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Who governs our schools – purpose and participation

Photo by Davide Ragusa on Unsplash

Who governs our schools – purpose and participation

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This is the third 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.

The purpose of participation in governance

Last week I published a couple of introductory blogs on my recently launched RSA report, Who Governs Our Schools? Trends, Tensions and Opportunities. The first set out the background to the report and the second outlined the six key themes that I explored with the expert group. The group was made up of senior figures from our funding partners – the Local Government Association, the Elliot Foundation and RSA Academies – as well as the Association for School and College Leaders, the National Governance Association, the Catholic Education Service and the Centre for Public Scrutiny.

Over the next few weeks Modern Governor is publishing a series of articles that address each of the six themes in the report and, in particular, the headline arising from each theme. We’ll also summarise our key recommendations, probably in a closing piece that pulls the various strands of our thinking together.

Core questions around purpose and participation

With regard to the themes, we approached each of these through a set of core questions. Here, I explore the first theme – Purpose and Participation – on which we asked the following questions:

  1. Why does school governance matter?
  2. What are school governors and governing boards responsible for?
  3. Can governance make a specific impact on the progress and attainment of pupils or students?
  4. How many individuals are active as members of school governing boards in England?
  5. How diverse is the membership of school governing boards?
  6. What is the experience of governance like for individuals and what might be the wider impact of their engagement as governors be on their communities?
  7. Who are the other partners in the governance process?

Subscribers to Modern Governor and many other readers of this blog will probably be clear about the answers to many of these questions. However, we needed to put these out there for our wider readership, who we had hoped would range from potential governors ready to join the c300,000 already active on our school boards to policymakers, those who make the decisions that so help or hinder our efforts.

We also wanted to do something else – to highlight the duality of governors’ roles and the vital complementariness of this duality, which we highlight in the headline point that we head-up this section of the report with:

Effective governance is not just a vital driver of school improvement; engagement as a school governor is one of the most popular means of formal volunteering in the UK. Any move which undermines either this purpose or this participative spirit should be rejected.

This focus on the value of the participative dimension to governorship is not intended, in any way, as a distraction from the core task of every board: to work with the head or principal and other senior leaders to ensure the best outcomes for children and young people in terms of their progress, attainment and safety, and their development as healthy well-rounded individuals and engaged, informed, effective citizens.

Rather, it is to emphasise that healthy and successful children (howsoever defined) emerge from healthy communities, and healthy communities are engaged in the delivery of local services like education, health and transport.

Engaged communities = better governance?

Here, our argument is straight forward: actively engaging communities in the governance of their schools is likely to drive improvements in these schools, provided (and this is vital but too often insufficient) that we give appropriate induction, support and training to those involved, and especially those who have not been involved in the governance process previously. We advance this view for three reasons:

  • Governors based in the local community are likely to have a real stake in the success of the school, often as a parent, staff member or community activist;
  • Governors based in the local community are in a position to offer a wealth of knowledge about that community to those involved in the professional leadership of the school;
  • Governors based in the local community – and in particular the parent or staff body – give vital legitimacy to the Board’s work.

In short, to place a stress on the importance of participation is not to undermine the central purpose of school governance – better outcomes for learners – it is another route to these, complementing everything that teachers do in and beyond the classroom. Moreover, the very process of governor engagement is personally and professionally developmental for those concerned, and as such is likely to bring broader, unseen benefits to the wider community.

How many who get involved as governors, or some other aspect of school life, subsequently go on to broader participation careers in the community and the voluntary sector? The data on this is unclear, but the anecdotal evidence all points in the same direction.

Challenges to participation

But if these are the benefits of local governor engagement, we need to address three challenges, which I shall in future posts. In summary, these are:

  • How do we ensure that governorship is as strong in disadvantaged communities as it is in advantaged ones, so that disadvantage does not reproduce itself in the time-honoured way?
  • How do we ensure that Boards are as diverse as they need to be, and much more diverse than now, especially in terms of age, ethnicity and social class?
  • How do the trends towards MATs and federations challenge this local connectedness – and how might we mitigate the risks or impacts of this?

I’ll explore these and related issues in subsequent articles in this series, and I’ll also look at the wider question of who else is involved in the governance process – think Regional Schools Commissioners, the various funding bodies, local authorities and MATs, and the inspectorate. One thing is for sure, governors are not the only individuals involved in school governance – and locally based school governors do much more than just govern.

Questions for your board

  • Do we know if our board members feel closer to our school’s community as a result of being a governor?
  • If there is a specific, measurable impact from governance on pupils’ progress and attainment, can we quantify it?
  • When we recruit governors, do we emphasise the impact of governance on the school, participation on governors, or both?
  • How engaged is our school community with the instituion – beyond the day-to-day experiences of pupils?  Does our answer to this explain issues we might have with how governance is perceived, or how difficult recruitment is?
  • What challenges might those wishing to become governors need to overcome in order to participate? (How) could we address these?

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Image credit: Photo by Davide Ragusa on Unsplash.


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