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Professionalised governing bodies: businesslike & effective, or…

Cyclists amateur and professional

Professionalised governing bodies: businesslike & effective, or…

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This is the fifth 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.

Prior to this post, you may wish to read:

  1. Good governance – a modality of state power?
  2. Two trends in school governance
  3. Academies – an accountability sinkhole?
  4. Supporting autonomous, professionalised schools

… antagonistic & tense? The imprint of professionalisation

Balanced books

Week 6 Pt. 2: Sooooo many books by Christopher Rodriguez licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In addition to inspection, the role and responsibility of school governors is changing under government demands for the professionalisation of all governing bodie. As already indicated, the transfer of power and responsibility from central government to schools (a form of ‘double devolution’) translates into increased legal responsibility and (limited) liability for school governors wishing to self-govern, the implications of which are evident:

I think as we move towards a more responsible, professional era of management responsibility then what you’ll be looking for will be more diverse, you’ll be looking not just for people who are rooted in the community, but I think you’ll be looking for people with skills to offer as well … I think to have a properly functioning set of institutions you need more people playing more roles than that, and I think when we get into setting up the subcommittees you are going to need some degree of expertise. So, for example finance committee, you are going to need people who understand accounts and how to take measured financial decisions … I think it’s going to have to become more focused and more professional, because big sums of money are now being handled through each of the academies and collectively through the board. (Gordon, Company Secretary, Millard)

In a similar way to how Ofsted functions to make subjects/processes visible, explicit, divisible, differential, and, therefore, amenable to measurement and commensuration, the discourse and practice of professionalisation operates as a dividing practice, working to separate governors on the basis of skills, knowledge, and value of contribution (e.g. worth in terms of enhancing accountability).

Now you see that if you are going to have to manage all the finances, all this, all that and so on, you need people who are professionals, not amateurs. And the trouble is that most governing bodies, as I say, are amateurs. I mean I’m an amateur. (David, Chair of Premises Committee, Canterbury)

School governors may be separated (and even opposed as I will go on to show) through an amateur/professional distinction. Many school governors, therefore, judge the value of their contribution through a market logic and economization of relations driven by technical demands, legal responsibility, and management overheads. In effect, the most desirable school governors are those who possess particular ‘hard skills,’ notably skills and knowledge which enable the governing body to make the school intelligible and responsive as a cost-cutting, profit-making business. Increasingly, governing bodies are under pressure to make themselves answerable to measures of contract accountability (cost effectiveness) and corporate accountability (strategy and management) (see Ranson 2010 for a discussion of neoliberal accountability):

I think they [school governors] are worthy people, who want to show an interest. Emma [chair of governors] and I were talking about this yesterday actually, we don’t have much strength on the governing body so there is a need to appoint a lot more people, but trying to find people who’ve got the right sort of experience from industry, commerce, that sort of thing, who want to give the time, is quite difficult. But Emma has contacts in the business world so she is actively trying to recruit people. (Tim, Community Governor, Canterbury)

Strength is equated with the presence of ‘skilled’ governors; in other words, a strong governing body  is one which is structured with particular people working at its centre, people with the right ‘skills,’ preferably those who possess knowledge of business and finance. What the above extract captures is the changing expectations linked to the role of school governors.

Cyclists amateur and professional

Look at the pro by chat des Balkans licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In 2012, the governing body at Canterbury (a LEA maintained school) applied to the DfE to convert to academy status after consulting with staff, governors, and parents. With the conversion expected to take place in early 2013, the governing body and senior leadership at Canterbury explained how they were keen to utilize the new flexibilities and additional capital to build on their approach to delivering a unique curriculum model. In 2013, the DfE disallowed the conversion on the grounds that the commercial transfer agreement was not submitted on time, which the governing body declared to be untrue. (The governing body  were convinced that the disallowed conversion was linked to the fact that 1) the school’s achievement results were below floor target (less than 40% of pupils achieving 5 A*–C at GCSE); and 2) the governing body applied to convert as a stand-alone school with the expressed wish not to be taken over by a large academy chain). Undeterred by this setback the governing body announced plans to reapply to the DfE for academy conversion, subject to the GCSE results for 2013. In planning for a successful conversion, the school senior leadership, chair of governors, and some long-standing governors were adamant on a change to the composition of the governing body :

I mean I don’t think the governing body is strong enough to go into the position of being an academy, and certainly as an academy the greater responsibility that involves for governors. I don’t think the governing body is up to it, so we have to get more governors with more experience from the outside world. (Tim, Community Governor, Canterbury, London)

The conversion from maintained to academy status, therefore, means greater regulation and exclusion over who gets to enter into governance roles.

