The future of school governance: Six issues of relevance

Written by: Ian Armitage | Published:
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A recent RSA report into school governance has dissected the ‘trends, tensions and opportunities’ within the current system. Drawing on the conclusions, Ian Armitage discusses six issues of relevance

The responsibilities of governing bodies are not isolated from the management executive and the two should be viewed as one. Governance goes way beyond the use of checklists and model methods for running meetings. It is about running an enterprise – a school enterprise – and hence the allocation of scarce resources to deliver the best outcomes for pupils and the greatest positive social impact.

1, Citizenship and participation

There are hundreds of thousands of people willing to do unpaid work in schools. A 2014 report by the National Governors’ Association estimated that governors’ contribution is worth some £1 billion. By all accounts they represent the largest body of volunteers in the UK – so the first question is: “Why do they bother?”

To get the best from people we need to start by understanding their motivations. Feedback from more than 8,000 business executives that SGOSS has placed on local governing bodies tells us that they volunteer for three main reasons:

  • They enjoy working with and helping the next generation.
  • They want to broaden their experience in ways that are stimulating. Some draw huge satisfaction from a notion of moral purpose and others from experiences that can help their own career development.
  • They want to influence the ways schools are run.

In its report – Who Governs our Schools? Trends, Tensions and Opportunities – the RSA noted concerns that moves to shift powers from local governing bodies to the multi-academy trust (MAT) level will make becoming a governor less attractive. I think that the direction of travel is pretty certain but the timing of change is unclear.

At SGOSS we currently see no change in the number of volunteers wishing to get involved with schools. So long as MATs devise a clear, sensible scheme of delegation, then people at the school level can happily work together. Talented energetic people are willing to turn their hands to anything. Their driver is getting things done. They are happy to leave higher level issues to competent people at the MAT level.

2, Induction and training

The next question is: “How to get the most from the volunteers?” I think this starts with training. A dearth of governor training is noted by the RSA, together with the broader and equally debilitating lack of governance literacy across the system. The report’s author Tony Breslin states: “We need training in governance for all, not least aspirant senior leaders and heads.”

We agree. Accordingly SGOSS, in cooperation with a number of expert sponsors, has invested in building a suite of governance training resources for governors, heads, senior business managers, and teachers to access at their convenience and at no cost (see further information). The first modules address induction, data and performance measurement, and financial planning and risk management. We believe that a lack of knowledge and understanding are the root causes of disconnection, not geographical proximity or being part of a profession or narrow ecosystem.

3, Policy-making

The RSA suggests that governance is a policy afterthought, not a policy priority. Well, we are where we are. In the real world big changes rarely happen smoothly and when finances are tight – as they are today – ruthless prioritisation is the name of the game. Things get deferred and this oversight is not all bad. Theory and experience in business tell us that the closer you are to the customer then the better your solutions will be. It is for the rest of us to fill in the gaps fast and intelligently.

At SGOSS, we have secured sponsors such as the Lloyds Banking Group and Arbor Education to help us build e-learning resources for governance, introduced and trialled remote governance for cold-spot areas with the help of Lloyds and The Key, and commenced work on what “best in class” governance for not-for-profits looks like.

4, The role of stakeholders

Here their challenge is whether “the pursuit of people with skills and experience comes at the expense of local representation and engagement”. I think not. Representation is useful insofar as it facilitates good two-way communication with stakeholders and it spreads ownership of problems and opportunities among all interested parties.

Engagement, to my mind, is a deeper and broader challenge, with the most important constituency being parents and pupils. Thankfully, there is little new or special about the engagement challenges of schools. They can be addressed by the application of standard marketing disciplines. Representation without effective engagement delivers little value.

The skills, experience, motivations and behaviours that governors bring to the table, trump representation per se.

5, Autonomy

The establishment and growth of some MATs are leading to confusion about the autonomy of individual school heads and indeed lines of reporting, accountability and authority. Insufficient thought has been given to organisational design and the type and quality of management personnel required. Wishful thinking about economies of scale abounds. That said, each group has the freedom to design a structure that best fits its needs and currently there appear to be few policy barriers to change. However, these uncertain conditions are very stressful. Heads have few role-models to follow; compared with any other industry of the same scale there is not a large cadre of experienced and successful managers leading MATs to access for help.

Clear schemes of delegation are our friends and an acceptance that we are travelling through uncharted waters is necessary. So, accessing the advice and time of executives who have faced similar change management projects can only help.

6, Inter-sector collaboration

The problems at the Kids Company are cited, suggesting that our challenges are shared in the third sector and some form of wider sector collaboration is proposed. Well, the good news is that there is plenty of research into governance available without the need to set up any new entities to examine it.

There is no need to delay making improvements. We can look to existing research into not-for-profit governance, we can study the work of professional organisations such as the Institute of Directors, the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, the Law Society, the Chartered Institute of Professional Development and member organisations like The Key. However, making any change will require local governing bodies and senior leadership teams to allocate time to work together to determine what will work best for them.

The proverb says that “the fish rots from the head”. At SGOSS we accept this axiom, but prefer to take a positive approach. Our belief, which drives everything we do, is that great governing bodies select and support great leaders, who in turn deliver brilliant outcomes – the name of the game. Time spent on building strong local governing bodies is rarely wasted.

  • Ian Armitage is chairman of SGOSS Governors for Schools, a charitable enterprise offering a free governor search and selection service for schools which need to recruit governors or trustees. Visit www.sgoss.org.uk

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