Tag Archives: head teachers

Just Because There’s A ‘Gove’ In ‘Governor’…

The wake of the ‘Trojan Horse’ case – or the reporting thereof – is positively littered with issues: academies’ curricular freedoms; ideologues vs pragmatists; Islamophobia; Ofsted’s political independence (get your microscope out for that, if you can find one strong enough). More…and more… rhubarb. All, rheums included, have been picked over and the lumps set aside for further analysis. I do something similar with the Catsan when my furry overlord has a dicky tum – a bit of post-hoc crapomancy to minimise future bouts of the runs.

Among the areas under discussion is the role of governors. Though not a flashy headline-grabber, like intra-Cabinet fisticuffs, it nonetheless offers political pundits food for thought and fulmination (although not always in that order). What are the responsibilities of governing bodies, and do they change when local authorities are no longer in control? Are governors exercising their powers appropriately? Is specific training needed? With typically self-obsessed myopia, I’m tipping my governor-shaped hat towards my last post and a few before.

In the early days, I wasn’t really conscious of governors; truth to tell, I wasn’t really conscious. They were occasionally present on interview panels and at staff meetings but, leaving aside the teacher governors, I couldn’t name most of them. Apart from Angela Rumbold (yes, THAT Angela Rumbold), who may not have been on my side of the fence, politically, but who could say to chutzpah-rich and research-poor parents, “I’m afraid that’s not the national policy. I should know: I wrote it”. Some of my ex-colleagues still can’t name their governors because their head teachers actively discourage or, even, prevent them from speaking to each other.

Did this void in my knowledge feel like the gnaw of hunger? Not really. And maybe that’s because my colleagues and I had less reason back then to wonder “Why the hell aren’t the governors keeping track of X, Y or Z?” In more recent times, it’s a question I’ve asked and heard with far greater frequency. Mostly, it’s delivered with rational, if sad, calm. A few times, I’ve heard it squeezed through the teeth, the resulting sibilance an eloquent expression of barely-contained apoplexy. Sometimes, it’s erupted through gathering stormclouds of milky spittle. Whatever the mode of delivery, all are at best ambivalent about the curbing of governors’ powers towards which much of the ‘Trojan Horse’ fallout seems to point. Today, Muslims; tomorrow, the rest.

Useless governors can be a force for ill. Many of us have encountered at least one of them: those who see the role as CV-enhancing, and who give themselves away by asking things like “Which school is this, again?”; Or the parent governors hoping to wangle some special privileges for their offspring. How about the teacher governors for whom a brown nose is a timeless classic, in vogue every season? In their cupped hands, the concept of the governor as a critical friend lies panting in the foetal position, slowly turning blue. Well, the ‘critical’ part, anyway. The ‘friend’ bit is in rude health, being wined and dined by the head teacher just before his or her pay review.

Others, similarly toothless, have abdicated their interrogative responsibilities out of fear, with parent and teacher governors being especially susceptible. Fail to go along with the head teacher’s latest big idea and watch curricular opportunities and professional prospects evaporate. If this sounds familiar, here’s a thought: don’t apply for the job if you have the disposition of Shaggy from Scooby-Doo and count “Zoinks” among your most frequent utterances. Others are under the erroneous impression that it’s their job to say “Yes” and “Brilliant” to the head’s every ‘initiative’, demonstrating their commitment by having rubber stamps grafted onto their palms.

Some, however, are bloody brilliant. They understand that a school’s strategic direction should be a collective decision; that the bedfellow of scrutiny is trust; that the well-being of the students is enhanced by taking staff welfare seriously. And, vitally, that ‘critical friend’ is not an oxymoron but, rather, a necessary and logical yoking, without which everyone – not least, the head teacher who is the intended object of said critique – suffers. And therein lies the crux of the matter for me: the expanding range of powers being gifted to school principals. When a governing body is ineffective, these can be – too frequently, are – abused with near-impunity.

I’m not going to drag out the sordid litany of head-teacherly dodginess again. Oh okay, just the once: misuse of capability proceedings; conflicts of interest; embezzlement; bullying; cheating. All of these, and more, have happened under the noses of governors in my more recent places of employment, because they were either too credulous to realise that they were being fed highly redacted versions of events, or because they had forgotten that it’s their job to hold the head to account – not the other way around. The departure of staff is natural in schools; but when the flow becomes pathological, like septic oozings from an untended wound, governors need to recognise, and act upon, it.

