Lord Nash speaks to the Independent Academies Association (IAA) national conference
This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
Lord Nash, Schools Minister, urges academies to use their freedoms to drive good governance.
Thanks Nick (Weller, IAA Chair). Firstly, I would like to say how much I appreciate everything all of you have done to transform the lives of thousands of children, particularly those from poorer backgrounds.
I know that your tireless support for the academies programme, and your invaluable advice, to new converters and sponsors and on IEBs, has been greatly appreciated across the political divide and has helped greatly with the capacity and capability of academies. As an academy sponsor myself, I know just what this support and advice means to the head teachers, chairs of governors, and other senior leaders who are leading radical change to extend opportunities to all children. And I’m delighted to see so many of you represented here today.
There’s no doubt that without your determination and commitment to excellence, the academies programme would not have made the progress it has to date.
Progress which has seen thousands of academies open in the past 2 years; seen standards in sponsored academies rising at a record rate and faster than in similar local authority schools; and seen academies proving hugely popular with parents.
Nearly 60% of all secondary schools are now academies or in the process of becoming so. And we have turned 200 of the worst-performing primary schools into academies supported by a stronger sponsor - an area in which we’re especially keen to accelerate progress.
I’ve personally seen how this shift in the education landscape is dramatically changing children’s lives for the better.
When I and my wife became sponsors of Pimlico Academy - thanks in no small part to your president, Andrew Adonis, a truly great man - the school was failing on almost every count. It had been in special measures, with poor results, poor behaviour and very low morale among staff and students.
And yet, thanks to the talent and dedication of our excellent team, the school achieved an ‘outstanding’ Ofsted rating just over 2 years after it opened.
Nothing I have been involved in in my business life comes close to this experience of seeing the power of education in action, and there’s certainly nothing else that would have attracted me to become a government minister.
And I know it’s a passion everyone in this room and beyond, in academies and free schools, up and down the country, shares, because there’s never been a more important time in our country’s recent history to work in education.
In our increasingly competitive world, more than ever our future rests in the hand of our young people - and in the education they receive.
We have many excellent schools, but there are too many that are falling behind and failing their children - large numbers of whom are leaving school without basic literacy and numeracy skills.
If we are to give them the opportunities they deserve, there’s no time to lose when it comes to transforming our education system - which means tackling underperformance head-on and ensuring all schools do what the very best schools are doing. Like you, I believe the academies programme represents our best chance of achieving this.
This government trusts head teachers, senior leaders and teachers to deliver the system led change and school to school support that is needed. And we believe that the academy structure with clear autonomy, accountability and complete control over one’s finances is the way to achieve this. People ask me what about federations - well hard federations can be very effective too but without the clear financial autonomy and feeling of ownership that comes with academy status I see it as a second best model.
Making use of academy freedoms to drive good governance
Effective innovation, as your conference theme acknowledges, is key to this school to school, system led support.
One of the biggest strengths of becoming an academy is the autonomy it gives teachers to run schools, free from interference by politicians and bureaucrats.
I want academies and free schools to make full use of these freedoms to do what so many of the best schools are doing - promoting academic rigour, high aspiration, innovative curricula and terms that attract and reward the best teachers. These schools also often have a longer school day, provide plenty of extracurricular and sporting activities and have good relationships with their local business and professional communities to help with for instance work experience, careers advice and governance, and to help raise their pupils aspirations.
And, as we all know, one of best ways of driving this greater ambition is through good governance - an area in which many of your members shine.
We can see this through the examples of those presenting workshops on governance later this afternoon. There’s Landau Forte Charitable Trust, with its long heritage of independence and a governing body that takes a real interest in what is going on in the classroom - something I would like to see more governors doing.
And there’s the David Young Community Academy and the Brooke Weston Trust, which have both broken new ground in effectively developing tailored pay scales and contracts of employment.
Pay reform is something that all schools need to be considering in line with the proposed extension of performance-related pay - something we believe is much fairer than the current arrangements that see virtually all full-time teachers automatically move up to the next pay level each year, regardless of their impact on pupils’ achievements.
Schools should be thinking now about how they will deliver pay reform and revising their pay policies accordingly. My department has already published advice on this, which includes a model pay policy that all schools can adapt to meet their needs, and the National College for Teaching and Leadership will also be offering training for governors.
Governors as strategic leaders
The lead that governing bodies take on this issue is key, as it is on all strategic matters relating to their schools. This is why improving governance is central to my priorities.
The Education Select Committee has shone further light on this pivotal subject with the publication today of its report on governance. I am very grateful to the committee for all the work that has gone into the report and will study it with care before responding properly.
But it is clear that we’re fully agreed on the importance of good governance in an increasingly autonomous landscape - with greater freedom must come robust accountability.
We know from Ofsted that where schools are not good, governance is often an area that requires improvement and so it is right that Ofsted has sharpened its focus in this area.
As the people who appoint the head teacher and hold them to account, governors make a huge difference to their schools. This is precisely why we should make it easier for them to do a good job, but also why we need to have higher expectations of them.
