Phil Williams, chair of governors of Kelmscott Secondary School, gives a personal view of his school’s involvement in the first wave of the Building Schools for the Future scheme

Governors, the oft-repeated mantra goes, play a pivotal role in the ‘strategic management’ of schools in England and Wales.

Mandarins in the Department for Children, Schools and Families and in local authorities are often heard trumpeting the ‘vital contribution’ governing bodies make in moving education forward and such officials regularly present their audience with a list of responsibilities and functions which governors are legally obliged to discharge. This article is an opportunity to review this rhetoric in the light of our recent experience of Building Schools for the Future and to ask what can the ‘school-side’ of the deal do to maximise its influence on the shape of new learning environments?

It aims to set out the fundamental problems in making BSF meaningful and puts forward five key messages of how you, as governors, can make the initiative work for the vision you have for your school. For governors, or anyone, yet to be inducted into the world of a national secondary school rebuilding programme, BSF is massively ambitious and genuinely transformational. The critical problem to overcome lies with the control aspect of capital funding for schools and the piecemeal approach to reform of the education system we have historically had in England and Wales. The initial, centrally driven political message – that we want to rebuild the entire secondary sector within a generation – is laudable. How we do this becomes more complicated and is where schools need to make a stand. The basic problem with having a mixed economy of rebuilding the secondary school infrastructure, however, lies in the combination of both controlling the open market (rebuilding schools through old-fashioned taxation from the public purse) and relying on the open market (using the PFI to stimulate investment in public services). Placing pressure on markets that are deemed to be free and are motivated solely by the need to maximise a return for stakeholders is unwise. But that is what we have done and that is what we are now fully signed up to. The market is, structurally, an official driving force of education, like it or not. We need to realise it, accept it and work within its structures to maximise the outcomes for our schools and future generations of pupils. On reflection, being in the first stages of BSF was like winning a prize and being told that all your dreams will come true – which, to some extent, they will. At Kelmscott, we were told we would get £10m from the government, based on the business case submitted by the local authority. All fine, but to what extent were governors – let alone teachers and parents/carers – involved in this decision? The answer is, not at all. So why can’t the rebuilding process be more of a partnership of equals?  Does the LA not trust schools to come up with their own thinking? The fact that the business case is presented to bidders without governors having seen it – let alone approved it – is symptomatic of the LA controlling a school and not being in partnership with it. In the early days of Building Schools for the Future, LAs are rightly the kingmakers. Their role is massively important and cannot be understated. They make sense of the dizzying myriad of legal, financial, technical, geo-political and statutory issues involved. LAs, frankly, are not the enemy of our system, they are our saviour. LAs have a massive remit. They allocate our budget. They are politically neutral. They are strategic. They cannot be manipulated. But they still can – and should  – be questioned. At Kelmscott, we are part way through the rebuilding programme. It has been an enormously hard slog to get where we are and things, in many ways, have not gone according to plan. But it is important to share lessons from the process with fellow governors who are about to embark on the programme. I have five key areas where I think governing bodies can exert pressure and influence decisions and designs.

  1. Understand where the school fits into the local strategic framework and be crystal clear about the school’s vision.
  2. Get involved – make sure you understand the process and set up a governor reference group.
  3. Consider and be aware of the extra demands made of the head throughout the process.
  4. Insist on the appointment of an experienced project manager and exert influence by raising questions on the timing and quality of the building works.
  5. Identify where you are weak in terms of skills and look at ways of augmenting the governing body to remedy this.

