Why schools and trusts can now hire 'expert governors'

Providing access to expert governors for struggling settings – or those willing to pay £500 a day for their insights – could have a huge benefit across education, claims the National Governance Association
6th December 2021, 2:26pm
Emily Attwood


Why schools and trusts can now hire 'expert governors'

Expert governors can now come and help schools and trusts

When a school needs improvement, it's usually the headteacher and the staff who first come under scrutiny.

But according to Emma Knights, CEO of the National Governance Association (NGA), another group should be reviewed too - governors. "By definition, if your school is in special measures, it has not been governed well," she outlines.

That such a review is not automatically the case indicates one of the big issues with school governance in England: it's rarely talked about or properly supported, nor is it acknowledged enough how crucial good governance is to every school - even to those schools rated "outstanding".

"A school is declining if a board isn't setting up an ambitious culture," says Knights.

None of this is to say that governance is particularly bad in England, stresses Knights. She does not believe there is a "lock stock and barrel problem out there", but she does think that more support is needed.

That's where the new National Leaders of Governance (NLG) programme, partly funded by the Department for Education and delivered by the NGA, comes in by assigning "expert" governors to work with school or trust boards as consultants to drive improvements.

Change from the top 

The NGA website claims that by doing this the "overall performance" of a school or trust can be improved "from the top-down" and, in doing so, have a positive knock-on effect on other areas of school improvement work.

"This should be seen as governance taking its rightful place as part of school and trust improvement," Knights said when the programme was first announced.

So how will it work?

Riding to the rescue 

The main focus of the new NGL programme is for the expert governors to work with trusts and schools that are struggling most to help reinvigorate the work they do - and hopefully boost how everything operates across the setting.

This work will not cost schools anything as it forms the DfE-funded element of the programme.

However, schools and trusts cannot self-select for this but instead must be referred by Regional Schools Commissioners, Local Authorities or, in the case of faith schools, by diocesan bodies.

If selected, a member of the 60-strong cohort of NLGs will then be tasked to work with a school.

The initial engagement will see the NLG work with boards over a term to review their governance structures and then suggest improvements and goals, followed by a review of progress around three months later.

The NGA said the first engagements of this nature started around a month ago and so early insights into the sort of recommendations, impacts and outcomes are due to be seen during 2022.

Guns for hire 

The other way to take advantage of the NLG experts is to pay yourself.

It's not cheap at £500 per day for their work but for those that feel an outside perspective could be helpful, it may be a cost they are willing to pay.

Of course, for many, the idea of paying a hefty fee for a governance expert may go against the usual voluntary ethos of how governors in schools work.

However, Knights says it is important to recognise that "because this is a professional consultancy - not a voluntary role" a payment to work with an NGL is important to "distinguish the role from the rest of the board".

The best of the best 

So if these experts are worthy of payment it's fair to ask how they were chosen. The NGA says a "rigorous and externally moderated assessment process" was used and that this meant of 300 applicants who applied for a role, only 60 were selected.

"We were tough," adds Knight, as 240 unsuccessfully applicants can no doubt attest.

One of the main ways the NGA whittled down this list was to seek proof of an individual working as either a chair or in another key governing role for five years and provide case studies as evidence of times where they had individually improved governance. 

This helped them finalise a list that "includes experts in all types of school and trust structures" to ensure they can best meet the needs of those that may request help - or be ordered to receive it.

Tomas Thurogood-Hyde, Assistant CEO at Astrea Academy Trust, said this is one of the most positive aspects of the new NLG programmes as it has helped "diversify the expertise available to schools and trusts, and will mean that those looking for support can find an appropriately matched skillset".

He said this should also help "modernise" how schools and trusts create strong governance and raise the bar around governance in the sector more generally for the future.

Meanwhile, for Knights, access to such specialised skills is another reason why it's right for there to be a fee for those who want to work with these NLGs: "You should not expect someone to come in, review, advise, support and train people at this level, when it's such a specialist subject, for free."   

The impact good governance can have

One of the new NLG's is Janet Myers, who has worked as a school governor since 2009 in primary and secondary schools, both maintained and academies, and is currently chair of a MAT and chair of the Cheshire West Governance Association.

She says she got involved because she has seen many times how important boards can be in driving school improvement: "I've got first-hand experience of improving governing boards. I know how to help them, and that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to make a difference," she says.  

Being able to take this experience into the field is something she hopes will help other settings "fast-track their own improvements" and work out "what they already do well and what they need to improve".

She says getting this right is vital: "If children only get one shot at education, they deserve to be educated in a good school that's got good governance."

Paid positions across the board?

This is a noble belief. However, the fact that at present the NGLs are only available to schools and trusts that can afford it - or those in such a position that are deemed in need of support - could mean many, many schools are caught in the middle and unable to benefit from the NGLs.

This, given public money is being used for a chunk of this offering, seems an important consideration. Knights concurs more funding would be good, not just to extend the programme to all but to support governors more in general. "We would love it if the [DfE] paid more towards governance," she says.

Any talk of funding and governance raises the idea that perhaps the role - if it is so crucial to school and trust success - should move from being an unpaid volunteer role and morph into something where payment is always offered.

This thought is not as popular an idea with existing governors as you might think. For example, of 4,000 people polled in NGA's recent governance volunteers and board practice report, the majority (51 per cent) believed governors and trustees should not be paid - although 31 per cent said they should.

As such it seems unlikely that will change any time soon in the wider governors structure.

However, with money going into the NLG programmes for those schools that need it most, it is clear it is an area increasingly being seen as an area that can drive school improvement if given proper focus - and money.

As such, it will be interesting to watch and see how the NGL's work with schools between now and 2023 as part of the programmes.

The NGA and its new experts will certainly be hoping that they can demonstrate major improvements for those that get involved and underline why more funding for this historically underfunded area of school management could be money well spent.

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