Stronger Governance – Stronger Schools

My speech to Birmingham’s school governors at their “Stronger Governance, Stronger Schools” conference.


Good morning and thank you for the invitation to speak to you today.

I address you as someone whose career has still, in the main, been an education one.

For 18 years I worked in schools; and the following nine in education and children’s services.

Improving the life chances of children and young people is still my passion. And education is still the single most transformative life experience – both for good and for ill.

And it was, principally, for the sake of making a contribution to the improvement of children’s services that I sought to come to Birmingham – albeit my eye was much more on safeguarding than on schools.

I speak to you this morning, therefore, as someone committed to the cause of working with you to ensure that every child and young person gets a great education and is given the keys to unlock their potential.

Scene setting

So, why did I accept the invitation?

Well here’s some context and, therefore, some of the reason.

My analysis of the present situation with education in this city is that we find ourselves at a watershed – Birmingham seems to specialise in those at the moment – as, from 1 September, we fully embark upon a new and critical chapter in the relationship and partnership between schools and the City Council, and so the life chances of our children.

Overall, we perform at least as well as or better than the other Core Cities in England. We can pause briefly and congratulate our children, young people, their parents/carers, their teachers and support staff and, you, their governors for that. The City Council can also take some credit.

Education is not failing in Birmingham. Far from it.

But it is also not succeeding enough. Whilst around 80% of our early years settings and schools are good or outstanding, I agree with Sir Michael Wilshaw about one issue; 20% is not an acceptable statistic because it means that several thousand pupils in this city aren’t getting the consistently high quality educational experience they need.

I do not need to be a former teacher to know that this is my challenge – and yours; and everyone else’s who cares about the city’s most precious resource; people.

And with this in mind, I’d like to talk with you about our collective opportunity and responsibility – to get every setting and school to at least good and then sustain that indefinitely.

With this in mind, I want to focus not on the tactics; but on the strategy. Not on the past; but on the future. Not on ourselves; but on the city’s children and young people.

A vision for the city

As you will know, there is a new approach emerging, and emerging fast. Its educational institutions, the City Council, its Commissioner (for now), and our children and young people are re-writing the book.

Last year we consulted you on our improvement plan and central to that plan is to bring about this new approach – and create a new shared confidence: in the plan and in each other.

And we need to bring about a forward looking and forward thinking approach because we can’t do what we used to because it hasn’t been working well enough up to now and definitely won’t work in the future. Remember – the 20% challenge.

So, where we need to start is with a clear vision upon which to build our new approach. And this is in hand.

As the Birmingham Education Partnership’s Business Plan states:

“Our mission is to secure a deeply good academic, social and civic education for every child and young person in Birmingham”.

That is an objective that the City Council has helped formulate and shares in full; it is our joint mission and we have developed it in partnership over recent months.

But there needs to be a little more than laudable “motherhood and apple pie”.

The City Council and Birmingham Education Partnership are clear that to fulfil this mission we need, between us, to create an ambitious, robust and sustainable schools-led system of continuous improvement.

The local authority has its part to play, which I will return to, but the emphasis must be on committing long term to a self-improving system – one that seeks to self-regulate as the default position and, therefore, takes full responsibility for its own effectiveness and, critically, the success of the children and young people intended to benefit from it.

This is a fundamental shift in thinking, most particularly for the City Council, and it reflects a shared understanding that the “old” idea of the Local Education Authority (particularly as seen in Birmingham) is dead and buried. In fact the acronym LEA should be banished from our thoughts and lips.

We, the City Council, have good cause to move to a new relationship and a new model. We have heard from too many that we have retained unedifying characteristics of the bygone age when paternalism and “knowing best” were allegedly acceptable and went hand-in-hand as the modus operandi.

Well I’m here to tell you that we are changing our ways; and we have already gone beyond good intentions. Whilst our approval ratings are yet to reflect this shift – and perceptions always lag – I can assure you that Cllr Jones, Peter Hay and I are fully committed to a progressive partnership based on respect, empathy, equity and – above all – putting the interests of children and young people first.

Sure, there will be hiccups, probably borne of cultural and behavioural legacies that are hard to shift, but significant time and effort is going into this fundamental change – and it will prevail and succeed.

A little of the detail for you.

The City Council will drive these changes by formally positioning itself as the commissioner of universal school improvement services. And Birmingham Education Partnership is building a purpose, values, outcomes, partnership, structure and capability to be the provider of choice.

The new commissioning intentions will be characterised by the following key features:

  • A family of schools linked by meaningful networks – principally their own, but cognisant of the council’s structures too.
  • An intelligence-led approach in which the understanding of performance and the taking of decisions will be evidence-based and stratified.
  • Intelligence that will also be holistic (a key lesson from Trojan Horse), dynamic (seeking not just to describe present state but predictive of direction of travel) and open – there must be a presumption of publication to maximise the transparency of the impact of public resources.
  • A broad, balanced and inclusive approach to partnership working. This is a new system with the children and young people at its heart, served well by every school, the City Council, employers, other education providers and anyone else whose role it is to enable our pupils to fulfil their potential.
  • Effective at safeguarding and excellent at governance with these sitting at the heart of the new arrangements and you having a critical role in securing both – and challenging and remediating when there are risks to safety, wellbeing and probity (in all its guises).

