen to go? It is the ethos of the place.
    It’s quite a hard thing to describe and quantify, but anyone who has been in a school which has not had one will know when it is not there. It’s like when the central heating packs up and you realise just how important warmth is. It is the living beating, heart of the place and ONLY good governance and leadership can create it.
    My fear is that Gove’s free market approach to schools will radically change the parameters that heads and governors work under now. And that with these changes the whole fragile but beautiful web that is the ethos of individual schools will be torn to pieces.

  • Matt

    What I like about this post is that it shows how we have the causation the wrong way round. It’s not that good schools make good pupils but the reverse. That’s why faith schools do so well; you get selection-by-stealth, ditto fee paying schools. Which makes the argument for fee paying schools very troubling: as an individual you are motivated to ‘cheat’ and put your child in with other well-behaved, privileged children… But similarly, state schools should be put a lot more interest into attracting the widest range of parents, which will include having good results but a lot of other stuff too…

  • Sarah Dodds

    I could not disagree with you more.
    I have taught for 16 years and been a parent for 10. I have taught in mediocre schools full of “good pupils” (do you actually mean middle to upper class?) which fail to stretch, inspire and motivate because of poor leadership. In my local town we have a grammar school serving the affluent rural areas around here. The best description of it is bog standard, at best.
    I have also taught in what should have been run down hell holes of schools if your definition of “good” stands. But because of the qualities of leadership outlined by Fiona above, something fantastic and exciting has happened. Something that far outweighs “good.”
    My own child is moving to secondary school. She would have walked the 11+ if we had chosen it. But the “good” school round here is not the bog standard grammar, but the comprehensive around the corner with the most inspiring head I think I have ever known anywhere. The man oozes class and genius, and the ethos is fantastic. Which is much better than either bog standard or, in fact, “good”.

  • Matt

    Kind of a singular interpretation to the word ‘good’ there. I meant kids of average IQ and above, kids who are interested to learn, kids who get sent to school having had some form of breakfast. Doesn’t mean ‘middle class’, not at my kids’ school at least.

    Yes you are right, of course teaching has a big effect on outcomes… but it seems that quality of intake is overlooked too often as an influence on what makes a school great.