In support of the school governor

12th July 2012 at 16:41
Lord Hill of Oareford, parliamentary under-secretary of state for schools, explains why governors are `something we should celebrate'

One of the best things about my job is the chance to go to schools and meet inspiring heads and great teachers. Most important of all, I get to meet children who are a world apart from the negative picture often portrayed in the press.

But there will be someone else who I will be keen to meet too: a school governor. I never fail to be struck by their commitment to the school and the huge contribution they make, often over many years. That voluntary tradition, kept alive by some 300,000 people up and down the country, is extremely precious and it is something we should celebrate.

When people talk about schools, a lot of attention is rightly given to heads. But increasingly more attention is being given to governors, and so it should be. After all, they are the top strategic body in the school. They appoint the heads. And it is they, ultimately, who have responsibility for the performance of the school - when things go well, and when they don't.

I am keen to do what I can to help governors in that vital job. There are a number of areas where we have been concentrating, and where I hope we can now make more progress:

making sure governors have easy access to useful information about the performance of their school

scaling back unnecessary regulations that get in the way of the job governors signed up to do

freeing schools to have more choice over the size and composition of their governing bodies

helping support them in their work

Getting the right information

Information is a very powerful tool in helping to ask the right questions and in holding heads and the senior leadership to account. But I know it is not always easy to get your hands on what you need - and if you don't know what is available, you can't know what to ask for. Governors may not be able to access school performance data. They may feel they only see what the head wants them to see. Or they may be overwhelmed by the sheer volume and complexity of what is there. We have published more benchmarking data and made significant improvements to the school performance tables.

Governors, along with heads and parents, can now compare more easily the performance of their school with those in similar circumstances. They can now consider their school's performance not just in comparison with the school down the road, but in the context of schools around the country in similar circumstances. In addition, NGA's recently published guides to RAISEonline should make it easier than ever for governors to make the most of this rich resource.

But the volume of data and its technical content can be too much for busy governors to wade through and interpret. They need sharply focused, reliable and relevant information that will tell them how well the school is doing for all its pupils. They need to know where the strengths and weaknesses are. Then they need the right support to use this information to ask the right questions. So I am working with Ofsted, the National College for School Leadership, NGA and others to look at how wecan improve governing bodies' access to reliable and relevant data.

I also want to help with information about the legal framework. I know how much governors value having an authoritative source of information about their legal responsibilities. In May we published an update to the Governors' Guide to the Law. It is accurate, but still extremely detailed. I want to replace it with a much more practical short handbook that focuses on what governors really need to know. We look forward to working with NGA and others to ensure it meets governors' needs.

I believe more strongly than ever that it is the school - its governors and its senior leaders and teachers - that is best placed to take charge of its affairs.The evidence shows that the strongest education systems combine autonomy with accountability. And we trust governing bodies and teaching staff to do what is right for the school and its pupils - the concept that is at the heart of our academies programme.

Cutting back on the paperwork

The task of government is to set a clear and straightforward framework within which governing bodies can do their work. In the past there has been no shortage of instruction. There has been ream after ream of guidance. There has been law after law. They have all imposed yet more duties and prescribed every activity in minute detail.

I don't want governors who are generously giving their time to be sitting there wading through bumph which my department has inflicted on them. I want them to be concentrating on the core functions of the governing body - ensuring children have an excellent education, being responsible for the use of public money, acting as a critical friend to the head and staff, and being accountable to parents and the local community.

They shouldn't be reviewing policies that are no longer needed or signing off policies they have no need to see. So we have now begun a review of all the rules and regulations affecting school governing bodies. This includes the Academy Articles of Association, company law and charity law requirements. We want to provide more freedom and less bureaucracy, while maintaining essential safeguards and accountability. We will consult NGA and other representatives once we have completed our analysis and formed some initial conclusions.

Freedom of choice

Schools come in all shapes and sizes, and I am keen that governing bodies should be able to reflect that variety. I am also keen that they can recruit people with the particular mix of skills that they would find most helpful - not just because they fit into a certain category.

Governing bodies need to be able to focus on what is really important. Ofsted's review of governance last year, School Governance - learning from the best, noted the importance of having a small core of governors to work on the key issues. Smaller governing bodies are able to adopt a more strategic approach, often focusing on school improvement.

Some of the most successful academies are those in chains, such as ARK, where focused governance has played a key part in improving standards. Many schools which have become academies have used the opportunity to rethink their governance arrangements to very good effect. From this September, this opportunity to have a think about the composition of your governing body will be extended to all maintained schools. From then, governing bodies will be able to decide for themselves whether they want to reconstitute themselves and perhaps move to a smaller governing body with a bigger emphasis on skills.

The required members of the governing body will be: two parents, the headteacher, one elected member of staff (other than the head), one representative nominated by the local authority and foundation governors where appropriate. Apart from that, there is no particular model and no prescribed ratios.

It is a completely permissive power - no one is obliged to do anything if they are happy with the way things are - but I hope it will give governing bodies an opportunity to reflect on their practice and ask whether they could do better for children with a different approach. Many businesses, for example, tell us that they are willing to support their staff as school governors, and the School Governors' One Stop Shop (SGOSS) is able to recruit governors with the specific skills that governing bodies want.

More support for governors

I recognise the vital importance of the work of governors. I want to make sure it is widely recognised, as it is for heads. The National College has developed accreditation for excellent governing body chairs to be National Leaders of Governance (NLG), in the same way that it accredits outstanding heads to be National Leaders of Education.

As well as providing important recognition of the role of governors, NLGs will be an invaluable source of support for governors across the country. It is governors themselves who have the expertise to share and drive improvement. It is they who understand the role and its challenges. It is they who understand how to get the relationship with the headteacher right. And it is they who understand what training and information they need.

Supported by the National College, NLGs are providing peer-to-peer support, harnessing and sharing effective practice so that talent is shared around the system. They will help schools which need support to benefit from strong governance and those governors who contribute the most to be recognised for their contribution.

The National College is continuing with its work to design and provide leadership training for governors. I know that the NGA and other representatives are working with the College to make sure training covers those areas that governors believe will have most impact. I am very aware that there are a number of different groups looking at and talking about governance, all of them recognising the centrality of its role and arguing that we need to increase our focus on empowering and supporting governors.

I agree with them and, working with organizations like the NGA, will do what I can to support them, sometimes challenge, but certainly celebrate the major contribution this army of volunteers makes.

This article will appear in print in Governing Matters, the National Governors' Association's monthly magazine

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