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Who governs our schools – recommendations and a call to action

Running Shadows by Stephen Lelham on Unsplash

Who governs our schools – recommendations and a call to action

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This is the penultimate 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 www.breslinpublicpolicy.com.

Headlines, recommendations – and a call to action

Over the past nine weeks, I’ve had the privilege of producing a series of Modern Governor articles on my recent RSA report, Who Governs Our Schools? Trends, Tensions and Opportunities; The earlier blogs have provided the background to the report and explored each of our six key themes, Purpose and Participation, Induction and Development, Landscape and Policy, Stakeholders and Experts, Leadership and Autonomy. and Collaboration and Partnership. This week, I want to simply restate our headlines and remind readers of some of our key recommendations.

I also want to ask you about things we might have missed, or recommendations that you might make. Through forums such as Modern Governor, the RSA and #ukgovchat, recruitment conduits such as Inspiring Governance and SGOSS, stakeholder bodies such as the the Local Government Association, the NGA, NCOGS, those bodies representing school leaders, faith schools and the academies community, and those involved in educational research, notably BERA and BELMAS, it is vital that we do two things:

  1. keep the conversation spurred by the report going;
  2. translate this into a call for action on agreed key points.

Next week, I’ll complete the series by suggesting some opportunities that might exist in a rapidly evolving landscape and some principles and objectives that I feel, ought to be at the core of our thinking, whatever kind of setting we find ourselves in: maintained school, federation, academy, multi-academy trust or umbrella trust.

And so to the headlines and recommendations: we offered six headlines and reproduce these below. Under each, we offer two, three or four recommendations, and where the report offers more than this, we describe these as “Sample Recommendations”. You can view the full set of recommendations here (pages 57 and 58 of the document).

1. Purpose and participation

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 viewed with caution.

Sample recommendations

  • Policymakers need to ensure that reforms to the way in which schools are governed continue to nurture and build on current levels of participation.
  • Those involved in the recruitment of governors should bring the same standards of practice to this exercise as they would to the appointment of professional staff.
  • Initiatives that specifically encourage the recruitment into the school governance process of under-represented groups should be encouraged, both by national and local government, and by the range of agencies active in the field.
  • Policymakers need to make a concerted effort to better understand the experience of governors and the impact of participation in governorship on the broader life journeys of individuals

2. Induction and development

Policymakers need to ensure that reforms to the way in which schools are governed continue to nurture and build on current levels of participation. Those involved in the recruitment of governors should bring the same standards of practice to this exercise as they would to the appointment of professional staff. Initiatives that specifically encourage the recruitment into the school governance process of under-represented groups should be encouraged, both by national and local government, and by the range of agencies active in the field. Policymakers need to make a concerted effort to better understand the experience of governors and the impact of participation in governorship on the broader life journeys of individuals.

Sample recommendations

  • Addressing the patchy access to training for governors, and for all who work with governing boards, nationally should be an urgent priority for the Department for Education and its agencies.
  • Attempts to “professionalise” school governance should be nuanced and targeted, rather than offered as a “one size fits all” solution for every school and every governing board.
  • The DfE should encourage the establishment of one or more small-scale pilot projects in which there is some aspect of remunerated governance.

3. Landscape and policy

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 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.

Sample recommendations

  • The Department for Education and its agencies should make governance an education policy priority.
  • The DfE and its agencies needs to acknowledge that the responsibilities of governance relocate when a MAT is formed and address any intended or unintended consequences of this, in its policies, practices and publications.
  • The DfE needs to consider whether the current school-focused inspection arrangements in relation to governance are sufficient, when a school is part of a MAT.
  • The DfE should commission research into the comparative experience of “governorship” in traditional governing boards and local boards operating within a variety of MAT frameworks, and be prepared to act on the outcomes to protect governor recruitment and retention.

4. Stakeholders and experts

There is a false dichotomy in the minds of policymakers and in Department for Education (DfE) 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.

Sample recommendations

  • Policymakers should maintain the place – and assert the importance – of parents and staff to the governance process as structures evolve, or at least ensure that their voice is not lost in any changes to this process.
  • In seeking to strengthen the quality of school governance in disadvantaged settings, policymakers should draw lessons from community development professionals to build community capacity within and beyond schools.
  • Policymakers should state a preference for governance expertise that is sourced from, and where necessary nurtured in, the local community.

5. Leadership and autonomy

Whilst there are undoubtedly benefits to the kind of strong, formal school partnerships that a system based around federations, multi-academy trusts, umbrella trusts and other arrangements that clustering schools into groups might deliver, we need to understand the impact of this shift, locally and system-wide, especially in terms of the recruitment and retention of headteachers, senior leaders and governors.

Sample recommendations

  • At a time when there is a system-wide shortage of heads and principals, it is vital that any changes in how schools are governed are informed by a thorough analysis of the likely or possible impact on the recruitment and retention of school leaders.
  • The Department for Education should work with a range of multi-academy trusts and various stakeholders across the school leadership and governance communities to assess the effectiveness of the different approaches to vision development, strategic leadership and operational management that are being used in different multi-academy trusts.
  • Policymakers need to give urgent attention to issues of area-based collaboration and planning.

6. Collaboration and partnership

We need to share lessons about what is and isn’t good governance across and between 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.

Sample recommendations

  • Agencies across the governance landscape need to work together to establish a cross-sector working group or commission on governance.
  • Developing the instrumental effectiveness of governing boards – at whatever level they sit: school, federation or MAT – is rightly an on-going challenge, but it is an objective that should be secured through nurturing the many qualities that already reside in the best governing boards, and the goodwill and expertise of all involved in the governance process.

The questions below offer a means of further exploring these headlines and recommendations (and others in the report), individually and in groups, as boards, senior leadership teams, or together.

Together – to reiterate the point made in this week’s opening remarks – let’s keep the conversation going, and together, let’s nuance and refine these recommendations (and others that might arise from our debates) and press for the action that we need. If policymakers are to play their part in further enhancing the governance of our schools, they’ll need to listen to us, all 250,000 of us!

Questions for your governing board

  • As a board, and as individual governors, which three recommendations from the 30 offered by the report would we prioritise, and why?
  • As a board, if we were to draft a single headline, not addressed above, what would this be, and why?
  • What is the single, most important thing policymakers could do in the governance arena that would enable us to be more effective and impactful in what we do?

Questions for your headteacher or principal

Now ask your headteacher / principal and senior leadership team to reflect on the same questions, and discuss and compare your responses, noting and exploring areas of agreement and divergence.

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Image credit: Running shadows by Steven Lelham on Unsplash.


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