Review by Nigel Gann

25 Sep 2016, 5:00

Modernising School Governance: Corporate planning and expert handling in state education

Andrew Wilkins’ work has already challenged some of the comfortable platitudes of the world of school governing: drawing attention, for example, to the “democratic deficit” in English schools that is still not recognised by some leading proponents of governance.

His book is aimed at those who want to understand the history, political significance and possible futures of school governing in an education system dominated by a neoliberal view of leadership as management and compliance, rather than a values-based process about priorities and preferences.

Unlike governors of other organisations, school governors, including academy trustees/directors, have little input into the key priorities of schools.

What makes a school “good” is determined by the current secretary of state and chief inspector, not by the people who lead them. Wilkins traces the process by which this came about.

It is, in places, not an easy read. That is, it is uncomfortable to those of us who have advocated lay governance in state-funded schools and worked to make it more effective. But neither is much of it easy to grasp, unless you have at least a nodding acquaintance with the thinking of Michel Foucault, the French philosopher and historian of ideas.

If you struggle with concepts such as “disintermediation”, “transcendental continuities”, and “genealogical enquiry”, then some substantial passages will pass you by. But don’t let this put you off, because there are crucial issues here for what we want from our schools that are not being addressed by our politicians, our school leaders, or those organisations that advocate for governors and parents.

There are crucial issues here for what we want from our schools

In a neoliberal state “modernised” governance, according to Dr Wilkins, is the only way of managing performance-centred schools. New public management involves the aggressive sidelining of stakeholder governance in favour of the centralised setting of values, curriculum and performance measures. Wilkins traces the history and the philosophical roots of this in schools.

If anyone is still saying that politics should be kept out of education, this book will remind them that “school governance is deeply political”, by its very nature. Wilkins takes us through the age of managerialism in all its manifestations, into the most recent decentralisation of individual schools, paralleled by the centralisation of education policymaking under Thatcher.

The moves towards purely skills-based governance are a major source of debate and concern. There is some conflict between the “apolitical” (not that there can be such a thing) advocates of “good governance” and “disinterested” (not that there can be such a thing) academic observers, often participant observers, and critics. Meanwhile, austerity and corporatisation are the two key motifs in the background to governance. While governors struggle with the latest tweaks in school performance indicators, the most important issues facing them are probably child poverty and the future of their school as an autonomous institution.

Is the pendulum beginning to shift back?

Is the pendulum beginning to shift back? Certainly, charter schools in the US are under attack for their costs, their culture, and their lack of public accountability. Already some of the key elements there of neoliberalism are beginning to unravel. Perhaps private firms are not the best organisations to run the US prison service? Maybe, here, railways would be more efficient in their old nationalised format?

This book charts the “momentous shift in power from politicians and bureaucrats to company directors, senior school leaders and governors, and an expanded role for business involvement, expert handling and corporate planning in the running of schools”. Surely we do need a national debate about governance. Maybe, “we need to create new definitions and practices of what it means to be a governor and an engaged citizen”.

Let’s do it, please, or politicians and business leaders will continue to do it for us. This book is a good and important start.

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