Chief Inspector to turn his sights on school governance in 2016

5 Jan

I           Sir Michael Wilshaw’s thoughts on school/academy governance

In a commentary he published on 19 November 2015, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools (HMCI), Sir Michael Wilshaw, said that he would be turning his attention to school governance, similar to the study he did of primary schools in October 2015.

He paid tribute to the overwhelming majority of governors who do wonderful work in very difficult circumstances, stating: “There are thousands of people across the country, who give up their time to serve on governing boards. We know that the majority take their duties very seriously and act responsibly and in the interests of the whole-school community.

“Inspectors find that in many schools, governors and trustees are making an important contribution to raising standards and lifting aspiration. The best of these champion the school in the local community and take great pride in the success of their pupils.”

However, these welcome words appear only after, in his usual “headmasterly” way, he sets out what governors are supposed to do and chastising the few who fail to do so.

By way of preamble, he trots out the obvious. “The …… increasingly autonomous education system over the past five years, including the rapid growth of academies and free schools, has placed more power into the hands of governing boards than ever before,” he remarks.

He reminds governors and trustees that they have responsibility for setting out their schools’ and academies’ visions, ethos and strategic direction.  No surprise there.

He adds that governors “have to be perceptive people who can challenge and support” their headteachers/principals “in equal measure and know when and how to do this”, warning them that they should not overstep the mark by trying to run their schools/academies by themselves.   The Chief Executive of the National Governors’ Association (NGA) had already put this strategy pithily by exhorting governors and trustees to operate in an “Eyes on, hands off” manner. 

Wilshaw tells members of the public that they “should not underestimate just how vital the role of governors and trustees has become in helping to raise standards”.  Amateurism is no more acceptable, he observes, but fails to define “amateurism”.   In the halcyon days, tennis stars, who were world champions, were amateurs because they weren’t paid to play and win, but rather did so for the love of it.   All governors, with the exception of the chairs of Independent Executive Boards (IEBs), in that sense, are amateurs, but the work they do is invaluable, professionally discharged and in more senses than one, priceless.

I suspect that Wilshaw is talking about amateurism in the other sense where governors do not know what they are about.  Accordingly, he had recommended to the government that it “give serious consideration to mandatory training for all governors and trustees”.   Needless to say, he has been disappointed that there has been little progress on this.  The next best thing that he could do and has done is instruct his troops to make judgements on governance, focusing especially on training “and the arrangements schools are making to source expertise to this vital work”.

He chastised governors in Birmingham “who abused their position to try to alter the character of a number of schools in line with their own personal ideology”.   He also disparages those governing bodies who nod “through wildly excessive remuneration packages for headteachers” and lack “proper oversight of school finances”.

He rues the findings of his inspectors who deemed that in 500 (circa) schools/academies the performance of the governing bodies called for “outside experts to be drafted in to carry out urgent external” reviews of their work.  He suggests that the panacea would be to pay chairs and vice chairs so that the most able people can be recruited in the most difficult circumstances.

Failing schools – sadly found mainly in the poorest areas of the country – inevitably, have failing governors who

“(i)       lack the professional knowledge or education background to sufficiently challenge senior leaders;

(ii)        have not received regular, relevant, high-quality training to enable them to do their jobs effectively;

(iii)       lack curiosity and are too willing to accept what they are being told about pupils’ progress and the quality of teaching;

(iv)       may know what their schools’ pupil premium funding is being spent on but have little idea where it is actually having an impact on improving outcomes for disadvantaged children; and

(v)        devote too much time and attention to the marginal issues (like the school uniform, dinner menu or the peeling paintwork in the main hall) instead of focusing on the core issues that really matter – the quality of teaching, the progress and achievement of pupils and the underlying school culture.”

Wilshaw considers that school governors should be qualified for the work.   Where they fall short of the knowledge and skills required, they should be trained.  “It should not be about how many people represent particular interest groups but about the level of knowledge and expertise that can be brought to the table,” he writes.   His guns are now aimed on local authority and parent governors.

Against the backdrop of these thoughts, he has asked Her Majesty’s Inspectors (HMIs) to carry out an in-depth and far-reaching survey into the effectiveness of governance.   The study will

(i)         ascertain whether governing boards have the right mix of professional skills and experience;

(ii)        assess whether the time has now arrived to make provision for paid governance;

(iii)       look at whether local authorities (LAs), Regional School Commissioners (RSCs) and others should intervene when problems with the governance of schools are spotted between Ofsted inspections;

(iv)       explore whether, in an increasingly diverse system, the right structures are in place to support governors and trustees, and deliver the training they need to hold schools and academies to account;

(v)        investigate the level of guidance and support governors receive for headship appointments;

(vi)       look at the extent to which governors are involved in succession-planning for school leaders;

(vii)      look at whether external reviews of governance are effective for improving standards;

(viii)     look at the role performed by National Leaders of Governance and whether they are enough to  make a differences;

(ix)       examine some of the specific challenges facing governors of standalone academies; and

(x)        explore the relationship between multi-academy trusts and their local governing boards – particularly how well their respective roles are defined and delineated.

