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.
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.
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