Governors are skilled bodies, not 'interfering busybodies' - and they have a moral duty to represent the community

1st July 2011 at 01:00

Teachers are constantly reminded that they are being held to account by data. Test scores and marks on the inspection scale can appear to drive every decision in schools today. Politicians would argue that test results and inspection gradings provide a warning system when schools are struggling, and also grease the cogs of the "market", helping parents to make more informed choices.

But they are not the only ways that schools are - or should be - kept accountable. There is something else built into the foundations of school accountability that is too often overlooked. These groups provide every school with support, as well as keeping them in check, and can take a more nuanced, long-term view that goes beyond the raw data.

They are school governing bodies - recently dismissed blithely by the editor of this newspaper as "vindictive, interfering, amateurish, crass, ignorant busybodies".

Governing bodies are the legally accountable groups for maintained schools, and have myriad duties and responsibilities. In academies, their role is officially slightly different, as it is the school's trust that is the legally accountable body. But most - if not all - of the trust's functions tend to be delegated to governing bodies. So, as more schools switch to academy status, governors will continue to work in much the same way.

Governing bodies gain their legitimacy from the legislation that demands that schools, and particularly their heads, are subject to scrutiny and challenge from lay members. But they also have a moral legitimacy which comes from their composition. They have been elected by the parent body or the staff group, or appointed by the foundation, or the local authority. And belief in the importance of democracy and localism as part of school accountability remains stronger among teachers and many communities than some national commentators may believe.

When headteachers talk about their governors it can be with a real sense of feeling about how important it is to work with elected parents and those with proper knowledge of the community. A couple of academy heads made that point eloquently when they spoke recently at a packed meeting held at the House of Commons to discuss a report by Conservative MP Neil Carmichael entitled Who Governs The Governors?

The composition of governing bodies has, perhaps surprisingly, turned into a hot potato in Parliament during the passage of the current Education Bill. The original version of the section in question, clause 37, allowed governing bodies some flexibility over their composition, if they wished to use it. However, concerns were expressed in the Commons that governing bodies might not exercise these freedoms well, so the House of Lords is due to introduce an amendment that will insist on one staff governor and one local authority governor.

In practice I think this will make little difference, as most governing bodies endorse the principle of having representation from these groups. The Government's aim behind clause 37 was to increase the ability of governing bodies to recruit skilled people. However, governing bodies already can, should and, in most cases, do so. This is illustrated by the fact that the practice of undertaking a skills audit of governors is growing every year.

In policy circles there is talk of two models of governance: a stakeholder model and a business model. But this is misconceived. They are not mutually exclusive - groups that are representative can also be effective and business-like. A variety of skills, voices and experience are needed round the table for the governing body to do its work well, both ensuring standards and acting as the accountable body. In many places, governing bodies exist like that already.

I am not saying that all is rosy in the garden of governance. We know full well that Ofsted has identified governance as one of the weaker aspects of school leadership. Whereas 65 per cent of school leaders are rated good or outstanding, governance is rated good or outstanding in 56 per cent of schools. While perhaps not as catastrophic as some may guess, it is clearly not good enough, especially when one considers the crucial part good governance plays in school improvement.

In Hidden Givers, a study of school governors in England published by Bath University, Professor Chris James reported that schools can be fragile institutions and governance can be the element that stops them sliding into disarray when senior leaders are struggling or a successful head moves on. Good governance has a part to play in schools aiming to move from good to great, and even more so in turning round inadequate schools.

It is very clear from research and practice that there are four key factors that make an appreciable difference to the effectiveness of a governing body: governors and headteachers understanding its role; good clerking; good chairmanship; and good relationships with school leaders, based on mutual trust and respect. There are certainly examples of excellent governance to draw on - see Ofsted's recent report, School Governance: Learning from the Best, and the six inspirational finalists of the National Governors' Association's Outstanding Governing Body Awards.

I can't do better than finish with the Government's words from its white paper The Importance of Teaching. "School governors are the unsung heroes of our education system," it says. "To date, governors have not received the recognition, support or attention that they deserve. We will put that right."

It would be extremely helpful if those involved in the schools system and in commenting upon it could get behind that statement. Together we could concentrate on the business of governing schools effectively in the interests of children.

Emma Knights is chief executive of the National Governors' Association.

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