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'School leaders need to do their homework on governance'

Governance is not an optional extra – it is fundamental to any endeavour that involves people coming together to deliver a joint enterprise, writes Emma Knights

emma knights, national governance association, nga, governance, school leaders, conference

Governance is not an optional extra – it is fundamental to any endeavour that involves people coming together to deliver a joint enterprise, writes Emma Knights

Hurrah, Tes runs an article on school governance, and it begins with a thank you to the quarter-of-a-million volunteers who give up their time to help improve their local school. So far, so good. And then there’s a call for a bit of rethinking and imagination – excellent, we love creativity and debate at the National Governance Association (NGA).

However, thereafter begins a muddle about effective governance and the purpose of governance. Let’s begin with the first, as the author did: there’s no debate here. We absolutely need to govern well and make best use of everyone’s time. The NGA is part of the small industry that helps schools and trusts do exactly that. It’s our day job or, put in a more grandiose way, our mission.

Making committees efficient is an art – one that a professional clerk will be able to help with. Clerks are not just minute-takers, but the advisers to the board on constitution, procedure and practice. That all-important triangle – the clerk, the chair of the governing board and headteacher or trust chief executive – should ensure that committees work well and that discussions remain strategic and forward-looking. If you think your committee structure is not fit for purpose, don’t just moan and keep doing what you have always done. Your governing board should review it – there is a lot of guidance and experience to help you sort that together.

'Timely issue'

Information and the interrogation of that information is at the heart of good governance. This is a timely issue. Last November’s report, Making Data Work, from the Department for Education’s teacher-workload advisory group, touched on the needs of governing boards. We are leading a discussion this week at the DfE’s advisory group on governance to tease this out further. The Association of School and College Leaders and the NAHT headteachers’ union are part of that conversation, as it takes two to tango.

Senior leaders are not always skilled at providing the best information to boards in the best format, and in a few cases, may purposefully withhold information. Good practice is to have three sources of information. Without a doubt, governing boards have an important role in tackling teacher workload. The NGA is just beginning our season of spring regional conferences; of course, Ofsted's consultation is a hot topic, but we will also be focusing on good reporting. 

The question of what value a meeting has added is a really important one, and one we suggest is asked at the end of a meeting. It refocuses minds on what governance is actually for.

The governance structure – of an institution in any sector, system, country – sets out who has the power, who makes the decisions, how other players’ voices are heard and how accountability is rendered. So governance is not an optional extra; it is fundamental to any endeavour that involves people coming together to deliver a joint enterprise or simply to coexist.

Ethics and accountability

Good governance is not just effective, but also ethical and accountable. Despite the NGA’s repeated efforts to move the dial, schools are obsessed with a narrow understanding of accountability: Ofsted, performance tables and governing boards just holding heads to account. The bigger picture is overlooked: who owns our schools? How are schools answerable to their communities? How should schools shape priorities by which they can be judged?

There has been a revolution in school governance over the past six or more years with increasing numbers of governing boards responsible for more than one school. The move to multi-academy trusts (MATs) has already fundamentally changed governance without widespread consultation or, until recently, much scrutiny. When the NGA first began writing on MAT governance, we found it hard to get others interested; a lack of governance literacy meant the significance was overlooked or dismissed. But now Lord Agnew, the minister for the school system, says governance is his number-one priority.

So yes please, let’s debate the best way to structure this and to govern. But to be part of this, some school leaders will need to improve their governance knowledge.

When appropriate, governing boards do indeed act as champions for their schools. This week, governors and trustees from all over England are lobbying their MPs to make sure they are aware of the struggles many governing boards are having to balance their budgets without damaging the education of pupils. Under the banner of Funding the Future, they are sharing their experiences and knowledge with those who can influence the amount of funding schools will receive in the next comprehensive spending review.

Emma Knights is chief executive of the National Governance Association

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