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Answering back: School governors and accountability

Answering back: School governors and accountability

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Dr. Andrew Wilkins, Research Fellow in the School of Education at the University of Roehampton

In this guest blog post, Dr. Andrew Wilkins from the University of Roehampton shares his thoughts on the role of school governing bodies and accountability.

What is the role of school governing bodies today? Who do they answer to and how they do they answer? The first question is the standard question, the million dollar question if you like, that today occupies the time and energy of education select committees, media commentators and academic researchers.

What do school governors do and might they best do it? Unfortunately the current English state education system is so fragmented and diverse in terms of how individual schools are constituted legally and operate managerially and structurally that there are no easy answers to this question. David Wolfe, a law expert, highlights the variability underpinning funding agreements for different academies post 2010 for example.

There is also evidence to suggest inconsistency in terms of the liability of different school governors, e.g. within the agreements set out by some Multi-Academy Trusts (aka academy chains) school governors on Local Governing Bodies (LGBs) have no statutory rights and in effect are instructed to simply performance assess governance decisions already committed to by the board of Trustees. In this way the role and composition of the school governing body is likely to shift according to the type of school under discussion, where even the word type (suggesting common traits or characteristics shared by a particular group or institution) is misleading and overly simplistic.

In the same way that some maintained schools retain freedoms and flexibilities outside the purview of local government, there is no overall academy effect shared by academies in terms of progress and achievement. In both cases, variability and diversity make it difficult to propose any standard or even heuristic model for mapping the role of school governing bodies today.

My thinking over the last 12 months (during which time I have been engaged in collecting evidence as a part of a large-scale ESRC-funded study into school governance) has been predominantly occupied with the second question outlined above, namely who do school governors answer to and how do they answer?

The latter part of this question intrigues me the most, partly because it raises fundamental questions about what we mean by accountability and how accountability is legitimated and by whom. Specifically, I am interested in the impact of recent government legislation and policy on the changing composition, duty and stated prerogatives of school governing bodies and the effect of these changes on school governors and how school governors inhabit and perform their role.

Recent announcements and statutory guidance from the DfE (2013) and Ofsted (2011) highlight the huge liabilities and responsibilities to be undertaken by school governors working within such a high stakes’ environment. Specifically they emphasize the role of school governors in facilitating ‘effective governance’. As outline in the DfE (2013) Governors’ Handbook, school governor roles and legal duties include

  • ‘Ensuring clarity of vision, ethos and strategic direction’
  • ‘Holding the head teacher to account for the educational performance of the school and its pupils’
  • ‘Overseeing the financial performance of the school and making sure its money is well spent’ (p. 6)

As I have argued elsewhere (also see recent talk at ESRI MMU), the quality criteria or descriptors by which schools typically ensure school governors comply with their role are seemingly (and from the viewpoint of New Public Management, the government’s preferred solution to all public sector organization, unavoidably) technical and instrumental in purpose.

The scope of the above strategic functions allude to and privilege certain types of knowledge, intervention, challenge, participation and even people for example (see recent announcements from government and non-government officials for school governing bodies to be ‘professionalised’ for example). I was recently told by a chair of governors of a maintained secondary school looking to convert to academy status that the school governing body was not fit for purpose and that it would be in the best interests of the school for the ‘deadwood’ (a reference to ‘amateur’ school governors) to be rooted out. I should add that this particular chair of governors was by far one of the most committed and selfless volunteers I had ever met.

Now, a typical school governor (and I use the word typical very loosely here) might respond by saying this language is outrageous, accountability should be bottom-up enforced through a stakeholder model of governance that preserves the participation of all, and so forth. But…isn’t there something about the Orwellian-Goveian environment through which all schools operate today that makes these statements seem ‘rational’ (in a purely narrow instrumental sense of course).

But no matter how narrow such rationality appears, the widespread dissemination, legitimation and internalization of such rationality is evident. In fact, in some ways the above rationality operates as a dividing practice and creates antagonism and tension between school governors where before it may not have existed.

In a recent twitter exchange between school governors on the topic of accountability (which is available to read via storify), we can discern to the extent to which some school governors are scornful of ‘amateur’ governors:

We are all accountable. If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen! And none of this ‘just volunteers’ rubbish! #ukgovchat

The pressure on schools to evidence their worth, ‘success’ and performance on the basis of responding to quality assurance indicators, evaluations, targets and monitoring systems directly impacts the value and potential contribution of different school governors. And this is why I am interested in the way school governors account for their contribution, their role and responsibility – who is deciding what counts towards legitimate expressions and evidence of accountability, and what implications does this have for traditional stakeholder models of governance?

I anticipate some school governors will read this and strongly disagree with my characterization of school governance – that it is too reductionist and fails to provide any holistic conception of school governance as a set of practices and relations mediated by value divergences and conflict. And I would agree with you.

It has not been my intention to reduce to school governance to the practice and effect of technical-managerialist demands. Clearly there is more to school governance than providing rigorous and regular finance, performance and risk assessment…or is there?


Dr. Andrew Wilkins is Research Fellow in the School of Education at the University of Roehampton. He is project leader for the ESRC-funded project SASE (School Accountability and Stakeholder Accountability, 2012-15). The project examines issues related to governance and accountability in the current English school system. He tweets at @andewilkins

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