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Pragmatic questions around paid governance

Home Guard with BrickArms SMLE by Andrew Becraft – licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Pragmatic questions around paid governance

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Further to our previous  post regarding the Building Better Boards report, it’s maybe worth exploring the issue of paid vs. volunteer governors some more. Here’s an extract from the previously mentioned report entitled ‘Remuneration’:

The cover of Building Better Boards

The cover of Building Better Boards – subtitled “An Opportunity for Education”

In a challenging economic environment, the creation of payment for positions currently unpaid may appear to be unwise. However, we believe that schools should consider whether, in common with registered housing providers, NHS Trusts and other public bodies, some form of payment may be appropriate to reflect the contribution made by governors and their commitment in terms of time.

With smaller boards, the costs could be lower. Introducing remuneration may also serve to increase the diversity in terms of background, age and gender. It would provide compensation for board members who may otherwise have to forgo work or fund child care in order to enable them to attend board meetings and associated events.

At the very least, we believe that individual secondary schools or groups of schools should be allowed to consider what is best for them. Chairs, in particular, will often spend the equivalent of 10 – 15 working days or more annually for no remuneration and boards may consider whether payment may be appropriate for chairs if not for other board members. Parents may be engaged in the process of making this decision and voting on such changes.

Building Better Boards, p29

This issue is one which has traditionally been the hottest of the governance potatoes – venture-capitalist Lord Nash generally approves the notion of paying governors; as a new HMCI Sir Michael Wilshaw favoured paying governors in struggling schools,  while the National Governors Association reflects the views of its members that payment wouldn’t be appropriate – a view often echoed by individual govenors. Previously the NGA has said that a better use of funds for governance might be to fund CPD. The recent Schools Week article by Gerard Kelly on governors being paid highlights a number of things which anyone active in governance wouldn’t necessarily recognise as being current practice in any governing board which is well-chaired. In particular, the analogy to the Home Guard is perhaps intended to call to mind Dad’s Army’s Captain Mainwaring – a well-intentioned leader frequently undone by the bumbling amateurisms of his platoon, who bring their quirks and foibles to ‘work’ and can rarely hide them. Of course, there will be many younger governors for whom the phrase Don’t tell him, Pike! will mean nothing, so to ensure that we’re all understanding where the Home Guard reference might lead us:

Reinforcing the theme, even the subtitle Schools Week gives to this part of its Experts section (“our monthly governor’s corner”) suggests something twee, a monthly visit to an elderly relative who had interesting things to say once, but for the most part can’t keep up now and needs putting out to pasture somewhere. Of course, this isn’t true – Schools Week clearly takes governance seriously, but can anyone imagine a regular feature called Headteacher’s Corner or Chief Executive’s Corner?  One area which the article doesn’t address are the pragmatic questions around paying governors – it’s mainly focused on what the report sees as the potential (mainly operational) benefits (“attract better candidates”, ” hold them properly to account”, “undermine the voluntary principle on which school governance is based”) and makes a number of assumptions (LA governors are always partisan and might put a political party’s interests above a school’s / parent governors are difficult to hold to account because they are volunteers / volunteers in general are unaccountable because their commitment relies on goodwill).

Over Friday 30th and Saturday 31st of October 2015, Modern Governor asked a simple question via Twitter around the area of paid governance:

The number of responses (128) is clearly small, and represents only those who responded, but more significant was the nature, depth and passion of the responses in the discussion which follows. Most of this blog post was drafted before the question was asked, but the remainder of the post will be interspersed with responses from those across the spectrum of education.

Some pragmatic questions

Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that governors should be paid for their roles. What questions would such an approach raise – and would any awkward answers to them be preferable to the current drive to up-skill and professionalise governors?

Disclaimer: this, for some, will read like a blog post written by a management consultant hungry for work – lots of questions, and few answers. However, it’s likely that the answers to this question – and those around the recent reform of the way governing boards are run and what is expected of them – are waiting to be worked out, rather than simply found underneath an as-yet unturned policy stone.

Paid governors – where does the money come from?

