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School governors’ identity in 2015

I Promise Not To Peek by Jari Schroderus

School governors’ identity in 2015

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Jacqueline BaxterJacqueline Baxter is a Lecturer in Social Policy at The Open University UK. She is currently writing a book which will be published early in 2016: Governing Schools: Policy, politics and practice post Trojan Horse Affair. Her research interests centre around public service policy, inspection and governance.. She blogs at and you can follow her on Twitter @drjacquebaxter.

Making sense of school governing in 2015: school governors’ identity

Rapid policy driven changes since 2010 have presented challenges for all schools, but in areas of high socio economic deprivation – traditionally difficult areas for governing bodies (GBs) to operate – these challenges have been magnified. One of the most recent research into the ways in which governors working in these areas are dealing with their role is documented within a report by The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (see Dean, Dyson, Gallannaugh, Howes, & Raffo, 2007). Although the report emphasises that many of the problems encountered by schools resonate with all governing bodies, it makes the point that governing bodies in these areas:

“…tend to find themselves under greater pressure than their counterparts elsewhere… to some extent this comes from the distinctive social, economic and educational issues in such areas – issues that manifest themselves in schools most obviously through low levels of attainment, and potentially high levels of special educational needs, student absence, student mobility and disciplinary problems.”
(Dean et al 2007: 6)

Governor identities and job satisfaction

The ways that individuals make sense of their working environments has interested those working in the field of organisation studies for some years now. Research has established that developing a strong and effective working identity is vital in order for individuals to make sense of the working environment (Weik, 2001). And that this ability to make sense of work is directly correlated with both job satisfaction and resilience- an ongoing sense of motivation when the going gets tough. In the context of volunteering, these links are even more pronounced as intrinsic motivation (motivation linked to a personal sense of achievement and purpose) is not complemented by extrinsic factors (payment or incentivisation).

Large scale studies into school governance carried out by The University of Bath (C. James, 2014) indicate that many governors come into the role for altruistic reasons- to make a difference, to give something back; others enter the role hoping to learn more about education and how it works. But wider studies into motivation and attrition argue that initial motivation is not enough to stop people from quitting; that after their initial motivation to become involved, individuals have to then create identities that make sense of environments that are quite often more demanding and difficult than they imagined.

The study that I undertook was based in 3 multi academy trusts in areas of above average socio economic deprivation (SED). The study was based on quantitative data on what kind of questions governors ask to make sense of their work, combining this with 30 interviews with school governors. The interviews lasted one hour each and were semi structured and took a narrative approach that permitted governors to articulate their own stories about their role and how they make sense of it. This is a common and effective technique within identity research.

Challenges and opportunities

Governor sense making activities fell into several broad areas:

  • Making sense of context;
  • Reference groups;
  • Strategic contributions;
  • Feelings on role and efficiency in this role – doing a good job and accountability.

Governors were very sensitive to the context of their work- they were very aware of the communities their school was located in, and how this affected their work. One governor highlighted the fact that the façade of the school often hid the real challenges faced by students, governors and teachers:

“This is a really tough area…we could go right around all of the five schools [in the federation] and you would see some signs of quality, which makes you think, well this school is doing alright, but it is very tough here and sometimes the façade hides the reality, it really does “ (Governor)

Governors used metaphors to create powerful and vivid descriptions of the tough areas in which they worked, at times these were used in a negative sense to stress the tough nature of the school and link this to the hard work and struggle that they felt to be integral to their role, but very often they used them along with anecdotes to convey the very strong community support that they felt to be integral to their role

Although recent developments in school governing have highlighted professional skills as being key to success on a governing body, governors in this study recognised that their capacity to ask the naïve question was very often what they were most valued for.

If you like school, You'll LOVE work! by Yung GrassHopper.

If you like school, You’ll LOVE work! by Yung GrassHopper. Used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 licence.

Research into working identities has shown that affiliation/ deference to certain reference groups is very important in forming a working identity. In the case of governors a number of research projects have emphasised the role of the chair and head teacher as a powerful reference group which influences governor identities. This was not the case in this research. For these governors the community emerged as exerting the most powerful influence on their decisions and justification for them.

This is interesting in light of the fact that governors are often criticised for being too cosy with head teachers – providing too much support and not enough challenge (see for example Ofsted, 2002, 2004; Ofsted, 2011).

School , community and strategy

One of the most interesting findings emerged via the ways that governors saw their role in terms of a bridge between school and community, as this governor explained:

“There is a culture that pulls them [the student] back and the relationship between school and parents is quite difficult based on their [parents’] own history. And it’s about breaking down that barrier as well and so I think that Governors have a big part to play with that. I think they do in terms of sharing the message and spreading the word.” (Governor)

Challenge and support has been a mantra for the inspectorate in terms of governance for some time now (Ofsted, 2008), challenging the senior leadership team has traditionally been seen as an area for all governing bodies but particularly those in areas of deprivation (Ofsted, 2011). This function was seen by a number of governors to be specifically focused on challenges arising due to context of the school and appeared to give governors a real focus for challenge. Finally Making sense of overall strategy emerged as one of the most powerful challenges to the governor role. Although many of the governors gained a great deal of satisfaction in their role, a number of them found this area of the role to be difficult to pin down. Many thought found it challenging and were more at home carrying out more tangible activities. Although many had attended training in several areas – none had been trained in the area of strategy.

I am looking for governors to take part in the second phase of this work – looking at the media and governor identities. If you are able to take 10 minutes completing a short questionnaire I would be very grateful – the survey is at

Questions for your governing body

  • Do you know why each of your fellow governors is volunteering in this capacity? Have you spent time to understand one another’s motivations and passions around education, or is this swamped by the busyness and agendas when governors meet and interact?
  • How does the setting of your school (geographical, socio-economic, cultural) affect who is on your governing body, or is likely to join?
  • What was the last “naïve question” you asked as a governor of your headteacher or fellow governors? Did it move any discussion or thinking on more effectively than an elaborate and informed question about details?
  • How does your governing body work together towards setting a strategic direction – is this a corporate task or does it end up left to the chair?
  • Which decisions that your governing body has taken in the last year have been significantly or completely influenced by your community’s needs and priorities?


  • Dean, C., Dyson, A., Gallannaugh, F., Howes, A., & Raffo, C. (2007). Schools, governors and disadvantage. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation. (View PDF)
  • Deem, R., Brehony, K., & Heath, S. (1995). Active Citizenship and The Governing of Schools Buckingham: Open University Press. (Amazon)
  • James, C. (2014). The State of School Governing in England Birmingham: National Governors Association (View PDF)
  • Ofsted. (2008). Using data, improving schools London: Ofsted. (View PDF)
  • Ofsted. (2011). School Governance: learning from the best. London: Ofsted.   (View PDF and Word)
  • Weick, K. (2001). Making Sense of the Organization. London: Blackwell. (Amazon)

Image: I Promise Not To Peek by Jari Schroderus. Used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 licence.

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