We need to be absolutely clear about what we expect - which is for every school to have a dynamic governing body that is ruthlessly focused on what really matters - raising standards.
This means having a body that leaves the day to day running of the school to the head and instead focuses tightly on its core functions: setting strategy and vision, holding the head to account for pupil attainment and staff performance, and making sure money is well spent.
Size and composition of governing bodies
Although the detail of these functions can be delegated to sub-committees, everybody on the governing body needs to be able to engage at this strategic level of debate.
This is why it’s also vitally important that governing bodies are the right size and are made up of people with the right skills and experience, including a strong chair.
Personally, I’m not keen on big governing bodies. Lord Adonis asked me if he could cite Pimlico in his book because with 7 governors we apparently had the smallest governing body in the country. This surprised me greatly as coming from the business world it would by no means be regarded as a small board of directors.
I have seen examples of great schools with much larger governing bodies which, is fine in good times. But life teaches you that when things are not going so well, problems are better resolved with a smaller number of people.
I’m certainly not opposed to parents and staff being on the governing body, but people should be appointed on a clear prospectus and because of their skills and expertise as governors; not simply because they represent particular interest groups.
Just as we shouldn’t confuse volunteer with amateur, nor should we confuse governance with representation - representation which can be done much more effectively through parent and teacher representative groups and student bodies.
When it comes to recruiting governors, I’m keen that we should have the widest possible pool of talent to draw on.
Running a school is in many ways like running a business, so we need more business people coming forward to become governors, alongside public servants such as doctors, police officers and civil servants.
This is why I am so pleased that SGOSS - the governor recruitment charity my department is funding - is looking to expand substantially the proportion of schools it works with over the next 12 months.
Getting governors into classrooms
As regards governors already doing the job, I would like to see more of them getting into classrooms - not to judge the quality of teaching, but so they know what is being taught.
To my mind, there seems to be far too much emphasis on structures in education to the exclusion of all else; too much on the ‘how’, and not enough on the ‘what’. This is a bit like a director of a business being obsessed with human resources and IT, but having little interest in what the company makes.
It’s only when governors know what happens in classrooms that they can really judge whether their curricula, especially at primary and key stage 3, are rigorous enough for the tougher exams that are coming pupils’ way.
And in terms of developing governors themselves, we would very much encourage schools to invest in training, especially to help governors interpret and act on performance and financial data.
Innovation and governance
But as important as it is to strengthen professional development, good governance goes beyond individuals. It’s ultimately about structures that can stand the test of time. And, it’s in this light, that I would urge all schools to review their governance arrangements.
Conversion to academy status is a great opportunity for schools to carry out a review and not hold back on letting go of any passengers on their governing bodies. It has become easier for all schools - academies and maintained schools - to adopt a size and structure that suits their needs and puts pupils ahead of adults.
But I’m concerned to hear that not enough schools are taking advantage of these freedoms.
The Academies Commission, for example, found that many converting schools are not reforming their governance in line with their new goals.
I’ll be looking to see what we can do to change this and encourage more schools to be bolder about this, both at the point of conversion and beyond.
Having said that, I’m excited to see innovation and collaboration in governance arrangements across groups of schools, and it’s in this area, in particular, that academy chains are leading the way.
In a number of places we can see governing bodies of high performing schools taking on the governance of other schools as part of a multi-academy trust. And in other areas, individual academies are retaining their governing bodies and gaining from the good practice and rigorous scrutiny of an overarching trust.
It’s no surprise that a number of those in the running for the governance award to be presented tonight have excelled in precisely these areas.
Schools supporting each other
Someone I was speaking to recently summed it up rather well: “There is enough resource in the country to improve our education to make it highly internationally competitive. It’s down to how we organise this resource together.”
And it’s true, that we’re incredibly fortunate, in this country, to have some of the best heads and teachers in the world. But their talent and commitment shouldn’t be restricted to just their schools. It should be celebrated and harnessed to spread excellence throughout the system.
When you have a system with a substantial but limited number of really good people you have to do 4 things:
- firstly, recruit more good people into the system, which we’re doing with the help of programmes like Teach First and our bursaryships in shortage subjects and troops for teachers
- secondly, through better training which we are doing through Teaching Schools, Teaching Schools Alliance, more NLEs and LLEs and toughening up the performance of our ITT colleges
- thirdly, frankly through putting the system under more stress, raising expectations
- and lastly - and this is where we need your help please - asking your good people to do more
So we want to see more outstanding schools sponsoring weaker schools. I want to see strong multi-academy trusts and secondary schools doing more, in particular to engage with their feeder primaries and create local clusters to improve performance.
We’ve been actively recruiting to encourage sponsors to do this and have had a great response, which is hugely encouraging.
We need good people and good schools to do more - something that, as academies, many of you do as second nature.
Sadly, for many children, especially those from poorer backgrounds, school is sometimes the only anchor in lives that are otherwise chaotic and troubled.
It may be their only marker of stability, their only source of good role models, their only safe haven.
We owe to them to make the wealth of talent, commitment and ambition that we have in our education system go much further, so that every child, no matter where they come from, has a chance to aim for a brighter future - something that I know we all want to see.