We might assume that LAs won’t be expected to subsidise the payment of governors – though the expectation that they will carry the tab of any newly-sponsored academy which converts with a deficit budget means that, in the current climate, what at first glance seems highly unlikely may actually come to pass. With the government’s view that academisation is a silver bullet for all sorts of issues in schools, it may be safer to assume that funds will come from the budgets devolved to academies and free schools. Would this be ring fenced, capped or spent at the institution’s discretion?

A further question: could the DfE use the whole issue as yet another lever to encourage maintained schools to academise – by giving academies the freedom to pay governors, but witholding this right from maintained schools? Cynics among those who watched the introduction of what was derided as an uncreative National Curriculum at primary noted that academies were exempt from having to deliver it, and saw that as another lever for encouraging creative & innovative maintained schools to academise. If paying governors were seen as a similarly-coloured bullet to effect effective strategic leadership, could limiting its use to academies be used in a similar way to encourage, bribe, or incentivise maintained schools to become academies?

Paid governors – what does ‘payment’ mean?

Beyond the simple definition of “a financial reward for duties performed” – what does the blanket statement “governors should be paid” mean? Minimum wage? The national living wage (following in the footsteps of Lidl)? An honorarium? The calculated hourly rate for the governor’s normal paid employment (if s/he has such)? (a possible guarantee that no Premiership footballer would ever become a governor in all but a handful of institutions).  Again, should schools have discretion over what to pay? If governors approve of performance-related pay for teachers, should their own performance be expected to mirror what they achieve in their role?

Paid governors – local & hyper-local variations

Should governors in London be paid more? Those in Cumbria, Cornwall,  Norfolk, Middlesborough or Hull less – or more, if recruitment of governors in an area is deemed more difficult? If schools can choose what to pay, would this create a hierarchy where schools with more expansive budgets could afford more ‘expensive’ governors, while schools across a town or LA could ‘only’ afford journey(wo)men governors. Would a local transfer market be created, where an available governor might have a choice of a school who can pay four figures a year for their service as a governor, and a school who wants their input (and maybe needs it more) but can only afford to pay three figures?

Paid governors – the economics of Fantasy Governance?

Maybe the principle of fantasy sports could take effect: a school is given a fixed amount of funds ring-fenced for governors. In Fantasy Football, choosing Sergio Aguero, Raheem Sterling and Eden Hazard might spend two thirds of one’s imaginary £100m budget with eleven slots to fill – so the remaining choices would be from up and coming youth players with little or no experience, so obscure that even your football-mad 10 year old might struggle to pick them out of a pack of her football cards. Could capping what schools’ overall governance spend was encourage a more diverse range of governors – so that well-off schools can’t stuff their boards with members who resemble the headteacher in social class and outlook on life – encourage diversity in governance? Should all governors be paid the same? How about only paying the Chair?


Paid governors – would it make a difference?

After all that, would any difference made be a positive one?

There are clearly plenty of questions around the current situation – as Gerard Kelly points out, we should not pretend that the current model is perfect – far from it. There are a number of questions regarding the way that the voluntary nature of governance affects its effectiveness. Steve Penny, a Chair of Governors, gets to the heart of the matter:

Would current governors leave?

As previously mentioned, responses from governors around payment are often around “I don’t need / wouldn’t want” the money. However, there was a clutch of responses which those who advocate paid governors might not have anticipated.

Or – possibly – this response has been anticipated? What if payment was introduced and – en masse – most governors who objected to this resigned? Would some see those who objected as being those who understood – because they lived it – the issues around oversight and standards – and therefore might offer strategically-placed opposition to the government’s policies – particularly around academisation? If you’re cynical about all of this, then your next conspiracy theory could start right there.

Whatever everyone’s opinions, governors operate in a politicised and high-stakes environment – for politicians, for schools and above all for children and their families. Whether or not paid governance does have a role as a political lever remains to be seen, but it appears that we won’t have long to wait to find out what Sir Michael Wilshaw, who has often expressed a preference for paying governors in certain circumstances, has to say on the matter:

Image: Home Guard with BrickArms SMLE by Andrew Becraft – licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

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