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School governors: who are they and what do they do?

School governors: who are they and what do they do?

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Guest Blog from Andrew Wilkins of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)





In 2010 the coalition government issued new legislation making it possible for all good and outstanding schools (including, for the first time, primary schools) to exit local authority management and acquire academy status. Academies in England now number 1807 according to the BBC with many more in the pipeline for 2013. The number of free schools has also gathered pace since their introduction in 2010. Recent statistics suggest there are as many as 79 free schools in England with a further 113 set to open in 2013 and beyond.  But the implications of these reforms are still little understood.

Over the last decade there has been growing discomfort in the media and among academics, policy makers and teacher trade unions with the way academies are commissioned and operated. Academies are run by unaccountable sponsors selected by the government, for example.  This has raised concerns that local democratic accountability is being relaxed to attract and sustain private sector involvement in public sector organization. But what about the role of the Schools Commissioner whose job it is to broker sponsor academy arrangements? Problem solved? The purpose of the schools commissioner is also to ‘extend the academies sponsorship programme’ and ‘raise the profile of Free Schools’. Frameworks of accountability and scrutiny surely need be exercised more dispassionately. And then there is the increasing fragmentation of the education system itself – the diminishing role of local authorities and the atomisation of schools through federations, chains and partnerships. The lack of any middle-tier arrangements at the regional or sub-regional level opens up the question: how is accountability shifting to meet the demands of an increasingly deregulated and disparate school system? Is British education sleepwalking towards a ‘democratic deficit’ from which there can be no return?

The implications of these changes are also significant for school governors whose roles and responsibilities have up until now lacked precise definition and specification. Under the independent authority of academies, school governors and their sub-committee groups retain huge powers to exercise responsibility in steering the strategic development and governing of schools, including ethos, standards and performance. They are, in other words, the key stakeholder collective guiding school governance and are instrumental to the success or failure of a school. They are also expected to work in accordance with the educational and managerial mandate circulated by the board of trustees – the new managers of education provision.

So how have the roles and responsibilities for school governors been affected by recent government reforms with its emphasis on high-stakes performance and greater scrutiny of school effectiveness by Ofsted? Who are school governors accountable to and what is the nature of these relationships across different types of schools, institutional forms and governing arrangements? As more school governors are nominated rather than elected, how has the skill requirements and training for school governors changed? This is what recent research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) seeks to make sense of and is intended to offer new insights into the future role of school governors in the emerging school system.

For further information on this exciting and timely project please go to the official blog site and submit any queries and comments you may have.  We look forward to hearing from you.

Andrew Wilkins is Research Fellow in the School of Education at University of Roehampton.

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