Education Committee Evidence Review 2013

board-meeting

On 5 November 2012 the House of Commons (HOC) Education Committee announced their inquiry into the role of school governing bodies in England. At this early stage of the inquiry individuals and leaders of organizations were encouraged to submit evidence for consideration by the Committee. In total 85 written submissions of evidence were received by the Committee and made available for public viewing. On 30 January 2013 members of the Committee assembled to begin the first stage of the inquiry. This was an interesting and lively discussion in which a number of education experts were summoned by the Committee to present evidence on matters concerning school governing bodies, specifically on issues relating to accountability, leadership, capacity, quality, effectiveness, recruitment and training.

Recently the Committee announced the date for the second stage of the inquiry, to be held on 27 February 2013. The scope of this session will focus on the key question of stakeholders with evidence expected to be presented by key members of national representative organizations, governor training providers and local authorities.

Now, it is understandable and forgivable that a number of you have been unable to trawl through the evidence submitted to the Committee. Navigating your way through 85 written submissions of evidence, some as long as 20 pages (thank you National College for School Leadership), is a lengthy and gruelling task.  Fear not, however.  Here is a digestible and accessible account of the most trending points to emerge from this evidence.

The bulk of evidence included submissions from local authorities, governing training providers, trade unions, representatives from school governing bodies, school leaders and academics, among others. The key trending areas included: governance, governing body composition, training and support, role of chair/clerk, workload and remuneration, accountability and inspection.  If you would like to review the evidence for yourself, visit HOC Education Committee.

Governance

Evidence submitted to the Committee was clear on some of the benefits attached to particular models of governance and their superiority over others. For example, in the case of academies, some opined that governance across sponsored and multi-academy trusts (MATs) is likely to function better in contrast to governance within single academy trusts. A key contention being that

‘the board of directors of single academy trusts are probably in no better position to govern their academies than were the governing bodies of the maintained which their academies have replaced.’ (Evidence submitted by Geoffrey Davies)

Against this view, the Harris Federation offers a different picture of single trust academies, suggesting that the concentration of governance to a small group working across different schools is conducive to sharing best practice and improving overall governance:

‘The Harris model is to operate with a relatively small Governing Body with just one subcommittee, Finance and General Purposes. The main Body would meet once a term, preceded by a Finance sub-committee a few weeks before.  Increasingly Governing Bodies of Harris Academies oversee more than one school. This means that excellent Governance can be shared across the group. Where this is the case there will be two main Governing Bodies per term and one Finance sub-committee which will consider financial matters for both schools.’

The loss of local democratic accountability in the face of increasing academisation (‘the democratic deficit’ as it has come to be known) was also in evidence. Teachers’ unions were particularly vocal in this instance, highlighting the ‘loss of local collaboration’ as an insidious effect of academisation (Association of Teachers and Lecturers, ATL). Another teachers’ union, NASUWT, highlighted the potentially harmful effects attached to creating schools on the basis of contractual rather than statutory obligations, ‘given that the requirements on academies and free schools in this respect derive from funding agreements and associated Articles of Association’.

To better ensure local governance and accountability, it was suggested that school boards or local education boards should be set up to operate across different localities and clusters of schools. These middle-tier arrangements would be coterminous with local authority boundaries and be ‘partly directly elected by the public and partly elected by governors of existing educational establishments’ (Evidence submitted by Nigel Gann).

In terms of governance at the level of individual school governing bodies, there was in evidence some disagreement over the roles and responsibilities of school governors. The majority of evidence submitted suggested that the role of the governing body is strategic rather than operational – that is, tied to the strategic, long-term planning of the school rather than the day-to-day management. At the same time, some evidence stressed the operational role of the governing body in terms of questioning and challenging issues relating to the day-to-day running of schools, e.g. performance data for the pupil outcomes, which would inevitably necessitate getting into the detail rather than an arms-length strategic approach.

The role of Ofsted inspection in school governance generated a set of mixed responses. While some regarded Ofsted inspection as an important lever for allotting recognition to the good work performed by school governors, others cautioned against such inspection regimes, suggesting that it might deter individuals from volunteering as school governors.

Governing Body Composition

Evidence submitted strongly argued for a rejection of a ‘one-size fits all’ imposition of one specific make-up in the composition of governing bodies, mainly because schools differ in size and ethos. Another factor was locality, with evidence to suggest that schools in disadvantaged areas find it harder to recruit suitable governors. Differing views were expressed in relation to staff governors and whether head teachers should sit on the governing body. For example, some felt strongly that the head teachers and staff have a vested interest in issues of governance and consequently should not automatically sit on the board:

‘While many teachers no doubt contribute valuably to governors’ strategic discussions, the confusion between employer and employee is a flaw which is likely to increase in importance as more schools become responsible for themselves as academies….Were the model to change as we recommend, heads and selected teachers could attend governors meetings at the discretion of governors, as currently in independent schools.’ (Evidence submitted by The Association of Governing Bodies of Independent Schools)

