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Five ways you can shape and grow effective governance

Red tulips under blue sky by Aaron Burden via Unsplash

Five ways you can shape and grow effective governance

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This is the final article in a series 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

How might we grow – and shape – effective governance?

Almost three months ago, just after the publication of my RSA Report, Who Governs Our Schools? Trends, Tensions and Opportunities, Ian Usher, editor of the Modern Governor blog, invited me to produce a series of weekly articles as a means of disseminating the findings from the report and provoking further discussion, especially within the c250,000 strong school governance community. This is the final article in that series, a series which began with an outline of the origins and objectives of the report and the eighteen-month study that it sought to capture, worked through the six key themes that we explored and, in my penultimate piece, reminded readers of our some of our recommendations, calling for the debate about matters of educational (and not just school) governance to be broadened and deepened.

At a time, when there is a multiplicity of practice out there, we need to be clear on where we want to go and how we might get there, and we need to be strong about our core principles.

In so doing, we ought to resist the temptation to jump to quick fixes or single, standardised modes of operation. While this may be attractive to those rightly charged with the responsibility of assessing the performance of our schools, notably the inspectorate and (increasingly) the Regional Schools Commissioners, it risks saddling us with another one-size-fits-all solution that we’ll be unpicking again in five or ten years time; time to pause, and time to investigate and learn from the diversity; time to remember that this is about experiences and outcomes for children, and about working with their families and communities.

Five commitments to the future of governance

To this end, I want to depart a little from the report in this final article and draw on some of the discussions, themes and ideas that have featured most strongly in the discourse since its publication in September, and since my submission of the initial drafts to the team at the RSA back earlier last summer. In particular, I want to suggest that as those committed to effective local governance we make five commitments. I’ll now say a little about each of these.

Commitment 1: Build governance-literacy

Last February – in a couple of earlier Modern Governor articles entitled Governance Beyond The Governance Ghetto and Out Of The Ghetto: Training In Governance, Not Just Training For Governors – I outlined something that was to become a key theme in the report. In the range of events and conferences that I have participated in since its publication, it has remained a key theme.

We do not simply need a national entitlement on governor training – important as that is – we need a deliberate and sustained attempt to build governance literacy across the system.

That a teacher can qualify without any reference to school governance in their preparation programme and that aspirant heads can go through the NPQH and similar programmes without any reference to governance is not the mark of an education system that takes governance seriously.

Building governance-literacy ought to be a policy priority, and a priority for every school in the land; this is likely to feed through to outcomes for children. Why? Because engaged educational communities are successful educational communities, and understanding how the system works is a pre-requisite for such engagement – amongst teachers and heads, and amongst children and young people, and their parents and carers.

Commitment 2: Widen participation

The statistics suggest that, as a governance community we are, in many settings, too white, too middle class and too old.

We need a very deliberate drive to widen participation amongst those communities who are under represented – those from minority communities, the under 40s and those on low incomes.

If engagement in governance builds inclusion, we need to build governor engagement amongst communities and stakeholder groups who experience the greatest exclusion, and this will require creativity and a willingness to innovate. For the salaried professional with a supportive employer, participation as a school governor is much more attractive than it is likely to be for an hourly paid employee in insecure work, but do we not need both perspectives in board discussions?

Nationally, might policymakers consider a framework whereby employers are compensated for releasing employees to participate on governing boards, akin to the arrangements for jury service? And in areas where boards struggle to recruit from their local communities and where educational outcomes in terms of pupil well-being, progress and attainment, might we develop Governance Action Zones in which some form of remuneration is coupled with skills-based training that might develop the capacity and confidence of governors and potential governors? Ironically, current attempts to ‘professionalise’ boards accentuate current patterns of participation, and further exclude those already too often on the ‘outside’.

Commitment 3: Keep it local

As I make clear in the report, there may be significant governance benefits in the emergence of academies and Multi-Academy Trusts but the shift of governance responsibilities upstream to Trust Boards risks dis-empowering those on school based boards, making engagement on such boards less attractive, undermining the legitimacy of the governance process in the eyes of local stakeholders – notably staff and parents – and removing the locally contextualised expertise that locally based governors are able to offer by virtue of their community connections and the local knowledge that stems from this.

