Governance

How good is school governance in 2024?

A new report assesses the quality of governance today and finds encouraging progress but also some areas for concern, explains Emma Knights

A new report assesses the quality of governance today and finds encouraging progress but also some areas for concern, explains Emma Knights

22 Jun 2024, 5:00

At a time when the world of education experiences so much volatility, governance comes into its own, serving as the backbone of accountability and catalyst for success. Defining and promoting good governance is what NGA is all about, and we’ve seen encouraging progress.

But as challenges mount and expectations soar, the burning question is: just how good is school governance in 2024? NGA’s latest report offers a comprehensive state-of-the-nation assessment.

Growing Good Governance analyses over 400 external reviews conducted under the National Leaders of Governance (NLG) programme. Its findings are illuminating and validate much of what we already know about what good governance is and isn’t..

It’s clear from this study that most boards are now committed to their own continuous improvement. Regular self-evaluations were found to be embedded as commonplace. Financial oversight and a firm grip on financial responsibilities are also positively reported.

The prominent proportion of boards meeting statutory requirements in spite of intensifying pressures show that there is a much better general level of compliance than a decade ago. It wasn’t that long ago when trust governance in particular was drawing some pretty shocking storylines, but any sense of an escalating, sector-wide ‘wild west’ is pleasingly gone.

The basics of clear roles and professional support are also largely in place. There is far more recognition now of just how imperative it is to have the best governance professional you can get your hands on in post—in fact, the reviews largely showed they were often the key difference in boards maintaining the right focus.

Yet the reality is that we are not quite where we need to be. Too many boards were shown to be struggling to maintain a strategic focus, getting bogged down in operational matters. This issue impacted almost half of the boards reviewed.

Given the pace and significance of reactive issues schools face and the fact that schools are increasingly compensating for dysfunctional or absent external services, this might be understandable. However, we must avoid any long-term drift towards an operational mode; this finding is an important warning.

The reality is that we are not quite where we need to be.

Holding leaders to account also emerged as a significant challenge for many governing boards across all structures. This is undeniably a direct barrier to achieving good governance and was identified as problematic in 68 per cent of ERGs.

Before we get too alarmed, however, it is worth noting that these findings emanate from ERGs commissioned for a specific reason.

Nevertheless, over half were struggling to get the right balance and approach to the relationship and interactions between board and leadership. Trust boards fared best here, with less than half experiencing issues, compared to over two-thirds of maintained boards.

Meanwhile, workload continues to strain board capacity, but leadership workload in the name of effective governance is also a problem. Where holding leaders to account was identified as an issue, over a quarter (27 per cent) specifically noted major weaknesses in leadership engagement with governance as a culprit.

This was often linked to how and what was being reported to the board. Good practice was observed, which consists of providing concise information with the expectation of debate and scrutiny. This needs to become the norm.

Stakeholder engagement was an area for development for almost one-quarter of boards, yet MATs struggled in this area most, marginally more than SATs, while less than one in ten maintained school reviews highlighted this area.

These findings underscore the need for boards to double down on the fundamentals. Investing in strategic planning, clarifying roles and structures, harnessing professional support, fostering a culture of accountability and meaningfully engaging stakeholders are the keys to good governance.

The report also highlights the unique challenges faced by different school structures—from operational distractions plaguing maintained schools, to communication complexities within trusts, to the scalability hurdles standalone academies face.

Crucially, the report is not just a diagnostic but a catalyst for action. Pleasingly, the common themes tally with the rest of NGA’s development work. We will keep up the work of highlighting the solutions, and the good news is that more and more are taking them seriously.

Read the full Growing Good Governance report here

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