Governors: Stakeholders or Non-executive Directors?

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As schools are given greater and greater powers over curriculum and teachers’ pay and performance, the business of governance and accountability comes under the spotlight. Statements by the Chief Inspector of Ofsted early this year spotlighted the role and perceived weaknesses of some governing bodies. What do we want from our school governors? What do we want them to be?

In this article Dr Bob Bowie, Principal lecturer in Canterbury Christ Church’s Faculty of Education and primary school governor, considers this question in the light of his recent experience of an Ofsted inspection.

boardroom table and chairsFour primary school governors are sitting on one side of a table, facing two Ofsted inspectors during a section 5 inspection. I was one of four. Beside me were two senior business managers and two accountants, all with recent or current children in the school. I am the educationalist on the governing body, a university teacher educator. In short we were all professional working adults.

It was as grueling as a tough PhD viva. Of course you have time to prepare for vivas. It is quite a challenge with 24 hours’ notice.  I was expected to know precise and detailed facts about the performance data of our school, but it was a working day so there was no chance to review the statistics before we went in, or think about strategy – though I wonder if that’s what one should be thinking about.  It was lucky we could get time off work and rearrange family responsibilities within the right turnaround window. These interviews are intense.  There is an expectation to know detailed facts of finance and achievement, to be able to talk and respond to questions rapid-fire style.  The inspectors have not got long to form a judgement about us. I wonder if they get time to read the minutes of full governing body meetings let alone minutes of sub-committee meetings. There is not much time. Perhaps governors should gather together the night before to go through the recent stats and current school plan again – to mug up.  But that would require babysitters and I wonder if that is the character of how things really should be.

My Ofsted experience came just before the speech by Sir Michael Wilshaw in which he identified failings in leadership and governance – criticising governors who were ill informed. Tough to hear if you give up to a day a week for something you are passionate about. Wilshaw was launching the new dashboard to help governors. The debates that flourished after his announcement revolved around Wilshaw’s suggestion to pay governors of schools in challenging circumstances.

What seemed to be lost in these exchanges were some more profound questions about the role of the governor:

  • should they  principally remain stakeholder representatives, from the community, professional and foundation interest groups with direct stakes in the school?
  • should they take the form of a board of non-executive directors, recruited because of  specific skills, rather than specific representative interest groups, to  oversee key aspects of school operation?
  • is it more important to have a board with suitable skills and qualifications, or a group of committed people who suitably represent the community? Is it possible to get both?

Perhaps, in the process to give increased autonomy to Headteachers, the policy thinking about implications for governance and governors came late to the party.   Governors depend on external advice, but the local authorities are dwindling in their ability to provide support. Evidence given to the Education Select Committee from the former Chair of the National Governors Association suggests that training is poor and I can vouch for that. It seems increasingly likely that governors will feel the need to turn to school group structures to provide help. Structures such as those found within multi-school academies, can lead to governors’ meetings taking place far from the school community whose interests they serve; this can result in governance being drawn back from the local context into that of the school group or academy chain.

The calculated assumption is that if one has to choose, it is better to have good governance than local governance. Better good than bad for sure, but is there another ‘value’ that might be worth striving for too? Justice and honesty is vital in the process of inspection but assuming governors are professional school leaders is a mistake. I believe they are more than that; they are community guardians of the school enterprise and they undertake their work for reasons of deep connectedness and deep senses of duty to the children. They commit to years of service, to a community and a place. They accept that they will work through many different policy initiatives and live with the reality that they will probably be judged against decisions made long ago under a previous government policy framework.

When I visit school to pick up my children, I am stopped by concerned parents who have questions they want answers to. I live a ten minute walk from the school, as do almost all of the others on the governing body on which I serve.  In my experience governors are determined to support and scrutinise the school leadership in growing the school to be the best it can be for all the children it serves; But they are poorly supported in that role. It is good that Ofsted are developing tools for governors to use though really we need much, much more than a website if we are to be able to do the job that is now expected of us. High quality development work would be a good place to start.

Come September 2014 as Headteachers feel the pressure from Ofsted to use their new pay and performance powers, I wonder if Primary Governing Bodies will finally begin to feel the draw to Academy status and the comfort of corporate oversight of complexities like pay and performance. What a shame it would be if in future, governors were figures rarely seen on playgrounds, distant from the community. Something might be gained in performance terms but perhaps something is lost in local accountability, and the extent to which a school truly is a community institution.

This article first appeared in Teach Primary Magazine.  It is reproduced here with their permission.

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2 Responses to Governors: Stakeholders or Non-executive Directors?

  1. Mike Wednesday, 23 April 2014 at 12:14 #

    Very interesting post Bob. You raised many great questions about the role of school Governors. However, as a school is a complete different entity to an enterprise organisation, I personally think Governors would be the best bet. Although, the background of the Governor should hit all the points of skills, qualification and community representation.

  2. Bob Bowie Wednesday, 23 April 2014 at 19:17 #

    I am not sure I agree with your distinction, as regards schools in a marketed environment with performance measures and competition at the heart of the new(ish) educational establishment.

    The question is not whether or not we have Governors, but what we want of Governors. Some schools advertise for Governors seeking a skill set over a stakeholder representative. This is Governor-as-executive and the FGB becomes the Executive board (or non executive board) . Some (still) see Governance as a representative body – a democratic institution with different community representatives.

    However, the state’s expectations being placed on governors in terms of expertise and levels of responsibility are surging and the pressure is to put executive skill set over stakeholder representation. My question is whether a community institution SHOULD be taking this route? And what if the choice is between a good school and a representative stakeholder led community school (which is not good enough!)?