School Governance grows in prominence and importance

27 Aug

(1)       Expectations of Governors

School governance in England can described as the Cinderella of leadership and management in education.   Much is expected of governors – particularly by the government and Ofsted inspectors – but there is little acknowledgement of the nature of governors’ voluntary work and their time commitment.   The list of responsibilities is bewildering and includes the following.

(i)         Carry out statutory duties associated with school education

(ii)        Understand the strengths and weaknesses of the school

(iii)       Ensure clarity of vision, ethos and strategic direction

(iv)       Understand and take sufficient account of pupil data – especially in regard to the progress made

(v)        Be aware of the impact of teaching on learning and progress in different subjects and year-groups

(vi)       Challenge and supporting leadership in equal measure

(vii)      Provide support for an effective headteacher

(viii)     Understand how the school makes decisions about teachers’ salary progression

(ix)       Performance-managing the headteacher rigorously.

Governors are also expected to ensure that the school’s finances are properly managed including the use of the Pupil Premium.

If inspectors find evidence of weaknesses, they will follow it up assiduously. For example, if safeguarding arrangements do not meet required standards, they will take it into account when evaluating governance and judging leadership and management. Similarly, if pupils’ performance is in decline and the governors have not pursued this issue effectively with the headteacher, the inspectors will mark them down and the judgement of leadership and management will be poor.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on School Governance set out its expectations of governors.  The group wants a school to be satisfied that its governors

  1. have the right skills;
  2. are effective;
  3. have a clear vision of what the school is about;
  4. hold the headteacher and senior management team to account;
  5. are fully engaged with the school community, the wider school sector and the outside world;
  6. have a chair that shows strong and effective leadership; and
  7. are having a positive impact on pupils’ all-round development.

The shopping list is daunting.  All that governors may currently look forward to in return is the satisfaction of seeing a voluntary job being well done and reflected in the happiness of the children who attend their school.

(2)       The Research

It is only recently that researchers have woken up to a rich school governance seam of education activity ripe for exploration.  The Centre for British Teachers (CfBT) Education Trust commissioned the University of Bath to analyse the relationship between the performance of the school governing body and pupils’ progress and achievement.   The researchers, led by Chris James, published their findings in The ‘hidden givers’ in 2010.  They concluded that

  1. while school governors give an enormous amount to the education system in England, their contribution is largely hidden from public view;
  2. the lack of a capable governing body is a substantial disadvantage to a school;
  3. school governing is important, can be difficult and demanding, takes place in a range of ways at various times through informal contacts and formal meetings, in school time and during ad hoc events; and
  4. school governance is a state of continual flux.

The study confirmed that most governing bodies were operating effectively.  However, school governing was

  1. over-complicated  – many tasks were highly complex;
  2. overloaded – governors were responsible for too much; and
  3. overlooked – with school governors receiving insufficient attention and recognition for what they do.

CfBT commissioned follow-up research about the role of the chair, which was undertaken by Professor Chris James (Bath University), Professor Steve Brammer (the Warwick Business School), Professor Michael Connolly (Glamorgan University), Dr Eddy Spicer Senior Lecturer in the London Centre for Leadership in Learning at the Institute of Education University of London, and Jane James and Dr Jeff Jones, consultant and researcher.    Their report, The chair of the school governing body in England; roles, relationships and responsibilities, discovered the following.

(i)         What chairs do has many facets, some of which are particularly challenging.  A chair’s commitment can be considerable.   On average, a chair spends five hours a week on governing matters.  (Over one in 10 chairs spends more than ten hours a week.) Aspects of the role they discharge are a mixed bag of the unpleasant and enjoyable.

(ii)        The relationship between the chair and headteacher is extremely important.   It is where the school and governing body systems meet.  The relationship is complex and is linked to the quality of governance.   Managing the underperformance of the other in this relationship can be difficult while being very important.  A good headteacher deserves a good chair and vice versa.  Each has a right to want the other to be committed to the school’s success.   The capability of both is an expected given.  Respect, honesty and openness add flavour to a good relationship.

(iii)       Altogether, 70% of chairs were provided with paid time off from work for their governing responsibilities. This time is important and contributes positively to the chair-headteacher relationship.

(iv)       While the training of chairs was typically provided by the local authority, the declining capacity of the latter augurs ill for the future.   Chairs preferred training with other chairs in workshop-group format.   Surprisingly, 25% of chairs surveyed had not undertaken role-specific training. The majority thought that such training should be compulsory though they recognised difficulties with implementing this.   They considered that the training should deal with three important capabilities which many of them lacked:

  1. giving and receiving constructive criticism and suggestions;
  2. managing conflicts and differences of opinions; and
  3. delegation.

Chris James et al did an analysis of three projects that researched aspects of school governance in England in an article which they published in the Volume 27 No 3 July 23013 issue of Management in Education, i.e. The challenges facing school governing bodies in England: A ‘perfect storm’? I set out below a summary of their observations.

