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Who governs our schools – the challenges of a changing policy landscape

Who governs our schools – the challenges of a changing policy landscape

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This is the fifth in a series of guest articles on the Modern Governor blog exploring the implications and themes of the RSA report Who governs our schools? written by Dr. Tony Breslin.

Dr Tony BreslinDr. Tony Breslin is a public policy analyst and writer, specialising in education, participation and the third sector. A teacher by profession and a former local authority education adviser, he is chair of the board of governors at Bushey Primary Education Federation and was, until Autumn 2016, chair of the Academy Council at Oasis Academy Enfield. He is also chair of the awarding body Industry Qualifications and a trustee of the charity, Adoption UK. You can contact Tony on Twitter at @UKPolicyWatch or via

Governance in the academies age: meeting the challenges of a changing policy landscape

This is the fifth in a series of articles reflecting on my recent RSA report, Who Governs Our Schools? Trends, Tensions and Opportunities; earlier blogs have provided the background to the report and explored the first two of our six key themes, Purpose and Participation and Induction and Development. Here, I look at our third theme, Landscape and Policy. As with the other themes, the report poses and responds to a series of questions:.

  1. How has the governance and leadership of schools changed over the past 25 years?
  2. At a system level, who and what impacts on the governance landscape?
  3. How does trusteeship or directorship in a MAT differ from governorship in a school or federation?
  4. Will participation in school governance be as attractive a proposition in the landscape that now appears to be emerging?
  5. Does school governance feature sufficiently in the minds of policymakers and system leaders?
  6. How do practitioners and policymakers make sense (and use) of the current diversity of governance arrangements?

Here, I want to explore the particular opportunities and challenges posed by the emergence of academies and, especially, multi-academy trusts, or MATs, and I want to assess the extent to which governance is sufficiently prominent in the minds of policymakers.

From single school to multi-school models of governance

The Expert Group that I worked with in producing the report met for the first time – by accident rather than design – the week after the publication of Nicky Morgan’s White Paper, Educational Excellence Everywhere, in Spring 2016, which set out a vision in which every school would become an academy. The plan, which gave our efforts a working title Governance in the Academies Age, met with immediate resistance from a range of stakeholders and subsequently this specific policy objective was revised and reined in, but the direction of travel remains broadly the same, a direction that has profound implications for school governance – implications that have not been missed by the inspectorate:

“The landscape of school accountability continues to change beyond recognition. Besides the introduction of entirely new types of school, such as free schools, studio schools and university technical colleges, the number of converter and sponsor-led academies continues to grow. Since August 2014, 1,600 new academies have been established. Multi-academy trusts are also becoming more common. At the end of December 2015, 60 percent of academies belonged to a trust. 90 percent of new academies now join a trust from the outset.” Ofsted, 2016

One of the greatest impacts is likely to be on the level of connectedness between schools and the bodies responsible for their governance. Why? Because in multi-academy trusts and in federations the legal responsibility for governance moves upstream to the Board of the MAT or federation. Although schemes of delegation issued by these boards often repatriate these powers to the local level, this does not change the legal reality. As such, there is arguably something oxymoronic about the emergent language, much loved by the DfE, of local governing boards, for the ultimate power of governance rests elsewhere.

There are benefits to be had from such a shift. In MATs, the legal demands on the trustees of the MAT are more onerous than on locally based school governors and, in such settings, it might be argued that there is the opportunity to shift what might be thought of as the onerous stuff of school governance – think finance, resources, performance management – to another level, allowing the local board to focus on, for instance, curriculum, community engagement, and teaching and learning. The risk, though, is that the removal or dilution of these responsibilities is dis-empowering to those on local boards, and that the resultant loss of agency makes participation as a (local) school ‘governor’ less attractive.

The truth is that it is too early in the academies era to be clear about which of these outcomes will ensue, but we would urge the Department for Education to keep a close eye on how emergent governance arrangements are impacting on the recruitment, agency and retention of those on local boards. As we note in the report, if these changes were to cause ten percent of locally based board members to stand down in the medium term, this would lead to a loss of voluntarily provided resource to the schooling system with a value of approximately £120,000,000, hardly a loss that would go unnoticed in a public service where funding is likely to be tight for the foreseeable future, or one that should be allowed to happen by accident or oversight.

Of course, such figures can be contested but there is another equally profound risk in the shift towards various models of multi-school governance – that of breaking a vital element in the bond between a local school and the community it serves, that which is delivered by school-based governing bodies. Thankfully, while some MATs have gone as far as to remove or seriously curtail local boards, others are alive to the risk that we highlight. As Tiffany Beck, Chair at the Maritime Education Trust puts it:

“Removing school level governance risks reducing local accountability, and erodes the necessary school-level conversations vital to the project of school improvement and to the retention and growth of ethos and values in each school community.”

Reforming school governance: by accident or design?

One of the greatest concerns of our Expert Group was not simply about the risk of the loss of local connectedness that Beck refers to; it was that this might happen by accident rather than design. Too often, it seemed to us, the reform of school governance happened as a result of changes elsewhere in the system. Nicky Morgan’s call for all schools to become academies provided a case In point, for it seemed neither to predict the impact on local boards (the diluting of their governance role) or on the role of certain stakeholders in the governance process (a significant reduction in the number of parent governors across the system, as stand alone academies and MATs are not required to have parents on their boards).

These and other changes (for instance, a continued reduction in the powers – if not the responsibilities – of local authorities, and the introduction of Regional Schools Commissioners) all impact on school level governance, but this appears to be insufficiently acknowledged or addressed, either in the policy documentation or in subsequent guidance, including that from the DfE itself. For this reason, we are clear that policy-making in respect of school governance arrangements needs to be much more deliberate, or as we put it in the headline that we draw out from this section of our report:

“Too often governors are left to navigate a changing landscape that is not of their making and which has not been crafted with governance, or at least with locally based governance, in mind; it is common for changes to school governance arrangements to emerge as the unintended consequences of change elsewhere in the system. How we govern our schools should be an education policy priority, not an afterthought.”

Moreover, we call for our investigation into school, federation and MAT level governance to be followed by a much wider study of system-level governance that looks at the organisation of our schooling system as a whole. At present, we have a system that I describe in the report as “a jigsaw puzzle of ill-fitting pieces – one without any picture on the box”. Until we are clearer about what that picture could look like, our impact as school governors – both on school improvement and in our communities – is likely to be limited, and at least a proportion of our efforts wasted.

Questions for your governing board: on governance

  • If you operate in a MAT or federation setting, what have been the benefits and/or drawbacks for local boards?
  • If you are in the process of joining a federation or a MAT, or thinking about doing so, what are the key things that you need to think about as a school based board?
  • If you sit on a MAT or federation board, what steps are you taking to retain and develop the engagement of local boards and/or individual school communities, and how might others learn from this?

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Image credit: Book, page, bookstore and bookshelf by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash.

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