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Do school governing boards do the business?

Image credit: "The Apprentice: No. 10" on Luckwell Road by w biscuits - licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Do school governing boards do the business?

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Nigel GannNigel Gann is an education consultant and writer working with school governors & headteachers. He has written, spoken and trained on school leadership throughout England and Wales and abroad, for the DfE, Ofsted, the British Council, BBC TV & Radio, the NCTL, & the Universities of Leicester & Southampton. His latest book was published in October:  Improving School Governance: How better governors make better schools (Second edition, Routledge 2015). You can reach Nigel via email or on Twitter at @HamdonEducation.

This is a development of an article published in Forum Vol 57, No 3 2015 (Symposium Books ISSN 0963-8253): The Business of Governing Schools – its expansion & publication was prompted by Jacqueline Baxter and Catherine Farrell’s previous post Moving from stakeholder models in governing public services.

The boardroom or the board?

Once again, the obsession with bringing ‘business’ skills and practices into school governance rears its head. This government, more than any of its predecessors, appears mesmerised by big business, regardless of the damage that much of it has done and is still doing to the country. But that’s neoliberalism for you. The secretary of state has begged big business to show an interest (just at the time that one big business is shown to have been paying less than the minimum wage to zero hour contracted labour), and Ofsted chiefs have asked again and again for governors to join the ranks of paid professionals in the education service (so demonstrating their entire misunderstanding of the role of public oversight of public services). Now the British Chamber of Commerce has asked that there be a ‘business person’ on every school board in the country, and the HMCI has welcomed the idea.

What’s the problem here?

We must beware, I think, of the suggestion that business skills are the panacea for governing boards. Actually, not one of the people who make these calls goes on to define what skills they think business people would bring. The upcoming DfE exercise in defining and collecting metrics for successful governance has yet to be written and published. So, once again, policy for schools is being written on the back of an envelope. Such policy-making by whim has been a hallmark of the DfE, and of Ofsted, for a long time.

Of course we need analytical, strategic and communication skills from our governors. But can we be sure that business people necessarily bring those to the table?

The first requirement for school governors, to my mind, is that they bring long-term commitment to the school’s aims and to the good of the children. This quality, above all, is likely to be found in members of the community that the school serves – stakeholders, we’ve come to call them. Business people, as we often see, can walk away when things go wrong or get a bit tricky. Being target-driven, rather than primarily concerned with the welfare of the people they serve, they may fall foul of a fundamental difference between the public and the private, profit-driven, sectors.

Image credit: "The Apprentice: No. 10" on Luckwell Road by w biscuits - licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

In my twenty-five or so years of working with literally hundreds of governing boards, some of those with the most worrying behaviours have been the ones dominated by ‘business people’. There were, for instance, the governors of a northern secondary grant-maintained school (remember those?) in the 1990s. A small group of men in suits met once every term for one hour with the ‘headmaster’ (sic). This was quite enough time, I was told firmly, for them to know if anything was going wrong. No need for committees, either. Scrutiny was clearly not their bag, just reassurance. Some heads welcomed this approach, naturally. In another secondary school, the head told me that he had done away with committees, because they took up too much of his time. Clearly, neither of these heads had been told that governors have a public duty to hold them to account.

In 2013, Swindon Academy received a warning letter from Ofsted. On its board were: the chief executive of UCAS; a former chair of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority; a recently retired deputy head of a large ‘public’ school; the former chief engineer of Honda, Swindon. The sponsor of Swindon Academy was and is United Learning, led by a former senior civil servant of the DfE.

At the time of writing, a former CEO of a federation of academies and his finance director are on trial for fraud. Among the offences alleged to have been committed is that of the CEO employing a close relative in the school, despite a failed CRB check. One claim from the trial is that the then chair of the trustees “just went along with everything he (the CEO) said. It is very hard to find an occasion when they said ‘no’ to him. He got rid of governors who got in the way. I can think of several.”