Also evident was a lack of agreement concerning the benefits of switching from a representative and electable governing body to one that is purely skills-based. Preference was given to a stakeholder model of governance, for example:

‘And what skills exactly are the ones that are so sought after? Many highly talented and experienced professionals recruited to governing bodies actually find that they have not the time either to devote to the role or to get to know the context of their school; this latter issue can result in members of other professions, for example finance or Human Resources, trying to impose their business culture on the school environment. While many of our schools could be run in a more professional and business like way, the fact that the raw material is children and the product is their education makes this a quite unique setting.’ (Evidence submitted by Buckinghamshire Association of School Governors (BASG))

Training and Support

Evidence alluded to the importance of training, with a number of submissions suggesting that mandatory induction training be introduced. On the basis of the evidence provided it appears that the availability and quality of training provided is patchy and inconsistent. Concerns were also expressed around the downsizing of many local authorities’ governor support functions:

‘The vast majority of schools in the country remain in the maintained sector at this point, and yet the capacity of Local Authorities to provide support and training for their governors – always admittedly of varying quality across the country – is lower than it has ever been. Some Local Authorities have risen to the challenge this presents and have adopted new and innovative practices, including my own which is now collaborating and providing governor support across five Local Authority footprints. Others however have reduced or even abandoned support for governing bodies, as this is not a clearly defined statutory function.’ (Evidence submitted by Ruth Agnew)

Evidence also highlighted the importance of training in issues relating to specialist knowledge, such as responsibilities for special educational needs (SEN) and asbestos awareness. There were also evidence to recommend that head teachers undergo specific training on governance and the roles and responsibilities of different governing body members.

Role of Chair/Clerk

Evidence highlighted the significance of the role of the chair of the school governing body and the considerable responsibility and time commitment necessitated by this role. Given the importance attached to this role, evidence recommended that potential chairs should serve as governors for at least three years before they could be appointed as chairs (Evidence submitted by The Haberdashers’ Company). Additional evidence outlined the pivotal relationship between the chair and the head teacher, suggesting that if the two fail to cooperate sufficiently, school governance is ineffective.

The importance of governing body members being sufficiently confident and skilled in expressing dissenting views to those of the chair was another crucial trending point. In particular, the power imbalance and lack of accountability that occurs when governing bodies (rather than challenge) blindly follow the decisions of the chair:

‘The inherent danger so far as the functioning of the governing body is concerned is what I describe as the hour-glass syndrome. The school is the top half of the glass and the governing body is the lower half. All the sand – i.e. information – flowing from the school to the governing body goes through the constricted neck which is the headteacher and chair of governors. Unless headteacher and chair are scrupulous or the governing body is adept at seeking and interpreting independent data, there is a clear risk that the governing body will only see and hear what the chair and head teacher choose. There is no clear answer to this beyond securing good quality governors capable of independent thought.’(Evidence submitted by Richard Gold)

The need for a highly skilled and independent clerk was also discernible in the evidence, one who understands the requirement to document decisions as well as any dissenting views contradicting or challenging the decision making of chairs:

‘Too many schools have the school administrator/head teacher’s secretary as the clerk to the governing body. This creates a conflict of interest. We firmly believe professional, independent clerking is essential for all Governing Bodies to operate in an effective way essential to the successful operation of our schools.’ (Evidence submitted by Calderdale Governors Association)

Workload and Remuneration

Despite overwhelming evidence to suggest that the workload for school governors is increasing, there was a degree of consensus around the idea that school governors should not be paid:

‘The argument that it is difficult to make serious demands on governors because they are participating voluntarily fails to understand the motivations of governors and the meaning of governing to them.’ (Evidence submitted by Professor Chris James)

At the same time, evidence emphasized that school governors should be compensated for expenses (e.g. travel to training) and that this should not come from school budgets.  (For example, the majority of school governors do not claim for eligible expenses because they are concerned about diverting funds away from their child’s education). Further recommendations for remuneration included reviewing the potential for corporate and other tax breaks for school governors (Evidence submitted by National College for School Leadership) and the proposal of some form of honoraria for the chairs and vice chairs but not at the expense of the school finances (Evidence submitted by Canning Street Primary School Governing body). In addition, evidence called for increased recognition of school governors, in order that employers recognize employees who volunteer, for example (Evidence submitted by the Association of Governing Bodies of Independent Schools).

Accountability and Inspection

To improve accountability of school governing bodies, evidence recommended mandatory reporting to the parent body annually, either in the form of annual reports to parents and an annual public meeting. To improve accountability in single academy trusts, evidence suggested parents have the right to be members of the academy and consequently to be able to elect and remove directors. In terms of ensuring accountability among federations and chains, Ofsted inspection was touted as a credible and viable option:

‘Federations and chains, including their governance, should be inspected separately to ensure they have the capacity to succeed…in the same way that local authorities have their capacity in education and children’s services inspected…such inspections should not duplicate individual school or academy inspections, but should focus clearly on leadership and governance.’ (Evidence submitted by the National College for School Leadership)

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