Welcome to the official blog for the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funded project School Accountability and Stakeholder Education (SASE) (Grant reference: ES/K001299/1). The project is funded as part of the ESRC Future Research Leaders scheme which ‘aims to support outstanding early career researchers to carry out excellent research’. The project began on 1 October 2012 and will finish on 1 February 2015.
The principal investigator of the project is Dr Andrew Wilkins. Andrew Wilkins is Research Fellow in the School of Education at the University of Roehampton and core member of the Centre for Educational Research in Equalities, Policy and Pedagogy (CEREPP).
The British school system can at times feel like a confusing and daunting place. To put it in perspective, in January 2012 the Department for Education recorded 3,268 state-funded secondary schools, 16,818 state-funded primary schools and 2,420 independent schools in England – a total of 20,086 schools, excluding maintained and direct-grant nurseries (424) and state-funded and non-maintained ‘special’ schools (1,039). A breakdown of the state-funded schools reveals 1,556 academies (i.e. state-funded independent schools operating outside the financial and managerial remit of local authorities) consisting of 1,178 ‘converter’ academies, 338 ‘sponsor-led’ academies, 24 free schools (i.e. parent- and teacher-led all-ability state-funded independent schools) and a handful of ‘special converter’ academies. Other schools to emerge as part of the academies programme now include studio schools (all-ability state-funded ‘enterprise’ schools for 14-19 year olds) and University Technical Colleges (university-sponsored technical and vocational schools for 14-19 year olds). But this is by no means the full range of diversity of provision.
Schools can be further divided according to student intake where schools are either all-boys, all-girls or co-educational. In the case of secondary schools, further layers of internal complexity can be discerned through their ‘specialism’ as a languages, science, maths, arts, sports, humanities or even rural studies school. Furthermore, one third of the total number of state-funded secondary and primary schools are faith-based, e.g. ‘voluntary aided’ or ‘voluntary controlled’ schools which have faith at the centre of their ethos, curriculum and admissions. The majority of faith schools are Christian Church of England, Roman Catholic or Methodist, with a very small percentage practising minority faiths, including for example: Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Greek Orthodox and Seventh Day Adventist. Other schools include maintained ‘community’ schools, sometimes referred to as ‘secondary modern comprehensives’, which are directly governed by local authorities.
British education today is characterized by deregulation, marketization and, for want of a better word, ‘co-opetition‘ (collaboration and competition combined). This means new models of governance and shared practice across different sectors, organisations and actors. What these changes signify is a shift away from traditional forms of top-down hierarchy and bureaucracy (e.g. the direct control of schools by local authorities) and the development of formal and informal networks of influence and partnership between schools and stakeholders, including businesses, charities, faith groups, universities, philanthropic entrepreneurs, private schools and parent/teacher groups. This trend or movement came to prominence in the 1980s with the rolling out of school governing bodies, school choice, local management of schools (LMS) and City Technology Colleges (all-ability state-funded schools run by sponsors and independent of local authority management). Chiefly, it concerned introducing the market as a framing for steering strategic development and day-to-day governing of state-funded education. This included, among other things, shoring up competition between schools and achieving greater private sector involvement in public sector organisation. School accountability was born; or rather, particular strands of accountability came to shape and dominate state education. Key among them was professional, managerial, market and participative. New stakeholders also started to emerge in unison with these trends. (Stakeholders can refer to individuals, groups or organizations who seek to influence a company or institution in order to steer it towards a set of common interests or optimum goals). In the context of schools, however, stakeholders are incredibly difficult to pin down.
There is no typology of stakeholder types which can be uniformly mapped onto all schools. Instead, the interests and expertise of stakeholders differ according to the scope and remit of different school governing bodies and their sub-committee groups, e.g. whether they are local authority controlled, sponsor managed or federated as part of cluster of schools. The level of engagement and contribution from different stakeholders also depends on the capacity of school leaders and senior staff to attract, mobilize and retain the commitment of others (commercial, civic or otherwise). Much of the time the members of a school governing body – the most visible stakeholder collective in any school – are elected. Or, in the case of many academies and other types of state-funded independent schools, nominated. Increasingly this is becoming the norm for lots of schools, leading to the creation of new forms of private-public partnership and multi-agency service delivery. As such, the full range of stakeholders for any given school varies from LA officers and business partners to parents and teaching staff; from finance directors and chartered surveyors to clerks and community leaders. Their contribution to education is diverse and multiple. So how might we better make sense of the contributions of different stakeholders to school governance? And why now?
