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Governance beyond the governance ghetto

Image credit: Adapted from M40 by Jeremy Brooks - licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Governance beyond the governance ghetto

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Dr Tony BreslinDr. Tony Breslin is a public policy analyst and writer, specialising in education, participation and the third sector. A teacher by profession and a former local authority education adviser, he is chair of the board of governors at Bushey Primary Education Federation and was, until Autumn 2016, chair of the Academy Council at Oasis Academy Enfield. He is also chair of the awarding body Industry Qualifications and a trustee of the charity, Adoption UK. You can contact Tony on Twitter at @UKPolicyWatch or via

Governance beyond the governance ghetto: why governance isn’t just about governors

Over the past twelve months or so I have had the privilege of leading a scoping study on the future of school governance, commissioned by the RSA, funded by the Local Government Association and The Elliot Foundation, and supported by the National Governors Association, RSA Academies, the Catholic Education Service, the Association of School and College Leaders and the Centre for Public Scrutiny. Emma Knights at the NGA, Ian Keating at the LGA, Hugh Greenway at the Elliot Foundation and Alison Critchley at RSA Academies have been prominent members of the Expert Group that has informed and developed our thinking, and held our proposed pronouncements up to scrutiny. Immediately after the Easter break we plan to publish our, as yet untitled, report. Thus, I am now in the final phrase of framing the recommendations that have emerged from our deliberations.

Governance is about more than governors

As an experienced governing body chair and charitable trustee, I am only too aware of the challenges posed by the responsibility of governance, whether this be in the primary, secondary or further education sectors, academy, federation or local authority settings, or in the third sector, where of course governance in the academies age, or rather the age of the multi-academy trust, is headed.

We will have much to say – in terms of both opportunities and challenges – that this shift, from the public sector to the third sector, and from the governance of single schools to the governance of clusters of schools in either federations or MATs, in our report, opens up. Therefore it wouldn’t be wise or fair on the colleagues that I have worked with over the past year to share a set of draft recommendations that we are still working through at this stage.

However, there is one thing about which we have been unequivocal since the start – indeed, it was the first point made on our first flip chart sheet at our first meeting last Spring – which took place a matter of days after the publication of Nicky Morgan’s Educational Excellence Everywhere White Paper – that governance is about more than governors, a reality that too many players in the field, and certainly policymakers, have ignored for too long.

The three actors in good governance

In short, while school and college governors properly sit at the heart of the governance arrangements that oversee the institutions charged with the delivery of formal education, they are not the only players in the governance field. Moreover, they do not govern in a vacuum. Rather, great governance – effective, purposeful governance that has a tangible impact on outcomes for learners and the day-to-day experience of all who work with them – happens at the meeting point between at least three actors: governors, the professional leadership team, and that burgeoning group of civil servants, special advisers, inspectors and regulators that are, rightly or wrongly, charged with developing and renewing the education system’s architecture and defining success within it: Ofsted and Ofqual, the local authority, the Regional Schools Commissioner, the Special Advisers quietly devising new-fangled assessment arrangements and floor targets somewhere in or beyond Sanctuary Buildings, and the various organisations competing to have their voice heard in what Professor Stephen Ball  calls the policy process.

Together, the quality and content of governance emerges from these three constituencies, broadly the governing board, the professional leadership team and the policy influencers, with the first two groups spending a fair proportion of their time working with the impact on day-to-day practice of the input from the third, more distant, partner in the process.

Governance as a limiter on inspection outcomes

The inspectorate provided a hint of this broader governance reality six or so years ago when what remains the essential template of the current Ofsted framework first emerged.  This hint resided in the Leadership and Management strand introduced at that time, and in which governance featured with a new explicitness. A school could not achieve a higher Ofsted rating that its rating for Leadership and Management and, at least in theory, a school could not achieve a higher rating in Leadership and Management than it could gain for governance as a key element of this.

In truth, not all inspection teams have devoted as much time to the consideration of governance that this approach might imply, and certainly, in this writer’s experience, those regular “school improvement” reviews now a common feature of the practice of many local authorities and academy groups struggle to give serious consideration to governance, or at least to engaging the board of governors in what is invariably a time-limited exercise, other than in end-of-day feedback – with chairs and sometimes others present – but largely in passive, recipient mode.

If our inspectors and our school improvement professionals are serious about the importance of governance in the leadership and management of our schools and colleges, we have to find a way of more meaningfully engaging governors in inspection and review processes. We also have to ensure not simply that all governors have access to good quality training and support, but that all involved in the governance process do. In particular, middle and senior leaders need to understand their role in the governance process, and the need to build their understanding of it, a theme that I will pick up in part 2 of this article, which is published by Modern Governor tomorrow.

Part 2 of this guest article – Training in governance, not just training for governors – will be published tomorrow. You can receive it and other Modern Governor articles – on average 5 or 6 posts per month – via email by visiting

Tony Breslin has served on the board of an Education Business Partnership, as a governor at an FE college, and as the chair of a teachers’ subject association. He has also chaired or served on the board of a number of campaigning groups in education and beyond. Between 2001 and 2010, he was CEO at the education and participation charity, the Citizenship Foundation. In October 2016 the RSA published his paper on the future of learning: A place for learning: putting learning at the heart of civic identity, citizenship and community life.

Image credit: Adapted from M40 by Jeremy Brooks – licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

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