They are an army of hundreds of thousands of volunteers, dedicated to improving education in England’s state-funded schools, prepared to offer their skills and free time for nothing.
School governors are, in short, David Cameron’s “Big Society” writ large. But for the past decade – thanks to changes that accelerated rapidly under Mr Cameron’s administrations and still continue today – their numbers have been slashed.
Tes calculations show that the rise of the multi-academy trusts (MATs) has effectively resulted in around 68,000 traditional school governor positions being lost, as the power and responsibility for individual schools that they once held has shifted to the single boards of the larger organisations the schools have joined.
This represents more than a quarter of the 250,000 school governors that now exist inside and outside of MATs, according to the National Governance Association.
This sweeping but unheralded change has led to fears of an exodus of the volunteers who help our schools and also help to root them in the communities they serve.
Are we witnessing the slow death of the school governor, and, if so, does it matter?
The Governance Handbook – the Department for Education’s 131-page “Bible” for those who are responsible for our schools – is clear that the three core functions of school governance remain the same, whatever the type of school: ensuring clarity of vision, ethos and strategic direction; holding executive leaders to account; and overseeing the financial performance of the organisation.
But the arrival of multi-academy trusts has moved these responsibilities to a new and smaller group of people. Before, these duties lay with the governors of an individual school; now they have been moved up to the MAT’s board of trustees.
Rather than being concerned with one local school, a MAT board can run dozens of schools – and it may meet many miles away.
This does not mean that there is no local body linked to a school or a cluster of schools. In most MATs, there is still a local governing body (LGB). But any responsibilities it has come from the trustees above them, and can be withdrawn at any time. It no longer legally runs the school.
Members of a LGB may still look like school governors, but their lack of powers leave them a pale shadow of their former selves. For Emma Knights, chief executive of the NGA, this transformation has been “absolutely huge”.
Indeed, the position of a LGB member is so different that she believes these volunteers should not be called “governors” any more, and the entities they sit on should no longer be known as “local governing bodies”, but rather “academy committees”.
Some MATs have acknowledged the change and new names like “ambassadorial advisory groups” are starting to spring up.
Governance may feel like a dry, technical issue, but it can make a real difference to schools on the ground because they can feel so distant from the trusts that run them.
“In some cases, trustees struggle, when they have got lots and lots of schools, to understand what they are governing, because they don’t know the schools and have probably not set foot in them,” Knights says.
“We have chairs of academy committees who say that they have not met the trustees. We would say that’s bad practice.”
Tension in this relationship between the centre and the school is inevitable – sometimes it manifests in the form of healthy challenge, sometimes in the form of destructive argument – and it can decide the fate of a school. Last year, the governors of Greengate Lane Academy in Sheffield were on the verge of voting to leave Astrea, the academy trust they joined the year before. But before they could do so, Astrea exercised the new power it had over this former governing body of a single school and simply disbanded it.
“It takes away any local control and accountability that the parents hold the school to. We’ve been let down,” one parent-governor said at the time.
For Astrea, which has since overhauled its governance structure to make the new reality explicit, the local governing body had no remit to seek to move trusts, and its formal role was to “champion the Astrea vision and values in the academy” (see bit.ly/GreenTrust).
‘Loss of autonomy’
Last year, Who Governs Our Schools?, a major study by the Royal Society of Arts (bit.ly/RSAgovern), highlighted benefits of the MAT system, including local boards getting greater support from professionals employed by the MAT, and more opportunities for schools to collaborate.
However, it warned: “This support may also disempower and deskill local boards, precisely because it removes legal and financial responsibility from the local level, while the prospect of collaboration may feel like a loss of autonomy, especially given the backdrop of a focus, since the early 1990s, on ever-greater inter-school competition, especially within localities.”
The loss of “real” decision-making could remove the original attraction of becoming a school governor, the study said, and “this may lead to a loss of highly skilled, locally based governors from the system, and from the lives of local schools”.
It is a fear that Knights recognises, with professionals such as lawyers, accountants and education consultants choosing to leave, rather than stay on powerless committees.
“We have seen people walk away from local governing bodies or there was not enough to warrant what they felt they could bring to the role,” she says.
“There were people who chaired academy committees who moved on after their term to find a volunteering post that’s more of a challenge, and more useful.”
The RSA report called for the DfE to monitor any decline in school governors because of the switch to federations and MATs. “Should such a decline become evident and significant, policymakers may need to act to ensure that valuable volunteered expertise such as that currently offered by school-based governors is not lost to the education system,” it added.
Today, there are more than 5,200 MATs that have at least two academies, and there is wide variation in the roles that their school-level bodies perform in areas from finances and curriculum to academic standards. Most academy trusts retain LGBs, but some are changing their thinking, to make explicit how the new landscape differs from the old.
“It’s really important to be absolutely transparent about how governance works in a multi-academy trust, as it differs quite considerably from maintained schools,” says Libby Nicholas, chief executive of Astrea.
When it reorganised its governance arrangements last term, the MAT introduced “local education and consultative committees”.
Nicholas says: “We place huge importance on our local bodies – they hold our heads to account and act as a conduit between the Astrea board of trustees and parents, staff and the wider local community. Local bodies do not, however, have legal powers. Quite rightly, these sit with the trustees of the trust as a whole.”
And two years ago, E-Act made national news headlines when it scrapped local governing bodies at all of its schools, replacing them with “ambassadorial advisory groups” (AAGs).
In place of the three core functions of governance that the DfE outlines, E-Act chief executive David Moran says that these local bodies “focus on a remit of the ‘four Cs’ of communication, celebration, complaints and community, and work closely with headteachers, regional and national staff and have a direct link to our trustees”.
It is a set-up that the trust believes retains local volunteers as “a core part of the academy’s life and development”. E-Act’s regional team manages the scrutiny of the academy’s performance – although AAG members are “invited to participate” – and the MAT’s board of trustees is the sole governing body for all of its 25 schools.
On the other hand, the 44-academy Harris Federation in London, one of the top-performing trusts in the country, retains local governing bodies.
Chief executive Sir Dan Moynihan, who personally interviews all new local governors, says they “pretty much do everything you would expect a traditional board to do”, but with extra information and support from the trust to help them do their jobs.
These duties include being a “critical friend” of school leaders, deciding their school’s curriculum – “as long as it is working” – and recommending academy budgets to the central team. Moynihan says the trust has yet to turn a budget down.
“We can’t run this from the centre. They have to run it locally. Our job is to empower them and give them the freedom to do it, but not have the freedom to fail.”
Knights says: “At the moment, I think most trusts are committed to keeping local governance, and the challenge is to make it real and robust, and be clear about the value it is adding. That’s the debate, and we don’t know where it’s going to head.”
The DfE says while “overall accountability rightly sits at trust level”, trusts can delegate functions to “local governing bodies”.
But, in the end, if Harris – or any other MAT – wanted to overrule or remove such local governors, then it has the power to do so.
And that inevitably means that where local “governors” do survive, it is relations with their MAT, not the community, that matters most for their future.