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Who governs our schools?

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  • Picture of Tony Breslin FRSA
    Tony Breslin FRSA
    Tony Breslin FRSA
  • Education
  • Schools

Today the RSA publishes my report on the future of school governance, 'Who Governs Our Schools? Trends, Tensions and Opportunities'.

The report, which will be launched at a meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group on School Governance, is the product of an 18 month scoping study funded by the Local Government Association, The Elliot Foundation and RSA Academies, and supported by an Expert Group that drew participants from these organisations and from the National Governance Association, the Association of School and College Leaders, the Catholic Education Service, the Centre for Public Scrutiny and Breslin Public Policy. The NGA hosts the group.

Download the report: Who governs our schools? (PDF, 1.2MB)

In the report, we explore a series of six key themes and organise our recommendations across these. It is worth offering a brief summary of our thinking on each of these areas here.

First, on matters of participation and citizenship, we were struck by the value - to both school improvement and community development - of the participative spirit that sits at the heart of school governorship.

Engagement as a school governor is one of the most popular means of formal volunteering in England, with over 300,000 citizens making a contribution as school governors - a contribution that has been estimated to be worth £1 billion, or £40,000 per school, per year.

We are concerned that moves that shift the responsibility for governance away from the individual school and upstream to the academy trust or federation, and which value the input of 'disconnected' professionals over local people, may threaten this state of affairs - making governance less attractive and losing valuable cultural capital to our schools as a result.

Second, on induction and training, we noted the patchiness of governor training, locally and nationally - one which has been exacerbated by local authority cutbacks. However, we noticed a broader and equally damaging lack of 'governance literacy' across the system. We don't just need more governor training - we need training in governance for all, not least amongst aspirant senior leaders and heads.

Third, on policymaking, we were surprised about the extent to which governance appears to be a policy after-thought, not a policy priority. How we govern our schools is, frankly, too important to be left to chance.

Fourth, on the role of stakeholders, we found ourselves irritated by a false dichotomy in the minds of policymakers between 'stakeholders' and 'experts'. The further professionalisation of school governance is an unquestionable good but this should not be at the expense of the engagement of local people, not least staff and parents.

The professionalisation debate has tended to ignore the contextualised local expertise that community-sourced engagement delivers; if 'professionalisation' displaces this engagement, it will undermine rather than aid good governance.

Fifth, with regard to autonomy, we observed that the shift of legal and political responsibility upstream at various levels - from a locally based school 'governing body' to MAT Board, from local authority to regional schools' commissioner, from Head to Executive Head, Regional Director or CEO. The latter fundamentally alters not just the nature of governance, but of headship itself; there may be positives in this shift in the longer term as headship becomes a more collaborative, less isolated role but in the short term it may feel like a loss of autonomy. The impact on headship retention and recruitment needs to be monitored, as does that of governors.

Finally, as examples as diverse as the collapse of Kids Company, the banking crisis and a series of scandals around child welfare demonstrate, getting governance right is a challenge not just for those of us in education but across the sectors. We need to establish some kind of inter-sector collaboration so that good governance is sustainably shared, nationwide. And we need a broader study of how governance works (or is meant to work) in other sectors, so that we can explore what we might learn from each other.

Download the report: Who governs our schools? (PDF, 1.2MB)


Dr. Tony Breslin is an RSA Fellow, an Associate in the Creative Learning and Development Team and Director at Breslin Public Policy Limited.

Follow Tony on Twitter @UKpolicywatch

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  • The issues raised in this report and many of the recommendations go to the core of the difficulties faced by schools in aligning effective governance with improving teaching, learning and outcomes. The growth of the academies sector with its reliance on a “limited company” governance structure has served to increase the perception of a loss of engagement for those with the greatest interest in a school’s success; parents, employees, students and the local community.

    Furthermore, this trend towards exclusion of, and reduced accountability to, stakeholders contributes to a reduction in a sense of value and place. In his introduction, Matthew highlights this when referring to “the kind of clinical professionalisation that imports ‘experts’ while marginalising local stakeholders and weakening the connection between school and community”.

    On one level I was heartened to read the recognition (6.1) that “there are excellent and different models of governance in the voluntary and community sector, the public sector, the co-operative movement and the wider business sector from which educationalists might learn.”

    Disappointingly; the report makes only this single passing reference to co-operative models. Given the scale and complexity of the maintained school sector it is perhaps understandable that the Expert Group might have been unaware of the 400 or so co-operative trust schools in England (local authority maintained foundation schools with a supporting trust that includes both ‘experts’ and stakeholders). Similarly, there is no mention of the “co-operative academy model articles” for MAT governance available on the DfE website. These provide for accountability to stakeholders and for their involvement in governance.    Around 70 academies have adopted this model.

    I would be the first to admit that the co-operative sector’s attempts to develop inclusive governance and stakeholder voice against the trend towards top-down “command and control” have not been without problems. Nevertheless, I think we are making some headway for the challenge posed in the report of rendering school governance more effective while nurturing participation and engagement.

    The Schools Co-operative Society (owned by its member schools) provides a national voice and is now building regional collaborative structures. We have projects underway that I believe will address the point illustrated in Figure 2.1 that staff, parents and pupils all need to know how to contribute to effective governance. I wholeheartedly agree it is not enough simply to say stakeholders must be involved; often they need support and additional skills development to be involved effectively. This might be the most effective way of killing the argument between “skills-based” versus “representative” governance.

    Unsurprisingly, then I support the direction mapped out in Recommendations 22 to 25. In particular that policymakers should maintain the place – and assert the importance – of parents and staff [and students] to the governance process as structures evolve.

    The notion of building community capacity within and beyond schools to strengthen the quality of school governance in disadvantaged settings is appealing.

  • In a bid to summarise and extend this excellent report, howwe govern our schools shapes how they are led, how they are led informs howpupils are taught, and how pupils are taught influences what they learn.Governance requires, as Tony Breslin argues, attention at a highly principledand nuanced level. It is so much more than efficient business management.

    • I agree which is why I've written this; https://www.moderngovernor.com/first-principles-nolan-and-the-ethics-of-education/  

      We already have a simple clear code of conduct.

  • School governance today is more diverse than any time since the 1870s. The churches have more direct authority than at any time since WW2, local authorities much less.


    The MAT model of governance is evolving and many of the pitfalls should have been ironed out of the system before it started in 1997.


    Key ideas to remove many of the headline issues are:

    People choose to be either member or trustee

    People choose to be supplier or member/trustee

    CEOs should not be a member or trustee - they are accountable to the board


    Ironically the DfE needs  more powers to start to streamline the system they have created.

    Governance should be part of business as usual and on the list of the daily business for organisations from LAs to the DfE. This lack of inclusion causes many avoidable issues becoming worse. In turn this unnecessarily effects the education of many children.

    The DfE need the power to align all existing articles of association with the current version despite any objections  from MATs with more favourable terms.

    They need a model process for how schools can move MAT; a simple turn the handle process not involving tens of thousands of pounds of taxpayers money each time.

    They need a change to the law so MAT central structures can be inspected by Ofsted in the same way as local authorities - same funding same responsibility same accountability.

    Due to the turnover of taxpayers money MAT board appointments should be brought within the public appointments process and each board should have a governance specialist. School governance has a lot to learn and share with other sectors and if it was within the public appointments process this would facilitate cross sector serial volunteers.

    Boards need reminding they are bound by the Nolan principals. 

    We need to refresh the ideals of governance as selfless public service, for the benefit of the children in schools. Education is not about egos and empires, its far more important than that.



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