Special Measures under the 2016 Education and Adoption Act

I recently became chair of governors at a secondary school which has just been put into special measures. The Headteacher had left a month or so before the inspection, so there were a number of changes afoot.

I have been a governor in a number of schools in the past and worked in governor services with several local authorities. Up to now, a school in special measures has been a hotbed of urgent action, support and accountability. This often included the following:

  • The local authority appointed additional governors, or replaced the governing body with an IEB.

  • A local authority task group was set up, with meetings every 4 to 6 weeks, checking progress with the action plan and challenging school leaders about specific issues including underperforming staff.

  • Ofsted returned with a series of Section 8 inspections, checking progress and providing published letters showing what improvements were happening.

  • The local authority allocated school improvement officers to give close hands-on oversight to improvements.

  • Subject or curriculum expertise was provided to support weak subjects or departments.

  • Ofsted came back with a section 5 inspection and, hopefully took the school out of special measures.

The main feature of all this is a sense of urgency, of action and a determination to fix things. After all, the children have only one chance at education and we owe it to them to do the right thing.

The 2016 Education and Adoption Act has changed all that. Now the government has provided the solution to all our problems, the panacea of all ills. The Regional Schools Commissioner will, at some point in the future known only to him or her, issue an academy order. An academy sponsor will be found who will take the school into a multi-academy trust.

In our case, I am expecting this process to take over a year. This is the pattern I have seen in other schools in similar circumstances. I have no objection to this course of action, but the academy sector does not exactly have a brilliant track record of improving schools in trouble. We therefore live in hope that one of the better sponsors can be found who will improve the school.

My real concern however, is what happens in the meantime. We will have no Section 8 inspections, very little help from a local authority stripped of resources, no task group, no sense of urgency, and no additional governors unless we can find them ourselves.

The politicians of course will simply brush these problems off with an assertion that the academy sponsor will resolve everything. In the meantime the children in our school have been abandoned.

They are dependent on us – our hard working governors and acting headteacher – to do what we can over the next year to help them learn, with very little external support and nothing like the determination and urgency for rapid improvement that once was the watchword in circumstances like ours.

I have no problem in principle with schools becoming academies, although I do see a real slow down in numbers of schools converting. However, government ministers are delusional if they think the new arrangements are better than before, providing better education and a better future for our children who deserve so much more.


Phil Hand


May 2017


Why has the Government backed down on academy status?

Ofsted have recently increased their recognition of governance as a strength in schools, particularly in 'requires improvement' schools. On reviewing all 51 section 5 reports published by Ofsted in January, we find that 23 of them evaluate governance as a strength. A 'strength' in this case is where governance is mentioned at the foot of page 1 of a 'requires improvement' report. This is new development, which would not have been evident a year ago.

Alongside this is the academy U turn from the DFE. Much has been stated about the relationship between schools and local authorities, but very little about the relationship between headteachers and their governing body. The reason why more than 60% of secondary schools are academies is because the headteachers and their governors think they can control their own destiny. The reason why over 80% of primary schools are not academies is because the heads and governing bodies there don't want to be hoovered up by their neighbouring secondary school into a MAT.

Currently heads and governing bodies in maintained schools have autonomy and freedoms that a 'local governing body' in an academy can only dream of. In a maintained school, the head is accountable directly to the governing body and they have levers for school improvement - the right to proper information, the responsibility for HT appraisal, the ultimate 'hiring and firing' powers, etc. In academies, these are all held by directors at trust board level (who are the real governors), and can be delegated to a local GB but often are not. Added to this, a local GB in a multi academy trust can be abolished at a whim. Look at E-ACT as an example, and they are not alone in abolishing local governance. By contrast, it takes the Secretary of State's signature to abolish the governing body of a maintained school.

We are finding through Governor Mark assessments some fantastic examples of strong governance in primary (and secondary) maintained schools, as well as in academies. This happens within a partnership of mutual respect between the governing body and the HT. They don't want to surrender this relationship, that is proving so influential in terms of school improvement, to a MAT where the head no longer works for the governing body, but rather is line managed by the executive head who is likely to be the HT from their neighbouring High School, or a distant CEO.

It is this threat to local accountability that makes many primary headteachers reluctant to take their school into a MAT, and this is far more likely to have influenced the government in their decision to change direction than any complaining from local authorities.


Phil Hand

June 2016

31 December 2015

The government plans to abolish school governance as we know it. Does this matter?

According to the first TES of 2016, ministers are considering the publication of a white paper that will turn every school into an academy by 2020. Most of the comment focuses on what this means for local authorities and their relationship with schools. What less prominent, and absolutely what will affect most readers of this forum, is that this spells the end of stakeholder governance of schools.

Currently there is very little appetite for academy status among primary schools, where only 14% have converted. Most of these are well run, with good governance, and Ofsted reports consistently show this. Governors have worked out that being a director carries baggage they don't want, and that joining a Multi Academy Trust or sponsor transfers governance to the trust board, with no local governance worth the name.

The challenge, of course is that many governing bodies are not really very effective. Sir Michael Wilshaw has talked of 'amateurish' governance, and there is far too much of that hanging around. For me, 'amateurish' governance is evidenced by governing bodies with no capacity to hold the Headteacher to account where the school is not as effective as it should be. Good governance, by contrast, is where governors have a significant positive impact on teaching and learning. Forget tick box exercises that check policies, website compliance, terms of reference etc., this is far more important than that.

