Autonomous schools system places school governors at centre of reforms and accountability


Our school system relies heavily on volunteering governors to enable it to function .If you want to see the much vaunted  ‘Big Society’ at work, maybe its worth looking at  what  the army of volunteer governors do, day in day out.  A recent White Paper described School governors as “the unsung heroes of our education system”. There are some 300,000 school governors, which makes them one of the largest volunteer forces in the country.  A report published by CfBT Education Trust (The ‘hidden givers’: a study of school governing bodies in England, University of Bath 2010) found that school governors give an enormous amount to the education system in England, though their contribution is largely hidden from public view. It also found, reinforcing the message that governing bodies role is vital, that ‘the lack of a capable governing body is not a neutral absence for a school; it is a substantial disadvantage.’ The message is that governors play an important role not just in the governance of a school, but also in delivering accountability and as levers to help improve student outcomes.

But governors don’t have it easy. More is now being expected of them in terms of their legal responsibilities and their work load (and therefore their time) their skills and their training.

This at a time when schools in disadvantaged areas are finding it hard to recruit high quality governors and there is a growing awareness that the quality of governing bodies varies considerably countrywide.

Since 2010 an unprecedented number of schools have converted to academy status and therefore opted out of LEA control.  So, Local government power has been rolled back to allow all schools to be administratively self-governing or ‘autonomous’. The dilution of the  local government  role has in turn, given rise to demands for better governance. Governors are now subject to  inspection and there is an on-going drive to professionalize all Governing Bodies (GBs). One rather obvious consequence of this transfer of power and responsibility from central government to schools  can be seen in the  increased legal responsibility and (limited) liability for school governors..

The concurrent drive to professionalise governors and GBs  is about ensuring that there are ‘skilled’ governors; in other words, a strong GB is one which is structured with particular people with certain skills sets, preferably those who possess knowledge of business but also finance and law. The logic being that skilled governors are more likely to give informed advice to the Head, although this could undermine the traditionally strong links between governors and the local community.

The government now insists on the inspection of all GBs .  All Ofsted reports, for example, now include an evaluation of school governors in the section on leadership and management. Governors are typically assessed on whether they demonstrate sufficient knowledge or understanding of school budget and performance data. Therefore, school governors are evaluated on their preparedness and willingness to hold senior leadership to account. This is justified on straightforward accountability grounds but also as integral to the reform process as governors are seen to  have a key role in helping to drive up student performance.

To complement and support the professionalization of school governors, a variety of  ‘third sector’ agencies  offering technical support, advice and guidance on how GBs might conduct themselves efficiently and effectively.  The National Governors Association, Freedom and Autonomy for Schools – National Association, Ten Governor Support, School Governors’ One-Stop Shop, and Modern Governor are among the most well-known . Quite a lot of this support is very high quality and  on -going reforms   mean that it is extremely important that this technical advice is easily available,  to ensure that governors can use their new found freedoms effectively  but also to ensure that what they do  is  within the law and adheres to guidance.

To assist school governors in their role, Ofsted have created the Ofsted Schools Data Dashboard (OSDD).

The OSDD provides, in an accessible format, decontextualized results for each school based on student achievement levels for Key Stages 1–4. Data for ‘Similar schools’ and ‘All schools’ is represented graphically in quintiles sorted according to five categories where top quintile equals good and bottom quintile equals bad. OSDD is intended ‘for governors and schools to use in their drive for improvement’ (Ofsted website). In addition, Ofsted have introduced RAISEonline, an online digital archive of reports and analysis of attainment and progress levels for all schools, which schools in turn are encouraged to use as part of the self-evaluation process.

So, while the official role of school governors  remains  to hold senior leadership to account for the financial and educational performance of their  school, school governors are themselves held  more personally to account (by Ofsted and senior leadership who conduct a skills audit, for example) than they have ever been before,  for their schools and students performance. They will also find that although their schools might have ‘autonomy’  the robust accountability framework, regulatory requirements and centrally driven interventions mean that the degree to which they can exercise that autonomy is ,in practice, circumscribed.

While Ministers are keen to attract better and more highly skilled governors, particularly into the most disadvantaged areas, and are encouraging business leaders to put forward their top executives as governors, many may balk at the increased demands being made of governors and the risk reward ratio. In this environment how do  you incentivise the very best to become governors? Appealing to their altruism and community spirit may not be sufficient, and the governments reforms may, paradoxically, make it even harder to attract the best people as school governors.  This is a challenge that the government needs to address.


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