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Who governs our schools – governors as stakeholders, experts or both?

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Who governs our schools – governors as stakeholders, experts or both?

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This is the sixth 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: governors as stakeholders, experts or both?

This is the sixth 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, Induction and Development and Landscape and Policy. This week, I look at our fourth theme, Stakeholders and ExpertsAs with the other themes, the report poses and responds to a series of questions:

  1. What is the proper place for parents, pupils and staff in the school governance process?
  2. What might a governor bring to a school community, over and above his or her contribution to governance itself?
  3. Where and how do we strike the balance between local expertise and that sourced from elsewhere?

At the nub of these questions is the debate around governor professionalism and what that might mean. Lord Nash, who until recently had ministerial responsibility for school governance, is notably associated with calls for governing boards to be both smaller and to involve a higher proportion of skilled professionals, in particular from the business world.

The place of parents, staff and local people at the board table

Last week I wrote about the ‘accidental’ nature of many reforms to school governance. The call for system-wide academisation at the heart of Nicky Morgan’s 2016 White Paper, Educational Excellence Everywhere may have been a classic example of this. Why? Because academies are not required to have parents on their governing boards and, therefore, enforced academisation threatened the place of parents (and staff) on governing boards; the press reaction was swift and the government reversal close to immediate.

Subsequent DfE publications, including the latest edition of the Governance Handbook, are unequivocal in their support of the parents’ place at the board table, even though they retain the same professionalisation narrative.

Nonetheless, there was much debate in our Expert Group about the importance or otherwise of parent and staff governors. One thing is clear; stakeholders are just that – they bring particular voices and perspectives, and a genuinely nuanced knowledge – to board discussions, but they are not representatives of special interest groups. Nash’s concern for more ‘professional’ boards tended to raise generic questions about the expertise of locally sourced governors, most notably parents, and implied, for many, that externally-sourced professionals would bring a combination of greater expertise and greater objectivity, while balancing the inequalities between boards in less and more advantaged communities.

This analysis has some value – notably in terms of objectivity and in evening-out the disparities between boards – but several major flaws:

  • First, many parents and local people, even in disadvantaged settings, are professionals.
  • Second, they are also, by virtue of being parents and/or locally based, the holders of locally contextualised knowledge that is of great value to the Boards they sit on. These nuanced understandings are ones that ‘imported’ professionals can only hope to build over time.
  • Third, these locally-based governors are a source of intelligence for the school’s professional leadership team and the wider board about the ‘mood music’ in the school and local community, intelligence that is unwisely ignored.
  • Fourth, in the case of parent and staff governors, these stakeholders help to legitimise the work of the governing board in the eyes of the wider school community. This legitimisation role is vital and underpins the ‘connectedness’ that localised models of school governance provide; if a more ‘professionalised’ and less localised school governance framework is one longer-term consequence of the MAT era, the legitimisation role is one that the new landscape needs to find a way of replicating.

After all, twenty-five years of ‘professionalising’ our national politics has produced perhaps our best-qualified cadre of politicians yet; they are, also, without doubt our least connected and, in this sense, the legitimacy of politics itself has come into question. We cannot let school governance go the same way. Such a concern lies behind the headline that I draw out for this section of my report:

There is a false dichotomy in the minds of policymakers and in Department for Education documentation that assumes stakeholders cannot be experts. Building on the locally contextualised knowledge of parents, staff, students and members of the local community is not a block on good governance; it is often the route to it – and it may have significant benefits in terms of personal and community development for the individuals and neighbourhoods concerned.

Finally, while the task and responsibility of governors is governance, individual governors often bring a range of additional enhancements to the life of a school through their broader involvement in curricular and extra-curricular activities and in the local community. Indeed, engagement as a school governor is often the precursor to a broader ‘participation career’ in the local neighbourhood and/or the voluntary sector. To reiterate a point made in earlier blogs in this series: school governors are not the only people involved in school governance – senior leaders and a plethora of local, ‘middle-tier’ and national agencies play their part – and locally-based school governors typically contribute more than just governance to the lives of the schools that they support. At a time of tight education budgets, this is no time to cast aside this wealth of volunteered social capital.

Finding talent and sharing expertise

Importing ‘professional’ governors may be necessary where a board has particular needs that it cannot, in the short term, source locally but it is unlikely that this approach offers a sustainable solution to governor shortages, especially in disadvantaged communities. Such a solution may lie elsewhere – in embracing the kind of approaches taken for many years by those involved in community development to identify and develop local capacity and, possibly, by developing banks of locally based professionals – with skills in areas such as finance, law and journalism – that might serve a group of local boards, such that these individuals represent a peripatetic resource as advisers to Boards, rather than as board members.

The excellent (albeit often under-resourced) governance support services still active in many local authorities and the emerging core teams in larger MATs might provide hubs around which such a group of professionals could be organised. Certainly, with the demands on those who serve as governors ever expanding, support is likely to be required in a range of areas, not least with regard to the various strands in the safeguarding agenda.

What about pupil or student voice?

Over the past fifteen or so years, school councils have become a normal feature of school life, and pupil or student voice has also flourished through various other conduits, ranging from project-specific pupil panels to students as researcher projects. Fifteen years ago I worked with Joe Hallgarten (who later, as Director of Creative Learning and Development at the RSA, commissioned Who Governs Our Schools?) on a study led by the Institute for Public Policy Research and the Citizenship Foundation, where we were respectively based, into the impact of engaging children and young people on governing bodies.

At the time, recently enacted regulations had enabled pupils or students to become associate (non-voting) members of their school governing bodies and, while many viewed this development with scepticism, a number of enterprising schools had embraced the opportunity. The sceptics (and some of those who ran with the idea) presumed that the young participants would be bored by both the process and the papers of governing body meetings. The study – entitled I was a Teenage Governor – found that the form of the meetings adapted to the presence of the young people, partly because the young newcomers were willing to ask awkward questions about procedures and issues – questions that their elders had wanted to pose but sometimes declined to for fear of upsetting their peers, or exposing their own lack of knowledge.

At a time when the school governance map is being radically redrawn, perhaps it is time to revisit the question of young people’s participation around the board table; certainly, with the growth of school councils and such like during the intervening period, Boards seeking to strengthen the engagement of young people are likely to have a much richer infrastructure to build on.

Questions for your governing board

  • Are there specific strengths or perspectives that parent and staff governors bring to our board, or is their status in this regard incidental?
  • How would we describe the expertise levels on our own board, and where are the strengths, gaps and duplications?
  • Can any of these gaps be addressed within the school or wider local community?
  • What advantages might there be for our board in looking for recruits drawn from beyond the school or local community, and what are the drawbacks of doing so?
  • How as a board do we seek to engage with the children or young people for whom we are responsible in our school, federation or MAT?

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Image credit: Silhouette sky by Hudson Hintze on Unsplash.

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