A rightly cautious, yet positive note has been sounded to the government’s ambition for school governing bodies to act more like “corporate boards”.
The Department for Education (DfE) is seeking to change the School Governance Regulations to introduce new “skills-based eligibility criteria” for appointed governors. In launching the consultation, schools minister Lord Nash said: “The best businesses have a skilful board of directors keeping them on the right path. I want to see the same approach in schools.”
The changes would mean that school governors will only be appointed if they have the “skills and experience to drive school improvement”. A DfE statement added: “As part of the commitment to a more professional standard of school governance, governing bodies will be expected to act more like corporate boards, and only appoint people with the skills to help their schools succeed.”
The consultation comes alongside new guidance for schools which says that governing bodies are “non-executive strategic leaders” and have three core functions:
Setting the vision and strategic direction of the school.
Holding the headteacher to account for performance.
Ensuring financial resources are well-spent.
Now, I do agree with the thrust of much of the above – I am certainly not alone in having argued for wider recognition of the huge skill levels that are required for the role of a modern school governor.
However, I am a little suspicious of the use of heavily corporate language and approaches when discussing schools and education. Schools are not profit-driven businesses and do not have the same priorities. Of course, many lessons from the world of business can be adapted into the school context and we must recognise that many of the skills needed by today’s governing bodies can be found in abundance in the corporate world.
But we must also recognise that it is not just business acumen that goes to make an effective governor. Schools are above all community organisations and governors must be able to embrace this vital aspect, they must have close ties to the community, knowledge of the local area and strong links with parents. A passion for and understanding of education matters just as much as expertise in cost-efficiencies, statistics or budgets. As with many things in education, there is a balance to be struck.
We must also remember that the role continues to be voluntary. We rely on the goodwill and commitment of school governors and much of this passion will come from the chance to give back to their communities. I fear the more “corporate” our governing bodies become, the less this passion and commitment will drive their work.
There is another implication of the government’s plans. If ministers want to see governing boards “operating akin to the board of directors of a company”, then we must start to question how governors operate. The National Association of Head Teachers has emphasised that continuing moves to professionalise governors need to be accompanied by “the right level of training and time off from work”. This is right and has been an increasingly problematic issue in recent years. Should we now be legislating to allow governors paid time off work to fulfil their voluntary, but vital and often difficult, duties? Increasingly complex training demands also need to be paid for.
Overall, I welcome the DfE’s ideas, but there is much more to this debate than introducing skills-based criteria for appointing governors (especially as most schools probably already prioritise skills during appointment processes). For me, the challenge still lies in the 30,000 governor vacancies that remain unfilled across England. How can we support those schools in the worst-hit areas where there is a complete shortage of willing volunteers? Further informationFor details on the new guidance and the School Governance Regulations consultation, visit http://bit.ly/1eUfETp