Having recently become a school governor again after a four year break, I have just stumbled across a report on school governance to which I contributed so long ago I can’t even remember what I said or whether it was sensible. The Twentieth Century School: Implications and challenges for governing bodies was the result of a valiant attempt by the then Schools Minister, Jim Knight , to try to get a grip on school governance. You can see where he was coming from. With schools taking on greater “autonomy” to spend public money (a trend which has taken on a new impetus under the new government) there is an urgent need to strengthen governing bodies both in terms of their make-up and their skills.
They’re 21st century schools Jim, but not as you knew them
Disappointingly, Mr Knight (now Lord Jim) was reshuffled into another post before this piece of work was completed and I would like to think that if he had seen it through he would have come out with something a bit tougher. But perhaps we should console ourselves with the fact that the newly austere Education Department has stuck a big yellow and red sticker on it on their website saying “Important” rather than one of its tantalising “This page may not reflect government policy” stickers (reserved, rather worryingly, for publications on issues such as how to prevent homophobic bullying.)
Haven’t we heard this somewhere before?
Perhaps the reason it has received the Seal of Gove is because it doesn’t really say much. There was, to put it mildly, some difficulty in achieving a consensus in the meeting I attended so what is left is pretty much what you would expect:
Governing bodies need to be clear about their purpose and follow a defined set of principles for good governance of schools; There needs to be more clarity concerning the strategic management role of the governing body and the day to day management role of headteachers to ensure that neither party crosses over into each other’s role; The principle of stakeholder representation on governing bodies is essential but needs to be balanced against a requirement that all governing bodies have the necessary skills to carry out their tasks; Improvements to the training for governing body chairs, new governors and governing body clerks needs to be made to clarify the points above.
“lack of time and other commitments, lack of publicity around the role and awareness of opportunities for involvement, lack of confidence and alienation from the education system and additionally some governing bodies were reluctant to take on potential governors who were not already known to them”.
Training, training, training? Is it the answer?
But the report does not try to address why this might be or how it could be changed other than suggesting (yawn, yawn) that governors undergo training. It is convenient to imagine that simply by sending people off on a couple of two-hour training sessions this will somehow address the fundamental confusions that lie at the heart of school governance.
All a training course might do is make you slightly better able to manage the inherent lack of clarity that faces you as a governor – what it cannot do is create clarity of structure where there it is lacking. And there is little in the report to help. Where do you draw the line between “strategic guidance” and “operational involvement”? The report does not say. Should head teachers have voting rights as members of the governing body? The committee could not decide. Should staff governors have the right to vote when their boss doesn’t? It’s a bit complicated. Should training be compulsory or not? Perhaps it should, then again maybe not. Should chairs of governing bodies, or even governors themselves be paid? Well, there are differences of opinion. A study of the principles of Policy Governance® and some clarification about Ends and Means might be a good starting point.
No freedom without responsibility
The race towards “liberating” schools was initiated under the Labour Government and the baton has been taken up enthusiastically by the current government. Academies, Trust schools and New Model Free Schools are all removing education from local government control and theoretically at least putting power into the hands of “the schools”. Contrary to the populist idea that more power is being handed to headteachers, what is actually happening here is that more power (and more responsibility) is being put into the hands of school governors. Who those governors are, how they understand their role and how effective they are has never mattered more.
New structures need forms of accountability
As the report suggests, partnerships and federations may well be the answer, especially if this can be seen as a way of creating a smaller number of governing bodies made up of people who are better equipped to handle the job. But this approach will only make sense if new ways are found to ensure that individual schools are properly accountable to pupils, parents and their wider communities. The MAC line on this is set out on pages 29 and 30 of the report – and yes, I think it does still make sense:
Governing bodies need to focus on the outcomes and outputs not the processes. They need take action and be accountable to the owners, including parents, for the decisions they make.
Governance structures which include consultation, Parent and Pupil Councils, the better use of parent experience data and improved partnership working lie at the heart of getting accountability and parental involvement right. Like all other public services, schools need to get their heads around what accountability means in practice.
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