Governors might be in danger of getting too much attention

As a chair of governors I agree with Michael Wilshaw’s commentary that “Governance is an issue that does not always get the attention it merits”. That is certainly true of Ofsted inspections which until recently have only given it token attention. It is also true of the research community who have largely neglected it.

Government too has contributed to that neglect. Apart from a select committee report which was quickly forgotten, there has been no major national review of governance since the Taylor Report of 1977, almost 40 years ago. A radical review is long overdue. Ofsted’s proposed “in-depth and far-reaching” thematic survey is no substitute.

Underlying the commentary is a Manichaean view of governance – pitting, on the right, a “business-led“ model where governors with professional knowledge operate as a board similar to the board of directors of a company against, on the left, a stake-holder model emphasising local democratic responsibility with governors with common sense knowledge drawn from the core of the community served by the school.

Wilshaw clearly favours the former model and cites “five hundred failing governing boards” to back up his case. Whether a similar proportion of “business-led” governing bodies would be considered “failing” is, of course, unknown, since many have only just been reconstituted.

Why this sharp divide? Why either/or? Those of us broadly in favour of the stake-holder model do recognise some of the weaknesses highlighted in the commentary – insufficient challenge, a tendency to be accepting of professionals, inadequate training.

But there are potential weaknesses too in the business model- challenge yes but of an inappropriately limited, “quantitative” kind, a tendency to be too critical of professionals for being self-serving, inadequate understanding of the complexities and dilemmas of teaching and learning.

I accept that there is a strong case for revamping the stakeholder model by making greater use of co-opted governors with insights gained from outside education such as business, social services, police, health etc but without sacrificing the common-sense and commitment made by local people, especially but not only parents, with a strong interest in their community’s, not the academy trust’s, schools.

I would be more supportive of the commentary if I was convinced of the robustness of the inspection evidence on which it claims to be based. In a previous article I pointed out how governance is but one of very many issues inspectors are supposed to judge and how very limited time they have – both to talk to governors and to review governor documentation.

To inform a publicly available report inspection evidence needs to be credible and to be credible it needs to be collected in sufficient depth (not a meeting of an hour or less) and to be analysed carefully. In my experience that rarely obtains and that’s not primarily down to inspectors’ shortcomings.

But perhaps I’m too complacent? What about that disturbing figure of “500 failing governing boards”? I worry that underlying that statistic is the easy acceptance by too many (though not all) Ofsted inspectors that poor performance data equals poor leadership and management equals poor governance.

I suspect very few of Wilshaw’s “failing boards” are to be found in so-called good or outstanding schools but almost certainly some should be. Very good professional leadership and management can more than compensate for “failing” governance, though the reverse is unlikely to obtain even if the board is packed with governors with what Wilshaw terms “professional knowledge or educational background”.

The points the commentary makes about compulsory training are well made and need acting upon provided that training expertise is readily available and affordable – problematic given the rundown of so many governor services under this and the previous government. I worry, however, about Wilshaw’s advocacy of a two-types of governor- “senior governors” presumably paid (out of whose copious funds?) and junior ones. Yet another hierarchy.

I end by thinking that perhaps governance is an issue that’s now in danger of getting too much attention. It is important but can governance really do much to ensure that “every child receives the best possible education”? As a chair of governors with some educational background I find Wilshaw’s expectations and those of Minister John Nash daunting to say the least. I am left wondering whether the demands they are making on governance need a radical and realistic review to make it possible for ordinary mortals like me to undertake the very necessary oversight of what I continue to believe are, and should be, “our” schools.

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