A policy to remove the requirement for academy trusts to have parent governors was a “mistake”, an ex-Number 10 adviser has admitted.
Rachel Wolf also said the growth of multi-academy trusts (MATs) had resulted in parents becoming more distant from schools, and added that the Department for Education was “terrible” at talking to parents.
Ms Wolf worked as a special adviser to Michael Gove when he was education secretary, before going on to advise David Cameron and Theresa May on education in Downing Street. She now runs a public affairs firm called Public First.
Removing the requirement for academies to have parent governors was set out in the schools White Paper published in March 2016 by Nicky Morgan when she was education secretary, but it was dropped by her successor Justine Greening.
Parents need 'a voice'
Speaking at the Freedom and Autonomy for Schools – National Association summer conference yesterday, Ms Wolf said the suggestion was a “fundamental mistake”.
She said the policy had “emerged from a conversation that had happened between ministers and a lot of leaders of MATs”, who argued that it [having parent governors] was not an effective way to run schools and said there were “better ways to engage with parents”.
“I think this was a really fundamental mistake now for two reasons,” Ms Wolf said.
The first reason was that she had learned “expert accountability is not the only form of important accountability”.
“It’s absolutely crucial in a system where fundamentally most of the people you serve have no real purchase or control over what is going on that they have some voice, they know who to complain to, how, and have some sense that something might be done about it.”
She said that in parent focus groups conducted by Public First, “one of the things that unquestionably has emerged…is this worry that with MATs there’s this distancing, and [parents] don’t know always who to talk to or if anything will happen if they do”.
The second reason why she had concluded parent governors were vital, was because public bodies “have to communicate constantly to the people who are recipients of public services”, she said.
“Sometimes when we talk to parents across the country, there’s a sense that as groups of schools have got bigger and more distant, that communication has got more distant too. Having that [parent governor] link seems really important.”
Government 'terrible' at communicating
She went on: “In my view, government consistently does an absolutely terrible job of talking to parents.
“From the inside, somewhere like the DfE spends its entire time thinking about how to speak to ‘stakeholders’…and spends effectively zero time thinking about talking to parents.
“Have a look through press releases and think about how many of them would be even vaguely comprehensible to your average person.
“How much time does government spend trying to explain to normal people what it is doing and why?”
Ms Wolf said this lack of communication led to “distrust and distancing”.
Among focus-groups of parents whose children attended inadequate schools, the “sense of rage and powerlessness” was “palpable”, she added.
“Ofsted had come in and said this school was failing their children and they could do absolutely nothing about it, in a world where they know – and we increasingly know – education matters so much and it’s very likely it’s going to matter more and more.”