The Issue: Governing schools - Whose vision to prevail: the head's or the governors'?

Two inter-connected reports disagree over the governors' role: one wants them to determine what a school should be like, the other wants to find more people with the skills to help heads do a better job. Stephen Adamson reports
31st October 2008, 12:00am
Stephen Adamson


The Issue: Governing schools - Whose vision to prevail: the head's or the governors'?

Overloaded, overcomplicated and overlooked - that's the state of school governance according to the largest ever study of the subject, published this month.

It highlights worrying areas of poor performance: too many governors (60 per cent) get involved with operational matters, some governing bodies shy away from challenging headteachers (only 72 per cent really probe into a school's performance), 18 per cent do not plan strategically for the long or medium term, and 25 per cent do not review their own performance regularly. And only just over 50 per cent of governors said that their boards collaborated with other schools.

These findings have implications for the ability of governors to adapt in a fast-changing educational landscape. They have particular impact on those in disadvantaged areas.

Researchers from the University of Bath spent the first half of the summer canvassing the views of 5,000 governors and conducting in-depth interviews with 43 key stakeholders and 42 headteachers. They also synthesised other studies of governance published in the last few years and have produced two separate but overlapping sets of recommended changes.

The first is called The School Governance Study published by Bath University, which is an overall look at the lack of effectiveness of governing bodies. The blame is laid firmly at their complicated structures. The second is Governing our Schools: a report by Business in the Community, written by the organisation that commissioned the study. Its main aim is to examine the governor's role and how it might be enhanced by calling on relevant expertise from the business world. It suggests that the relationship is mutually beneficial because employees who become governors bring a plus factor back to work.

The Bath study starts by emphasising that generally school governance works well: 86.4 per cent of respondents thought that their body worked very effectively. Headteachers were a little less positive - 75 per cent agreed with this view. These figures are broadly comparable with Ofsted's judgments of governance over the years.

However, the areas of weakness outlined above are worrying. So what are the causes? One problem is the difficulty in getting the right people to sit on governing bodies - nearly half found it very challenging to recruit volunteers with the right skills. But the bulk of the blame is pinned on the uncontrolled growth in what governors are required to do. Governing bodies, the research found, have too many responsibilities; their work is complex, difficult and demanding; and the importance of their role and the work that they do has received insufficient recognition.

The three over words could be joined by three unders because governors feel undervalued, undertrained and under pressure.

The authors are surprised at the number of statutory burdens placed on governing bodies, irrespective of the size of the school. They think many of these powers would be better given to heads.

Governors are required to carry out conflicting roles, such as being strategic managers and overseers of the work of the school, while there is a constant tension between support and challenge, representation and skill, operational and strategic, and management and scrutiny.

Recruitment can be difficult, because of interlinked problems - perceptions of workload, the low profile of governors and lack of self- esteem among potential volunteers. Training is insufficiently taken up - only 58 per cent of schools said that most of their members had had some training over the previous year and 40 per cent do not require newcomers to undergo induction.

Much of this will come as no surprise to people involved in governing schools. Welcoming the report, Judith Bennett, chair of the National Governors' Association, also commented: "We could have told them most of it!"

Where these two publications are likely to have most impact is not in their common findings but in their different recommendations. Both the University of Bath study and the Business in the Community report agree on some fundamental proposals:

- The responsibilities of governors should be reduced.

- Their role should be simplified.

- There should be greater public recognition of their work.

- Professional clerking is essential. To raise their status, training for the job should be mandatory.

- Induction training for new governors and chairs should also be mandatory.

Given that its report has a particular focus on the contribution of governors from the business world, it is natural that Business in the Community emphasises the skills needed by governing bodies. It recommends that all carry out regular skills audits and look to recruit people with specific skills that are often those to be found in business. It looks to employers to support their employees to serve as governors.

The Bath study emphasises, instead, governors' community role. It suggests that the main function of a governing body should be to provide a forum for discussion of "what we want our school to be", where wide community involvement is essential. The opportunity for communities to deliberate on and determine the kinds of schools they want - built into the current system of governance - has, the researchers conclude, been lost in the requirement to meet government-determined measures of success. Whether the Government would be happy to devolve real autonomy to schools is another matter.

The ways part here. While the BITC report does not challenge the traditional view of the strategic role but instead identifies how the governing body is distracted from it, the writers of the Bath study argue that the strategic functions should be devolved to the headteacher. Governors should decide "what we want our school to be" - the vision - and leave it up to the professionals how to achieve this. Operational and strategic thereby get yoked together, removing the tendency of governors to wander between the two. Their role then is to scrutinise how this is done, ensuring that the headteacher is "doing things right and doing the right things". This does not place the same requirement on finding governors with professional skills as BITC proposes, so skills audits and targeted recruitment become less necessary.

One of the difficulties encountered by those who have argued for reducing the responsibilities of governing bodies is that the tangle of strands is complicated. Bath's proposal would at least cut through the knot with one blow. However, Judith Bennett casts doubt on how effective this would be: "If we are to be the accountable body, we have also to be strategic. Will governors have the same fervour and commitment if they are only checking what someone else is doing?"

The timing of the report is lucky - the ministerial working group examining the future of governance has further meetings and will not complete its deliberations until late November. A major survey like this is bound to have an impact on its conclusions.


The Business in the Community report recommends nine measures for the Government to consider. Jim Knight's ministerial working group on the subject will be reporting next month.

- Clarify and simplify the role of the governing body, with a focus on forming strategy for its school;

- Relax the stakeholder model, to allow more recruitment on the basis of skills that governors might have;

- Skills audits and self-assessment to be mandatory;

- Professional clerks, with accredited training for every school;

- Better recruitment methods for new governors;

- Quicker placement of volunteer governors to schools;

- Mandatory induction training for new governors and chairs;

- A national recruiting campaign, in part aimed at employers;

- Greater public recognition and celebration of the work of governors.

`Governing Our Schools' can be found at


Under the Bath proposals (left) governors would determine the vision for the school and then remove themselves from the process of achieving it until it came to calling the headteacher to account for progress and methods. The argument is that headteachers are now trained to be multi- skilled so are better equipped to run their schools than previously. It follows that heads would be responsible for drawing up all school policies (to be signed off by the governors), the disposition of the budget, all personnel matters except the appointment of senior staff, setting targets, and reporting to parents. School improvement partners would assist governors in scrutinising the head's work. The survey finds that most headteachers welcome challenge from their governors, though the balance is not easy. Bath recommends more challenge and less support. The headteacher's freedom of movement would be greater, but would the job also be lonelier?

`The School Governance Study' can be found at

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