We are holding a discussion in Southampton next week on the subject of "Tackling 'Amateurish' Governance"*. We want to work out how we can help governing bodies improve the impact of their work, as many have been able to do. Are we too late? Are they just going to abolish it wholesale? If so, wish David Cameron would be honest enough to admit it. My suspicion is that he probably has not even thought about it, and that may be the undoing of the government's plan.

Phil Hand

*More info: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

26 April 2014

Governor training must train governors to govern

Phil’s Blog – 26 April 2014

One of the constant challenges in governor training is helping people with the ‘how’, not just the ‘what’.

It is very easy to tell governors what they must do or where they are failing. Ofsted are very good at it, and here are two typical examples: ‘the governing body has not held school leaders to account’, or ‘governors know how Pupil Premium money is spent, but not its impact’. In training courses we often have been strong on making governors aware of their responsibilities, but not so strong on how to fulfil them. The main reason for this is of course that what actually happens in an individual school is decided by the governing body, not a governor trainer, or even the local authority or diocese.

I can recall during my time in local authority work having a meeting with the chair and vice chair of a secondary school whose Headteacher (let’s call him Fred Custard) was manipulating the appointment arrangements of his successor, with his current deputy as heir apparent. The atmosphere around the school was pretty toxic and a letter had been received, signed by all three teacher union representatives in the school, making a strong case for the internal candidate, whose appointment would in my view have been a disaster.

In the end I had to get off the fence. ‘If I was a governor at your school’ I said, ‘I would not let Fred Custard anywhere near our headship appointment process’. The relief on these governors’ faces was tangible.

So here I was, as a local authority officer, telling governors what to do. Or was I?

There is all the difference in the world between giving governors a list of tasks or responsibilities, and practical suggestions about how they could do their job more effectively. The former is represented by lists of policies, ‘approved’ committee structures and terms of reference, templates for Headteacher reporting, model agendas carrying standard agenda items, and lists of link governors.

The latter is about listening, and thinking of what might work. It is important that the responsibility is not removed from the governing body. In the real world, suggested ways for governors to actually monitor the quality of teaching are often welcomed. The fact that governors are not inspectors has been well rehearsed, and it is rare for a governor to turn up in a classroom with a clipboard and pass judgement on the quality of what they have seen. They need, however some clear guidance as to ways of doing this.

Examples? How about:

  • Riding shotgun with senior staff as they monitor teaching and provide feedback

  • Setting up a small confidential group of governors who talk with the Headteacher about individual staff performance (very helpful if teaching requires a lot of improvement)

  • External inspections or observations done by professionals with an overall report provided specifically for the governing body

  • Joining in peer mentoring when teachers get together and support each other in their work;

  • Attend inset days when teaching is being developed

  • There must be many other suggestions.

Making training practical is a journey we are all on, and there is more work to be done.

7 February 2014

Where the buck stops

Phil’s Blog – 7 February 2014

One thing is clear from the experience of the Public Accounts Committee, and those who are asked to attend and answer for themselves. Governance is hard, and very difficult to do well.

Captains of industry as well as high officials from banks, health service trusts, the BBC and other public bodies regularly face embarrassment and sharp questioning in front of Margaret Hodge and her colleagues. Often the defence given is that ‘those who work for me failed to keep me informed’. This may help a hapless leader keep his or her well-paid job, but they still look incompetent.

The most recent example at the time of writing was the debacle at the BBC where £100 million was written off on a failed IT system. The only person who was expressing concern at the impending disaster was, as is the traditional treatment for whistle-blowers, marginalised and dismissed. He is now following through a claim for unfair dismissal. The BBC Trust carries the can, along with the senior managers

Mrs Hodge was interviewed later that day and admitted ‘we never got to the bottom of it’. This included a session two years earlier when the committee was assured that the system would work and was the only way forward.

Oddly, I take that as some kind of encouragement. It shows that governance is a subtle and challenging business. The best people find it difficult. It also shows that when something goes wrong, the governance arrangements in any organisation has to take responsibility. We should not let the risk of failure stop us as governing bodies from taking responsibility.

That means that governors should not be reluctant to ask challenging questions. Indeed our friends from Ofsted demand it. Nevertheless there is an important caveat. We need to be asking questions about the right things. There are two problems here, both shown in sharp relief by the Public Accounts Committee.

First, it is hard to know in advance what the right things are. Sometimes it is clear, for example at the Mid Staffordshire Heath Service Trust, where they should have been asking why so many patients were dying; in a school, the equivalent is ‘Why aren’t our pupils learning?’ At other times, things go wrong out of the blue, whether in a safeguarding problem or an Ofsted inspection. Some governing bodies ask ‘How could we have got things so wrong?’ One can sympathise, but not absolve the governing body of responsibility. ‘We are only volunteers’ just will not do.

Secondly, if the governing body needs to push for answers in certain areas, they, not the school managers, have to decide what those areas of investigation are. Governors should not be fobbed off with statements about staying out of the operational detail. Sometime governors hold back from asking very constructive and thoughtful questions about important issues because they want to avoid treading into the operational management of the school. In many schools it will transpire that they have not been challenging enough, nor dug deep enough. Sometimes they will make mistakes. Some might challenge the school because they are not using the ‘right’ operating system on the school laptops, or are using the wrong method for teaching multiplication.

Governing bodies need to be allowed to govern. Experience shows that with goodwill on both sides, and tolerance of the learning curve that many governors travel, they can be very influential in developing good leadership, and they will in time manage the strategic/operational boundary very well.

More on this in a future blog.


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