How governors are still a ‘fifth wheel’

13th November 2015 at 00:00

Scottish schools don’t have governing bodies, yet they perform slightly better in international tests than English schools. With the decline and fall of our local education authorities, however, we have come to rely on governors.

It’s time for a confession. When I was an education officer, I was always polite to and about governing bodies, but I couldn’t help thinking they were a fifth wheel on the carriage: they didn’t contribute much and they slowed you down. Moreover, they could destabilise the carriage so much that they could sometimes be harmful.

Since the late 1980s, for example, governors have acquired the exclusive right to appoint headteachers, which they tend to do rarely and their inexperience shows: they often get it wrong.

When we set up the London Challenge, I warned a minister that prioritising governors as a key ingredient in improving London’s schools would be a “time and energy trap”. Governors were often either uncritical lovers or hostile witnesses, I said, and rarely the critical friends we would like them to be.

Then I retired and became a governor, yet I confess I still see them as a fifth wheel on the carriage. They are wonderful volunteers – in their hundreds of thousands – but they too often struggle.

How are we to improve matters now that academies and free schools are fixed stars and diminished local authorities are black holes?

For me, it is through local partnerships of schools in multi-academy trusts (MATs), at least until local democracy is reformed.

The dilemma was vividly brought home a couple of weeks ago by the head of a small Cotswolds primary school. “After 20 years of teaching and leading this school – and I love teaching and the community I serve – I’ve decided to get back to teaching,” he explained.

“In the past year alone there has been a major change to the primary national curriculum, completely new assessment arrangements, yet another change to the Ofsted framework and an expectation on me to organise free school meals for all pupils below key stage 2.

“And that’s not all,” he continued, warming to his theme. “I am now an agent of the security forces expected to spot signs of extremism, while, for social services, I act as a frontline worker in heading off child sexual exploitation.”

Pointing out that the cost of his salary was £1,000 per pupil compared with £200 in an average-sized school, he argued for what we might call “a lead teacher in charge” within a federation of schools.

When I asked what his governors made of this idea, he said they understood. But, like turkeys and Christmas, they weren’t going to back the plan, even though with impending cuts he couldn’t see the present situation lasting “more than two or three years”.

And, of course, who it is that forces the issue is interesting, as there is nothing in it for the local authority, which has been stripped of power, resources and staff expertise. So, perhaps surprisingly, I find myself supporting the idea of MATs, particularly in rural areas, provided that they are local, not too large and have a few trustees who really know what they are doing.

In urban areas with fewer small schools, governors need to be stronger, with the MAT trustees acting only to avoid crisis and to promote school improvement by learning within and beyond their schools. In either case, it should be the MAT trustees, not the governors, who are accountable to Ofsted and the Department for Education.

For the time being, in the fragmented chaos into which the government has plunged our schooling system, locally created MATs seem a better answer than 22,000 governing bodies. Sir Tim Brighouse is a former schools commissioner for London

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