The launch of city academies in 2000 was a significant period of reform in British education. Designed to enlist the help of private sponsors to improve educational outcomes for children attending schools in the most disadvantaged areas, city academies (later renamed academies) amounted to the wholesale expansion of the City Technology Colleges (CTC) established in 1988. New Labour went on to open 3 academies in September 2002 and 14 academies in 2003 and 2004 combined. As Lord Andrew Adonis (architect of the academies programme) recalls, ‘the tipping point came with Tony Blair’s commitment in July 2004 to establish at least 200 academies’ (2012, xiii). In 2010 the coalition government issued new legislation making it possible for all good and outstanding schools – including, for the first time, primary schools – to exit local authority management and convert to academy status. As of 1 May 2012 the BBC recorded 1807 academies open in England, with many more likely to follow as increasing numbers of ‘failing’ schools face government pressure to join the ranks of sponsor-led schools.
As academies and free schools increasingly become the norm for the way lots of schools are managed (e.g. self-regulating, partnership- and stakeholder-driven) urgent questions relating to accountability in the emerging school system have also become the norm. Fundamentally, there is growing concern among anti-academy protest groups and teacher trade unions ATL and NASUWT that the provision and operation of academies is the responsibility of a contracting party selected by the government and not an accountable body elected at the local authority level, leading to the creation of a ‘democratic deficit’. Putting aside Ofsted inspections, performance tables, target-setting and testing, all of which constitute accountability mechanisms, there is also the question of how accountability is pratised and understood in the context of school governing bodies. After all, school governing bodies and their sub-committee groups retain huge powers independent of local authority management and are charged by the government with the role and responsibility to steer strategic development and governing of schools, including ethos, standards and performance. Ethos, curriculum, teaching, leadership and governance – how are these key drivers of school improvement shaped through the expertise and knowledge of different stakeholders? As more state-funded schools elect (or are compelled) to ‘plough their own furrows’ as self-governing institutions, what is the role of accountability in these settings and how is it mediated and constructed?
This ESRC-funded project is a timely and original investigation of the emerging system of British education . It explores how differently organized schools – sponsored and converter academies, free schools, foundation and local authority maintained – are shaped by the expertise and knowledge of executive and non-executive members of the school governing body. Furthermore, it investigates how these types of schools engage with formal and informal networks of collaboration, federation and competition in their role as education providers. In doing so it traces the dynamics of stakeholder and corporate models of school governance, and examines the shifting ways in which accountability is rationalized and evaluated in these framings.
WHAT DO I WANT TO FIND OUT?
- Outline how schools are shaped and informed differently by executive and non-executive members of the school governing body, corporate and stakeholder models of school governance, strategic and operational functions.
- Explore the different levels of authority through which decision making about school governance is negotiated and decided, from the company directors and the chairs to the committees and parent advisory groups/ student councils.
- Discern to what extent school governors understand and practise the roles and responsibilities ascribed to them.
- Capture how accountability is rationalized and self-evaluated in the context of differently organized schools. Explore how accountability is mediated and by whom. Consider whether accountability is refracted significantly through the way schools interact with other schools, businesses and charities.
- Investigate the different types of governance – consultative, deliberative, executive and so on – pertaining to the structure of different schools. Assess the role of school governors and their importance in enabling strategy, providing scrutiny of direction, offering support and ensuring accountability.
WHAT DOES MY RESEARCH INVOLVE?
The data will consist of in-depth interviews and observation material collected and analyzed across 6 schools in two areas of England (London and Norfolk). It will involve interviews with members of the school governing body (e.g. chair, principal, staff governor, parent governor, etc.) and representatives from the sponsor, local authority or cooperative trust/partnership network. Interviews will also be conducted with interested parents who are not represented on the school governing body. Observations of committee, chair and full governing body meetings will be included, together with observations of any other committee meetings, e.g. parent advisory groups and student councils. The data will offer an original and accessible account of the complex arrangements that combine to produce particular relations between schools and their stakeholders within different socio-economic, geographical, policy and institutional settings.
WHAT WILL I DO WITH THE INFORMATION?
The research will generate direct benefits for all participating schools including an interim report and a final report together with ongoing evaluation and feedback. The results will be communicated and evaluated through conferences, seminars, dissemination events and steering groups, as well as disseminated to interested parents, community groups, teachers and headteachers in the UK and abroad. In order to situate the findings and assess their implications internationally, additional research with school governors, parents and policy-makers will be carried out in Sweden with the support of Professor Dennis Beach at the University of Gothenburg.
Through targeted briefings and direct industry and government engagement, the research will be made available to a large number of UK organisations, including for example: Ofsted, the Department for Education (DfE), the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and other teachers’ unions (e.g. ATL), the Schools Network (SSAT), school governor organisations (e.g. SGOSS and NGA), the New Schools Network (NSN), Local Authorities (LAs), independent policy bodies and think tanks (e.g. CfPS, RSA, Policy Exchange and the Academies Commission).
In addition, the research will benefit a wide range of academics working internationally within and across different disciplines, including but not limited to education, public policy and the third sector, sociology and geography.
The project has been granted ethical approval through the research ethics committee at Roehampton University and will comply with the ethical guidelines set out by the British Educational Research Association (BERA). All participation is completely voluntary and all participating individuals and organisations are free to withdraw at any time. All participants will be completely anonymous and confidentially will be maintained.