A NEW report for the Joseph Rowntree foundation has called for a national debate on school governance and raises fundamental questions. What are governing bodies for, and do they achieve anything, especially in schools serving disadvantaged areas?
Governing bodies are often disadvantaged by difficulties in recruiting, particularly in the inner cities. Many find their role and purpose unclear and find it hard to strike a balance between being a critical friend to heads, providing strategic direction and representing their local communities.
The report, by academics at Manchester university's school of education, questions the capacity of governing bodies, especially in disadvantaged areas, to recruit members with the time, commitment and expertise and always to act in the best interests of their schools and pupils. Many fail to reflect the make-up of their local communities.
The study found that in areas of disadvantage it was often difficult to find and retain governors with the time and expertise to face these challenges, so schools in the greatest need of good governance are the least likely to benefit from it.
"School governors carry out an important and extremely valuable role in the management of schools," says Professor Alan Dyson, who led the study. "In the light of these findings, we need to ask questions about whether we are asking too much of them, especially in disadvantaged areas."
The report identified three options for change: Incremental improvement. Bodies could remain much as they are, but imaginative practices for widening recruitment and encouraging participation could be introduced. At the same time, the Government could reduce the demands placed on governing bodies and consider more carefully the implications for the work of governors in future reforms.
Structural change. A radical solution would be to create a core of skilled and committed governors - perhaps paid - to work alongside others and lead groups of schools, with school-specific governors added for particular purposes.
More radical alternatives. The Government could underpin its commitment to devolving decision-making in public services by taking the democratising role of governing bodies seriously. This could mean developing the links between governors, local communities and activist groups and giving governors more power to shape the work of their schools to local needs and wishes.
Many of the problems besetting governing bodies result from radical changes to England's school system in recent decades, with different forms of governance for maintained schools, academies and trust schools. The Manchester study warns that the Government's recently declared aim of creating a system of independent non-fee-paying state schools "may actually serve to disconnect schools from local communities".
"There is no reason why families should choose schools in their immediate locality if they think something better is on offer elsewhere," it says.
"By the same token, there is no reason why governing bodies should set out to recruit students only from the immediate locality. This is particularly the case in disadvantaged areas."
This trend towards non-local recruitment is strengthened by national policy efforts to introduce diversity through specialist and faith schools and academies.
"All of this creates tricky cross-currents for governing bodies to negotiate," the report says. "It is far from clear whether governors are working on behalf of people in the immediate locality, or of the families who choose to send their children to the school, regardless of where they live, or of some more extensive, authority-wide local interest."
Schools, Governors and Disadvantage by Charlotte Dean et al (Joseph Rowntree Foundation). The report is available online at www.jrf.org.uk