I place a particular onus on the shoulders of community governors who, having the least squit-inducing vested interests, should ensure that those of their fellow board members are kept in check. Having just witnessed the resignation of a headteacher whose crimes (really) and misdemeanours stretch back over years, I’m struck by how many of the governors who had come, gone and, in some cases, come back knew about the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ of a parlous situation. But, with politeness and fear being the principal lubricants of our current system, they said and did nothing. It was the arrival of a community governor in the chair’s, um, chair, that put an end to the reign of terror and stemmed the flow of staff resignations this year – especially the ones for unspecified ‘personal reasons’.

Governors can bring valuable expertise to supplement that already in a school, using their skills and contacts to provide students with opportunities they would not have otherwise. There are those who turn their talents to generating funds and helping to manage budgets intelligently, cautioning against oscillations between penny-wisdom and pound-foolishness. In several schools I know, governors’ technical savvy is reflected in the design and management of fantastic websites. All are to be applauded for their commitment and creativity.

Still, whenever possible, governors should also be in school – accompanying students on trips, helping out with reading recovery, making themselves identifiable presences. Because so many do not come from the teaching profession themselves, some amount of training in the exercise of oversight may be required, although we need to be careful to avoid turning this into another form of state licensing: look at where the NPQH has got us, with its implicit policy of selecting and unleashing all manner of sociopathy on unsuspecting schools. But a cogent programme of preparation and research – something involving regular dialogue with staff and parents – would enable governors to discharge their duties more actively and effectively.

Let’s not allow the coverage of the Birmingham schools to tie governors’ hands too tightly. Because, while we’ve occasionally been damned with them, we’ll certainly be damned without them.

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Blurred Lines

Many of my previous posts have detailed, in one way or another, conflicts of interest – most often, those between doing what is right for students and what is advantageous for schools. The outsider’s assumption that the two are synonymous should have been challenged, if not dispelled, by this insider’s revelations. Indeed, you will, quite possibly, have been bored beyond belief by my incessant moaning on this topic – the conversational equivalent of riding the Circle Line for a day, watching the same grotty stations slide past the windows again and again. Apologies for that. I‘ll stop it. Soon.

The recent case of Jo Shuter, former head teacher at Quintin Kynaston School and now barred from teaching, demonstrated how a lack of financial oversight in academies can allow conflicts of interest to proliferate like fungi. Private taxi rides, furniture purchases, birthday parties and jollies for the senior team were all funded by public money – misuses that Shuter has finally admitted. However, her demise was effected not only by greed, but also by nepotism: Shuter’s children were beneficiaries of their mother’s largesse with the public purse, as their mobile phone contracts were charged to the school; and Debbie Shuter’s documentary about her sister’s headship of Quintin Kynaston remains unbroadcast by the BBC, due to concerns about potential bias.

Still, the Venn-like overlap between public duty and private gain is hardly confined to this high-profile case. I certainly know of several instances in which costly acquisitions have appeared oh-so-suddenly in senior staff members’ homes, or large amounts of money have been transferred from school funds to private coffers. Take, for instance, a London school where the head employed a member of his immediate family as a temporary gardener. Four thousand pounds a week isn’t too bad a rate. Especially in a school without a garden. The amount, paid partly in ready cash from the safe and partly in sums small enough to not warrant governors’ approval, passed below the accountability radar. If only the head teacher had employed himself in this capacity, I could have referred to him as ‘Capability Procedures Brown’.

The most disturbing conflicts of interest, however, do not always involve money. Some revolve around other kinds of behavioural licence that border on – and, sometimes, become – serious causes for personal concern. I have worked in three schools attended by colleagues’ children, some of whom were taught by their parents. Only in one have I found myself under fleeting pressure to apply different rules to a child whose mother was a fellow teacher. The overwhelming majority of colleagues employed in their children’s schools have conducted themselves with commendable probity, in part because they’ve known that failing to exercise impartiality would get them into trouble with someone higher up the ladder.

But what happens when the staff member concerned isn’t accountable in quite the same way? What if s/he is the head teacher in a school whose board of governors is so gullible that its oversight of the principal’s activities exists in name only? The result, in one school, was the jeopardizing of other children’s personal safety, as well as their learning, in order to indulge, exonerate or cover up the activities of one pupil with an exceptionally influential parent. As this sorry case threatens to demonstrate, the pursuit of short-term benefits can often beget long-term disasters for all concerned. Not least, the apparently untouchable child.

