School governance: 3 key issues right now

Emma Knights, chief executive of the National Governors Association, outlines three big issues with school governance raised at the Festival of Education.

The discussions on governance at the festival very much confirmed others across the country and in Westminster since my Schools Week column last term, but three things particularly struck me.

First, how little is known by the sector about the governance implications of the move towards a world of multi academy trusts (MATs), despite the best efforts of organisations such as the National Governors’ Association (NGA) to spread the word.

Conversations are still at a fairly elementary level, with no sophisticated analysis of the implications for moving our state-funded schools into the third sector.

Although not mentioned in the White Paper, much of the decision making – the power – in the system is being passed to trustees (also non-executive directors).

At local level, good people – both executives and those governing – are trying to make new structures work.

With the interests of pupils at heart, they are making it up, often unaware of sources of reliable information.

This is no way to go about building a new education system, not even a school-led, self-improving one.

There is now in many quarters a wariness of information coming from the Department for Education (DfE), and a widespread lament about the lack of evidence and little sharing of experiences – a gap NGA is trying to help fill.

Second, the desire of the vast majority involved to keep and even strengthen connections with the community is heartening, especially in the light of last week’s vote.

How to achieve this in a meaningful way needs work. While the role of those governing at school level is seen by almost all as key, the ethos of the whole trust is also crucial.

Otherwise there is a danger that a gap will grow between the schools’ communities and the elite on the MAT board.

Given the uproar on the publication of the White Paper, when parents were clearly concerned about their local school being given to a trust with no local connections, you might have expected a national conversation on the legitimacy of those who are governing more and more schools, but the juggernaut just trundles on.

Geography and size of MAT are keenly relevant to this discussion, but surely also to outcomes for pupils.

The DfE sends mixed messages. Lord Nash, the junior schools minister, has for two years extolled the importance of schools within MATs being within half a lunchtime’s travel away from each other, while some regional schools commissioners are still gifting schools to MATs based in another region.

Talk within the DfE is all about ‘growth’ but its own vision seems to be about 2,000 MATs. This would mean most MATs between 10-15 schools, with some remaining well below that to compensate for the large chains of more than 30.

Who is going to volunteer to govern in the future?

A better way to think of this is the ‘average’ MAT being responsible for 4,000 – 5,000 pupils, not 30,000.

The third issue raised and one I am tripping over everywhere I go is: who is going to volunteer to govern in the future?

Governing is a difficult role at the best of times, even more so when money is short. Some experienced, skilled people say they will not be continuing past this term of office as their role at academy level is no longer a significant one.

Almost half of us who govern began as parent governors, and with that route being thought of as second class, we are in danger of cutting off an important source of committed volunteers.

The system is not yet convinced of the need for paid trustees – but it is a discussion we will return to before long, especially as I predict the outgoing HMCI will repeat this call. However at present there are far more important issues for us to be grappling with to ensure our schools are governed in the best interests of all our pupils.

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