Governing Through Accountability – Andrew Wilkins

The ESRI autumn seminar series began on Wednesday 9th October with Dr Andrew Wilkins (Roehampton University) presenting a talk entitled Governing through accountability: linking school governance to performativity and neoliberalization.  The talk was based on his ESRC Future Leader research project School Accountability and Stakeholder Education (SASE) project.

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It seems that researching and making sense of accountability and governance in education has never been more necessary or more difficult.  There are now a bewildering range of schools and educational settings including state-funded or independent schools, and various types of academies, ‘converter’ academies, ‘sponsor-led’ academies, free schools, ‘special converter’ academies, studio schools, and University Technical Colleges (Wilkins 2013).  Amongst this diversity, the educational sector is increasingly undergoing the de-regulation, marketization and new forms of governance and policy networks and actors.  Education is something of a wild west at the moment with the ‘dash for cash’ fueling radical and extensive change in how education is provided.  Understanding the implications, roles and potential for resistance amongst school governors – a group that might be expected to have some say in this process – is a crucial area for research.

Yet accessing and researching schools and governors, especially from a critical perspective, is no easy task as they operate within an Orwellian, Govian landscape that can leave individuals paranoid or intent on engaging with research in instrumental ways.  Andrew was frequently asked when approaching schools if he could tell them whether they were doing good governance or not? When he produced tailored case study reports for each school he found that some individuals interpreted them in ways that fit with agendas of change in pursuit of better outcomes, to clear out the ‘deadwood’ and develop more business-like and business-orientated governing bodies.

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In these activities and working within this context where performativity (see box) is such an intense pressure and presence that his research fueled the process of reforming school-governor arrangements with the sole aim of improving results, what ever these results measured or meant.

The SASE project is not finished and Andrew is about to go into the analysis phase and he shared with us the concepts and approaches that he intends to apply to make sense of this complex picture.

  • Governance as cultural practice (Bevir)
  • Govern-mentality (Foucault)
  • Neoliberalism: ‘roll back’ and ‘roll out’ (Peck)
  • ‘Shadow of hierarchy’ (Jessop)

Andrew concluded his talk asking us to engage with the recommendations he is developing in line with his obligation to the ESRC to develop impact from the research but also his inclination as a critical researcher to engage and try and improve practice.


  • Minimal hierarchy. All governors enjoy equal opportunity to influence higher-order governance decision making – or elected area school boards or strategic area authorities with opportunities for genuine community involvement and locally agreed education planning.
  • Diversity and representativeness. Change culture of participation. People of specialist and civic knowledge be valued equally. ‘differences are voiced, deliberated and mediated’ (Jones & Ranson)
  • Moral accountability. Generate mutual solutions to local need, downward accountability to local community. Difference and deliberation essential – small executive body subject to the scrutiny of the multitude.
  • Multi-level engagement/governance. Create responsive and quality infrastructures to ensure genuine public discussion and stakeholder engagement; to secure public agreement, public trust and a sense of shared ownership.

If you have any ideas please comment below.

James Duggan

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