Like many institutions, schools profess adherence to a strict code of conduct. Indeed, the capacity to be ethically self-regulating is one of the hallmarks of a profession, and a pillar of the trust invested in it by the public. A number, however, are governed by unwritten constitutions: practices that may not accord with the spirit or letter of the stated ethos but, nonetheless, become entrenched through fearful compliance and repetition. In one school, such circumstances have allowed Raven to develop patterns of behaviour that, in a couple of years, will be considered criminal. On the quiet, many of the staff believe that it’s only a matter of time before they see his face looking back at them from a newspaper for all the wrong reasons. Raven is the head teacher’s son.

His aberrant behaviour was first noted at the age of four, when an educational psychologist, brought in to observe another child, identified him as a timebomb. Her warnings were brushed aside and the majority of school staff maintained a judicious silence, having learned that the cost of doing otherwise would be relentless bullying by someone with the power to make life very difficult. Most knew that they were colluding in a distasteful situation, although a few managed to convince themselves that their complicity was a matter of free choice and/or pastoral realpolitik. For a chosen few, the connivance was made ‘worth their while’.

Four years on, Raven is habitually aggressive towards his peers, intimidating them by mental and physical – including sexual – means. If other children’s heads are hit by the weapons Raven brandishes with impunity, then that’s their fault for standing in his path. Or so the staff are told. The modus operandi of collusion has also developed: incidents are ignored or justified, or victims are told that they are holding the wrong end of the stick. A couple have questioned their sanity, as adult after adult insists that their experience is not of bullying – even if it looks, sounds and smells remarkably like it. A few have been removed from the school by parents who suspect that nothing will be done to curb Raven’s activities as long as his parent remains in charge.

Small children, as we know, find bodies fascinating and amusing in a wee-poo-bum sort of way. However, Raven’s knowledge extends far beyond mere anatomical curiosity, having long been characterised by a precision and breadth of sexual awareness unbecoming his age. It was, therefore, no surprise that Bella, a teacher new to the school, was taken aback when, on being assigned to his class, she witnessed Raven’s behaviour: his repertoire then included instructing classmates in the adoption of outré sexual positions, and forcibly exploring girls’ bodies. Bella’s relative unfamiliarity with The Way Things Are Done Here led her to formally document her concerns and pass them on to the head teacher who is responsible for overseeing child protection issues. She took it for granted that the ensuing silence meant due process was being followed out of sight and earshot, with the requisite impartiality such situations demand.

Then came the biggie, when Raven was seen shoving his hands between the legs of a girl in his class, who had tried to repel him and was visibly distressed by his actions. Bella immediately invoked the school’s behaviour policy, reporting Raven’s actions through the assigned channels. She heard nothing more on the matter until the girl’s parents appeared in her classroom a couple of days later, demanding to know what was being done about the apparent assault on their daughter as their complaints to senior staff had, so far, been met with silence. When the head teacher told them that their child had confessed to lying about the incident, suspicions intensified: previous incidents, involving other children, had also been dismissed in the light of  similar confessions, all elicited under the head’s intent gaze.

Very soon, Bella began to hear whispers about her performance on a grapevine with roots in the head teacher’s office. Fearing that her professional prospects would be harmed by allegations of incompetence, she contacted her union. Apart from asking that it be recorded, she pursued the matter no further, having understood that silence would be the safest response – in the short term, at least. Within months, Bella was made deputy head and has not produced a single record of concern at Raven’s behaviour since. She does, however, regularly assure the other children that they have misinterpreted his benign intentions: the slaps, swearing and gropes really aren’t any of the above. Thus, within the space of a year, someone who could have been part of a solution has assimilated the preferability of being part of the problem.

The school in which these events have taken place has suffered manifold consequences, besides those documented above. Its behaviour policy has been ‘tweaked’ endlessly, to ensure that Raven’s conduct cannot be classified as sanctionable – which may be why his current favourite pastimes include mimicking cunnilingus and buggery, and trying to remove girls’ clothing without their consent. With the same degree of latitude extended to all pupils, the school is now one in which behaviour problems are spiralling, punishments are scant and staff are faced with a number of children who believe that they are immune from any form of prosecution. The education of Raven’s classmates has suffered due to his continued disruptiveness, and his teachers can expect scant support from senior leaders, when confronted with the consequences of such a regime.

Apart from changing the names of participants, all the details above are true, making this one of the most disturbing and distasteful posts I’ve written. I would apologise for its inclusion were it not the case that, in the meantime, head teachers remain the recipients of increasing powers from the Department of Education. Until their exercise is subjected to consistent scrutiny, some will continue running schools as personal fiefdoms, leaving avoidable casualties in their wakes and pressing others to hide the bodies.