Emma Knights has been championing the work of school governors and trustees as the National Governance Association’s resident knight in shining armour for the past 13 years. But now she’s handed over the reins (well, one of them) to another Emma.
Emma Balchin, previously the association’s director of training and consultancy, stepped in as joint chief executive this month.
It has eased Knights’ “fairly all-consuming” workload – at a time when reducing sector workload has become the organisation’s top priority.
Knights and Balchin are members of the new DfE workload reduction taskforce, tasked with slashing five hours from the working week of teachers.
At the same time, the NGA’s own workload project has revealed that governor recruitment and retention is at an all-time high (77 per cent of boards say it is an issue).
“We’ve got to get a grip on workload,” says Knights. “The terms of [governor] office are four years, and if people are leaving in their first or second year, that’s just a waste of everybody’s time because of the training – it’s quite a lot to induct people.”
Balchin adds that most governors and trustees are still positive about their roles – and the numbers saying it’s unmanageable is “more or less the same as previous years”.
But she says the “pressure on schools to always be on an ever-improving journey” with greater “scrutiny in the system” means the pressure on governors and trustees is probably greater now than ever.
‘Stepped’ transition at the top
As Knights has been such a dominant force in steering the NGA for so long, its board wanted a “stepped transition” rather than a “complete change at one go”.
Balchin brings a fresh perspective because she’s experienced school life from so many angles.
While the role is a “true job share, not split”, Balchin has a vested interest in SEND, attendance and behaviour. Her first venture into governance was at a pupil referral unit in “challenging circumstances”, and her Postgraduate Certificate in Education was in English and SEND.
In her first career as a secondary English teacher, she never understood or appreciated the role of school governors – that “there are people outside your school organisation there to support you, and actually take your concerns seriously”.
When a pupil opened up to her about his substance abuse, her senior leadership team invited his family in to discuss the issue. But when the pupil claimed he’d only said it to “wind Miss up”, the school took no further action.
“It was easier at the time for schools to sweep it under the carpet, because of community perception and the knock-on effect around pupil numbers. That instance was quite fundamental in making me think ‘somebody needs to do something different’.”
She became Wolverhampton Council’s school drugs adviser, which then became part of the joint DfE and Department of Health’s national healthy school programme. It included training governors and teachers about drugs issues.
She recalls developing interactive theatre pieces for schools and attempting “damage limitation around the use of drugs dogs in schools with the police”.
She took on a similar regional role for the West Midlands, later returning to the local authority as head of children and young people’s performance.
She then became a school governor to “see things from the other side”.
Back then the role was “a bit tokenistic”. Balchin believes thanks to the NGA, there’s now more knowledge in the system of how to make a positive impact.
‘Feeds into governors feeling undervalued’
But its role is changing. The association was hired in 2021 to run the National Leaders of Governance (NLG) programme and help boards judged weak by regional directors. But it will be axed next month.
This means the NGA’s remit is, for the first time in more than a decade, “all about sales to schools”. Those sales have fortunately been on the up – membership has risen tenfold since it was formed in 2006. Three-quarters of schools and trusts are counted as customers.
But Knights is frustrated over the 18 months of legwork that went into tendering for the NLG contract, then recruiting staff and developing them before the DfE pulled the plug.
The department spent just over £700,000 on the scheme this year.
Meanwhile, a Freedom of information request from Schools Week shows £1.2 million for governance development and training schemes in 2020-21 has also been cut.
At a time when “school leadership development money is going up and up” (which Knights agrees with), she’s frustrated equivalent funding for governance has been “completely cut. It feeds into governors [and trustees] feeling undervalued.”
She is also frustrated over the efforts that went into the now-defunct Schools Bill, although she says proposals for councils to be permitted involvement in running trusts were “a con”.
Councils would only have been allowed to serve as “members”, not trustees, meaning they wouldn’t have retained “any influence over the running of the trust at all. It was so cheeky… a facade to make schools feel comfortable that the local authority was still involved, so they would then join MATs”.
The reason the policy “died a death” was “lobbying from other trusts who didn’t want the competition”, she claimed.
But with local school improvement grants to local authorities now axed, Knights believes some councils will have so few support services for schools left that “the last little lot” of maintained schools will be forced to academise.
The government is also launching a £1.2 million scheme to recruit new trustees – but they are solely to help failing academy trusts.
SATs shake-up call
While “the worst end” of the trust scandals of several years ago have been mitigated, that “doesn’t mean it’s all rosy in the garden of trust governance”, says Knights.
Balchin said there has “rightly been a huge emphasis on improving the governance of MATs as that structure was new to the sector and they are responsible for larger amounts of public money. We do now know what good looks like.” But there hasn’t been so much of a focus on single academy trusts to “think about their governance” and “some [SATs] are stuck in a time warp. Their chair’s been there for years, and there’s a cosy arrangement with the head who for example may be getting a very high salary as a ‘executive head’, even though they’ve only got one school. Others are absolutely brilliant”.
Balchin is aware of some successful trust chiefs who want to “control their boards rather than vice versa”, at which point danger bells ring. “These relationships need to be built on trust and respect. NGA works hard with other leadership organisations to produce joint guidance on how to build that culture and ensure the best possible governance.”
Her concern is amplified by the DfE decision to stall plans for trust-level inspections.
Five years ago, Knights had assumed more trust chiefs would emerge from outside the sector. “There’s more schools could do to learn from the best in other sectors…probably with HR and finance. That would be good.”
Financial planning challenges
Governors’ ability to set three-year financial plans is made much harder by late decisions about pay rates (the School Teachers’ Review Body report was published in March in 2015, but more recently has been late July).
Knights says this is a disaster. “How are you meant to do three years of strategic planning when you can’t even know next term’s budget?”
The consequence is governors spending time over summer holidays reworking their budgets.
But schools that have to reduce staffing budgets “can’t make [people] redundant in that timeframe. You need months.”
Last year’s energy costs and staff pay rises created the perfect storm – the worst for school budgets in her memory.
But some trusts get help from the DfE – specifically when taking on new schools, although this is normally down to individual negotiations.
Knights says the process is “slightly lacking in transparency” and she questions just how much the DfE is spending to “encourage trusts to take on the most difficult schools”.
Official government figures show rebroker fees paid to trusts dropped to £1.3 million last year as most transfers included no inducements, down from a high of £8.4 million in 2016-17. But there are other avenues for support.
‘It can be a lonely job’
Rising permanent exclusions are another concern, creating a “big workload” for governors sitting on the boards that uphold or challenge a head’s decision.
“If they rule the other way to the head, it can cause real ructions that make life difficult,” Knights says, adding it is “astounding” there is no independent tribunal for issues such as exclusions.
“Parents say ‘of course governors uphold the head’s decision, because they’re in it with them’. And that’s true – governors are part of the institution.”
Nonetheless, Knights sees many good chairs providing vital support to pressured headteachers and believes the sector “underplays” their role.
It “can be quite a lonely job” as there are some things a head tells their chair that can’t be shared.
“Sometimes senior leaders don’t realise how much care goes into that. It doesn’t get said enough.
“They’re not all marvellous. But some are fabulous.”