School governance is a vital but oft-forgotten aspect of the school system. Here Mike Parker lays out what he reckons needs to change

“Governors are the unsung heroes of schools”, were the opening words of Belita Scott, an inspector, at the SCHOOLS NorthEast event in south Tyneside last September.

We are increasingly concerned about the growing disparity between the expectations placed on this great volunteer army and the help given to it to adequately discharge the ever-expanding requirements of the role.

Too often, the schools that need the most help – those rated ‘requires improvement’ or ‘inadequate’, the geographically remote, or those in the most deprived communities – find it harder to recruit, retain and upskill governing bodies of the calibre and commitment necessary to support senior leader teams.

More widely, the pressures on the education system are testing the patience and the skillsets of these volunteers to the limit, even in supposedly less challenging schools.

School leaders are already working 60 or more hours a week at their own schools

In January, SCHOOLS NorthEast – a registered charity set up 10 years ago by serving heads to support 1,250 schools in the north-east of England – held its first ‘Chairs of school governance conference’ in Durham. The list of concerns and challenges was as long as your arm: funding topped the bill of most pressing issues, but chairs also reported problems across all areas of the competency framework, particularly around strategic leadership, accountability and people.

Speaking with heads and chairs in schools that struggle to get the right governance support, three issues come to the fore.

Firstly, it is hard to find educators to join governing bodies with the knowledge to adequately provide constructive challenge to senior leaders around their plans to improve progress and attainment. The vast majority of governors aren’t educators and don’t have the knowledge to understand if improvement plans really will effect the change that is needed. Too many don’t understand the data in the first place.

Secondly, upskilling all governors at struggling schools to ensure they are effective is a huge problem.

Thirdly, while schools in more affluent areas find getting quality business engagement on boards relatively easy, national initiatives to recruit governors and non-executive directors in deprived and/or remote locations aren’t hitting the mark.

Tackling the first issue is on the face of it reasonably simple.

Having a head or SLT member sitting on another governing body can act as a “critical friend”, if you will. Having the influence of someone who walks the educational walk on a daily basis and can take an impartial view, while understanding the inner workings of a school, can be indispensable. Who better to govern another school than someone who knows what it takes from a personal perspective?

In reality though, school leaders are already working 60 or more hours a week at their own schools, according to the DfE’s workforce survey. This leaves precious little time to voluntarily support others. Creating space for leaders to take up governing roles would be a real asset to those schools in greatest need within the system.

Ongoing training is key to a highly effective governing body. The government has tried to address this with dedicated support for chairs and clerks, but undermined its own efforts by disproportionately focusing only on its opportunity areas, rather than targeting any ‘requires improvement’ or ‘inadequate’ schools. This needs to go further to ensure fully funded training is delivered across entire governing bodies in the schools that need it most.

A better solution also must be found to fill the skills gaps on governing bodies, particularly those that need it most. The government needs to look at incentives to get professionals filling vacancies where their skills are needed most, rather than the school most convenient to them.

Schools Week is media partner for the SCHOOLS NorthEast Northern Governance Conference on Friday 20 April in Newcastle.

Mike Parker is director of SCHOOLS NorthEast