The editorial last week led to more responses than any other in Schools Week’s history. Here, one headteacher board member responds to the criticism – and our editor replies.

As a member of one of the regional school commissioners’ headteacher advisory boards, it’s perhaps no surprise that claims they are shrouded in secrecy caught my eye.

The sense of injustice I felt on reading last week’s Schools Week editorial was not for myself, however; this kind of stuff goes with the turf of being a chief executive of a large multi-academy trust. It was for the members of my regional HTB. To hear them described as corrupt, self-serving and secretive when I know them to be honourable, generous and passionate to the core about education was a step too far. It was also below the belt, given we are in purdah and the Department for Education must remain mute.

It is true the minutes are limited. But it’s a considerable leap to claim this points to corrupt and self-serving behaviours

It is true the minutes are limited. But it’s a considerable leap to claim this points to corrupt and self-serving behaviours.

First, minutes are a poor way to judge the work of most organisations. No matter how detailed they are, they never fully capture the debate and challenge behind a decision.

Second, when sensitive issues are discussed it’s always a judgment call how much should be put in the public domain. I am not saying schools and communities should not be made fully aware of decisions that are taken about their futures, they just shouldn’t read about it in a set of minutes. The dialogue and communication should be with them directly.

The next unjustified charge is that HTBs are somehow corrupt. The implication here is that we can somehow make money out of being on the board. Or our support for certain projects can be bought. Or that board members might have conflicting financial interests.

If you’re on a board, your organisation either agrees for you to participate on a pro-bono basis or a flat rate is paid to your employer to cover costs.

Our support for certain projects can be obtained? How? A back-hander, a “you scratch mine, I’ll scratch yours” arrangement? We wouldn’t and don’t.

Every one of the HTB members signed up to the Nolan principles of public life and I’ve never, in three years, seen them breached. On “financial interests”, I’m not aware of the RSC offices handing out contracts, so where’s the conflict of interest? Even if they did, I doubt it would be to Isuzu trucks.

Self-serving. How? Because at some point I might have the chance to influence a discussion about a REAch2 school? If I want to try that, I’ll arrange a meeting with an RSC and put my case. On average, each HTB member spends about 28 days a year either in board meetings or reading papers, precisely because we take the role seriously: hardly the definition of self-serving. Some may argue this time would be better spent focusing on our own schools, but we do it because we look to a greater good.

We use our positions to inform and challenge the decisions made by RSCs. Not one decision about a school in the region I represent has been nodded through. The knowledge we have about the communities in which these schools sit, gives us a much better chance to make sure the RSC makes the right decision. I accept that we will never have a perfect system, but with real-time local knowledge and expertise, in most cases the decisions taken are the right ones.

Finally, what many fail to recognise is the work HTB members do to develop and improve the system in general. I’ve worked with about 30 smaller multi-academy trusts and three large diocese on developing governance structures and improvement models. That wouldn’t have happened without these boards. Replicate that across the country and that is a significant force for good.

Of course, this fact isn’t in a set of minutes so a random FOI isn’t going to discover it, but anyone who genuinely wanted to find out what we do would have asked. Interesting that in three years only one journalist has asked me about my work on the HTB.

 

Sir Steve Lancashire is the founder and chief executive of REach2