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Neil Carmichael MP: School Governors and governance - time to step up delivery

Carmichael NeilNeil Carmichael is the Member of Parliament for Stroud and a member of the Education Select Committee. Follow Neil on Twitter.

School governors and governance are now high on the policy agenda. The Education Select Committee is conducting a significant inquiry, Sir Michael Wilshaw, Chief Inspector of Schools, has focused OFSTED onto ‘school leadership and governance’ and our new All Party Parliamentary Group on School Leadership and Governance is holding regular meetings ar which standing room only is available to late comers. Ministers, too, are engaging with this debate.

Individual writers and contributors are also highlighting the need for reform, most notably and recently, Lord Adonis is his book “Education, Education, Education”. Longstanding organisations, including the National Governors Association. are turning up the volume in this increasingly robust debate.

There are two linked drivers behind this momentum. Firstly, governors and governance has hardly changed in generations. The battle over the control of schools has, up until now, been between local authorities and central government, characterised by such policies as represented by the Butler Education Act 1944, Circular 10/65 (Anthony Crosland’s request to local authorities to move to comprehensive schools) and the Education Act 1988 introducing, among other highlights, ‘Local Management of Schools’. None of these or other measures addressed the actual leadership and management of individual schools but, because of the impact of league tables and the spotlight now on failing schools, governance is becoming fair game for increasingly concerned parents, policy makers and public agencies.

The second driver is more specific and contemporary. Academies are springing up all over the country with their structures and, in particular, autonomy fuelling a debate about school accountability, role of sponsors and performance management issues for head teachers. Gone are the days when governors spent most of their time ratifying local authority derived policies.

The debate about the future of governance seems to have two dimensions, captured in terms of defining roles and responsibilities, and challenging governor selection criteria in the form of prioritising either stakeholder representation or specific skills.

Before these two topics are expanded, it is worth setting what is at stake. In essence, academies, as autonomous institutions, need to have their own reliable mechanisms for monitoring progress, challenging policies and delivery, strategic planning, and ensuring effective leadership and management. If the academy programme is to generate necessary confidence in it, individual governing bodies must avoid failures in these responsibilities, leaving outside intervention as a last and, hopefully, rare resort. In short, governors must be capable, professional and responsive, and able to act together as a corporate body.

Another trend is the formation of partnerships or chains. The Education Select Committee is exploring the impact of these developments and, already, governance and leadership have cropped up. The overall feeling from witnesses to the Committee is that huge changes are underway in our schools, but that reforms of governance are insufficient.

Despite such observations, several possible areas of reform are now on the table. To start with, when governing bodies fail they are often replaced by Interim Executive Boards (IEB). IEBs are smaller, consist of selected individuals with the requisite skills and, obviously, have executive capacity so should this model be closer to the norm in the first place.

The role and selection of the chair of governors is also being discussed. Remuneration, formal training and robust accountability mechanisms are frequently mentioned as proposals to improved performance.

A third area of debate concerns stakeholder representatives. Frequently, allocated places are not taken up at all or occupied by unenthusiastic appointments. Instead, a focus on skills and experience as the basis for selection might be more profitable.

The All Party Parliamentary Group on School Leadership and Governance is continuing to debate the case for reform and has produced a now well respected ‘Twenty Question for Governing Bodies to Ask’. For my part, I am in favour of smaller boards, comprising of individuals appointed on merit and ‘professionally’ chaired.


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