(i)         School governing is largely hidden from public view.  Its significance is not widely acknowledged. The attention accorded to school governing body policy has been insubstantial, especially in comparison to other aspects of the education system.  The role of the governing body is not clearly understood. The contribution of the governing body is not widely recognised.   The 350,000 school governors in England bring considerable expertise to their task on a voluntary basis spending much of their time on school matters. They generally function well and have a positive impact on school quality (See also Balarin et al in The School Governance Study 2008 and James et al in The ‘hidden givers’ 2010)

(ii)        There have been seismic changes in the educational landscape over the last quarter of a century.  The Education Reform Act 1988 gave schools considerable independence from local authorities – heralding grant maintained status and the local management of schools (LMS).  In the late 1990s the disadvantages of high levels of school independence, separation and competition were recognised by the Labour Government. While Labour consolidated school autonomy, inter-school collaboration was promoted – both, formally and informally.   Since 2010, the coalition government reversed that thrust, enhancing schools’ independence and weakening local authorities (LAs) further by encouraging all schools to become academies, establishing free schools and radically reducing the finances of local government.

Add to this the myriad educational forms that institutions may take – nursery schools for the under-fives, primary schools (for the 5 to 11 years) within which are often infant (5 to 7 years) and junior (7 to 11 years) schools; middle schools (9 to 13 year olds) and secondary schools (11 to 16 years, 11 to 18 years and 14 to 18 years) and sixth form colleges (16 to 18 years).

Among the above groups, we have community schools under local authorities, voluntary-aided schools generally belonging to faith groups, foundation schools – which have more freedom than community schools in how they operate, academies – independent of LAs and free to plough their own furrows in relation to the curriculum and conditions of service for staff, grammar schools – selective and run by the LAs, city technology colleges (CTCs) – independent of LAs and owned by companies as well as central government, faith schools and, of course, free schools – independent of the LAs and funded directly by central government.     Some of these schools are now also Teaching Schools.

In the midst of this diversity and autonomy, school governing bodies are under pressure to enter collaborative arrangements with one another and for ‘chains’ of schools to develop – a thrust that comes on the heels of the emasculation of local authorities.   Some of this pressure is overt – especially when an underperforming school has received a low rating from Ofsted.   Others are covert as autonomous schools realise that they must collaborate to make efficiency gains in the purchase of services – such as human resources, payroll and professional development.

The turbulence was exacerbated by the financial meltdown of international markets in 2008.   From the late 1990s to 2007, schools were generously funded. The 10 years of plenty are now being followed by a decade of famine.   Financial management for a governing body has become a challenging aspect of its work and likely to become more so in the future.

(iii)       Increasingly, governors are being held to account by pressures from central government through Ofsted inspections and national and international league tables that measure the progress and attainment of pupils.

(iv)       The role of the governing body becomes increasingly puzzling while responsibilities bludgeon.   In the Education Reform Act 1988 and the Schools Standards and Framework Act 1998, the governing body was given the specific task to plan strategically, promote accountability and monitor and evaluate the school’s progress.   The Education Act 2002 (Section 21) confused matters. “The governing body shall conduct the school with a view to promoting high standards of educational achievement,” it stated.   This, in Anglo-Saxon English, is a management function.   In trying to clarify matters, Ofsted succeeded in pouring oil on fire by stating that governing bodies should “establish a strategic framework for leadership development”, champion “continuing professional development for all staff” and “make creative use of resources”.   One would have thought that the latter two responsibilities are the headteacher’s.

In the Taylor Report of 1997, a governing body’s composition was conceived as a stakeholder one because schools were deemed to be social institutions in which there are wide community interests.   Schools were to be governed, therefore, by representatives from the local authority, parent body, staff of the school and the community. This model is now under threat from the complexity of responsibilities that governors have – which require a skills-based model.   The governing body is exhorted to recruit people who have the requisite skills.  Ideally, the governing body should have skilled, stakeholder representatives in its membership, but this is not always possible.

Perhaps, the most important task for a governing body is appointing the headteacher when the post falls vacant.   Headteacher vacancies increase with the high retirement rate of the large number of leaders born during the post-war boom.    The increasing demand placed on school leaders (according to the research) is a deterrent for talented young professionals to take their places making it difficult for the governing body to recruit.   Add to this the diminishing support of the local authority for headteacher recruitment owing to financial cuts.

Overall, the responsibilities placed on the governing body are heavy (and getting heavier) and the commitment required (that of a hen to the English breakfast) is now considerable (that of a pig to the English breakfast).

(3)       What’s Next?

After the appointment of the headteacher, one of the most daunting tasks for governors is for the nominated ones to carry out her/his (the headteacher’s) performance review.   Oddly enough, there is no statutory requirement for these governors to be trained to carry this out.   Across the country, there is considerable variability in how headteacher appraisals are done as also decisions made on the back of this exercise to award pay increases.  According to the NGA, it is the most important and least understood aspect of the role of the school governing body.

To deal with this lacuna in knowledge, the DfE commissioned the London Centre for Leadership in Learning, the Institute of Education (IOE) University of London, the University of Bath and the University of Cambridge to undertake research into the effective management of headteacher performance.

The academics have completed surveying the governors and headteachers of local authority maintained schools and academies in England about the process of headteacher appraisals. The outcome of their analysis has yet to be published.

The government has already released funding to the National College for Teaching and Leadership – NCTL (formerly called the National College for School Leaders – NCSL) – to strengthen the funding for the training of the chairs of governors and it is being pressured to do so for all governors.  The NCTL established a forum for outstanding governors – one of the two categories of national leaders of education – the other being headteachers – who float around the country saving fallen fellow-governors found wanting by Ofsted.

Perhaps, the Cinderella school governor, will, after all, go the ball.

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