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Over the past few months I’ve had the privilege of leading a new RSA investigation into the emergent issues in school governance. This has involved working with an Expert Group that counts amongst its membership leading figures from a range of organisations with an interest in the field. These include the Association of School and College Leaders, the Local Government Association, the National Governors’ Association, the Catholic Education Service, RSA Academies, The Elliot Foundation, and the Centre for Public Scrutiny.

On Tuesday 21st June, the RSA will be hosting a summit of leading practitioners and policy influencers in the school governance field ahead of the summer publication of our report Governance in the Academies Age: issues, opportunities and challenges.  At the summit we’ll be sharing some of the thinking that we have been undertaking and offering a flavour of any recommendations that we’re leaning towards making – and we’ll also be asking those present to challenge, refine and add to these thoughts. 

We are positioning our report not as the definitive prescription on where we need to go with school governance but as a scoping study that identifies and scans the key themes in a rapidly changing landscape. This work is intended as a precursor to a much larger investigation, a National Commission on School Governance, but this will be dependent on just how important practitioners and policymakers see the themes that we identify, and of course on finding funding partners who are willing to support such an exercise. 

For now, we are grateful for the intellectual and creative input and the financial and in-kind support provided by the organisations that compose our Expert Group  – organisations that represent traditional and emergent approaches to governance, governance in a range of different settings and from a range of perspectives. 

Join us at the summit to get more detail on the report. As a taster, I set out here some of the assumptions that we have started with and some of the issues that are featuring in our discussions. Amongst our starting assumptions, three are especially prominent:

  1. Effective school governance is not simply about what governors do or how good the Governing Body (or Board of Governors to use the emergent language) is – rather, good governance results from the interplay between governors and a school’s professional leadership team. Good governance happens where governorship meets senior leadership, not at the extremes of this continuum;

  2. Poor school governance serves nobody’s interest and consumes the energy and time of both school leaders and governors. In contrast, effective school governance can be a driver of both creative thinking and school improvement through the expertise that governors individually and collectively bring to the lives of schools. However, on occasions this expertise can be ignored, under-used or experienced as intrusive by school leaders;

  3. Participation in governance constitutes an opportunity for schools to draw on the expertise of those who might otherwise remain beyond its boundaries, and an opportunity for community members to develop their skills and confidence through the experience provided by engaging in governance.

The conventional language of governing board membership (with ‘Staff’ Governors, ‘Parent’ Governors and ‘Community’ Governors) points to a committee of largely ‘lay’ representatives speaking for separate constituencies or stakeholder groups. However, the truth is that, to be effective, governors - while they may give voice to these groups - must leave their silos at the door. In reality, some do this more effectively than others.

This issue of stakeholder or constituency membership has come to the fore with the controversy arising from recent government-sourced statements about the future of Parent Governors and this debate has been exercising the Expert Group.  Thus, while several members of the group are concerned that recent calls to reduce the insistence upon parental involvement in governing boards risks ignoring the expertise that resides within parental communities, or the need to seek this out and develop it where it appears to be absent or weaker, others see this as an opportunity to get beyond silo-thinking, contending that confusing the very real need for strong parent (and student) voice should not be confused with the equally demanding challenges of governance.

In this context, the rationale for the shift away from parental involvement appears to lie in a desire to strengthen the expertise of governing boards, and the Expert Group is sympathetic to this objective. However, the notion of the ‘expert’ governor risks similar drawbacks to that of the ‘super’ Head; it assumes that expertise can be flown in where there are shortcomings - rendering those with it dependent and those without it bereft.

In many circumstances, a longer term and more sustainable solution might be to identify and grow governance talent within the school and the wider community that it serves: the issue is not to go ‘local’ or‘expert’, but to value the very special quality that emerges when specific functional expertise is augmented by a real grasp of local issues.  Responding to gaps identified by governing board skills audits by simply looking at the specific competency of potential members risks what one Expert Group participant described as “cold governance” – clinical and qualified but weakened rather than strengthened by its detachment; asking probing questions of a potential governor about his or her grasp of local and educational issues, his or her professional expertise, is likely to reap dividends.

This is not to say that connection to a locality should be a prerequisite for governing board membership, although empathy for, and grasp of, a community’s circumstances might be; an entirely locally based membership can give rise to an inward-looking parochialism and a lack of objectivity, if not an unhealthy ‘cosiness’ that fails to hold school leaders sufficiently to account.  And, of course, it risks reproducing the very inequalities that exist between schools in different socio-economic settings at governing board level – an issue arising from the skewed distribution of cultural capital that can mean governorship is sometimes at its weakest where schools might benefit from it being at its strongest.  “Growing your own” is much more challenging in some terrains than others.

Whatever, identifying and nurturing talent, whether it is locally sourced or not, is likely to require smarter search and recruitment and better access to in-role training for all governors than has hitherto universally been the case. And, on the other side of the governance mirror, better training for Heads and aspirant Heads on how to best engage and draw on the talents of governing boards and individual governors is needed. The relative neglect of governance in many headship training programmes should be a cause of concern for all, and a matter for urgent action by policymakers and all who wish to strengthen the leadership of our schools.

None of this, of course, is to address our central concern – how we might best do governance in a far more (if not fully) academised world. In these post-White Paper months, the place of locality(and by this we mean much more then the origins of governors themselves) is vital – whether the focus is on the reducing role (although not necessarily responsibilities) of local authorities or on the reduced autonomy (and probable authority) of local governing boards in an age not just of academies but of Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs). It seems to have gone largely unnoticed that, in a setting where all or most schools reside within MATs, the legal responsibilities that currently rest with school based governors will move to the Boards of Directors of MATs. If the potential shortcomings of such a move are to be addressed, issues around the articulation of local needs - and the felt-inclusion of local voices - will need to be addressed.

The consequence of this shift in responsibility is just one of the issues that will be explored in our report and in the discussion at our Governance Summit on June 21st. I do hope you can join us. In any case, we’d love to have your thoughts on what does (or doesn’t) constitute good (or even great) governance. Please contact Roisin Ellison (Roisin.Ellison@rsa.org.uk) or myself (tony.breslin@breslinpublicpolicy.com) with your thoughts.

Dr. Tony Breslin is an RSA Fellow and an Associate in the Creative Learning and Development Team. He is the author of Governance in the Academies Age: issues, opportunities and challenges (RSA, 2016, forthcoming), Director of the consultancy Breslin Public Policy Limited and founder of the campaign, UseYourVote.com. He is Chair of Governors at Bushey and Oxhey Infant School in Hertfordshire and Chair of Academy Council, Oasis Academy, Enfield.

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