"Five hundred failing governing boards identified by Ofsted this year" is how the latest broadside from the chief inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, starts.
So there is to be an investigation by inspectors into the quality of school governance. No doubt this will be followed by the secretary of state announcing a review sometime in 2016.
There have been several such reviews since the major reform of school governing bodies in 1988 and they have all run into the sand. The Labour government’s wide-ranging review in 2008-09 and Michael Gove’s clarion call in 2014 for better governing bodies both got nowhere. Governments do not generally like offending 300,000 voters, who are the biggest army of volunteers in the country, especially not just before general elections.
Yet something is clearly wrong with school governance, when one in 10 governor posts is vacant – and this figure rises to one in four in some rural and deprived areas.
So the chief inspector should be careful what he wishes for in his drive to reform governance, lest the result is an even larger number of vacancies, as public-spirited people decide that running the local charity shop is an easier option, involving considerably less potential for public humiliation.
I should declare an interest. Throughout my 16 years as a secondary headteacher and more recently for 13 years in my local primary school, I have been a school governor. In its complexity and range of responsibilities, which have grown massively in the past 20 years, governorship is a daunting role, especially for people without a background in education. I have seen many governors come and go (sometimes very rapidly) when they realise the size of the task. The financial cutbacks of the next few years will make governing even tougher and less popular. Few of the 300,000 volunteers will enjoy making staff redundant, but many will be faced with doing so.
Good governance is often described as "challenge and support", and it is the challenge aspect that the chief inspector is focusing on. Governing boards have three main areas of responsibility in which to exercise that challenge – finance, educational performance and school strategy – in all of which they require relevant knowledge and skills, and in which they depend on getting good information from the headteacher.
School governance is undergoing a quiet revolution as new multi-academy trusts (MATs) form their own boards, with individual schools having "local governing bodies" (LGBs) with a more limited range of responsibilities. This model is working well in many places.
Governing boards are part of the accountability structure of schools, holding the head to account and themselves being held to account by Ofsted. In a highly autonomous school system, as in England, amateur governors need good advice and this is never more important than when appointing a new headteacher.
Governing boards are too often formed on a representative basis, with little attention given to the range of skills at the table. An essential process for a successful governing body is to carry out a skills audit, using the National Governors Association model. Schools can then try to recruit governors to fill the skills gaps.
Some companies, such as BP and John Lewis, encourage their staff to become school governors, but more companies could do much more to support schools with this. The Inspiring Governors website is one source of help, as is SGOSS (School Governors One-Stop Shop) and the Education and Employers Task Force.
But let’s not wait for Ofsted. Here’s a seven-point plan for action now:
- The National College for Teaching and Leadership (NCTL) could work with Teaching Schools to expand the number of National Leaders of Governance (NLGs) and increase dissemination of good practice.
- Ofsted could use its massive database to publish a report on good practice in governance before it comes out all guns blazing with criticism.
- Employers could make a bigger effort to encourage good people to come forward and give them time to serve on school governing bodies.
- Governing bodies themselves could do a skills audit and redouble their efforts to find people with the right skills to fill the gaps, using the links above.
- More schools could combine in multi-academy trusts, with two levels of governance, and ensure that the small MAT board includes the necessary people to be effective.
- Headteachers could make sure that they are giving the right information to governors in an easily understandable form in order to support governors to challenge effectively.
- Most important of all, the government could consider whether it is giving governing boards an impossible job to do and cut the number of their responsibilities.
Following the chief inspector’s statement, Ofsted is holding a wide consultation on school governance, so make sure you have your say.
And don’t forget to mention the role of Ofsted itself. The way in which it operates has undoubtedly been one of the factors in causing the current teacher recruitment difficulties. If it doesn’t act carefully, it will worsen the governor recruitment situation too.
John Dunford is chair of Whole Education, a former secondary headteacher and former general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders