The new framework for governance is missing any acknowledgement of the need for governors to engage with the complexity of issues that their schools face
I was really looking forward to seeing the National Governors Association/Wellcome Trust’s new framework for governance. Previous outputs from this interesting collaboration have been great, and the new framework, based on the principles of corporate governance, had been stretch-tested in a two-year pilot in 20 schools.
So I was quite surprised by my indifference when it was launched in early January. Sad perhaps, but I’m usually really excited about things like this. Why so ‘meh’?
Don’t get me wrong. The new framework provides a really useful way of structuring and evaluating our work. The 20 questions to ask ourselves are excellent, and it features a healthy range of suggested KPIs, including often overlooked qualitative measures around student wellbeing and aspiration, and community relations.
It also boils down the job of school governance to three elements: governing principles, setting the strategy, and monitoring/review.
But there, I think, is the problem. I’m not sure governance is quite that simple.
Schools are not yet at the crisis point faced by the NHS, but that time may come
Schools are dynamic organisations, operating in a complex system. Even as they try to balance all manner of conflicts with ever fewer resources, the stakes get ever higher. What appears to be missing from the framework is any acknowledgement of the need for governors to engage with the complexity of the issues their schools face, or to develop empathy for the context of their strategic decisions. In other words, to develop a ‘system-level’ understanding of the schools sector.
For example, we have a general election coming up and, as yet, I don’t know what each party’s education policy priorities are, but we do know that money will be tighter. It is unlikely we’ll see the education budget protected in the next spending review, and that’s a key consideration for any governor.
In my context, the fact that Cambridgeshire schools’ funding is one of the lowest in the country – £2,000 less per student each year than Oxfordshire, for example – means that we’ve been at a disadvantage for some time, the cumulative effect of which is critical to any strategic decision. And despite the best intentions of our local MP, I’m not holding my breath for a fairer and more equitable settlement anytime soon.
There are also the teacher shortages, demographic time-bombs, and assessment reform, not to mention the likelihood of further changes to Ofsted and, for academies like us at least, increasing levels of engagement with regional schools commissioners.
We are now (quite rightly) expected to collaborate with other schools, to work with employers on more effective careers education provision, to deploy new learning technology and, with respect to curriculum, to respond to expectations around character, wellbeing, social mobility and cultural/religious extremism.
All of this is fine of course, but let’s not pretend it has no bearing on governance; that we can just ignore it all and focus on the baseline.
Simplifying the relationship these system-level factors have with school strategy is very short-sighted at best. In the NHS, many well-meaning and bright people are spending huge amounts of time trying to solve the crisis by tackling the problems nearest to them – putting more staff into A&E, adding beds to wards, GPs opening for longer – but the perversity of the system means that it’s soon back to saturation. Strategic decisions made without a clear understanding of the complexity of the whole system may achieve some short-term goals, but our focus is long term, right?
Sure, our schools are not yet at the crisis point faced by the NHS, but that time may come quicker if governors make decisions based only on what they see in their own schools. It’s vital to look outwards at the bigger picture too, and to fully appreciate – and understand – the complexity of our role.
Ben Gibbs is chair of governors at a Cambridgeshire secondary school