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What should school governance look like in an autonomous, self-improving schools system?

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, all state schools must have a governing body, consisting (depending on the type and size of school) of specified numbers of various categories of governors – including parents, staff members, local authority representatives, members of the local community, and of any sponsor involved. There are estimated to be in the region of 300,000 governors serving on boards in England alone. Governors are legally responsible for holding senior leadership to account for schools’ financial and educational performance. Following the introduction of new guidance stressing the importance of governors’ having the right skills to discharge their roles effectively, and seeking to sharpen the focus of their remit, with greater emphasis on heads’ accountability to governors, the present Government has presented transition to the new arrangements in 2015 as an ideal opportunity to get rid of ‘passengers’. and ensure that all governors are contributing effectively to the realisation of whole school vision. The emphasis on cutting back and simplifying the rules evident in The Governors Handbook 2014 is to be welcomed. Nevertheless, both statutory requirements in respect of composition and Ofsted best practice requirements remain highly prescriptive. Schools are essentially tied in to the stakeholder model. The focus continues to be very much on outward form and right process – to the extent that the Ofsted description of what constitutes effective governance (the basis for the government-approved Review tool to support external reviews) is almost entirely self-referential. There are precious few references to and no methodology is offered for evaluation of the effect of governors’ decisions on the outcomes for pupils. This might be justified were the impact of school governing bodies clear in terms of the added value they bring to the educational enterprise and/or their efficiency. But research showing that good governance in general, let alone any particular model of governance, has a direct effect on pupil performance is decidedly lacking (see CfBT 2010, p. 25). And in respect of their role in financial scrutiny, the approved model(s) are not required for a school to be able to manage its finances. Much attention is currently focused on professionalization, with discussion of routine payment of expenses and even remuneration of governors .These are important considerations if the aim is only to improve efficiency on the present arrangements. But we might give thought also to the legal framework. This framework entails a spreading of responsibility which in turn mandates specific structures and procedures of governance. These plainly don’t apply well in all contexts. A measure of liberalisation might allow other more efficient models to emerge. The independent schools sector has to date enjoyed greater autonomy in matters of governance – with proprietorial schools making use of boards of advice for example, and incorporated school businesses utilising models typical of private sector for-profit enterprises – often to advantage and certainly to no ill effect. The effectiveness of such models offers a persuasive argument in favour of more focused responsibility for governance, rather than those preferred in charitable trust and state-funded sectors, which spread it across large board and multiple committee structures, tied to termly / quarterly meeting cycles. As highlighted by one of the authors of the 2010 CfBT report in evidence to the Education Select Committee in its inquiries (para. 3.4.4), ‘an underperforming or poorly performing governing board is a substantial disadvantage for a school, not just a neutral presence’. This is particular challenge in areas where there is low governance capital. Schools that are poorly regarded tend to have a smaller talent pool to draw from – as also those in lower socio-economic status settings, and those enjoying lower levels of pupil attainment. Within the context of a funding system in which we may reasonably hope to see schools given greater resources to educate low attaining pupils, were schools given discretion as to their governance arrangements, paying consultants for example with the right expertise to provide scrutiny of finances or strategic advice for school improvement might be more effective than making use of the limited talent available to them on a voluntary basis. Requirements on composition, and indeed maintaining the apparatus itself, with all the relational investment required, might very well only serve to detract attention from the task at hand. Given the weakness of the statistical link between measures of governing body effectiveness and pupil attainment, the lack of clear thinking in general around performance indicators for governing bodies, and the viability of alternative models for getting the job done, it is not unreasonable to ask whether the current arrangements are necessary for success. In Sweden, governing bodies are not required. Municipal authorities appoint heads, and hold them to account for their performance (sometimes appointing paid boards to fulfil this function). In the free school sector, chains determine their own arrangements, and stand-alones generally do without formal structures. Accountability is first and foremost to parents (because of the way they do voucher funding). Because consumer/parent accountability is strong, governing bodies are not seen as necessary for stakeholder engagement. The Swedish system is by no means perfect – as my colleague Gabriel Heller Sahlgren has often commented (as here for example) and discusses at length in his book – and the country has not fared well in recent years in international rankings, but its governance arrangements pre-date all of this. Indeed, choice reforms and market accountability have sharpened the focus, with the result that governance remains lean in the free school sector. Evidently governing bodies, as mandated, are not indispensable to educational success. James Croft

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