II          Reactions of Stakeholders

(a)        The National Governors’ Association

Emma Knights, Chief Executive of the NGA, said:  “There are two definitions of amateur – one is engagement in an activity without financial gain, and the other is unskilled or inexperienced. We completely agree with HMCI that those governing our schools must not be the latter. The National Governors’ Association exists to improve the professionalism of school governors and trustees.

“NGA welcomes Sir Michael highlighting the power of effective governance to improve schools and that mandatory training for those governing is the sensible way forward; in fact this is something NGA has long campaigned for and continues to discuss with the Department for Education. Mandatory induction is expected in other responsible voluntary roles; education professionals and the vast majority of governors and trustees support it. It is ridiculous that someone can start governing without realising exactly what it is they have volunteered to do or understanding the educational institution for which they are now responsible. Professional development for those governing our schools is an important area for investment which will pay back dividends.”

The NGA, however, is miffed that Wilshaw makes much of the fact that his inspectors judge that in nearly 500 schools they deemed that the governing boards were underperforming.  The figure is extrapolated from the sample of schools and academies inspected over the last year – which is not a lot when one considers that there are 23,500 schools and academies in the country. Five hundred is a mere 2.13% of all schools and academies.   Rather, Emma Knights proposed in her address to the NGA’s annual conference in November 2015, that the good and effective governors do something about the small number of governing bodies engaged in “shocking practice” and become part of a movement for change.

The NGA is in talks with the Department for Education and other partners about a possible pilot to provide excellent chairs of governors for those very schools.  Great chairs, who can be parachuted in a manner similar to headteachers, could make a huge difference, said Emma Knights.

The NGA is uncomfortable with Wilshaw’s proposal to pay chairs and vice chairs “to recruit the most able people….in the most difficult circumstances”, which had little support among its members.  Lucre (filthy or otherwise) could well undermine motivations.  Besides, applying the scheme only to chairs and vice chairs could alienate and demotivate other members of the governing board.  Wilshaw appears to have forgotten that “volunteering for the greater good is very much a British value, embedded in charity law”.

Rather, the NGA exhorts Wilshaw to support the organisation’s call for employers to be more flexible with time off work for their employees to govern.

The NGA comments on Wilshaw’s remarks that it “would be unrealistic to expect every member of the governing board to have a deep knowledge of educational issues. However, for the two or three people who hold the most senior roles on the board, and who could be responsible for ‘cascading’ training to other members, I believe this is essential.”  This is because, unlike the hierarchical staffing structure of a school, the governing board is made up of members who are of equal status.  Therefore, any training provided should be facilitated by experts who are not members.

Wilshaw echoed the comments of Nicky Morgan, the Secretary of State for Education, this summer, when he criticised the stakeholder model of governance as it currently stood, particularly the category of “parent governor” – saying that good governance was about having the right number of skills around and appropriate experience at the table, rather than about representing particular interest groups. The NGA disagrees explaining that there is a place for both, stakeholders and skilled people, to sit together around a table working for the school or academy.    “It is important to have diversity and alternative routes onto the board.  The best decisions are made when people bring different views and experiences to the table. When consulted recently about changes to categories of governors, NGA members told us that they had enough flexibility with their constitutional arrangements and there were more pressing concerns impacting on their ability to perform their core functions well, such as a lack of professional clerks and too many policies to consider,” said Ms Knight.

She welcomed “Ofsted’s spotlight on governance”, but questions whether it “has the expertise in this area to conduct a review” itself.  Its “own school reports suggest that inspectors do not always understand the governance role and they frequently misunderstand the lines of accountability, almost invariably misidentifying the ‘accountable authority’ for schools in multi-academy trusts”.

“Ofsted’s lead HMI role for governance was unfilled for many months recently, and possibly as a result the inspectorate has been missing from the cutting edge discussions – as governance models for multi-academy trusts have been developing. We would suggest the way in which Ofsted inspects governance should be included in the scope of this project, and we hope that as well as involving those who have the breadth and depth of governance knowledge in their upcoming survey evaluation, inspectors will soon receive the promised training on governance so that elementary mistakes do not keep appearing.”

