1st January 2014

School Governance – Going Up or Going Down?

Phil’s Blog – 1 January 2014

As the new year beckons one wonders what 2014 holds for school governance. There are two entirely opposite forces at work that no doubt will affect the way governing bodies are viewed, and expectations of school governors as we go forward. How they interact will make interesting viewing.

Governance going down

For many years school governors have felt overlooked and somewhat patronised by the education professionals. This was shown in a national survey some years ago conducted by the University of Bath in which many governors regarded themselves and their work as ‘overloaded, overcomplicated and overlooked’. The 2010 White paper The Importance of Teaching carried three paragraphs trumpeting the contribution of ‘unsung heroes’, but failed to mention governors anywhere else.

The academies programme, especially the move towards multi-academy trusts, contains a particularly gruesome sleight of hand. In each individual academy we have a body known as a ‘local governing body’ which has no status, tenure, powers or responsibilities apart from those delegated by the Trust Board, who are the real governing body. Yet across the country governing bodies vote to join such trusts without realising that they are voting away all their powers and status. They think, and indeed are assured by people who should know better, they are still real governors on a real governing body, but they are absolutely not the same as a governing body of a maintained school set up under the 1986-88 arrangements for local management of schools.

The saddest thing is that few people seem to regard this as important. I predict that when trouble comes, and real governance is needed because there is a real crisis to work through, suddenly the many really good people who have joined these so-called governing bodies will find themselves cut out completely from any real influence or participation and they will not be impressed by that.

Governance going up

It was pleasing to see the CBI reporting in November last year that governors should be given time off for their governance work, since it is so important. We see a succession of people coming through the Commons Public Accounts Committee, chaired by Mrs Margaret Hodge, in large organisations where there has been a ‘failure of governance’. One thinks of the BBC, Health Service Trusts, The Co-operative Bank, the Royal Bank of Scotland, to name just a few.

What these highly paid and eminent governors demonstrate is that governance is hard. It is a challenging and sophisticated role. The porous line between operational and strategic issues is a complex one, because governors are responsible when the day today management is done badly.

Ofsted is the most assertive promoter of good school governance. They arrive at a school and are unforgiving if the governors are vacant when it comes to school improvement, pupil achievement or the impact of the Pupil Premium. They expect the highest quality governance and accountability. Ironically, when they inspect an academy in a multi-academy trust, it is the local governing body, not the sponsor, who is held to account, since the DFE will not let Ofsted evaluate sponsor trusts, even though that is where the ultimate responsibility for the quality of the school rests.

It is in this climate that the commissioning of external reviews of governance, whether required by an Ofsted report, or brought in by the school, is taking an increasing part in school life. Governor Mark, with over 120 schools assessed is also moving from strength to strength.

2014 will be an interesting journey!