Sir David Carter: 'Governors and trustees are the unsung heroes of the education system'

If we are to drive forward recent improvements in school standards, we need to do more to support excellent school governance, writes the national schools commissioner

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The role that high-quality governance plays in delivering better educational outcomes for children is not a new concept. What is becoming clearer, however, is the way that the best organisations ensure that governance is effective in terms of the fundamental requirements of setting a vision and working with leaders to build the strategy, while at the same time being able to hold them to account to deliver the goals that the strategy determines.

Some 1.9 million more pupils are now being taught in "good" or "outstanding" schools than in 2010, but we have further to go and effective governance lies at the heart of school improvement. Indeed, the CEO of the National Governance Association (NGA), Emma Knights, also shares my ambition. “Organisations with strong governance don’t fail. Good governance should be at the heart of improving schools to provide the best education for pupils,” she says.

Trustees and governors are, in my view, the unsung heroes of the system. My team of regional schools commissioners and I recognise the importance of building the confidence of those who volunteer as trustees and governors. Our support is important in ensuring that boards have the confidence and skills to hold leaders to account for the running of their schools. This year, I know that governance boards and school leaders will be seeking new ways to progress and improve. One of the most important things school leaders can do is to put in place the necessary training and support to enable boards to carry out their role effectively. To do this, there are three key areas that should provide the focus.

Firstly, it is important that we are able to recruit and train the right people with the right skill set, knowledge and experience to ensure that there is effective and confident leadership. Executive leaders and board members themselves, therefore, need to continually reassess whether their board needs to refresh and update its professional expertise and capacity.  This is not just about the recruitment of new board members but also the ongoing development of trustees and governors already in place.

Governors must ask the right questions

Accountability is also crucial in establishing strong working relationships, particularly between executive leaders, heads and their boards. While executive leaders are responsible for the internal leadership and improvement of their schools, the strongest boards ask the right questions at the right time, and use the most relevant and timely data to determine how well their schools are doing. The capacity of the board to improve the outcomes for the most disadvantaged learners is key here. I see more and more examples of boards asking a trustee or governor to take oversight of the strategy for pupil premium and SEND students, so that every board meeting and sub-committee has this item for discussion high on all of their agendas.

Finally, it is key that the organisation has a clear vision for both current and future pupils. This vision needs to be determined at board level and co-constructed with executive leaders, but also owned and delivered on the ground by leadership teams working with teachers in their classrooms. Without this connection between the plan and the daily experience of children there is little chance of impact.

Training governors

I welcome the examples I have seen where board-to-board peer review partnerships are identifying models of working practice that are transferable. Building collaboration between trusts is an important priority for the wider system. We often see powerful exchanges of ideas between leaders and teachers in different organisations, but we must not miss out on the benefits of governance exchanges as well.

All new trustees and governors should be inducted into governance. In order to help with this, the Department for Education has published two Competency Frameworks on governance and clerking, which support governors, trustees and clerks to better understand their roles and responsibilities. The department is also contracting providers to deliver new governance leadership and clerking training and development from early 2018. So look out for further information on this shortly.

We also fund Inspiring Governance and Academy Ambassadors. Together they help boards to recruit high-calibre individuals, whilst providing additional support to areas of the country where education needs the most improvement. Inspiring Governance recruits governors for both maintained schools and academy trusts and works with the NGA to provide new governors with additional support during the first few months of their role, as well as supporting boards to recruit future chairs to aid succession planning.

More than 450,000 pupils now study in "good" or "outstanding" sponsored academies that were typically previously underperforming schools – a sign of the progress we are making. As we move into 2018, I am keen to encourage those in positions of leadership to build on their strong foundations of effective governance and to look at opportunities to share or learn from other academy trusts and governance boards. This is so we can continue to work towards achieving our mission to improve standards across the whole of England’s school system and secure a high-quality education for all pupils.

Sir David Carter is the national schools commissioner

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