It is anticipated that through the City Council’s commission, BEP will deliver the universal school improvement requirement – and we are planning and budgeting for the medium term on this basis.

It will also be the case, from time-to-time, that wicked issues will arise and, for such instances, the City Council will retain sufficient capacity and capability to work with the institution(s) concerned and BEP to deal with such situations. But these will be the exception.

So, to be clear, the City Council will focus its efforts on effective commissioning:

Identifying need and risk.

  • Prioritising the most important outputs and outcomes.
  • Working with BEP to ensure that proposed support, challenge and intervention models are fit-for-purpose and fit-for-the-future.
  • Providing robust, fair quality assurance – most particularly by:

maintaining and publishing an open, comprehensive and agreed “performance profile” and “performance trajectory” for every school in the city;

assuring the effectiveness of BEP in securing continuous improvement as an ethos as well as in practice; and

ensuring a positive culture of openness (aided by a whistleblowing approach that can be trusted).

The contribution that governors make to delivering on that vision

As you might imagine, Governors are central to these developments.

All effective and safe systems have strong governance at their heart.

For me, good governance starts with three essential pre-requisites without which no system or institution, ultimately, will thrive – let alone be credible.

Firstly, you need a clear, but complementary mission/purpose your own. What is your setting or school trying to achieve for its pupils?

Secondly, what are the values that drive the work that is undertaken? These are crucial to me as they will define you in the eyes of the communities you serve.

And, thirdly, what are the outcomes you are seeking to achieve? These will go well beyond the academic, will no doubt include your take on what it is to be British, but should be designed to prepare your pupils for life in modern Britain and beyond.

As governors you have an essential role in addressing and determining these matters. Without clarity of purpose, values and outcomes you increase the risk of a lack of drive and focus: none of which are helpful to continuous improvement.

And you need to check yourselves against this secular trinity all the time – for adherence, but also for relevance.

Little stands still and expectations change – but change is a proactive process which you, with the setting or school’s professional leadership, must lead, cross-reference and norm-reference.

You are also there to act as independent challenge. Your range of backgrounds is intended to bring a range of experiences, expertise and perspectives to ensure objectivity and good governance and, to this end, you are entitled to question – constructively, insightfully, empathetically and doggedly.

You have the day-to-day responsibility to do this from within; but you also have the responsibility to do this with peers – looking out beyond your own setting/school and community , ensuring wider perspectives are brought to bear.

Good governance has moved beyond a simple, if still powerful, adherence to the Nolan Principles of:

  • Integrity
  • Selflessness
  • Objectivity
  • Accountability
  • Openness
  • Honesty
  • Leadership

You are now also the guardians, advocates and proponents of courage. The courage to:

  • Question through appreciative enquiry
  • Speak up and speak out
  • Listen – especially to views you don’t want to hear and, of course, to the children and young people themselves

These are all demanding characteristics of good governance and good governors – but the health of our education system (indeed, any system) relies on them.

Believe me, the City Council itself is reviewing and addressing this very subject.

The wider contribution of governors to civic leadership

And you are not alone.

I know governorship can feel like a lonely business at times: much responsibility, little recognition and plenty of brickbats.

But, you are part of a wider civic and civil network and you should make the very best use of this.


We are on the cusp of something special; something truly transformative.

The hardest bit is just upon us: delivering on new promises and the unknown.

But you have my assurance that we are in for the long haul and that the City Council recognises and values the invaluable contribution you have to make.

And it all starts and ends with this:

“Our mission is to secure a deeply good academic, social and civic education for every child and young person in Birmingham”.

Thank you.


Posted on April 27, 2015, in Blog. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Brendan MacLean

    I am a support staff governor representative at a special school in the South of the city. The school I work in has been fortunate enough to to have been rated outstanding after recent OFSTED inspections. This is due, in no small part, to the hard work and commitment of the school community as a whole and indeed that of those I represent.

    The tone of your speech is positive and forward thinking. In principle it sounds great. However, as a teaching assistant, I have some reservations which I believe I share with my peers. Essentially any notion of trust between the city council and support staff has been severely damaged over the last few years. The tearing up of contracts, the somewhat ridiculous concept of single status, the flawed introduction and maintenance of performance management, removal of responsibility points – I could go on – have all contributed to a sense that the powers that be, including, dare I say it, the unions, really don’t understand what it is to be a TA and don’t care.

    Loyalty, certainly in my setting, is to the pupils and to the school itself but sadly does not extend much further. My fear is that the changes that are being implemented will not be perceived in the way you wish them to be because of the legacy that exists. I suspect the default view of BEP amongst my colleagues will be neutral at best.

    If this is to be addressed it is my belief that you, as a leader with extensive experience in education, should re-engage Teaching Assistants in the process of education within the city as a whole. Get them on board. Restore trust and prevent it from being further eroded. Reintroduce responsibility points, the idea of punishing the majority for the faults of the few was frankly despicable. Ensure that performance management is holistic and not just focused on a few tasks. Be explicit in the way you value the contribution of Teaching Assistants.

    I know that the staff I represent will continue to show remarkable commitment and dedication to the pupils they work for and I hope nothing will ever change that. If BEP Is to work properly though and in a wider context, I feel it can only be done with trust and respect at its core. To this end there is a way to go. Perhaps now is the time to reflect on past errors and to repair the damage they have caused.

    Birmingham’s motto is Forward. Let’s make sure we leave nobody behind.

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