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'In the aftermath of Trojan Horse, we should resist the temptation to make training for governors mandatory'

Clive Bush, chief executive of the Active Learning Trust, writes:

With a volunteer force of over 300,000 people, school governors are doing great work in our schools, day in day out, across the country. Yet it seems like the only time we ever hear about school governance in the wider media is when something has gone wrong. Take for example the recent Trojan Horse scandal in Birmingham; in the majority of schools implicated Ofsted highlighted failures of governance as a concern in their reports, something which has now led to calls for mandatory training for all governors.

As a former school leader and now the head of a Trust sponsoring 11 academies, I am a firm believer in the importance of strong, well-skilled governing bodies focused on school improvement. Many governors will have no experience of working within the education sector and this is precisely why they are so valued, providing as they do an external check and balance that often raises those questions that, as educationalists, we might not think to ask. Because of this. there is no doubt that providing training is extremely valuable in supporting governors to fulfil their role effectively, however the problem comes when we start talking about making this mandatory.

The possible introduction of mandatory training for governors raises big questions that need to be answered before we plunge headlong into yet another set of government-driven requirements. For example, who will provide this training and how will quality be assured? Currently many schools – maintained and academies – look to their local authority for training and support, usually through some kind of buy-back arrangement. But with budgets in LAs already extremely tight, how could a standard national framework of training be delivered through this existing model? There is, of course, the option of involving private providers, but this would be public money being invested so there would need to be stringent controls ensuring both value for money and clear quality standards. Again, who would do this quality assurance?

We also have to think about the time commitments required from the governors. Already, governors give a lot to their schools, often while juggling many other commitments. A requirement to attend a mandatory and presumably assessed training programme may end up being another barrier stopping many highly-skilled prospective governors from getting involved. There is much potential in e-Learning, backed up by high-quality resources such as those provided by the NGA (National Governors Association), but again, this would struggle to be effective as a mandatory requirement – how would we monitor completion, is this system more open to 'cheating' as it is done independently, and who would develop a national framework for e-learning and monitor the quality of provision?

It is my view that the expertise required to ensure effective governance lies in-house, but it may well be untapped. In my organisation, for example, we have focused on the key elements of governance, reduced the numbers on governing bodies and kept sub-committees to only the two key ones of finance and personnel. On this basis the Trust trains the chairs, provides introductory training for all its local governing bodies, supports schools leaders’ management of their governing bodies and is currently procuring an updating service to ensure nothing slips through the net as time goes on.

Perhaps what is needed then is for school leaders to be reminded of what the key roles of governance are so that they then manage a process to ensure they are in place and operating robustly, rather than yet more mandatory requirements.   

Finally, I think it is important to recognise that governors are volunteers. Yes, we need to ensure that they are equipped with the skills and knowledge to fulfil their roles effectively, but we also need to make sure that we don't put up too many barriers to stop potentially useful governors from getting involved. Training should be recognised and rewarded, but not be made mandatory. More broadly, I think it is time that we started to give more recognition in the media and in wider society to the importance of the role that school governors play.

If as a sector we can promote the great opportunities that becoming a school governor can offer, schools and academies would no doubt find it much easier to recruit new governors. At a time when governance is in the spotlight and facing heavy criticism, we need to be making the role more attractive to potential governors, not putting more hurdles in the way.

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