This term we have been trumpeting all sorts of the findings of our 2017 Annual Governance Survey – there is so much to say; the data is so rich. But one issue you may not have noticed is that there are fewer people involved in governing England’s schools than previously. Everyone quotes the numbers as 300,000, but we estimate there are now between 250 and 260,000 people governing our state schools. That is still rather a lot!
Board sizes are going down. It has very much been Department for Education policy for some years to encourage smaller boards; even the Labour Government’s two year long ministerial review of governance which didn’t get us very far started out trying to persuade members that smaller boards were better but struggled to find evidence.
Of our survey respondents, this year one third belonged to boards of 11 or 12 people, the most popular size, but the big change is that there are now more boards smaller rather than bigger than this. Four years ago 27% of governing boards reported having 16 or more members; now that is 10%. In 2013 there were 17% boards up to ten members and in 2017 this has grown to 37%.
And more interesting still is the size by phase and type school. Secondary governing boards tend to be a bit bigger than primaries – is that because a secondary school is considered harder to govern, and needs more input? We are into a bit of a chicken and egg situation here – have secondary school governing boards tended to stay bigger because they have fewer problems recruiting? Federations are also generally on the larger size because of the regulations pertaining to their constitution, although recent changes may act to reduce them in future.
Stand-alone academies tend to have larger boards; this will be a bit skewed by the fact that most of them are secondary schools, but also the fact that maintained schools were mandated to reconstitute a few years ago, whereas standalone academies were left to do their own thing, and interestingly that appears to mean not as much change, even though they should have reviewed their governance.
MAT boards and their academy committees tend to have fewer people on them. Within groups – and in fact within formal collaborations – panels can be made up from volunteers from other schools. One of the reasons some other boards resist reducing in size is that they are worried they will not be able to find volunteers for various panels
So you might have thought that a smaller board would make it easier to recruit; well, the survey shows they tend to have fewer vacancies, but that actually they find it harder to recruit. Now there are other factors at play here – for example we know it’s generally slightly harder to recruit to primary schools and they have the smaller boards. So it could be as a result of other things in particular the size of community served and possibly more prestige attached to governing a large secondary school. We also know it is more difficult to recruit in sparsely populated areas where some primaries are based.
This is pure speculation: it could be harder to recruit to a MAT because they are choosier about the skills and experience threshold, or on the other hand because there are fewer routes to getting involved. If MATs are always looking externally for trustees, it could be more difficult to attract people without connections to the schools. It could be that with fewer people we are making unreasonable expectations of them, fewer to spread the tasks between.
But how about the academy committees, often called local governing boards? Many serving on those do have connections to the school community, so perhaps a different reason some find it more difficult to recruit: if the committees are not given interesting things to do by the board of trustees, then there might not be the same level of satisfaction in governing. However generalising is not wise with MATs and many academy committees have important functions; indeed it can be that they shed the less appealing aspects of governance (such as agreeing policies) and spend more time on the heart of the schools – monitoring the education offer, pupils’ progress and welfare, and engaging with stakeholders.
Overall respondents reported it is getting harder to recruit volunteers: 50% said it was difficult in 2015, up to 55% this year. One third of governing boards reported having two of more vacancies, but not all of them have used the free recruitment services available: if you haven’t yet registered your board vacancy with Inspiring Governance please do and invite at least one volunteers to interview. There are many great potential governors and trustees waiting to be approached and if a school doesn’t invite them to interview, they may well get bored of waiting and volunteer elsewhere. Any volunteer matched by Inspiring Governance gets free support from NGA for their first year, including free access to our Learning Link induction programme: eight in depth e-learning modules.
We may have lost 50,000 places which need filling, but we still need a constant stream of new volunteers. Please encourage others you know to #JoinThe250k: it is a challenging role, but a rewarding one too, making a difference to the lives of pupils.
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