School governance - upping the game


Lisa Forster, Finance Advisor, Children's Services Finance Advisory Network (CSFAN), considers the question: what makes a good school governor?

There is not a simple answer to this question or a list of skills for school governors. Essentially it boils down to governors understanding what good governance in schools and academies is all about. In 2011 the National Foundation for Education Research (NFER) produced a report Governance models in schools which stated that the:

'Key to effective governance was perceived to be governors having a clear understanding of their role (and its limits) and an understanding of the strategic responsibilities of governing bodies.'

In September 2012, the Government introduced regulations allowing local authority maintained schools’ governing bodies to reconstitute themselves to be smaller, with an emphasis on skills as opposed to set constitutions. On announcing the new regulations, the Department for Education (DfE) stressed that

‘we will not prescribe any particular model [of governance], as local governing bodies are best placed to do this themselves'.

In addition to this, we have seen the growth of the academies sector, where governors have additional responsibilities to those in a local authority school. Anecdotal evidence from CSFAN's work with school business managers has found that these new duties are not fully understood and are sometimes misinterpreted, therefore in some instances good governance is not operating as effectively as it should.

A governors' understanding of their roles and responsibilities is therefore paramount to good governance, yet we are in a period of rapid change, and we need to ensure that governing bodies keep pace with that change.

Volunteer doesn't mean amateur

School and academy governors are volunteers, and although volunteer doesn’t mean amateur it may mean that training is required.

Lord Heseltine in his March 2013 No Stone Unturned report (Proposal 78 para 1.88 ) said;

‘All boards of governors in secondary schools should include two influential local employers, at least one of whom should have good connections with the wider business community. This could be coordinated by the local chambers of commerce’.

The government response to this was;

‘It is essential that governing bodies are made up of people with the necessary skills and experience to enable them to carry out their demanding functions, including successful business people. The Government does not believe in dictating who sits on governing bodies but it agrees that business leaders should seek opportunities to get involved with school and college governance, and will continue to encourage business leaders to take advantage of the government-funded Governors’ One-Stop Shop, a free service which helps schools and colleges to recruit skilled governors from the business world’.

Having influential business leaders on the school, or academy, board of governors is the ideal. However many schools don’t have the luxury of selecting from a wide pool of candidates. The July 2013 education select committee report ‘role of school governing bodies’ states that DfE estimates show approximately 11% of governor posts are vacant. The difficulty in filling posts is  verified by the National Governors’ Association which has found that a large proportion of governing bodies have difficulty in finding skilled governors. The National College for School Leadership (NCSL) has also observed that there is ‘significant evidence” that governors are recruited for their representative role rather than for a particular skill. Further evidence from the school governors one stop shop (SGOSS) claimed ‘a causal link between high quality business volunteers and effective governing bodies'.

The link between the effectiveness of governing bodies and the level of vacancies is disputed. Professor Chris James, from Bath University, says that ‘There is no clear statistical relationship between governing body effectiveness and governing body size or [...] vacancies” whereas Ofsted found that ‘Vacancies are a particular issue for primary schools, and …primary school governance (is) considerably less effective on average than that seen in secondary schools'.

Defining essential governor skills

The skills that governors need are also in need of definition, SGOSS disputes the absolute need for specific business skills, instead claiming that ‘broader, transferable business skills’ such as familiarity with data sheets, board situations and the role as a critical friend’ are what is needed. The SGOSS also point out that as yet no research has been undertaken on the impact that different types of governors have on the school’.

There have also been moves to recruit those with relevant skills from outside the school's localities, however critics argue that this fails to recognise the importance of local knowledge and interest in the community. There is therefore  a balance between filling governing bodies with unskilled local members and filling them with skilled members from outside the local area.

Does governor body size matter?

Also questioned is which size of governing body delivers optimum effectiveness. The NFER report from 2011 showed that governors cited size as the least relevant element of an effective governing body. The Select Committee 2013 report  cited opposing views however, the DfE favours small skill-based bodies whereas ASCL and others saw drawbacks in this model pointing towards the impact of work pressures on a smaller group. Their final word however was that ‘Despite the DfE’s clear preference for smaller governing bodies, there is no evidence base to prove that smaller governing bodies are more effective than larger ones'.

An academy has greater autonomy than a local authority school but this does not mean greater autonomy around governance principles. In fact they have additional responsibilities as laid out in their role as charity trustees and company directors of charitable companies[2]. An academy is a publicly funded independent school and it is the term ‘publicly funded’ that should drive behaviour rather than ‘independent’.

The media are quick to denounce those whereby governance has resulted in ‘extravagance’ and ‘financial irregularity’ yet we must remember that this is the minority and that for most governance in academies is a serious and time consuming task.

Should training governing bodies, or at least awareness raising, when a school decides to convert to an academy be compulsory? Our anecdotal evidence of governors experiences is along the lines of ‘we didn’t know that’, or ‘the additional duties were not made obvious’.

The DfE efficiency review in June of this year states that:

‘We will strengthen our expectations about governors’ roles in driving financial efficiency, as set out in the Governors’ Handbook. We will also strengthen the focus on financial efficiency within the National College’s leadership development programme for chairs of governors and investigate the feasibility of developing a specific training programme for governors on effective challenge and efficiency'.

It feels like governance and governors' roles are being taken more seriously, not only from the aspect of safeguarding public monies and assets, but also in recognition of the influence they can have in driving school efficiency and financial assurance.

Governors may be volunteers but they are an essential cog in the wheel of a successful school and academy system.

Lisa Forster, Finance Advisor, Children's Services Finance Advisory Network, CIPFA,