As Ofsted demands around accountability have tightened, shifting that responsibility to professionals takes the weight off governors’ shoulders

I don’t care whether I’m called a school governor or an academy ambassador. Having experienced both set ups, it’s clear to me that all that matters is ensuring that our young people are getting the best possible education at our schools and academies.

In 2011, I became a local authority governor for Parkwood E-ACT Academy in Sheffield under what we might describe today as the classic governance model. In 2016, however, E-ACT decided to do something quite radical: to disband the local governing body at every one of its academies and replace them with Ambassadorial Advisory Groups (AAG).

For me it was a really positive change. Under the old system, there was a danger of governors becoming very data driven and forgetting that you’re talking about real children and real families. Furthermore, having worked with some fantastic governing bodies over the years, as the demands around accountability, financial probity and Ofsted have become tighter (especially around data), I can think of many examples where otherwise excellent governors have been at sea when confronted by such topics. The notion of shifting that responsibility over to the professional while keeping that important community voice with the AAGs made absolute sense.

Genuine local accountability?

One of the worries that governors had when we moved over to the AAG system was that we wouldn’t be able to effect any real change and that there was no accountability.

However, we have been able to continue contributing in a meaningful way by meeting with, and offering genuine challenges, to academy leadership through six weekly Raising Achievement Boards (RAB).

Through RABs we can see the strengths and weaknesses of the academy and we can work with academy leadership to help address issues.

We’re able to own decision-making jointly

Furthermore, through regular full and frank discussions with trustees, we’re able to own decision-making jointly. We also have a designated an AAG representative trustee who is our voice on the board, and someone who we as AAG chairs can work with closely to evolve and further develop the AAG structure.

The term advisory does not preclude challenge – we are the ‘critical friend’ (to pick up a term from the old governor model) and we’re here to listen, to ask questions and to support. Trust is key, and academy staff have to feel that ambassadors are presenting challenges for the right reasons. It’s not so much as saying, ‘I don’t like this – change it’. It’s more, ‘are we sure this is right? Are we all happy with this? Let’s together find a way to make it better’. It’s a co-construction approach to ensure that we are doing all we can for our students.

The challenges that some AAGs face

Just two years in the AAG model is evolving and is being refined. What still needs to be improved will vary from academy to academy. Some AAGs have lacked solid direction in the past, either through an inability to appoint a chair right away or because of unforeseen changes in leadership within the group. In my experience, AAGs that have overcome this particular challenge normally have a core group of ambassadors in place with strong parental representation and a good working relationship with the headteacher and trust leadership.

Another challenge is convincing (some) people that the AAG model is the right way to go, particularly when they’ve only ever known the classic governance model. It is therefore vitally important to engage and interact with all academy stakeholders at every opportunity to share AAG impact, and to ensure that the AAG is seen as being part of the very fabric of the academy.

A vehicle for improvement

Two years on – there’s a real feeling of ownership. Whether we are called governors or ambassadors is irrelevant: underpinning it all is improving the life chances our students.