Governor Experiences of the Strategic Development Process of English Free Schools
Free Schools entail increased involvement from civil society actors in the provision of State-funded education in England. The increased devolution of freedoms and responsibilities to these ‘self-governing’ schools is reflected in a significant range of strategic decisions made through the development process. These include decisions over such issues as religious character, social purpose, educational priorities and innovations in organisation. However, which factors influence the exercise of these strategic freedoms within local experiences of the strategic development processes remains unclear. Existing literature and media debate has predominantly focussed on justification for these structural reforms and their educational and social outcomes. In maintaining focus at the macroscopic level the link between policy and outcomes is assumed. Furthermore, discussion at this level may ignore important features of the provision within Free Schools at the local level. This study focusses on how the social experiences of governors provide an alternative narrative within the broader debate on structural reform. It presents empirical findings focused on the reported experiences from 21 governor interviews with those responsible for the development of three Free Schools. Analysis followed a grounded theory methodology in which theoretical sampling was influenced by a broader range of interview, survey and secondary data. Coding of the data revealed that the formation of the vision and purpose, diverse relationships, continuous reorganisation and the positioning of oneself relative to others were recurring themes in the experiences reported within and between the schools. In order to explain the diversity of experiences in relation to these themes three categories were developed, namely motivations, relating and power. Similarities and differences in motivations (including personal relationships, vested interests and subjective judgements), relations (including social groupings and experiences of specific interactions) and power (including its configuration, perpetuation and dynamism) were analysed across the participant accounts. Diverse and manifold motivations and relations emerge in complex responsive processes of relating through which tacit hierarchies, sub-group identities and individual interests emerge in the conduct of loosely defined roles. It is concluded that the freedoms to self-define expose governors to diverse social influences on development. The enduring influence of founding relationships challenges the capacity of governors to maintain the balance required of the critical friend role. Furthermore, the local reallocation of diverse value propositions in school provision does not guarantee the relevance of schools to their communities, or democratic accountability over public spending.