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Who governs our schools – collaboration and partnership to share knowledge

"Together, we create" on brick wall by My life through a lens on Unsplash

Who governs our schools – collaboration and partnership to share knowledge

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This is the eighth 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 www.breslinpublicpolicy.com.

Collaboration and partnership – the need to share knowledge within and beyond the educational sphere

This is the eighth in a series of blogs 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 four of our six key themes, Purpose and Participation, Induction and Development, Landscape and Policy, Stakeholders and Experts and Leadership and Autonomy. This week, I look at our sixth and final theme, Collaboration and Partnership. Next week, I’ll summarise the report, through reference to our key recommendations, before closing the series the week after with a look to the future, and a deliberate attempt to pick out the opportunities that the new school-scape offers.

On Collaboration and Partnership we posed the following questions:

  1. What lessons might those involved in school governance learn from models of governance employed elsewhere?
  2. What might those involved in governance in other sectors learn from those involved in school governance?
  3. What core principles must underpin any future framework for the governance of our schools?

These questions are crystallised in the headline to this section of our report:

We need to share lessons about what is and isn’t good governance across and between the sectors; those involved in school governance may have lessons to learn about governance from elsewhere in the public sector, the voluntary and community sector and the business world, but they also have much to offer, not least in terms of a universal commitment to values-driven leadership that places transparency and community service at its core.

Against this background, I want to use this article to make the case for such knowledge sharing within and across sectors. In particular, I want to provide the rationale behind one of our key recommendations – that we need to establish a cross-sector commission on governance to facilitate such knowledge sharing, and link this to another of our recommendations offered earlier in the report and in Matthew Taylor’s introduction to it, the need for “a fuller and wider investigation into the broader leadership and governance of the education and schooling system”:

Without this piece of work being undertaken, the governance of our schooling will remain akin to what [the report] aptly describes as “a jigsaw puzzle of ill-fitting pieces – one without any picture on the box”.

Governance across the sectors

As I remark in the report, governance is not just an issue for schools; it is an issue across the education sector and elsewhere in the public sector, the voluntary and community sector, the corporate world, and sport. In different ways, recent crises, or recently exposed crises, in institutions in a range of settings have their roots, at least in part, in poor governance:

  • the collapse of Kids Company in the summer of 2015;
  • the banking crisis that emerged in 2008;
  • the child abuse scandals in various care settings and in other institutions;
  • claims about “self-serving fat cats” at the helms of big corporations;
  • the use of sub-contractors in England and abroad who are engaged in all manner of poor employment practice;
  • enduring questions about the quality of sports governance (most recently around the England women’s football team), and
  • debates about aggressive and off-shore tax avoidance and evasion

all raise issues about the quality and appropriateness of governance arrangements.

When viewed against this backdrop, school governance often provides a beacon of light, not least because of the adherence to the values of voluntarism and public service that sit at its core. Might, say, the boards of some of those corporations criticised for their employment and/or out-sourcing practices have benefited from non-executive directors who had cut their teeth on school governing bodies or in the voluntary sector? And might not many organisations benefit from the safeguarding expertise now evident in many (and required of all) school governing boards? Conversely, the evolution of the school as – and I recognise that the language may be an anathema to some readers – a ‘business unit’ or ‘cost centre’ and the particular challenges of school governance in an age of “no win-no fee” litigation means that particular sets of professional skills (the lawyer, the journalist, the accountant) are now especially prized in the sphere of educational governance.

In short, there are lessons that the sectors can learn from each other and increasingly need to. Indeed, the rise of the multi-academy trust – and, with it, trustee boards – has transferred the governance of many of our schools to the voluntary sector, while at the same time redistributing tasks that had been in the hands of school-based boards across three distinct hubs, the school based board, the MAT board and, in larger MATs, the professionals within the MAT.

Governance within the sector

A commission on governance across the sectors would facilitate the kind of knowledge transfer that would benefit all participants while re-balancing the crude “industry/the private sector/big business has all the answers” assumption that has long tended to pervade education-industry work since its emergence in the 1970s and 1980s. It would need though to avoid another common error – that governance in any sector is solely delivered by those on governing boards.

In education, school and federation governing boards and MAT boards share this responsibility with a plethora of other agencies – the local authority, a range of funding bodies, the inspectorate, the curriculum and assessment agencies, the Department for Education and, latterly, the Regional Schools Commissioner. As I have said earlier in this series of articles, locally-based school governors do far more than just govern – and this activity is of real value for schools and the young people that they serve – but they are not responsible for governance in its totality.

If the task beyond the education sector is to share our knowledge, skills and values as school governors with those involved in governance in other spheres, and to learn from them, the task within the system is to understand the emergent map of school and school system governance in its totality. It remains to be seen whether the constantly shifting sands of education policy will settle long enough to allow this understanding to take place.

Questions for your governing board

  • As a board, are we aware of the full range of skills and experience that we hold as a group? How have we gathered this knowledge – through a formal and regular knowledge and skills audit or through informal information sharing?
  • Are there particular areas in which, as a board, we feel that we could be stronger?
  • If we have identified knowledge, skill or experience gaps, how will we address these – through CPD for existing board members, through recruitment, or through the use of consultant professionals?
  • As school governors, do we feel that we have experience and a values-base that could be valuable to those with governance responsibilities in other sectors?
  • As school governors, how well informed do we feel about the role of other elements and agencies in the educational landscape, and how might we (or these agencies) address any concerns we have in this respect?
  • As school-based governors, which agencies or organisations have the greatest impact on our work: the local authority, the MAT, Ofsted, the funding agencies, curriculum and assessment bodies, the Department for Education, the Regional Schools Commissioner, or others not listed here?

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Image credit: “Together, we create” on brick wall by My life through a lens on Unsplash.


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