School children benefit when parents have a voice in their schools

The Education White Paper launched this week has its strong points, but being pro-parent is not one of them. Alongside the headline policy objective of moving all schools to become academies, whether parents approve or not, it announces the Government’s intention to remove the obligation to include parents on the boards of schools.

The best boards, whether in business or in public services, have an outstanding mix of skills and expertise. If you get the governance right, you are improving not just performance, but also the sustainability of the organisation over time. But that doesn’t mean that accounting, finance and HR are the only skills that a board can benefit from. From my work across the co-operative sector, including over eight hundred co-operative schools, I know that being a parent can be a form of expertise, to be used alongside the other skills that board governors can draw on as a team.

Public services have rarely celebrated the role of the user. Years ago, Anthony Crosland declared himself staggered after local visits by the extent to which statutory services depend on the volunteer. Today, this includes, in England:

  • 170,000 volunteers who work in the NHS, befriending and counselling patients, driving people to hospital, fund raising, running shops and cafes…
  • 12 million meals a year that are prepared by volunteers to people in care
  • 85 million people who are regular blood donors, with 8.2 million signed up as potential organ donors
  • 750,000 people who volunteer in schools
  • Around 145,000 tenants and residents who are involved in user groups in social housing
  • Over two million people who are members of NHS Foundation Trusts.

In the health service, patient involvement began in 1974 with the establishment of community health councils. In education, during the 1970s most schools began to encourage parent governors. By 1979, 90% of schools had parents on the board, and it was due to parental pressure that in 1980 that they gained the statutory right to be represented.

Having a parental view at the Board can bring the school closer to parents, who are after all the key partners in their children’s learning. The new White Paper does recognise this, and calls for improved engagement by schools with parents, but it misses the way in which having parents involved in school decision-making and not just at the school gates, makes this easier to do. With the move to multi-academy chains, there is a risk that the only accountability that pupils and parents will be able to call on is an uncertain and faceless performance and inspection regime.

One school in West Sussex sent out attendance letters to parents. When some parent read letters that said that, their children had only an 85% attendance record, they thought there was something to celebrate. After all, what did the percentage mean? They compared it to exam results, in which case 85% was excellent. At a suggestion from a parent governor, the head teacher changed the letters, to colour code them, as red, amber and green. In talking to parents, she explained that 85% was almost one whole year of education in five missed. The conversations with parents changed overnight, to how they could move their children from red to amber, or amber to green.

The co-operative schools sector is, in the main, an exemplar for this kind of partnership approach. Today over 250,000 young people attend co-operative schools in England, primarily as trust schools but a few as co-operative academies, such as my local school, Corelli Academy.

What is a co-operative school? There are two key features. The first is that the co-operative values of democracy, equity and fairness are applied as an ethos across the school. The second is a governance model that directly engages key stakeholders through membership of the trust, where it is a trust school. This model provides a formal way to include not just parents and carers, but also staff, the local community and the pupils themselves. Together they form a community-based mutual organisation.

The growth of co-operative schools reflects a growing attitude that expect public services, not least in the context of financial pressures and changes to service delivery, to work with them, rather than just for them – a real partnership.

co-operative_economy_2014-page-019_483x640_0When you ask people, what marks out the best public services – what is the public service ‘X Factor’ that differentiates them – then people speak about empathy, compassion, warmth, the human touch, respect and focusing help on people who need it most: “If I go into a school, I want to feel as if I have been listened to.”

But there are urban myths that have always gone hand in hand with parents as school governors, some of them kept alive by the part of the educational establishment that sees parents as a problem in schools rather than a partner. These are that:

Myth 1: Parents will demand everything. But there is good research that that this is simply not true. If anything, some may not demand enough, both because of respect for the profession of teaching but also because of a professionalized discourse that at times takes the focus away from children and their learning.

Myth 2: Parents are not interested. Wrong. They are not apathetic. They care about their children and their peers, but they may not care for the way for the questions and language that professionals tend to use. Research across public services suggest that seven out of ten people express a view at some stage, but don’t then feel they are listened to or engaged by the process.

Myth 3: Parents will look out for their own private interest, not the public interest. Again, wrong. They will speak for each other, not just for themselves. And when they speak from experience, that experience is often shared.

It seems to me that this government is in a complete muddle when it comes to consumer affairs. It wants to believe that competition and business will give consumers a voice – so much so, that it will remove the voice of parents at board level in education to help pave the way to a more commercial market. Where that has patently failed, such as in energy, it falls back on regulation and market investigations. Where that in turn has patently failed, such as in football, it has encouraged a move to direct representation of fans on boards. Sports Minister David Evennett said recently that “the FA is embarking on a review of its governance, and we hope genuine progress will be made, including on giving supporters greater representation on its decision-making boards.”

