Are cliques taking control of our governing bodies?

Small groups are dominating too many decisions, study finds
14th November 2014, 12:00am


Are cliques taking control of our governing bodies?

School governing bodies are often dominated by small cliques that push through decisions without being held properly to account, a new study suggests.

Instead of concentrating powers in the hands of a few governors, schools should look for ways to get wider feedback on decisions from parents and the community, according to Andrew Wilkins from the University of Roehampton.

The study, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, has been released in the wake of the alleged Trojan Horse plot in Birmingham, in which governors were accused of trying to force a hard-line Muslim agenda on schools.

Subsequent investigations by the Department for Education and Birmingham City Council recommended an overhaul of governance to make appointments and training more rigorous.

In addition, a report published by the National Audit Office last month criticises the government's oversight of governors on academy trusts. Despite there being a "fit and proper person" test, the DfE has failed to carry out checks on individuals who may have been put forward by organisations seeking to gain influence, it says.

Dr Wilkins found that a group of three or four core players generally lay at the heart of any governing body. "There are big issues around who is permitted to get involved in the business of governance. Does governance mean leaving decisions in the hands of four people who are most committed or the most skilled? From my perspective and from people I've spoken to this raises serious questions," he said.

Dr Wilkins said that moves had been made to recruit more experts to governing bodies which were in need of skills in areas such as project management, business and accountancy. But he warned that although this could be beneficial, the move to bring more professional volunteers on to governing bodies should not be at the expense of non-expert involvement.

It was important for schools to be challenged by people who were willing to ask "the stupid question", he said, adding: "The stupid question may be asking `Why is this important for our community?' not just `Why is it important for the DfE?'."

Dr Wilkins' study finds that school governance has become more professionally managed over time and that more power has become concentrated in fewer hands. Although these trends are present in all schools, they tend to be more pronounced in academies, particularly sponsored ones.

Dr Wilkins told TES: "For bodies to be effective, we need professional appointments, people who have the relevant experience to oversee a school's back-room functions and enhance accountability.

"Professionals are important - they are totally necessary to ensure checks and balances - but we need non-experts, too."

He also advised governing bodies and school leadership teams to do more to involve parents and the wider community.

Her Majesty's Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw last year called for paid governors to be employed in some schools, criticising governors who were "ill-informed". He said that poor leadership, which included governance, was a widespread issue in schools rated as less than good.

Dr Wilkins said the idea of payment had received little support, but suggested that a premium could be paid by central government to schools in deprived areas that struggled to recruit suitable governors. This would allow them to bring in consultants to assist senior leaders.

Emma Knights, chief executive of the National Governors' Association, said that appointed governors were increasingly required to have certain skills. But she stressed it was important for parent governors, who were elected, to come from "all walks of life". She added: "We don't want everybody to be the same. If everybody brings different arguments, that enhances good governance."

Ms Knights also argued that a small core of people was necessary for the system to work efficiently. "There will be four or five people who are doing a great amount of work, but it is the chair of governors' job to make sure they don't dominate," she said.

In his report on the Trojan Horse scandal for Birmingham City Council, independent adviser Ian Kershaw recommended more rigorous training for governors. He also said that the council should put in place a system of effective monitoring and decisive action when governors breached set principles of public life.

Peter Clarke, a former counter-terrorism chief with the Metropolitan Police who was appointed by the DfE to look into the issue, said in his report that the government should review its guidance on governors and consider implementing an accreditation scheme for training providers.

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