“I’ve been in this job for about eight years,” said Elliot Sharp, chair of governors at Water Hall Primary in Milton Keynes. “And it’s gone from people volunteering what time they have to people being asked: ‘What skills can you offer us?’
“We have a literacy professor, someone who’s been in the fire brigade, people with a finance background – we’re trying to find the skill set that the school needs.”
As governing bodies become increasingly professionalised, headteachers are having to find alternative ways to ensure that the needs of the local community are represented, new research reveals.
Jacqueline Baxter, lecturer in public policy and management at the Open University, noted that, while in the past school governors were simply well-meaning members of the community, they are now expected to provide specific skills and a vision for the school’s future.
As a result, they are losing touch with the communities they are meant to represent, Dr Baxter said. “Governors used to see their school very much in terms of the community and what it meant to be serving that community,” she said. “The relationship between the governing body and communities was at one time taken as a given. And now it isn’t.”
‘Parents have rights’
This is something that Kim Johnson, principal of Bradfields Academy in Kent and president of the NAHT headteachers’ union, recognises. When he needs to recruit someone with a specific area of expertise, he turns to organisations such as the School Governors’ One-Stop Shop, which matches would-be governors with available posts. But there are skills that these governors simply do not have.
“Schools are local community resources,” he said. “To talk business-speak, the parents and carers are consumers. So they do have a right to be represented on governing bodies and to influence what happens as the school moves forwards.”
Historically, two places on governing bodies were always reserved for elected parent governors. However, this year’s schools White Paper proposed scrapping these posts in favour of governors with relevant skills.
Mr Sharp points out that parents and skilled governors need not be mutually exclusive: two out of his five governors are parents with relevant skills. “I think we’ve got to keep the parent element on the board,” he said.
The whole notion of local knowledge is absolutely vital to good governance
Derek Fance, head of Lillington Nursery and Primary School in Leamington Spa, has found a different way of ensuring that his governors understand the area that is served by the school.
“My chair of governors is an ex-headteacher from Warwickshire,” he said. “We have a local district councillor, who knows the community exceptionally well, and an elected MP for Warwick and Leamington. We have a strong community feel in that respect.
“The whole notion of local knowledge is absolutely vital to good governance in schools – being able to understand your community and your parents, and the issues that they face on a day-to-day basis, so that you’re able to respond to their needs.”
The importance of this becomes even more marked when schools are part of a multi-academy trust (MAT), according to Dr Baxter. As part of her research, she interviewed 50 heads and governors of MATs. She presented her preliminary findings at the British Educational Leadership, Management and Administration Society conference earlier this month.
In many of the MATs she observed, corporate policy was decided by a central board of governors, with individual schools sending their own chairs of governors to represent their interests on this board.
“If MATs are geographically diverse, then it’s very difficult for them to decide on a strategy, because the knowledge they’re getting from those individual communities is so diluted,” Ms Baxter said. “How do you open those channels of communication between local governing bodies and the main school board?”
‘Needs and contexts’
In addition to leading his school, Mr Johnson is chair of governors for a school belonging to a MAT. He argues that it is incumbent on the members of a central board of governors to visit individual schools and develop an understanding of their needs and contexts.
However, he believes that this responsibility can go both ways: governors also need to champion their own schools’ needs.
“When MATs make corporate decisions, they might erode some of the individual nature of their schools,” he said. “As chair of governors, it’s clearly my responsibility to ensure that this individuality is not lost in the overall corporate vision.
“Instead of the MAT looking down, the school should be looking up.”
Gillian Allcroft, deputy chief executive of the National Governors’ Association, points out that individual schools, too, need to work to ensure that all viewpoints are both heard and understood. To achieve this, she recommends surveying parents and pupils, inviting families into schools and creating a separate parent council.
“Have dialogue with parents, staff and pupils,” she said. “Together, senior leaders and governors need to work out where it is that the school should be going. And, from there, plot a course.”