If we are to avoid the kind of disconnection that has accompanied the ‘professionalisation’ of our national politics in the sphere of school governance, we need to develop a professionalism that embraces localism and values connectedness.

Additionally, in those areas where we find that a less local approach delivers more effective governance that feeds through to better outcomes for children and young people, we need to ensure that we retain conduits through which local voices can be heard. Those of us in the governance community would do well to build better relationships and stronger continuums with those active in the development and re-invigoration of Parent Teacher Associations, parent forums and school councils; if the future of governance proves to be less local, then these channels for parent, learner, family, staff and community engagement will take on a new importance.

Commitment 4: Rethink professionalism

The call for more professionals on governing boards is rooted in a well-intentioned desire to up-skill boards, especially in areas of educational under-performance and socio-economic disadvantage.

Unfortunately, an outcome of the professionalisation of governance has been to reinforce an inaccurate representation of governors as willing amateurs rather than skilled and committed volunteers. Merely ‘importing’ professionals is unlikely though to offer a sustainable solution, even where very clear skills deficits exist.

Instead of importing such professionals to serve on struggling boards, might a better solution be to build banks of volunteer professionals – such as accountants, lawyers, IT specialists and journalists – ready to support local boards in particular neighbourhoods at particular points in time, while seeking to encourage local people to become engaged in the governance of their schools? Perhaps we could pilot such a model in the Governance Action Zones suggested above, and perhaps there could be a role for local authority based governor support services, and the emergent equivalent teams in some larger MATs, in establishing or maintaining these volunteer banks. The point is that we ought to encourage a sharing of resources between boards, rather than persist with a model that risks accentuating the differences in social capital between boards in different settings.

Commitment 5: Understand the implications of executive leadership

Whatever the concerns about local agency, the reality is that greater school collaboration – whether this is through federation, the formation of MATs or the emergence of Teaching School Alliances and similar initiatives – is an inevitability and may, after years of school-to-school competition, bring many benefits. The emergence of these formalised school groupings brings with it one other inevitability – the rise of various models of executive leadership in schools.

We need to build a much better understanding of such models of executive leadership, their impact on the attractiveness and nature of leadership at the level of the school, and their relationship with school-based boards.

With new structures, notably the emergence of MATs, come new lines of accountability and an associated reconfiguration of governance arrangements. There will be real opportunities and real challenges in this new landscape. We need to ensure that this is a landscape we understand from the start, not one that we stumble into.

In drawing this series to a close, as well as thanking Ian Usher for commissioning and publishing it, I should thank, once again, the team at the RSA for their support, notably Matthew Taylor, Julian Astle (and his predecessor Joe Hallgarten, who commissioned the project), Alison Critchley, and Roisin Ellison. The other members of our expert group also made vital contributions: Julie McCulloch at ASCL, Hugh Greenway and Bob Anderson at The Elliot Foundation, Ian Keating at the LGA, Emma Knights at the NGA, Peter Taylor at the Catholic Education Service, and Su Turner, then at the Centre for Public Scrutiny and who has since gone on to establish the successful Shaping Governance initiative. Finally, I want to thank the Local Government Association, The Elliot Foundation and RSA Academies – without their funding support, our endeavours would not have been possible.

Our shared responsibility is to now build on this activity and to work to ensure that school governance is not in the future the public policy afterthought that it has too often been in the past.

Dr. Tony Breslin, December 2017.

Questions for your governing board

  • If the membership of oour board is diverse, how have we achieved this? If it is not, how might we do so?
  • Would access to a group of locally based expert professionals be of any value to our board? How might such ‘support bank’ operate and be sustained?
  • How else might our board work productively with the boards of other schools and federations, and how might this collaboration be facilitated?

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Image credit: Red tulips under blue sky by Aaron Burden on Unsplash.

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