I mean in theory you can weed out weak governors, but in practice people will, to a large extent, get left alone, I know Emma has got some ideas about trying to make governors more accountable, and but I mean for example I’m pretty sure we’ve been talking about peer appraisal and that sort of thing, we haven’t actually done it, we haven’t actually done a skills audit or performance audit of governors. (Mark, LA governor, Canterbury, London)

The amateur/professional distinction (highlighted earlier by David above) is further translated by Mark through a weak/strong divide. Weak school governors are positioned through a deficit discourse which views civic or lay knowledge as either impractical or inexpedient to the task of ensuring the school is fit for purpose as an administratively self-governing institution. The implication here is that accountability is levelled as a practice and effect of technical efficiency, and runs the risk of undercutting a ‘stakeholder model’ of governance which aims to ensure (at least in theory) a culture of equal participation where people of specialist and civic knowledge may be valued equally and where ‘differences are voiced, deliberated and mediated’ (Ranson 2011, 411). Similar to Canterbury, Wingrave (also a maintained secondary school) applied to the DfE to convert to academy status in 2013. The conversion was denied by the DfE and the governing body at Wingrave elected to await the new GCSE results for 2013 before reapplying. Many school governors at Wingrave were clearly dismayed by the prospect of academy conversion, including legal responsibility for financial and educational performance:

But the governor’s role is hugely different. Well, no, it’s not really, in the great scheme of things, it’s not different is it? But the responsibility feels so much heavier, and feels much more critical and legal and, which I’m sure it actually is now, if I’m honest, if something goes wrong and I’m meant to be in charge of it, I’d be culpable. (Maranda, Community Governor, Wingrave)

A key role for school governors in the current education landscape, especially those with increased legal responsibility under the academy model, is to enhance accountability to the funders (the DfE) and to the regulatory body (Ofsted). Contract accountability and performative accountability emerge as the key frameworks through which governors’ skills, knowledge, and potential contribution can be specified, differentiated, and audited. Moreover, school governors are expected to possess ‘hard skills’ (technical expertise or specialist knowledge) to ensure a professional culture of governance driven by business values:

Well, more in the direction of a business, and it’s inevitable, you know, it’s, you know, yes, I have my own views about the move towards academy schools and all the rest of it. However, that is without doubt the direction of travel, and there’s no doubt at all that schools in general, and governors as well, will have to have a greater and greater understanding of business-type ideas and issues around finance. (Robert, Assistant Headteacher, Wingrave)

Ranson and Crouch (2009, 47) draw a similar conclusion in their study of school governance where they liken decentralizing education reforms with ‘the expansion of professional power at the expense of elected volunteers, and the corporatising of school ownership.’ As Clarke (2009, 38) makes clear, ‘we can see how this may structure who gets to enter into governance roles, with preference being given to those who are the bearers of such “relevant knowledge and expertise”: legal and financial knowledge, business experience and so on … Others – such as the bearers of lay knowledge, or tacit knowledge of how a service works (from the vantage point of either workers or users) – may find themselves marginalised in the “business of governance”.’ In fact, parallels can be drawn between the composition of governing bodies of housing associations within public–private partnerships and the (re)constitution of school governing bodies under academy and free school frameworks. In both cases, the kinds of board members who are valued most are typically those with skills in finance, legal, and accounting, and who may enhance accountability to both the funders and the regulatory body (see Cowan, McDermont, and Prendergast 2006). These demands have triggered a sea change in the culture of school governance marked by a shift away from a ‘bums on seats’ culture and a shift toward a risk-prepared, professionalised culture. Reflecting on the reconstitution of the governing body of Canterbury in anticipation of converting to academy, the headteacher recalls how old actors were marginalized to make way for new actors and new expectations:

Emma was already partially through restructuring the GB, and had already upset a few people, shall we say, in terms of encouraging their removal, and set up the members and, you know, worked out who was going to be on from the Local Authority, or who wasn’t going to be from the LA, so we are already well down that journey, and we are now having to unpick all of that of course, because we are not an academy. So she’s having to go back and woo for a short period of time people she’s originally upset … like all GBs there are some very, very good, active appropriately challenging critical friends who bring a lot to the table, and there are other who see it as a, I wouldn’t say a social event because that would probably be cruel, but it does border on that. (Graham, Headteacher, Canterbury)

The squeeze on all GBs to professionalize their members and prioritize skills-based appointment (see DfE 2014d) is therefore, already showing signs of affecting relations between governors, creating antagonism and tension where before it may not have existed. In a recent twitter exchange hosted by UKGovChat on the topic ‘Accountability: who is answerable to whom?’ (see UKGovChat Storify 2013), we can discern the extent to which some school governors are scornful of others who lack the skills necessary to ensure the survival of schools under the current ‘high-stakes’ environment:

‘We are all accountable. If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen! And none of this “just volunteers” rubbish!’. (Storify 2013)

Questions for governing bodies

  • What qualities and skills does your school value most in its governors? If a list of such qualities & skills exists, is it in the mind of the chair of governors, the wish-list of the headteacher/principal or written down/saved anywhere?
  • The NGA recommends that, where possible, schools interview prospective governors so they can assess what an individual would contribute to the governance of the school. Is your school planning on doing this the next time a vacancy arises. In HR terms, what are the essential and desirable criteria you would use to select a new governor (assuming you are fortunate enough to have more than one candidate)?
  • The DfE drive to have more professional people as governors (with its understanding that such people will already be busy) seems to contradict recent announcements that governors who do not attend training & meetings should be removed. If your school is looking to attract ‘professional people’ into governance, what can your governing body do to make active participation in its activities easier for such people?

Coda & Notes: DIY bureaucracy & good governance

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