The board of this federation comprises:

  • the chair, employed at a major engineering company (and a governor for more than twelve years);
  • a former HMI, senior LA adviser, now an education consultant and inspector;
  • a head of compliance and risk management for a large group of companies (a governor since 1992);
  • a man running his own international business of upwards of four hundred staff, with a First Class degree and an MBA;
  • a logistics manager; a university chief finance officer;
  • a solicitor;
  • the former Director of Academies Policy and Schools Organisation at the DfE.


It is unclear how many of these trustees were in office while the alleged crimes were being committed – but we know some of them were. Could there be a more glittering array of talent? By the way, of the twelve trustees in position at the beginning of 2015, only three were women. One of them was the solicitor, looking after the federation’s strategies for internal audit, whistle-blowing and fraud prevention – no easy task, we might guess.

If any group of people epitomise the ‘key people’ that Ofsted’s Mike Cladingbowl suggested should dominate governing boards, when he gave evidence to the Education Select Committee in 2013, surely they are here. Yet their eminence was no guarantee against a frightening degree of mismanagement, to which no school should be subjected.

What do the public think of these eminent business people? Do they respect them as much as our education spokespersons do? An IPSOS MORI poll published in January 2015 asked, who would you generally trust to tell the truth? Here is an extract of the results:

  • Politicians generally: 16%
  • Government ministers: 19%
  • Estate agents: 22%
  • Bankers: 31%
  • Business leaders: 32%
  • Civil servants: 55%
  • ‘Ordinary people’: 62%
  • Teachers: 86%
  • Doctors: 90%
Graph taken from Publications Research Archive Publications Trends and Futures Political & Social Trends Politicians trusted less than estate agents, bankers and journalists -

Graph taken from Politicians trusted less than estate agents, bankers and

Perhaps business, then, on the other hand, has something to learn from the public sector? An index of boardroom behaviour compiled by the Institute of Directors has revealed a crisis in corporate governance in the United Kingdom. ‘The reputation of corporate Britain took an almighty kicking during the financial crisis, and several years later, is still on its knees’, said the Institute of Directors’ own director general. ‘Any attempt to restore public faith in business must start with good corporate governance, but focusing solely on how companies report compliance with a framework, while not looking at underlying behaviour, will simply not do the job.’ There are uncomfortable shades of Ofsted’s compliance demands here. Perhaps the country’s businesses could do with an injection of the far more trusted doctors and teachers to help them towards more ethically acceptable and financially sustainable governance?

Democratic accountability, quality, or both?

There does not need to be a choice between democratic accountability and quality schooling. Indeed, each drives the other. Democratic accountability in governance is essential to ensure that the school’s strategic direction meets the needs of the community it serves; that the public can see what the professionals are doing; and that they can hold them answerable if things go wrong. It means that the public can engage in the debate about the definition of quality schooling that, currently, is becoming more and more narrowly defined by the DfE and Ofsted as success in external examinations. Quality is needed in schools, provided that there is a broad consensus as to what comprises quality. Few parents, and fewer teachers, it seems, share the DfE’s obsession with short term mechanistic outputs.

Some of the best governing boards I have seen have been combinations of local people with a variety of personal skills and qualities. But their most valuable skill, perhaps, is that ability to see ‘the bigger picture’ – to be interested in people, not structures and profits; to look to complex outcomes, not simple measurable outputs; to have altruistic motives, and not be swayed by monetary reward; to promote fair pay throughout the organisation, not eye-watering salaries for a tiny elite of senior staff; to favour long-term goals, not short-term profits for shareholders.

Stakeholder governance can be skilled as well. But the constant nagging of senior educationists for business skills to be deployed on school governing boards should be treated with caution.

Questions for governing boards
  • Do we subconsciously have different expectations of the members of our board according to whether they are stakeholders or co-opted governors from a professional background?
  • Do we question one another within our board with confidence and a knowledge of how we are expected to conduct ourselves?
  • Do we conduct meetings, behave in meetings, and make decisions in ways that are accessible equally to all governors, not just favouring those who are most comfortable in the formal meeting culture?
  • What do we think are the most important aspects of our meetings? Reaching decisions? Exploring possibilities? Developing strategy? In other words, what are we here for? And how best should we organise and prioritise business in meetings and other activities to achieve it?

Image credit: “The Apprentice: No. 10” on Luckwell Road by w biscuits – licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

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