Sussex governors’ strike threat is “innovative governance”

There are three types of governance, says Andrew Clapham. So where do the governors in West Sussex who are threatening strike action fit in?

A school governor has an important job that takes skill and commitment – and is time-consuming and unpaid.

Major concerns regarding school governance have been raised recently, such as in the Trojan Horse affair where the power of governors was considered to have been too influential.

Overwhelmingly, however, effective school governors are seen as a forum of checks and balances. And schools with good governance are more likely to be a good school, full stop.

Despite, in the most part, the well-earned tag as the “voice of reason”, governors in West Sussex are threatening strike action.

I have been examining governance, and particularly innovative governance, in schools and FE colleges and have found that the notion of governors striking could be seen as an “innovative” approach toward a particularly threatening situation.

Rear view governance is reactive rather than proactive

I have found three types of governance.

Rear view governance is reactive rather than proactive. It is only concerned with what is approaching from behind in relation to policy and fails to set a future direction.

Setting the direction governance is the opposite. It sets the direction, examines and pre-empts policy challenges by putting in place structures that support the school to do well in the present climate and to thrive in future.

Set the direction and check is the ultimate governance model. Not only does it set its own direction, it checks for compliance to its own and external policy drivers.

So, where do the West Sussex governors fit in this model?

The proposed action is in response to funding cuts, despite the Department for Education claiming schools in England are receiving record funding.

The West Sussex governors are supporting their headteachers who are warning they are facing cutting teaching staff, merging classes or reducing school hours.

However, and what is important here, is that these cuts are yet to be made. The heads and governors are taking action to prevent what they see as potentially catastrophic consequences of reduced funding.

They are proactively attempting to set the direction rather than being rear-view reactive.

As such, it could be argued that the West Sussex governors are being both innovative and setting the direction through their threat of strike action.

Indeed, it could be argued that these governors not only have the aim of their action impacting upon their own schools. A government climbdown in relation to West Sussex would lead to similar action across the country – a consequence that cannot be lost on both sides.

The threatened action is a heartfelt plea

Governors taking strike action is unprecedented. As such, it could be argued that it is also an innovative approach toward addressing funding cuts.

Innovative governance was described by one chair of governors as “not just bean bags”.

She recounted a story where she was on a board that proposed following a so-called “American” model of governance. In that model, board meetings were no more than an hour in length and held in an open plan office with bean bags in place of chairs and no tables.

Innovative governance is more than worrying about bean bags and comfort. It is more than rearranging deck chairs.

The West Sussex governors’ action is clearly not rearranging deck chairs and not done from the comfort of a bean bag.

It is a heartfelt plea from the “face of reason” that government policy will decimate education in their area.

These governors are using an innovative approach to try to set the direction of their schools.

In the following few days, schools minister Nick Gibb will face questions from MPs on school funding and how such funding is to be redistributed under a new formula. Perhaps some of these questions might be directed from the viewpoint of a West Sussex school governor – the voice of reason forced to take innovative governance to the picket line.


Andrew Clapham is principal lecturere in education at Nottingham Trent University

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