(b)       The National Association of Headteachers

Russell Hobby, General Secretary of the National Association of Headteachers, said: “The expectations placed on school governors are very high, so proper training is essential. Governors should be entitled to paid time off work to fulfil their duties and to attend training. This training should be mandatory and funded by the government.”

(c)        Colin Richards, former HMI

Colin Richards, former HMI and current chair of governors of Millom School in Cumbria, agreed with Wilshaw that governance was an issue that did not always get the attention it merited.  However, he suggested that to address the problem, Ofsted takes the step to ensure that its inspectors pay more than token attention to its merits: a case of physician heal thyself.   He criticises the research community which has largely neglected this area.  “Apart from a select committee report, which was quickly forgotten, there has been no major national review of governance since the Taylor Report of 1977….A radical review is overdue.  Ofsted’s proposed ‘in-depth and far-reaching’ thematic survey is no substitute”, he asserts.

He does not support Wilshaw’s view that a “business led” model where governors with professional knowledge operate as a board similar to the board of directors of a company will be better than a stakeholder one – based on a democratic concept for two reasons.

(i)         Governing boards have only recently been reconstituted to strengthen them with appointees who are skilled and knowledgeable.

(ii)        The figure of 500 failing boards is extrapolated on a small number of inspections.

Besides, he points to instances of failing business boards who do not sufficiently challenge their chief executives, demonstrating that schools are not unique.  Remember RBS? He also wishes the nation to capitalise on the commitment of local people – especially parents, who have a strong interest in their communities and schools and get them onto the governing boards.

Finally, Richards questions the validity of inspectors making judgements on school governance based on short interviews they have with a small number of governors.   The problem here is that an inspection is for a day only, unless, of course, the inspector considers that the school could well be outstanding or, alternatively, failing, in which case, s/he calls in colleagues for an extra day’s inspection to validate (or not) the initial findings.  When inspections lasted for four days, a more detailed study of governance was possible, but the stresses of long, drawn-out inspections placed on schools were anathema to good education.

Collins is prescient when he observes that very good professional leadership can compensate for poor governance, but outstanding governance cannot do the same for failing professional leadership.  He welcomes Wilshaw’s call for compulsory training but making it available and affordable poses problems when the economy of the nation is shrinking.

He concludes his blog by wondering whether “governance is an issue that’s now in danger of getting too much attention”.  He suspects that governance can never ensure that “every child receives the best possible education”.  As a chair of governors and former HMI he found Wilshaw’s expectations and those of Minister John Nash daunting. “I am left wondering whether the demands they are making on governance need a radical and realistic review to make it possible for ordinary mortals like me to undertake the very necessary oversight of what I continue to believe are, and should be, ‘our’ schools.”

III        Final Thoughts

Whatever the reservations of stakeholders, it is welcome that Wilshaw plans to carry out a survey and a study of school governance at a time when roles and responsibilities have increased astronomically.  However, I wonder whether the additional burdens placed on such volunteers are realistic, given that the overwhelming majority are preoccupied with earning their living and bringing up their families.   The most effective governors are those who, having lived active, fruitful professional lives, are now retired but still have the energy and grey matter to devote time to the schools and academies they govern.  But how many of such people are around, I wonder?

In the scenario that Wilshaw has painted and the reactions of the great and the good, what is missing is a key element of effectiveness required of boards.   Of course, members of the governors must be representatives of the communities they serve and whether they are or not have the knowledge and skills.  Where they are lacking the right skills and knowledge, they should embark on training to acquire them.   However, there is further element necessary. It has something to do with emotional intelligence.   Here are a few questions that address this area.

(i)         The culture of the governing body: “Culture” is defined as “how we do things here”. Is the culture of the governing body one where members undermine or support one another?

(ii)        One-upmanship:         Do governors engage in one-upmanship using every opportunity to demonstrate superiority over other members, or do governors celebrate other members’ contributions and achievements?

(iii)       Win-lose:         Do members disagree agreeably or are they pre-occupied in engaging in win-lose situations with a view to winning?

(iv)       Assertion v Aggression:           Are governors assertive, dealing with the issues, divorcing them from the personalities and confronting one another with their concerns, or do they become personal and/or talk behind one another’s backs?

(v)        Division of labour:       Do members volunteer to lead on governance issues or do the chair, headteacher and clerk operate like dentists pulling teeth in getting governors to take on responsibilities?

(vi)       Action not words:        Do governors promise to take action on discrete matters and fail to deliver, or are they reliable and do what they promise to do?

(vii)      Climate:          Is the climate that pervades the workings of the governing body one where members are eager to ascend the heights on a learning curve, or is there an atmosphere where they think they know it all and don’t need to improve?

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