The Gove School of Parental Involvement: late, lite or non-existent

The golden rule of public consultation is that you don’t waste your time and that of your consultees by consulting on an issue on which you have already made up your mind. It’s not just we at MAC that say this: it was enshrined in the previous government’s code of practice on consultation a couple of years ago as its very first criterion for public consultation exercises:

Formal consultation should take place at a stage when there is scope to influence the policy outcomes

GoGo Gove Gov

Call me old fashioned but this seems to make sense.  But as we predicted, in his haste to get going with his school reforms, Schools Secretary, Michael Gove, rushed his Academies Bill through in the last weeks of the summer term without any mention of local communities having any say in the change.
At the last minute the Lords managed to force through a tiny and  almost laughably meaningless clause  stating that  a school’s governing body “must consult such persons as they think appropriate”.    To many this  reads as nothing more than a get-out clause.  What if they think it appropriate to consult no-one?  What is to stop them doing just that? And do they actually know what it means to consult anyway?
The so-called consultation exercises that are taking place around the country at the moment are nothing of the sort.  Indeed it is hard to imagine anyone in other areas of public service such as health or planning getting away with such feeble attempts to involve key stakeholders in such important decisions.  Choices which will radically affect the long-term financial future of the schools, their selection processes, their curriculum and their ongoing accountability to parents and communities are being made and no-one is being consulted.  They are simply being told what is going to happen and allowed to ask a few questions as long as they don’t get too rowdy or the meeting over-runs.

A lesson in how not to do it

Three “outstanding” schools in Solihull are to be fast-tracked into Academies.  Earlier this week at a public meeting, parents, teachers and others met to discuss this change of status.  If you want to develop a plan for how NOT to consult, look no further than this press release from the Anti-Academies Alliance:

Parents Angry at “Sham Consultation”

…….Every parent and teacher who spoke condemned the failure of Arden and Tudor Grange to hold any meaningful consultation, or even inform parents properly…….At Arden and Tudor Grange this meant that pupils gave a letter to their parents on almost the last day of term saying there was a consultation meeting at 5pm – too short notice and the wrong time for many to attend. The consultation period ended a few weeks later, on 6 August, in the summer holiday. Only after union protests was it extended for another month.

Teachers complained of staff meetings where questions to the head had to be submitted in writing with names on, intimidating teachers from voicing concerns and criticisms.

……We need to be clear what proper consultation is. Not just a presentation of the Academy case followed by questions. Few parents are aware of the research evidence about Academy performance, or the complex issues of admissions, staff conditions and funding, or the potential impact on other schools and the local authority.

That is why any consultation process should include an equal presentation of the views of those opposed to academies as well as those in favour. Teachers need to be able to express their views anonymously if necessary, to prevent victimisation. The consultation period needs to be long enough to allow proper discussion. And if the majority are against the proposal, if the school cannot convince parents and teachers, then it should abandon it, not just go ahead regardless.

Marks out of seven: zero?

So if we take the Code of Practice on Consultation as a benchmark, what sort of mark would you give this “consultation exercise”?

Criterion 1: When to consult

Formal consultation should take place at a stage when there is scope to influence the policy outcome.

Criterion 2: Duration of consultation exercises

Consultations should normally last for at least 12 weeks with consideration given to longer timescales where feasible and ensible.

Criterion 3: Clarity of scope and impact

Consultation documents should be clear about the consultation process, what is being proposed, the scope to influence and the expected costs and benefits of the proposals.

Criterion 4:  Accessibility of consultation exercises

Consultation exercises should be designed to be accessible to, and clearly targeted at, those people the exercise is intended to reach.

Criterion 5:  The burden of consultation

Keeping the burden of consultation to a minimum is essential if consultations are to be effective and if consultees’ buy-in to the process is to be obtained.

Criterion 6:  Responsiveness of consultation exercises

Consultation responses should be analysed carefully and clear feedback should be provided to participants following the consultation.

Criterion 7: Capacity to consult

Officials running consultations should seek guidance in how to run an effective consultation exercise and share what they have learned from the experience.

Honesty the best policy

Many schools around the country, like these schools in Solihull, may be rushing headlong into this process but others are biding their time, waiting to see what it means for them.  The secondary school my own children attend is “outstanding” and as such has been invited to go for the fast track. Teachers and parents are vociferously unkeen on the prospect but with all but three of the secondary schools in the borough already Academies and the local authority keen to divest itself of its old role, there may be no alternative.  The governors have promised a consultation exercise over the next year and seem genuinely committed to taking our views on board but there is little point in embarking on this process if the reality is that there is actually going to be no choice.

Speaking from bitter experience as a parent and a school governor, nothing is guaranteed to create greater consternation at times of high anxiety than a perfunctory letter from the school and a “public meeting” called reluctantly at short notice where the powers that be fall into default passive aggressive mode and make it clear without quite saying so that they are simply waiting for the meeting to end so that you will get out of their hair and they can get on with what they or their bosses have already decided they are going to do.

So before we insult parents and teachers and waste their precious time with “sham consultations”, let’s first find out whether we are Consulting or simply Commanding. If schools actually have little choice in the matter and the views of parents and employees are going to be over-ruled either by central or local government then we need more honesty and perhaps less disingenuous talk about communities being in control of their own futures.  This sort of thing gives consultation a bad name.

A community of different (and perhaps conflicting) interests

And there is an important issue of principle and practice here.  So far the whole debate about Academies has been led by teachers and the teachers’ unions.  The Anti-Academies Alliance is dominated by the unions and at the demonstration against the Bill in July it was hard to find a parent in the crowd of NUT and NASUWT placards. Where is the voice of parents to be heard? How will school governors help parents to get out from underneath the powerful unions whose interests are overtly about their members and their employment status?  As it is a mistake in health to conflate the interests of doctors (and their union, the BMA) with those of patients, so it is wrong to imagine that the interests of parents and teachers are necessarily the same. The current regime or sections of it might well regard such union opposition as confirmation that the government is on the right track

These teachers can be very bossy and sometimes even a bit scary and parents run the risk or being used as pawns in the unions’ negotiations with their employers.  It is interesting to note that the teachers had staff meetings on the issue, but where were the parent-only meetings?  It is vital that governors create protected time and space in their consultations to talk to parents on their own.

And who is talking to the students in this debate?  My own fifteen year old daughter was told by a teacher that they and their teachers were NOT ALLOWED to talk about it in school. So much for making education relevant to real life issues.

Doing the right thing and doing it right: investing in consultation to create parent engagement and support for change

If however there is a real chance that people’s voices will be heard and acted upon, then there are many ways in which consultation can be done well.  Schools would be well advised to spend some time and money on learning how to consult properly.  Much as they would like to think “they know what people want” (and where have we heard that before?), this sort of broad stakeholder consultation on strategic issues is complex and is very new to schools.  Most are inexperienced and ill-equipped to do it well.  But, there is no reason why they cannot get better at it.  It might even prove to be the case that if parents were allowed to develop a better understanding of the real issues at stake they would positively opt for their schools to become Academies – then again they might not.Schools won’t know until they ask – and listen.

At the very least, parents and staff have the right to be given proper, balanced information and evidence on which to base their decisions.   Maybe even a decent consultation document to take home and read: something clearly absent in Solihull.

The Moore Adamson Craig Partnership supports user and public participation,  trains lay representatives and develops responsive health, care and education organisations.

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