“Schools should not appoint governors unless they are likely to be good governors” – Shock announcement set to transform schools (not).

13th January 2014

A couple of years ago Governance was top of the agenda with several reports published and regular conversations taking place about how to improve the quality of governing bodies. Since then things have gone a bit quiet but it has been no secret that governance remained a priority for Lord Nash. It is therefore good to see that governance is back on the table. Except I think this bit of news is a bit of damp squib.

The DfE’s consultation proposes a requirement that “any newly appointed governor has in the opinion of the person making the appointment ‘the skills required to contribute to the effective governance and success of the school’.” Excuse me whilst I adjust to this radical upheaval. Firstly, this is hardly news: The 2010 White Paper “The Importance of Teaching” stated that the government would “legislate in the forthcoming Education Bill so that all schools can establish smaller governing bodies with appointments primarily focused on skills”. Secondly, the question rests almost entirely on the ambiguity of ‘skills’. I first highlighted the lack of clarity over what ‘skills based’ governance actually meant in LKMco’s 2012 report on effective governance “It’s not just who you are… it’s what you do and how you do it.”

Skills based governance can refer to specific types of business skills. For example, one chair of governors told us:

‘I might be looking for finance skills because obviously we are more accountable for our own money now and although we have a very good Bursar or no doubt Finance Manager as he will be, I will be looking for accountancy or finance skills probably as top of the shop’.

However, another Chair told us:

“I think it’s important that Governors have scrutiny skills, by which I mean able to read documents and sift the good from the bad, the important from the unimportant.”

Meanwhile a Head Teacher argued ‘it’s about those skills of being able to think ahead’ and another that ‘the other skill factor is community’. The term ‘skills based’ is therefore far too ambiguous to be helpful. In ‘It’s not just what you do…’ I argue that we should separate out ‘competencies and dispositions’ from ‘experience and expertise’. Sadly, the DfE’s announcement fails to do this and instead they suggest skills could include ‘an ability to understand data or finances as well as general capabilities such as the capacity and willingness to learn.’

The danger of this announcement is that it will be misinterpreted and thought to refer purely to ‘experience and expertise’. This would be a step in the wrong direction; Over-emphasising ‘experience and expertise’ creates a risk that governors step into the role of ‘professional advisors’. For example, a well-meaning governor appointed because they have expertise in accountancy may be tempted to act as a pro-bono financial advisor to the Head Teacher. As one Head Teacher told me:

‘I can’t understand why there’s the expectation that governors should do my job, or other people’s jobs for them. If I want support from HR or from finance, I would employ or go to an expert to actually employ somebody for that level of support. I wouldn’t expect that from the governors.’

Prof Chris James, an expert on governance has also warned against this possibility. He argues:

‘Recruiting governors because of their functional skills may suggest that they have operational responsibility, which is not part of the governors’ remit. Indeed, arguably such skills should be available to the school from other sources.’ – James et al. 2010

Over-valuing ‘experience and expertise’ may result in undervaluing ‘competencies and dispositions’ such as data literacy, critical analysis and questioning, communication and community representation. As it is written, the DfE’s consultation is largely vacuous (and harmless) but as it may be interpreted it is potentially dangerous. Either way, it will do nothing to help schools with the challenge of actually finding high quality governors.

In ‘It’s not just what you do…’ we developed four ‘ideal governor profiles’ called:

  • The Forensic
  • The Local
  • The Expert
  • The Educationalist

(see page 49 of the report)

I would argue that a better approach would be for the DfE to use profiles like these to clarify the different ways a governor can contribute, to promote governance and improve the supply of volunteers. As it stands, the proposal risks ‘turning off’ some of the governors our schools most need.

* The report was and independent research project commissioned by Teach First but this blog is about my own views and not those of Teach First or the report.