Evident in British policy trends of the last 30 years has been what some characterize as a ‘hollowing out of the state’. This basically refers to the rolling back of the state, the shift away from national command and control regimes and top-down governance. It is evident from the rise of housing associations, primary care trusts (PCT) and academies, which exist through policy networks made up of cross-sector alliances and partnerships (voluntary, private and public interests), that the state no longer delivers public services. Rather the state exists as measurer, evaluator and contractor of public services. The state modality is therefore changing. There is no centralized authority or logic of structure that is singularly responsible for the delivery of welfare today. Public service delivery instead exists through a ‘logic of flows’ (Lash 2002) anchored to the informal authority of policy networks and new policy communities at the regional and sub-regional level.
This is what some highlight as an example of ‘network governance’ or ‘governing without government’ (Rhodes 2007): the organization of welfare delivery through the interdependence of government and non-government organizations and actors. However, claims of a ‘hollowing out of the state’ may be misleading, to the extent that the executive core of government remains arguably strong and public services exist in in the shadow of a neoliberal logic of sorts, namely the financialization, monetization and commodification of public services through a model of market governance. This is no where more evident than in the changing roles and responsibilities of school governors.
I want to propose a daring hypothesis, one which may not chime well with the volunteer care-giving capacity of school governors. According to the DfE and Ofsted, ‘school governance’ refers to the strategic capacity of school governors to hold to account the decisions of senior team leaders, head teachers and chairs of committees, to the extent that the school operates within certain legal freedoms and autonomy from local authority management. This applies to all state-funded independent schools, namely academies, free schools, voluntary-aided schools, and so forth. (Recent government figures suggest there are as many 3,049 academies and 79 free schools open in England). School governors are essential cogs in the business machinery of schools to the extent they help to create institutions that are intelligible to the market (market responsive) and which can justify their existence in market terms (flexible, competitive, cost effective, sufficiently business driven, and so forth). Consider the core strategic roles and responsibilities of school governors as defined by the DfE only recently in May 2013:
- ‘Ensuring clarity of vision, ethos and strategic direction’
- ‘Holding the head teacher to account for the educational performance of the school and its pupils’
- ‘Overseeing the financial performance of the school and making sure its money is well spent’ (p. 6). Taken from Department for Education (DfE) (2013) Governors’ Handbook.
Now, consider the following table (click to enlarge), taken from an article by Stewart Ranson (2003) entitled Public Accountability in the Age of Neoliberalism. It sets out the different quality criteria or descriptors by which schools typically ensure their compliance with different government-imposed accountability measures:
The strategic role of school governors to ‘Ensuring clarity of vision, ethos and strategic direction’ corresponds directly to the requirements set out by ‘consumer/corporate accountability’, e.g. to strengthen consumer responsiveness, business plan, strategy, competition, market position, branding, etc.
The strategic role of school governors to ‘Holding the headteacher to account for the educational performance of the school and its pupils’ corresponds directly to the requirements set out by ‘performative accountability’, e.g. strengthen product quality, standards, achievement levels, responsiveness to arms-length regulatory bodies, etc.
And finally, the strategic role of school governors to ‘Overseeing the financial performance of the school and making sure its money is well spent’ corresponds directly to the requirements set out by ‘contract/corporate accountability’, e.g. strengthen service efficiency, value for money, competitive tendering, schools to contractors, etc.
If we take Peck’s conceptualization of neoliberalism to mean processes of ‘roll back’ (outsourcing public contracts to private companies, privatizing public assets and power, removing local authority support to schools, providing financial autonomy to schools, etc.) and ‘roll out’ (introducing new legislation and accountability measurements which steer and guide public institutions and public servants at a distance), school governors arguably occupy the role of governance tools. They ensure neoliberalization. Yes, school governance seems to imply that schools operate without government and independent of local authority oversight, but often do so on the basis of new practices of regulation and surveillance – reflexive management, professionalization, self-evaluation, and so forth. School governors have become modalities for the exercise of government at a distance.
Consider also that at the present time schools in England are often judged ‘effective’ on their capacity to professionalize their governing body, in order that they may satisfy the requirements of the market and the business ontology that underpins performative, contract, corporate and consumer notions of accountability. School governance in other words has become a by-word for professionalization through marketization, with school governors as the key drivers for expanding neoliberalization of the British education system.