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Good governance – reinforcing the power of the state?

This is Britain! by rogiro licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 .

Good governance – reinforcing the power of the state?

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This is the first post of a serialisation of Dr Andrew Wilkins‘ paper Professionalizing school governance: the disciplinary effects of school autonomy and inspection on the changing role of school governors. It has been edited for brevity and ease of reading online, references are hyperlinked inline where available, otherwise most footnote references have been removed. The article with full references is available at and it is reproduced on the Modern Governor blog with permission of the publishers.

Good governance as a modality of state power

CCTV camera and Big Ben

This is Britain! by rogiro licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The rise of academies and free schools (‘state-funded independent schools’) in England since 2010 has led to increased school autonomy for large numbers of state primary and secondary schools coupled with an increased demand for ‘good governance’ (an appeal to professional standards, technical expertise, and performance evaluation as mechanisms for improving public service delivery), with direct consequences for school governors. Described by Ranson et al. as

‘the largest democratic experiment in voluntary public participation’ (2005, 357)

school governors refer to the non-executive (unpaid) members of the governing body (GB)1 who, through election or appointment, work alongside executive, senior leadership figures (headteachers, associate/deputy headteachers, school business managers, premises managers, finance directors, etc.) to support the operation and strategy of state schools.

One cup, many biscuits

Untitled by Caroline licensed under CC-BY-2.0

Up until the introduction of Local Management of Schools (LMS) in the  1980s, school governors performed their role in the relatively safe, comfortable, and informal environment of a ‘bums on seats’ culture. (There are echoes of this past culture when governors talk affectionately and somewhat nostalgically about the provision of ‘tea and biscuits’ that circulate any governors meeting and which work ceremoniously to enjoin governors through friendly and mutually supportive conversations). During this time, standards, curriculum, and finance for the majority of schools remained the legal responsibility of local government, though some ‘maintained’ (LEA-controlled) schools were permitted a level of autonomy over decisions concerning resource allocation and budget due to the capacity and willingness of the GB to do so. Therefore, while school governors have for a long time (since the 1980s in fact) possessed statutory rights to influence schools, their actions (or lack of) have not been tied to any formal powers, inherent risk, or liability. Today, however, local government power has been rolled back to allow all schools to be administratively self-governing.

Word cloud of the 1980 Education Act - created with

Word cloud of the 1980 Education Act

A consequence of this ‘high-stakes’ transfer of power is that school governors are tasked with the legal responsibility of holding senior leadership to account for the financial and educational performance of schools. Earlier legislation (Education Act 1944 and Education (No 2) Act 1968) outlines the existence of ‘school governing bodies’ in the case of secondary schools and, similarly, ‘managing bodies’ in the case of primary schools. In the case of the latter, the local education authority (LEA) possessed a ‘wide discretion’ over composition and function (DES 1977), while the role and constitution of GBs had to be ‘set out by the LEA in articles of government which have to be approved by the Secretary of State’ (DES 1977). Later, through the 1980 Education Act, the government introduced measures to specify the remit and composition of the GB, e.g. the division and role of parent governors, staff governors, LEA governors, and community governors. Subsequent legislation (Education (No 2) Act 1986, Education Act 1993, Education Reform Act 1988, Education Act 2002, Education Act 2006) extended the responsibilities of school governors, principally to ‘conduct the school with a view to promoting high standards of educational achievement at the school’ (School Standards and Framework Act 1998, Pt. II, Chap. III, Section 38). The previous Labour government highlighted an additional key role of the GB, namely to facilitate a ‘stakeholder model’ of school governance, one ‘designed to ensure representation of key stakeholders (parents, staff, community, LEA, foundation and sponsors)’ and which ‘helps GBs to be accountable to parents, pupils, staff and the local community’ (DfES 2005b, 7). Nonetheless, some commentators consider government attempts to specify the role of school governors and of the GB as a whole as hazy at best (Balarin et al. 2008).

Word cloud of the 2011 Education Act - created with

Word cloud of the 2011 Education Act

Despite some confusion and uncertainty over school governor aims and direction, what is clear today is the proposed strategic function of school governors in relation to enhancing accountability. Both the government and the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted, the schools inspectorate) strictly discourage school governors from engaging in the operational functions of running the school, now the key delegated role of the headteacher and senior leadership team (see DfE 2012; Ofsted 2001, 2011). Recent announcements and statutory guidance from the Department for Education (DfE) (2013) and Ofsted (2011) highlight instead, the new, legal responsibilities to be undertaken by school governors. Specifically, school governors are branded key to facilitating ‘good governance,’ which includes providing scrutiny of direction, enabling strategy, and ensuring accountability (DfE 2013; also see Ofsted 2011). As Chief Inspector of Schools and the head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw (Ofsted 2013a), recently commented:

Poor governance focuses on the marginal rather than the key issues. In other words, too much time spent looking at the quality of school lunches and not enough on Maths and English.

Echoing this, the then Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove conflated ‘poor governance’ with

failure to be rigorous about performance. A failure to challenge heads forensically and also, when heads are doing a good job, support them authoritatively (Gove quoted in Rayner 2012)

School governors, therefore, are expected to be more than cheerleaders for the school or what Gove describes as ‘local worthies’: those ‘who see being a governor as a badge of status not a job of work’ (Gove quoted in Rayner 2012). Instead, school governors are summoned as ‘experts’ (technicians, analysts, and epistemic actors) who are ‘skilled’ and committed to ensuring accountability and shaping strategy through rigorous tracking and analysis of performance and finance data. But school governors themselves are inspected and held to account (by Ofsted and senior leadership, for example, where they are subject to performance evaluation) and encouraged to acquire new skills and attitudes as ‘professionals’ through internal/external training. Governors are expected to be educated and properly guided on how to effectively challenge and support schools.

Questions for governors & governing bodies

  • Does Lord Nash’s recent descriptions of ‘passengers‘ echo the former Secretary of State’s term ‘local worthies’, or are the two groups different?
  • To whom – individuals, groups, institutions – are you accountable? If there was a conflict between the interests of those groups, (how) would your governing body resolve this?
  • Are you accountable to the children who attend ‘your’ school? If so, how do they know?

Part 2: Two trends in school governance

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