Claire Pannell reckons she might be the only person in the country with her job title. While many trusts have a director of governance, she can’t find any that also have their own “general counsel” – the joint roles that she fills at Anthem Schools Trust.
Maintained schools call on local authority legal departments when they get into hot water, while trusts tend to use specialist law firms. Pannell says having that in-house expertise means she can be “proactive” in “preventing legal challenges from happening”, rather than firms on retainers who are normally “always firefighting”.
She was appointed a family law judge this year (aged just 40, it’s also likely she’s one of the country’s youngest), providing a rare and overarching perspective of the justice and education systems.
A legal mind also gives her “complementary skills” that come in handy: Pannell also acts as Anthem’s data protection officer and company secretary. She’s also transforming the trust’s governance systems to give pupils a seat at the table.
Fighting for education
Pannell has a crisp English accent, refined mannerisms and exudes a bold sense that the world is her oyster. She puts her drive and ambition down to having had to “fight for education” herself.
Her dad was a forklift driver (both parents left school at 13) and her education at Ryeish Green secondary “wasn’t good at all”.
But the school, in Reading, Berkshire, was shut by the council in 2010 and replaced by Oakbank – now one of the 16 schools Anthem runs across Thames Valley, London and the East Midlands.
Pannell has returned there in her current role, but she says the corridor from the headteacher’s office evokes “bad memories of being bullied”.
She recalls how the school only offered two A-levels when she attended. Pannell and her friends had to persuade the local college to send a tutor so they could take A levels in sociology.
They also got involved with extra-curricular activities including young enterprise competitions which “we just kept winning”. “That gave me this drive to keep aiming higher than people expected of me.”
Snakes in a classroom
After studying law at Bristol University, Pannell landed a job for law firm Veale Wasbrough Vizards specialising in education. Aside from being asked tricky questions by mostly independent school clients – such as whether snakes could be kept in a classroom (“yes, apparently”) – Pannell carved out a role providing immigration advice for education visa applications.
But she wasn’t motivated by “earning money for the partners”, and she wanted a career where the “moral purpose was clear”.
So, in 2012 Pannell moved to the charity Education Development Trust (previously CfBT Education Trust), which until last year sponsored Anthem. Pannell was EDT’s senior education consultant and solicitor, a role which meant she could indulge her love of travelling (the list of countries she’s backpacked around is impressive).
There were trips to the Middle East and projects replicating Ofsted inspections overseas, a girls’ education project in Kenya, and tours of schools in Malawi. One school was just a “tiny shack”, with the headteacher’s office a “chair in the grass – so peaceful, under a beautiful mango tree”, she fondly remembers.
It was “eye-opening” to discover “how much of a privilege education can be. It’s a whole other ballgame when girls can’t go to school legally, or practically if they have their period.”
Changing the Anthem
The travelling element became less attractive after Pannell became a mum and she switched to working just with UK schools. But after around six years as head of legal, she decided to fulfil a lifelong dream of becoming a judge – which she now does on unpaid leave throughout the year alongside her general counsel role.
One of the key skills she must hone is “judgecraft”– the art of decision-making. It’s something Pannell already does “on a low level everyday”. But she also became governor of two schools (Lime Hills and Hans Price academies in Cabot Learning Federation) to get decision-making experience on complaints panels and disciplinary committees.
Her judge training has made her acutely aware of the “unconscious bias” governors on exclusion panels have as “critical friends” of heads and in “supporting the school”. She made a training pack for governors to foster awareness of that.
She’s also summarised lengthy legal exclusions guidance into a “checklist” for heads to “tick through … All the law around it is so prescriptive … they’re not lawyers and can’t read all that”.
SEND legal pinch point
But the biggest “legal pinch points” that trusts face are around providing pupils with SEND support. “Heads want to do so much more, but the funding’s not there”. The “ridiculous” CAMHS waiting list also throws up “lots of legal risks” because “you’ve got disability discrimination if you’re not making reasonable adjustments”.
Parents’ complaints have been “absolutely skyrocketing” since Covid, but Pannell has been able to “take some of the pain out” of the process for heads.
Most schools have three complaint stages – the last being a panel including an external representative. It is in trusts’ interests to avoid reaching that point, so Pannell added another pre-panel stage as an “additional opportunity to resolve the complains in house”.
She’s also created a trust-wide complaints handling network, with each school having their own coordinator (given legal training in complaint resolution) feeding up to a national complaints lead.
Every complaint is “logged with timeframes, and responses are templated”, meaning they are “resolved much lower down the scale”. Only around four a year now get to the panel stage, compared to “three to four a week” at another similar sized trust she knows of.
Pannell has also put her legal skills to good use by “reimagining” Anthem’s governance structures.
As trusts’ governance is still based on the maintained school model, she believes there’s a “disconnect” that “leads to confusion, with people not understanding their responsibilities and loads of duplication”.
“You’ve got governors squirreling away reviewing outcomes without necessarily being educationalists, and reviewing budgets without being accountants.
“And who’s listening? That information might connect into the head, but then it’s stuck there in a MAT [multi academy trust] where lots of the infrastructure sits above them.”
Pannell started by rebranding governors as ‘community council members’, a “really controversial” move to some who “liked having ‘governor’ on their CV”.
She held a consultation on what the remits for the new councils should be, and four emerged – community; celebration (of successes); panels; and SEND, inclusion and safeguarding.
‘Need to listen to pupils more’
Anthem is also training up volunteer ‘champions’ to take on roles as “experts” in safeguarding, climate change, SEND and inclusion and staff issues.
Two of the champions will be pupils, named “Timi champions” after the pupil who came up with the idea. Timi, a St Marks Academy pupil, brought a roomful of education leaders “to tears” after being invited by Anthem to speak about the personal challenges he overcame.
Afterwards, he “tapped Mohsen on the shoulder” and told him, “you need to listen to students more”.
A termly forum will link Timi Champions from across schools, with training provided for them to understand “how trusts and schools work”.
While most of the forums will be online, plans are afoot to hold the first one in person at the Houses of Parliament.
The champions will, after gathering feedback from other pupils, give each issue discussed a RAG [red/amber/green] rating to be fed into a dashboard. This isn’t a token gesture, but a “genuine way we can hear the student voice”.
Pannell compares the potential impact to the effect that doing extracurricular activities had on her at school.
“It can really elevate pupils to see what else is going on.”