Advisory boards

Why advisory boards – and your vote – matter

With elections underway for new advisory boards, Dominic Herrington sets out why the system is a quite success story – and why you should be part of it

With elections underway for new advisory boards, Dominic Herrington sets out why the system is a quite success story – and why you should be part of it

3 Dec 2021, 5:00

Headteacher boards have been renamed regional advisory boards, with new elections looming.

‘Whatever you do, someone is going to be pretty unhappy here. But you basically have to think above all about the children.’

These words were a reassurance. It was 2015, and I was about to take a difficult decision as a regional schools commissioner (RSC), not long after the first group of us was appointed. The issue was the sad case of a local school that had got into trouble and needed change. The words were from a member of my headteacher (now advisory) board and chimed with my instincts. Others had given me their views about this school.

I learned an enormous amount through four years of working with this group of professionals, and it feels timely to reflect on this little-known facet of our education system as voting has started for new advisory boards. Because, whisper it, we should recognise that it has been a quiet success.

Every month, advisory board members come together to look at the key decisions the RSC has to take in their region about academies and free schools. Whether it’s considering academy orders, matching a school with the right trust, or considering significant changes to schools with the potential to affect the landscape of provision in a local area, board members can ask questions, probe and express their views.

In this way, they ensure that the local context and the knock-on effects for other providers are taken into consideration, and that bringing about the quickest and greatest progress in the interests of local families is always the priority. Conflicts of interest are declared and managed very tightly.

In my experience, advisory boards offers three distinct advantages.

Their knowledge from running schools and trusts is an invaluable asset

First, their knowledge from running schools and trusts is an invaluable asset. Having personally dealt with a wide range of issues over their careers, they understand how the options and opportunities are felt ‘on the ground’ by the senior leaders and governors of the schools in question. Decision makers have a ready stream of views informed by direct expertise in their ear (whether they like it or not), and that makes for better decisions.

Second, their presence and contributions are baked into the system. Advisory board members are there every month and never go away. This creates a rhythm and an honesty in decision making – nothing within the board’s remit can be ducked.

Finally, they allow trust leaders to learn about how a modern civil service works, how decision making takes place, and the role of ministers in rightly deciding contentious issues. This experience filters back through the system and fosters common understanding that ultimately helps give schools more capacity to focus on providing great education.

In addition, some of the old mysteries have disappeared. There is now greater transparency of advisory board agendas and minutes, and better accessibility for representations to be made. Advisory board members also feed back to RSCs about the temperature or the key areas of concern in the system, who in turn feed that back to the DfE.

The importance of these roles has been noticed. This is reflected in the fact that 164 candidates are standing to become members in the current elections. These candidates have a range of skills across educational settings – primary, secondary, alternative provision, special schools, and sixth-form colleges – and come from a variety of roles: heads of academies, CEOs, senior executive leaders of trusts, and retired heads.

So I urge all the academy heads who are eligible to vote in these elections to consider doing so. As with any election, it is a genuine opportunity to help shape the system.

And that school that was struggling in 2015? It is now a thriving academy serving a deprived area. The decision I took then – aided and scrutinised by my board members – is one of the best I ever took in that role.

It helped start the process by which the children in that school are now getting a better education, and there can be no better endorsement for this system than that.

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