Whatever the future for education policy, surely parents need to be more involved in education not less. In other countries, such as Sweden, Spain and Canada, pre-school education and childcare is delivered by successful parent and employee-led co-ops. In the UK, regulations get in the way of having parent-led children centres. Rather than step back at board level and hope to push forward elsewhere, it should be time to widen parental involvement at all levels.

The National Governors Association has collected evidence on the case for parent governors. A wider campaign petition has started to oppose the forced transfer of schools in England to academies. The Co-operative College and Schools Co-operative Society are supporting co-operative schools in the context of change.

Having school parents on boards was an innovation introduced by Margaret Thatcher in 1980. She took school milk away. But she supported school parents as governors, because they bring schools closer to those they are there to serve. I think she would still support them today.


Forgery and the future: the story of Hans Van Megeeren



Talking to the annual conference of the Workers Education Association in Sheffield today, on the theme of ‘A Sustainable Future’, I point to the story of the forger, Van Meegeren.

Hans Van Meegeren was an artist who had been rejected in the 1920s by the art establishment, as too derivative. So, he set out to prove that great art could indeed be copied.

Over the 1930s, he painted a series of pictures in the style of Frans Hals, Pieter de Hooch and Johannes Vermeer.

His most successful forgery was Supper at Emmaus, created in 1937 while living in the south of France.

This was hailed as a real Vermeer by famous art experts. Abraham Bredius acclaimed it as “the masterpiece of Johannes Vermeer of Delft” and wrote of the “wonderful moment” of coming up against an unknown painting by a great master.

Through a Nazi art dealer, Meegeren sold one, Christ with the Adultress, to the up and coming German politician, Hermann Göring.

When Goring was informed that his “Vermeer” was actually a forgery, Goring looked, according to one contemporary, “as if for the first time he had discovered there was evil in the world”.

And all this didn’t last long. After the war, accused of selling national treasures to the Nazis, Van Meegeren confessed to producing the forgeries.

What is remarkable now is that you look at his Vermeers, they look like 1930s pastiches.

This is the Supper at Emmaus.


For art critics in recent decades, that is as 1930s as Agatha Christie and Eltham Palace. And the Depression.

It is not the 1660s.

But in the 1930s, you can’t see it. You can’t escape your time so easily, even if you can’t see how it shapes everything you see.

Like looking through the bottom of a glass, our assumptions make some things larger and clearer, but others hazy and obscure.

To imagine the future, we first have to explore how to let go of the present.


The business case for values


Photo by Pontus Edenberg

Business is the art of bringing different people together to create commercial and wider value out of their interaction. Do values help that?

There is plenty of evidence that businesses with strong sets of values perform better than those without. Research on around seven hundred firms, using five years of data compiled by the Great Place to Work initiative, suggests that while there is no performance link with firms that have simply published a set of values, there is a strong positive link with those firms whose values are seen within the company to be prominent.

Interestingly, the same research concludes that going public reduces the extent to which companies can focus on “integrity as short-term decisions can carry undue weight. Privately-owned companies (including venture capital-backed organisations) tend to have higher levels of integrity than publicly-quoted companies.”

What the research can’t prove, though, is whether this is correlation or causation. Is it the case that the best performing firms are so well organized that, as an illustration of their high performance, they have strong, embedded values? Or is it the case that those values help to reinforce and even drive that high performance?

A different way to approach the case for investing in values is the extent to which they can drive positive norms and behaviours, such as loyalty or ideas for innovation, in customers, suppliers or employees. The extraordinary success of open source or free software, the importance of volunteering in the third sector, the power and reach of faith communities, are examples of institutional activity that are dependent on the free and willing collaboration of people on the basis of sufficient overlap of values and purpose.

In commercial business, where participation is subject to contract and compensation, there are times when that same voluntarism is critical to the enterprise. An example is staff retention. For larger firms, staff recruitment is one of the clearest cost variables – and if strong values can mitigate high levels of staff turnover, the financial gains are significant.

One report in 2014 from Oxford Economics puts the total cost of replacing a member of staff at £30,000.  It is less in retail, at around £20,000.  Mostly these are hidden costs through looking at lost productivity. But even just stripping down their numbers just looking at advertising, backfill, interviewing and administration, they show more than £5,000 on average.

In the retail sector, labour turnover is estimated to be at the extraordinary level of 40% staff turnover per year.

There are many commentators predicting that labour turnover is now set to increase, if unemployment continues to fall. So, for UK consumer retail co-operatives, even if they already have a lower staff turnover rate, if investing in values led to greater staff retention, then for every one per cent turnover reduced, the businesses would benefit to the tune of £21 million. £14 million of that would be for The Co-op Group.

A reasonable target over time for the co-operative retail sector would be to realize £100 million worth of gains on an annual basis, through reduced staff turnover.