What changed. And what didn’t.

Two statements I made when I stood as parent governor in 2017 have been doing the rounds. Although few have tweeted in their own name (@franhunt being the honourable exception), a couple of friends got in touch to ask me about the apparent inconsistency.

This post focuses on governance, because my 2017 criticisms were of governance. It’s important to remember that although governance considerations, like financial considerations, are relevant to the current proposal they are not its primary motivating force. That remains the strategic imperative of incremental growth at primary. It’s also important to remember that what follows are my personal opinions. For the board’s agreed position, see the proposal.

The context in 2017 was a federation with two schools with Ofsted “Requires Improvement” grades, some damning comments on governance in the Ofsted reports, and quite a lot that looked not quite right to this novice governor. I said at the time that “I would not support academisation” which was true. It was the wrong proposal at the wrong time. But now both the proposal and the context are radically different.

I wrote then that “I think it is possible to achieve better governance without academisation” and that turned out to be true. Under the leadership of Andy Rothery and Kate Ward our governance improved significantly. Governance in the Federation is now vastly different from 2017 in too many ways to list here, but compare the Ofsted reports at PVS 2015 v 2018 and PLS 2016 v 2019.

However I do not believe the governance we now have is sustainable at this level across a federation of this complexity, so it’s no longer true that we can achieve better governance without academisation because the context has changed. Why does this matter? Because if governance deteriorates then, in time, the schools will deteriorate, the likelihood of an adverse Ofsted judgment will increase, and we’ll enter a spiral of declining rolls and declining finances that is all but impossible to escape without good governance.

In 2017 I also wrote that “I’ve yet to see an example of an academy which has stronger accountability than a maintained school” and that remained true until the current proposal was agreed. The proposal shows it is possible to make a MAT that is truly and meaningfully accountable to its local community. I don’t know why more MATs don’t choose a more accountable model. Perhaps there are some somewhere, we just get to hear about the horror stories.

It’s worth rehearsing the key differences between the proposal and most MATs:

Firstly, our culture and values would be safeguarded by having two charitable organisations oversee the Federation. These charities together founded Prendergast School 133 years ago and have far better claim to be the protectors of our ethos than any snapshot of a governing board or community (or the local authority, a mere stripling at 58 years old). The proposal formalises their role by placing them above the governing board, and both must agree to any future constitutional changes.

Secondly, we have proposed to place elected parents at the highest decision-making level in the structure, the MAT board. This is not a legal requirement (although it will be written into the constitution to give it permanence) and we’re not aware of any other MAT that has chosen to do this. I believe this is an absolutely critical check and balance, and I personally would not have supported the proposal without it. If things go awry (as they had in 2017) the community can send two representatives of its choice to go and sort it out – however uncomfortable that may be for the rest of the board at the time.

Underpinning all the decisions behind the structure is the principle of plurality, of no entity or constituency having complete control. I believe that is a crucial feature of good governance (although I appreciate that plurality doesn’t have much traction in our local government).

I don’t believe there are any MAT idealogues on the Federation board. In fact, I suspect all of us would prefer it if there really was a different option for our schools that would be less contentious and deliver what the schools need. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure one out, mainly versions of a hard federation with associate members. It works on paper, at least for a couple more schools. But it doesn’t work in practice (mainly lack of capacity to fulfil panel requirements and too great a burden of statutory responsibility on individuals). And it isn’t sustainable, because the demands on volunteers are too great.

Statistics are hard to come by, but we believe we’re the largest federation in the country by pupil numbers and the only federation with three secondary provisions. The rules for maintained school governance are in a handful of statutory instruments and the laws for federations just aren’t being updated. In this, as in many other ways, the system is stacked in favour of MATs.

I believe we should give our schools and our kids every advantage possible, and for me that comes above ideology. School leaders have a hard enough job as it is without their options being hamstrung by ideology. And as far as I can see the education of children in Lewisham is hamstrung by the ideology of Lewisham Labour. When rolls were rising the LA was not able to open a new school, because you can only open a school if it’s an academy or free school. Lewisham has the seventh highest number of SEND children being sent out of borough in the country at huge cost because the anti-academy dogma means they’re unable to take a creative approach to increasing provision in the borough. And ideology breeds complacency – it’s true that all of Lewisham’s primaries are rated good or outstanding. It’s also true that in 2022 the percentage of Lewisham Year 6 children meeting the expected standard in reading, writing and maths (combined) is the lowest in London at 59% (PPS and PVS both achieved 80%).

The other factor which we can’t ignore is the huge waste of resource dealing with the LA on administrative issues. The Federation greatly values the strategic relationship with the LA, and our school-to school relationships. But if the local politicians would like fewer schools to follow the route to academisation, their priority (after school improvement) should be improving the LA’s finance function. Perhaps the most egregious single example was £50K reimbursement of maternity leave costs arriving in the Federation’s bank account a couple of days after the year end, meaning it couldn’t be spent. It looks like it’s about to happen again.

And that’s before we get to the 25% of the de-delegated funds that disappear into a mysterious “contingency” pot for which we never receive accounts (see table 4 on page 26). Perhaps this unaccountable LA slush fund stumped up for Sedgehill’s >£1M deficit before it transferred to United Learning debt-free? (p78 here shows only the pension liability being taken on). I suppose having your overdraft covered might be a benefit of being part of the “Lewisham family of schools”, although it’s hard to reconcile with the LA’s insistence that PLS uses money that should be spent on the education of its current students on paying back the (smaller) historic deficit created by the LA’s PFI decisions.

Finally, in 2017 I criticised the then governors for refusing to disclose any of their confidential documents. In contrast, within 3 weeks of receiving a query through the consultation website, the current board approved the publication of 264 pages of previously confidential paperwork. Again, I’m not aware of another governing board that is as transparent as this one. It’s certainly more transparent than the local authority.

So I still believe what I wrote in 2017. I still believe in accountability, transparency, and making the best decisions for our schools and our children based on all the available evidence. And that’s why I support the 2023 proposal to form a local MAT.

* the quote in the cover image may be apocryphal but it’s certainly apt

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