Given the perceived  importance of governors to the self-improving school system, how come there are still big shortages of good governors and Chairs in areas of most need?

More than 300,000 school governors in England form one of the largest volunteer groups in the country. Since 1988, school governing bodies have taken on more responsibilities and their role has become more important as schools have gained increasing autonomy.  According to Ofsted ‘The governing body complements and enhances school leadership by providing support and challenge, ensuring that all statutory duties are met, appointing the headteacher and holding them to account for the impact of the school’s work on improving outcomes for all pupils’

The  latest Governors handbook says ‘In all types of schools, governing bodies should have a strong focus on three core strategic functions:

  1. Ensuring clarity of vision, ethos and strategic direction;
  2. Holding the headteacher to account for the educational performance of the school and its pupils, and the performance management of staff; and
  3. Overseeing the financial performance of the school and making sure its money is well spent.’

In order to be effective governors need to have the right skills set , a clear understanding of their roles and access to high quality information on their schools and pupil performance. The problem,of course, is that those with the right skills are often busy with their day jobs, and  not always attracted to the idea of working for free. Nor are some all that keen  to be held accountable, and, indeed,  sometimes personally  liable, in a legal sense,  for things that  go wrong in  their  school and over which they feel that  they might not have much control. .

The CMRE think tank,  which has recently discussed with experts the issue of governance and its future .within a self-improving school system ,says that much attention is currently focused,on professionalization, with discussion of routine payment of expenses and even remuneration of governors. These are important considerations if the aim is only to improve effectiveness on the present arrangements. But CMRE suggests that  more thought should also go  towards the legal framework and definition of governors’ duties. This framework entails a spreading of responsibility, which, in turn, mandates specific structures and procedures of governance. Is this apparatus necessary, they ask,  or helpful even, to achieving the outcomes we want to see for our education system? Might there not be  some benefits to liberalisation? In that event, what can we learn from more focused corporate governance and the diversity of models in evidence in the independent sector? And for governance to add value in terms of raising education quality and ensuring equitable access – of particular import in areas where governance capital is persistently low – what supporting reforms might be required?

While more responsibilities and accountability are being given to governors it is also the case that there is a big challenge in recruiting governors and good Chairs, a majority of whom, remember,  are unpaid volunteers. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the most disadvantaged areas, including rural areas and coastal towns, indeed precisely the areas that  most need to drive up student attainment and to narrow  the attainment gaps. These areas also of course  have problems attracting the best Heads and teachers (and their partners too). So, has the time arrived to offer remuneration and/or other incentives to make up for the shortfall, If not across the board then in specific targeted areas? Should Chairs of governors ,for example, be incentivised? And shouldn’t all governors  be required to have some basic training?

In its Report on The Role of School Governing Bodies, The Education Select Committee stated:

“In order to improve the quality of governance in all schools, the Government must stress the importance of continuing professional development for all governors and headteachers. Our recommendation that the Government should introduce a requirement for schools to offer mandatory training to all new governors reflects the high priority attributed to training and development in the evidence we received.”

Given the significant new responsibilities placed on these volunteers and the shortage of supply there may be a need for a rethink.  And, if the current system of governance is so  good, relying ,as it does, on the motivated , altruistic amateur, how come so many schools are still under-performing? And the performance gap is narrowing so slowly?

Perhaps, most worrying. is that the vast bulk of information  requests from  serving governors  to  the  Key ,which provides an information service for governors countrywide , concerns compliance issues and regulations, rather than issues concerning strategy, school improvement, pupil performance , research  CPD and so on, issues seen as vital to improving student outcomes.

James Croft of the CMRE says ‘Given the weakness of the statistical link between measures of governing body effectiveness and pupil attainment, the lack of clear thinking in general around performance indicators for governing bodies, and the viability of alternative models for getting the job done, it is not unreasonable to ask whether the current arrangements are necessary for success.’ He has a point.



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