Headteacher boards are corrupt, self-serving and secretive

Headteacher boards are the most baffling and stupid part of the schools system. They are also corrupt, self-serving and secretive. Think that’s unfair? Prove it. Only you can’t. Because of that secrecy.

What I can say is that they aren’t democratic. Democracy means rule by the majority. Problem is, the headteacher boards (HTBs) aren’t voted for by most people. They are only voted for by existing academy trust leaders – even though they advise regional schools commissioners (RSCs), who now oversee all schools and whose decisions affect everyone in the country.

Another thing: not everyone is eligible to stand. In England, about the only thing that stops you standing to be an MP is if you have more than a year to run on a prison sentence. You can even stand while still in prison. In the realm of headteacher boards, however, you are ruled ineligible for office if – shock, horror – the school you lead is less than outstanding.

Plus, democracy doesn’t end at the ballot box. Rules, which include writing minutes or allowing questions, stop elected people from diddling us once they acquire power. HTBs, however, can whisper sweet nothings to the RSC about which school should or shouldn’t be allowed to join a trust, open a school, close a sixth form (and so on), without the rest of us hearing what they say or even able to defend ourselves.

You are ruled ineligible for office if – shock, horror – the school you lead is less than outstanding

All of which adds up to a massive problem. Because if people haven’t been able to see what the boards have been up to for the past three years, how in the Lord of Chalkboards’ name are they supposed to know who to vote for? That lovely head up the road who is telling you he’s right on your side for an expansion of your pupil admissions numbers could, in fact, be telling total porkies and slagging you off to the commissioner.

And then – if all of the above wasn’t enough – we have the added ridiculousness that half the members of some democratically elected headteacher boards are neither elected NOR HEADTEACHERS.

Take the board that advises Dominic Herrington in the south east. The drop-outs since the 2014 election mean it now only has three elected members but FIVE non-elected ones, instead picked by Herrington and his advisors.

Nikki King, the former managing director of Isuzu Trucks, is one of those. She has never been a head. While over on Tim Coulson’s board in the east of England, there is someone from a legal firm with an arm that specialises in converting maintained schools into academies. He also has never been a headteacher.

I expect the point of the non-headteacher members on boards is to bring useful business advice; the sort of skills used by school governing bodies across the land. And that’s no bad thing. But governing bodies are open, and transparent, and very clear about whether organisations the governors work for are benefiting from contracts with the schools. This is not true of HTBs. Which raises eyebrows and makes it hard for us to assure people on conflicts of interest. We simply don’t know.

Still, who cares? Maybe all this flexibility means good decisions are made more quickly and even if a few people might get a boon for their favoured academies, what’s the harm?

Problem is, good decisions aren’t always made. The faff over schools in Redditch – which were allowed to change their entry age range, then weren’t, then were – is a classic case of how the boards are sometimes wrong. (There are many more.)

It is an environment made for corruption to flourish

Given the situation the boards operate in, this is not a surprise. They cover huge areas. The information given about schools on which to make a decision is sparse. No one is trained in the job – in large part because ministers have wilfully refused to allow proper analysis of decision-making around free schools and academies, so no one even really knows how to make good decisions.

And don’t even get me started on the lack of rules governing lobbying – either of the election itself or of decisions. It is an environment made for corruption to flourish.

Still, this is the bit where I tell you the upside. The sparkle of good. I do have one, but it has to do a heck of a job to erase the mess.

It is simply this: of the many board members I have spoken to at various times, most are entirely conscientious. They are as baffled, concerned, affronted as the rest of us. It doesn’t help, then, when the Department for Education tells them they can’t speak to the press (as it did this week) nor when meetings continue to be secretive.

These are headteachers (mostly). Not puppets. They are independent charitable employees, not civil servants. They are responsible, good people who believe in what they are doing and want to tell the world about it. There is no harm or shame in wanting to help make good decisions in education. What there is a great deal of shame and harm in is the totally bonkers processes around the HTBs and the people working to keep them that way.

The system is corrupt, self-serving and secretive. I dare you to prove me wrong.

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  1. Excellent piece. Thank you Laura. Perhaps ASCL and NAHT could also add some publicity disinfectant to this debacle. Surely someone there can also speak truth to power.

    Can your next article be on the gravy train that is the RSCs? They seem to jump ship after a year in post, to work for one of the Trusts that they have been supervising and giving contracts to.

    With MATs, HTBs, and RSCs, we seem to have a hierarchy of cronyism that Vladimir Putin would be proud of.

    • Brilliant article. Need to address the corruption in education. I now so many, friends, sister, neighbours with links in education. These payouts, gagging orders need to stop and should be illegal. Heads are getting rid of very competent people to bring in their own people, reduce wage bills, get rid of who they don’t like or who might challenge them.

  2. Stephen Fowler

    Laura McInerney – clearly you are in favour of democracy as you mention it many times in the article – three times in the first three paragraphs. As most people in Teresa May’s consituency want more grammar schools opened in her constituency, do you agree that the democratic thing to do would be to bow to the wishes of the majority and allow more grammar schools? This would be democracy in action – and you support democracy.