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Should governors be taking more control? It depends…

Jelly babies

Should governors be taking more control? It depends…

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The Secret NLG (National Leader of Governance) has been an NLG since two thousand and something and spends his or her time supporting governing bodies, or governing boards, to be more effective. This is the second guest post s/he has contributed.

Mixed motives?

Nick Timothy, director of the New Schools Network which supports the rapid expansion of free schools, said recently:

“Free schools are better placed to give parents what they want and drive up standards because they give more control to head teachers, teachers and governors, rather than politicians and bureaucrats.”
BBC News

I read this with great interest as only one of the groups mentioned here are non-professionals: governors.  In my experience, some governing bodies are great, some good and some are plain awful.  Often the governors in each can be quite polarised in their commitment, understanding and engagement.  Some have an amazingly supportive relationship with their Head, while others barely have any relationship at all.  But that’s the way it works.  You ask ‘normal’ people to volunteer to be in charge of anything and you will always get a mixed bag.  Most will genuinely plan to add value and help make things better, but lots don’t share that motivation.  Many will spend tireless hours helping out around the school and will happily attend meetings on almost every night (because they are on 5 different committees).  These governors make a huge contribution to school life but, many volunteer for other reasons.

Time and again I have been involved with governors who have no heed for the 4-year commitment they have made and quit the very day their own child leaves the school, one or two years into their term.  This type of governor always seems very keen to volunteer to observe lessons that their own kids are in.  When highly confidential information gets leaked to the parent body, it’s usually quite easy to imagine who was responsible.  There are even those – for example for those in military service – for whom the mere appointment to a governing body is a recognised contribution to their qualification for promotion and a pay rise – (although in my experience most service men and women make excellent governors).  But I digress.

Governors > Bureaucrats?

What I’m coming around to here is the age-old issue of professionalising governance.  It’s an issue that I think about all the time and one that enjoys really solid arguments on either side.  But when someone like Nick Timothy argues for giving more control to governors over bureaucrats we really must ask ourselves why this would be a good thing.  Regardless of where you stand on the issue of professionalising governors, I think you’d begin by saying ‘it all depends on which governors and which bureaucrats we are talking about here’.  Bureaucrats too have differing motivations to do their jobs well.  They too can view their work as vocational but can also be highly motivated by the fact that they are out there in public life and if they don’t do a good job then the public can have a great go at them in, er, public!  They are directly accountable to someone.  They have established performance management.  Other than by Ofsted, Governors are not scrutinised in public, certainly rarely as individuals unless they fall from grace in scandalous circumstances – and even under Ofsted’s eye, the new framework might miss much of what governors do.  Governors do not generally have individual performance management plans featuring personal objectives and KPIs that can directly impact on their livelihood.  Despite this, governors can make decisions than can have significant and long-term effects on an entire community.

Community cohesion?
Wheelhouse of ship

Hikawa Maru (Wheelhouse) by Yuko Honda – licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Just think about voluntary academy conversion.  That tight community in middle England who have supported their school completely since it was first built in 18nn.  School fetes, bake sales, fundraisers, volunteer readers, gardening club, karate teaching, art days, trips to the farm… the list of ways the community gathers around the school are endless.  The school is part of the very fabric of the community.  But along comes Big Academy Chain and talks of more money for that extension, new carpets, better training for staff, better results!  The governors have their heads turned.  Suddenly everyone remembers exactly who is in charge.  It’s not the parents, local authority or headteacher.  It’s not politicians or bureaucrats.   It is the governors who decide if the conversion is good for the school.  It is they who decide how much or little they want to involve parents – and remember, they don’t even have to consult parents at all.  The decision is entirely theirs to make.

Imagine the effect on that community when the Head is removed and replaced by a Curriculum Leader who answers to an Executive Head who is based 80 miles away and visits twice a year.  The new admissions policy means that children and families from anywhere can now find a place in the school.  Suddenly,where previously there was a great group of parents who all knew each other and all supported the school and for whom the school was one thread in the interwoven fabric of their lives, there is now a group of people who don’t even know each other and are unlikely to even have a conversation for the 7 years their kids will be at the school.  How did things change so massively?  Who made this far-reaching decision that has changed the dynamic of an entire community forever?  Why, it’s the governors of course.  One has been here for ten years, another for five, six of them joined in the last year and two just in the last term.

When pundits bandy about the notion of giving more control to governors, I wonder what exactly they mean?

Image: Jelly baby infinity by Simon Webster – licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.


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