Stop Looking Up – some thoughts about school autonomy

I love Twitter. Sometimes I contribute to the discussions that are going on, and sometimes I just lurk. Before you dash off and block me, I should say that I think lurking’s allowed in this context. The whole point of Twitter is that you’re having conversations in public and anyone can watch and join in. If you didn’t want me lurking you’d be emailing each other, right?

This morning I was lurking in on a conversation between some of my favourite tweeps @schoolduggery, @clerktogovernor and @miconm, and I know that between them they have a huge knowledge of the maintained and academy/free school sector. So I was watching their posts with interest about whether it’s a statutory requirement for the full governing body to approve residential trips.

I couldn’t fit my response into 140 characters on this occasion, so here it is. And I must start by saying I have blatantly stolen my title from a talk I heard by Dr John Dunford, at a conference about 18 months ago.

Now I’m a legislation geek. I know more about the legislation surrounding maintained schools than most. And I include the Education Acts and the School Staffing Regulations, as well as all the school governance regulations in that. And I didn’t immediately know the answer to the question about school visits. And that’s because as employers and public services schools are bound by lots of other legislation as well, such as the Health and Safety at Work Act which seems to be the relevant one in this situation. You can also look at the current DfE guidance of course.

So – what’s the “right” answer? Well the responsibility lies with the employer – which in academies and free schools is the governing body, and in voluntary aided and foundation schools is the governing body, and in community and voluntary controlled schools, it’s also effectively the governing body! Yes, I know that the Local Authority is the legal employer in the latter case, but the powers have been delegated to the goevrning body so they act as the employer in almost all circumstances, unless their delegated budget is withdrawn.

So, what’s the right answer? Well it seems to me that it’s for the governing body to determine what happens in their own school. The DfE guidance says the school employer shoudl take a “common sense” and “proportionate” approach. That’s not bad advice in a lot of circumstances governing bodies find themselves in.

One question asked in the conversation this morning was: ‘Do some LAs make H&S policies that require GB to approve res. visits?’ – and I started a reply – ‘LAs can’t require governing bodies to do things’ and then I stopped, and I thought, actually we can and we do. Legally I’m right, Local Authorities can’t require a school to take a particular approach around this. But we can write a model policy that says this is how it’s done, and then advise goevrning bodies to adopt it. And once they have done the governing body is obliged to do whatever its own policy says.

So, what’s my point? I hope you’re still with me. I’m nearly there…

The point John Dunford was making when he used the phrase ‘stop looking up’ was that in an age of school autonomoy we are going to have to stop waiting to be told what to do and how to do it. In fact, he argued, schools have had huge amounts of autonomy for many years, but haven’t always realised that. He had done some work advising the Innovation Unit, an organisation that used to be part of the Department for Education and Skills (remember them?) and schools could apply to them for the ‘power to innovate’ – ie to have some legislation waived to let them try out something new. Over 90% of the applications were sent back on the basis that schools COULD ALREADY DO IT! Schools were applying for special permissions to do things they were already allowed to do! And this wasn’t under the current, but the previous government.

It doesn’t matter what the status of your school is. It is a highly autonomous unit. And perhaps the time has come to  stop looking up, and take greater responsibility for the way we do things in our own schools. Don’t be mavericks – make sure you’ve got a knowledgeable and well trained clerk to keep you on the straight and narrow, and a good advice line you can access when you need it – and remember that we’re accountable, particularly to our children, our staff and our parents, but remember also we are autonomous and we have the power to innovate in many contexts.

Let’s be proportionate, and use our common sense, but also use our imagination and creativity, and the great autonomy that we have, to make our schools the best possible places for our children and young people to flourish.

 

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