October 2011


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  • Guvnors
    As schools become more autonomous, the role of the governing body is assuming even greater significance. Emma Knights examines the skills and other attributes a governing body needs in order to maximise its effectiveness in a new era of self-determination. More
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As schools become more autonomous, the role of the governing body is assuming even greater significance. Emma Knights examines the skills and other attributes a governing body needs in order to maximise its effectiveness in a new era of self-determination.


School governance is under the spotlight now more than it has been for some years, and rightly so. You don’t need me to tell you that increasing school autonomy and less central government prescription leaves more strategic decisions to be made at school level. Significant numbers of heads may well have reviewed or be in the process of reviewing governance structures as part of conversion to an academy.

Meanwhile, the diminishing role for local authorities means that there is a need for another look at the accountability system for school; without a reliable safety net, the risks of not having robust governance increase dramatically. There are some additional responsibilities for directors in academies which means the potential risks of poor governance are more serious there.

But although the legal framework is different, the actual business of governing well in academies and maintained schools is remarkably similar – much more so than many commentators and even education professionals realise.

Skills audit

The personal attributes of governors – their skills, interest, commitment and knowledge – are far more important to effective governance than the composition or size of the governing body. This point is borne out by research on governance in the last few years which corroborates the experience of the National Governors’ Association (NGA) and our members.

That is why NGA encourages all governing bodies, whatever their composition, to undertake a skills audit and recruit to fill any identified gaps. NGA has a model audit schools may want to adapt if the governing body has not undertaken one before. (www.nga.org.uk). If you do identify a skills gap, the School Governors’ One-Stop Shop (SGOSS) can help with recruitment (www.sgoss.org.uk).

There are five key elements that will help to transform a team of diverse people into a highly effective governing body:

  • having a clear understanding of their role
  • being led by an effective chair
  • having a good clerk
  • forming a productive working relationship with the head, based on mutual trust and respect
  • knowing the institution and being able to interrogate relevant data well

Good induction training for governors, including staff governors, is critical. It needs to combine getting to know the school with information on the role and the expectations. For starters, see the NGA’s guide, Welcome to Governance.

There needs to be a budget for governor development; training and support for governors is a tiny call on a school’s budget, but one which it would be foolish to withhold.

NGA, ASCL and the National Association of Head Teachers have drawn up a joint document, What Governing Bodies Should Expect From School Leaders And What School Leaders Should Expect From Governing Bodies. It helps to define the respective roles, emphasising both the need for governors to remain strategic and the need for the head to understand that the governing body holds him/her to account for overall performance.

Understanding is only the beginning, however. We have many examples of where one or other party knows the theory, but has not understood how the distinction between strategic and operational can best be translated into practice.

One crude indicator is time: if a governor, even a chair of governors, is spending more than 20 days a year on school business, averaging about half a day a week during term-time, the chances are s/he has strayed from the strategic into the operational.

An effective chair can make all the difference to the culture and practice of the governing body by keeping the business focused clearly on improvement and development priorities. However, the support of a professional clerk is essential. Is your clerk trained and accredited, with a good understanding of both the law and good practice?

Governing bodies have a big range of compliance duties and an important financial monitoring role, but in governors’ meetings the minor compliance issues often squeeze out the critical work on strategic direction and self-evaluation. Governing bodies need to be concentrating on the offer – both the curriculum and extra-curricular – to the children and young people.

The chair is a leadership role which until now has been largely overlooked, but we very much welcome the fact that the National College’s remit has been extended to cover chairs of governing bodies. NGA is working with them to develop resources for chairs of governors.

Succession planning

One of the chair’s roles is to ensure succession on the governing body, but particularly of the chair itself. NGA suggests that no one should serve as chair of governors at the same school for more than six years and, during their tenure, should delegate tasks and responsibilities and actively encourage other governors, particularly the vice-chair and chairs of committees, to take a lead.

A trusting – but not cosy – relationship between the head and the chair is vital and it forms the backdrop for a professional relationship between the head and the whole governing body. NGA has developed a model code of practice for governing bodies. (See www.nga.org.uk)

The governing body’s duty is to challenge as well as support. Research shows that while governing bodies tend to be very supportive of their schools, not all governing bodies do challenge in a robust and constructive fashion.

The chair should play a vital role in making this happen by modelling good behaviour. The chair should ensure governors know the school and have access to the relevant data as well as the skills to interpret it, and can call on expert advice when necessary.

Good governance is not an optional extra – it never has been – but in these times of increasing autonomy and austerity, it is critical to get it right.

  • Emma Knights is chief executive of the National Governors' Association

The Duston School

The Duston School is an 11-19 foundation trust school in Northamptonshire which had been in an Ofsted category for seven years when Jane Herriman took over as headteacher in 2005. Thus the issues which faced the school were both deep-rooted and complex.

This was Jane’s third headship, and she had experience in similar schools, having been in the National College’s first cohort of heads who had been trained in challenging circumstances back in 2001.

The problems which faced the school inevitably got worse before they improved, as many issues didn’t surface immediately, and the governing body wasn’t helping.

In Jane’s words: “Governors believed it was their job to manage the school on a daily basis, advising on the curriculum courses, for example. Historically, they probably had to be more involved with the school because of the many challenges that faced it but it meant that I couldn’t get on with my job as lead professional. Progress was, consequently, being impeded.”

After some months of tumult, the relationship between governors and the school irretrievably broke down. The Department for Children, Schools and Families (as was) stepped in at Jane’s request and replaced the governing body with a highly experienced interim executive board (IEB). Led by Ros Clayton, an experienced former head and chief education officer, it also included a head from another local authority, a school improvement partner and ex-head, an ex-county finance officer and Jane.

The five member team immediately put distance between the varied external people who were involved in holding the school to account and allowed the senior leadership team to continue its work. They added capacity without duplicating, acting as a critical friend.

Joint visits to outstanding schools and attending together courses with SLT members and governors built up trust and confidence and allowed first hand evidence to be further discussed at governing body meetings with maximum impact.

Three of the original IEB members remain on the small but highly effective governing body of 12. Meetings are scheduled straight after school to support the long working days of the SLT, they are highly focused and take no longer than two hours.

There are two committees which meet concurrently so that full governing body endorsement is there if necessary. Virtual meetings via the internet, conference calls and emails help to update governors or endorse urgent decisions.

Jane adds: “The educational skill set of the governors have meant that for many (but not all), the level of debate has a different starting point: is more intense and definitely very challenging.”

Governance has improved to the extent that Ofsted rated governance innovative and outstanding in September 2010. The school was also a finalist in this year’s National Governing Body Awards.

The situation at Duston was extreme but for leaders who find themselves in similar circumstances Jane counsels against hoping things will improve by themselves. “If the relationship with the governors is not right, then be prepared to go and seek advice. The young people in our care only get one chance, and that should not be compromised. Equally, for the health, well-being and emotional support for the SLT in particular, trust and professional respect are all essential ingredients for a school wishing to progress.”

Is your governing body operating effectively?

  • Does your governing body have all the necessary skills around the table? Have you done a skills audit?
  • How is its development budget spent?
  • Is there a code of practice?
  • Has the chair spent more than six years at the helm? Is there a succession plan?
  • Does the chair spend more than 20 days a year in school?
  • Does the governing body challenge well?
  • Is it focused on improvement?
  • Do you look at good practice from elsewhere?
  • Have you carried out an impact assessment?