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Who governs our schools – and why does it matter?

Photo by Ferdinand Stöhr on Unsplash

Who governs our schools – and why does it matter?

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This is the second 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.

Themes and headlines from Who governs our schools?

As noted in yesterday’s article, the RSA’s Who governs our schools? report frames our thinking in terms of six themes – purpose and participation, induction and development, landscape and policy, stakeholders and experts, leadership and autonomy, and collaboration and partnership – and offers a headline for policymakers and practitioners on each. We set these out below:

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.

2. Induction and Development

There is rightly a strong focus on the need for better induction and training for school governors, but training for governors alone is insufficient. We need a better understanding of governance across the teaching profession and amongst others who work in and with schools, especially amongst school leaders and those who aspire to such roles.

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.

4. Stakeholders and Experts

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.

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 cluster 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 head teachers, senior leaders and governors.

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.

But why does this matter?

The organisation of our schooling system is going through unprecedented change – even by education policy standards. In all of this, there is a risk that considerations of governance will get lost. Yet governance provides the processes and mechanisms through which we hold educators and education policymakers to account, how we ensure the proper use of public funds in pursuit of educational outcomes, and how agree what those outcomes should be – at least at a local level.

Moreover, participation in governing boards is a vital and meaningful conduit for community engagement, involving an estimate (by the NGA) of 300,000 individuals in England injecting vital social capital into our school system – capital valued at approximately £40,000 per annum per governing board in a recent NGA-University of Bath study.

Strip this away, or move key aspects of governors’ decision-making upstream from the level of the school and there is a danger that we will lose connectedness between communities and their schools, emaciating a key source of locally contextualised intelligence for heads and school leadership teams and rendering school governance less attractive to potential volunteers. Harness these changes for good, and we might end up with stronger, more sharply focused governor engagement, heads and senior leaders who feel better supported and less isolated, and levels of school collaboration that we have not seen since the introduction of inter-school competition and localised school management systems in the early 1990s.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be reflecting on the report’s recommendations – of which there are thirty – thinking through the implications for governors, school leaders and policymakers, and exploring how emergent models of school governance might best contribute to driving school improvement and enabling community development in an age increasingly characterised by federations, multi-academy trusts and so-called system leadership.

A jigsaw puzzle without a picture?

I’ll also be asking where school level governance sits alongside that growing range of bodies that contribute to governance at system-level: regional school commissioners, local authorities, funding agencies and the inspectorate. As we say in the report, school governors and governing boards do much more than govern (and some of this non-governance stuff is really important) but governing boards are just one agency of governance in an increasingly crowded field, one akin to a jigsaw puzzle without a picture on the box. Establishing the various forms that such a picture might take – and identifying where duplications exist and gaps remain – is key if we are to ensure great educational outcomes for our children and young people, and for our schools and our communities.

These longer articles will also include questions for our governing boards, so we can consider how these different and sometimes abstract elements of the education landscape can have tangible and significant effects in how governance works – or doesn’t – at a local, regional and national level.

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Image credit: Photo by Ferdinand Stöhr on Unsplash.


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