After the euphoria of learning that your school is to be rebuilt or redesigned, it is important that governors understand where the school fits into the local strategic framework and that it engages with the LA in early and open dialogue with officers. Vital officer and governor time can be wasted with proposals that are difficult to justify or just appear to be curiously random and arbitrary. Bring LA officers into your governing body meetings, engage in a dialogue about where you see your school going and, above all, be crystal clear about the school’s vision. Any deviation from the vision is a recipe for disaster. Second, and it seems like an obvious point, get involved. Getting involved in the early meetings with bidders – long-listed and short-listed – is vital to ensure that your school’s vision is made clear and bids are tabled which address your key design features and teaching and learning requirements. Governors can use BSF as an opportunity to lead from the front. I often find that governors are the recipients of proposals or ideas that have their genesis from the school management team. This programme is a genuine and exciting opportunity for governors to lead and manage the process; governors should be at the forefront of selling the school’s vision to the community and shaping its future. As governors, it is essential that you have a complete understanding of the process to ensure that you are geared up to engage fully in all aspects of a complex rebuilding project. Set up a Governor BSF Reference Group – we didn’t and we should have done in hindsight. It could be charged with explaining how ‘grouped’ procurement is done, seek clarification about the bidding process, question and sign off bidder documentation, take part in clarification meetings and press the education element of the scheme – something that is often overlooked. If properly constituted and serviced, its influence could be great and it could head off issues at the pass. The third aspect I think governors need to consider is that of the extra demands made of the head throughout the process, not forgetting that the average BSF scheme will probably take something like five years to complete. In our case, it started four years ago when our LA was designated a wave 1 authority. From the moment of that announcement, the head and I have taken part in: initial scoping discussions with LA officials and politicians, consultations with our school community, workshops with our students, conferences, design days, negotiations with bidders, ICT delivery meetings, grouped meetings, governor discussions and debates, tens of meetings with the preferred bidders, decanting meetings, tours of the site and emergency sessions to deal with the inevitable hitches as the process cracks along at a frightening pace. During those four years we have also faced the further challenges of replacing the head and deputy and a recent Ofsted inspection – all with cranes overhead. Headteachers and senior leaders, especially in difficult environments, are faced with opportunities and challenges of the highest order, not least a demanding board of governors. Added to this are the continuing pressures to increase attainment year-on-year, improve discipline and attendance, personalise learning, specialise the school, extend the school and still make the place a safe and happy environment to work and develop in. I am acutely aware that the best headteachers will take these considerable pressures in their stride. For some, however, the added pressures of rebuilding a school could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Governors need to be aware that headteachers, by and large, do not enter the profession intent on developing their capital project management skills.  During BSF, the headteacher wears many hats as a designer, architect, ICT wizard, educationist, ergonomicist and a future predictor. But he or she is also a human being with a private life and may feel pressured to neglect the work/life balance agenda and struggle to cope. Headteaching is still a very macho profession so often a discrete empathic work can go a long way. Fourthly, governors can exert influence on the preferred partner by consistently raising questions on the timing and quality of the building works. This is not to say that governors should be constantly on site, however. The way to ensure that your building programme is going to time and scale is to identify, at an early stage, an experienced project manager who will liaise with the LA, the school and the contractor. This really is a critical aspect and something that should not be a simple afterthought or, worse still, be considered a luxury. The LA is a big and complex beast; it cannot and should not be expected to keep tabs on everything that is (or often is not) going on as part of the rebuilding programme. It can – and should – fund a person who can. Finally, my last point is about influence and relates to the skill set of your governing body. We are particularly lucky at Kelmscott as the governing body includes a senior university business manager, a (neighbouring) LA inclusion official, a lawyer, a BSF officer and a local government manager. If your governing body is missing key areas of expertise, don’t forget that it has the statutory authority to change its composition and also the ability to parachute in extra members by using the associate governor mechanism. Take a good look at where your strengths lie and identify where you are weak in terms of skills. This article has, I hope, highlighted some of the main areas where governors can raise their game and exert greatest influence to ensure that they end up with a school that is fit for the future and lives up to that all so important shared vision.

Phil Williams has been chair of governors of Kelmscott School in Walthamstow, north-east London, for four years. The school is in the London borough of Waltham Forest, which was part of wave 1 of the BSF scheme, and was included in the first phase of the borough’s three-phase rebuilding plan. What is Building Schools for the Future?

Building Schools for the Future is the government’s flagship programme to rebuild or refurbish all secondary schools in England over 15 years at a cost of £45 billion. The funding is being devolved to local authorities in a series of 15 ‘waves’. Since the programme was launched in July 2003 there have been five waves involving 73 local authorities – the most recent in September this year. A further 16 will make up wave six early in 2008. The government has promised that every LA in England will have received funding to renew at least the school in greatest need by 2011 and that major rebuilding and remodelling projects involving at least three schools will have started in every area by 2016. The project has fallen behind its original timetable, which envisaged 100 schools being built by the end of this year. So far only one brand new school procured under BSF has been opened and it will be next spring before another 11 are expected to be ready.

MPs on the Commons Education and Skills Committee recently called on the government to keep the BSF programme under regular review to ensure that it is the most effective way to spend the large capital sums involved.