Building Better Boards: an opportunity for education

19/10/2015 15:34:22 | with 5 comments

Emma Knights responds to a new report on education governance, published today.

NGA is truly grateful for MP Neil Carmichael’s interest in school governance, and the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Education Governance' would not exist without his leadership. Today he and Ed Wild are publishing their latest contribution to stimulate better state school boards, Building Better Boards: an opportunity for education.  We are also extremely pleased that Lord Nash, in his foreword, acknowledged the role that the National Governors’ Association has had, as well as the APPG, in ensuring: “that education governance has remained high on the education policy agenda.”

We are very pleased to see that one of the recommendations covers the need for training and development for board members; this has been one of NGA’s big asks over the almost 10 years of our existence and we are keen for others to join us in the lobby for more attention to be paid to this.  

The suggestion of annual appraisals for governors – is again something NGA has long thought good practice, and so having more voices suggesting this can only help these become part of custom and practice.  We are particularly pleased about the recognition that the best boards are diverse boards; we absolutely need to avoid ‘group think’. Both BME and female membership are mentioned. In 2008 an NGA members’ survey found the latter was already 50% and so in subsequent surveys was dropped, but we have just reinstated it in our current members’ survey. On the other hand, the percentage of BME governors is far lower than in the English population. NGA had urged the Department for Education (DfE) to help the sector engage BME volunteers, and we would welcome the authors’ involvement.

Recruiting governors by skills

Today’s publication has perhaps not picked up on all recent developments in state school governance - in particular on the skills issue – where we have been there, done that (well the theory of it).  I am not aware of any organisation in the schools sector which has not been promoting the need to recruit skilled governors and trustees for some years now; the DfE’s Governors’ Handbook is very clear on the expectations.  Indeed the regulations have been changed so that the single local authority governor now has to be nominated to fit with the skills gap identified by the governing body, and the nominee can be refused by the governing body if s/he does not fit the specification. The zeitgeist has shifted from persuading us all that this needs to be done, to ensuring a steady supply of committed volunteers. 

Our annual survey with TES  showed 83% of the governing boards responding conducted a skills audit in 2015 (up from 72% three years before) but only half are using it for recruitment purposes, as opposed to assigning people to committees and to identify development needs.  Nevertheless, this is good information to build on.

Identifying skilled volunteers with the time and the inclination is much the harder part of the exercise, especially outside London and other commuter areas.  Not a week goes by without those trying to do exactly this, in local areas, raising the problems with us. NGA never used to get involved with governor recruitment – we are kept very busy supporting governors and trustees once recruited – plus the DfE does spend £1 million in grant funding on charities to act as national volunteer banks. But we did become one of the founders of the Inspiring Governors Alliance launched in May 2014 to help tackle this issue because of the increasing level of need.  The authors rightly argue for a campaign and the Inspiring Governors Alliance was set up to be exactly that. Perhaps one of the report’s authors Gerard Kelly, who runs a PR consultancy, might like to offer the alliance some pro bono advice on how to get the message out further across the country.

Consideration of remuneration

Twice a year the NGA carries out a consultation on an issue (this autumn it’s the composition of boards as the Secretary of State signalled an intention at our summer conference to amend further), but last spring the subject we discussed was remuneration for governors, with a particular emphasis on whether we need it for chairs. As the authors quite rightly identify, being a chair is an even bigger commitment; they suggest 10-15 working days per year, but actually our survey work with Bath University tells us that 65% of chairs spend between 17—36 hours per month on governance duties, equating to between 24—54 working days per year. We were concerned about that finding and we are now undertaking our own qualitative research to examine what exactly this entails for chairs and why.

NGA members only: Professors Chris James and John Adams go head to head on payment for chairs

The discussion was truly thoughtful and the vast majority of participants felt that paying people was not the solution to the difficulty of recruitment.  There was also a question about the motivation of someone who would only take on the role if paid, as well as the pragmatic argument that schools could not afford it, and after all, this is tax payers’ money we are spending. Although more affordable, it was generally felt that only paying chairs would change their relationship with the rest of the governing board, making it more difficult for her/him to delegate tasks to others, and undermine the corporate nature of governance. It would also create another task for those with oversight of the school: the need for a contract of some sort and a process of performance management. Volunteering remains an important part of British civic society and should possibly be included in the list of British Values; we undermine that at our peril.

"What I want to do here is help people who want to do more to help their communities, to help others to volunteer to build a stronger society…It will be great to have more people volunteering, more people being school governors, more people putting back into their community.”  Prime Minister, Rt. Hon David Cameron, April 2015

“...we want to see more social action and volunteering, with community participation embedded in our lives from school days onwards.” - Minister for Civil Society, Rob Wilson MP, June 2015. 

There are a number of other issues discussed in Building Better Boards which don’t quite make it into the final list of recommendations:

Parent governors: this is a hugely topical subject with the DfE considering changing this now, despite all maintained schools governing bodies having had to reconstitute under new regulations by summer 2015. We are in the final stages of writing our own submission [link coming soon] but in a nutshell: parents provide a very important source of governors with knowledge of the school.  By the way, parent governors do not represent the parent body; this is widely held misconception. The DfE is not planning to bar parents from serving, but unless there is a huge out-pouring of support for keeping two places reserved for parents, these may well disappear. As well as wanting a range of skills on the board, we also want a range of knowledge and experience.  Parents of pupils know things about a school other governors will not: this can be invaluable when governing.  (I must declare an interest – before I was employed by NGA, I was already serving as an elected parent governor and I subsequently became a foundation governor, but you will find I am not alone; many experienced parent governors continue to govern). The arguments we hear against parent governors tend to be that they raise issues relevant to their own children or they don’t understand their role: this suggests the induction to and chairing of the board may be at fault. 

If Ed Wild had spoken to NGA, we would have shared our poll findings on parent governors with him.  We could see pros and cons of electing parent governors, but when we asked our members, the message came back to us loud and clear that not only is there large support for places reserved for  parent governors (only 12% disagreed), but also a significant majority (72%) for those places being filled by elections.  There is a concern that boards where all members are appointed might not be healthy, with a tendency to appoint in one’s own image acting against all our aims to have different and complementing perspectives.  

Role of executives: there is a suggestion that having boards where more executives sit alongside non-executive executives would be good for schools. This is a private sector model and we strongly disagree about its appropriateness for schools.  Drawing on practice from other sectors is something NGA is very keen on – indeed I have just been updating our Chair’s Handbook in which we do so, and at our forthcoming annual conference on 14th November we have a panel session on exactly that topic.  Our events are free to NGA members, so please do join us if you are interested in being part of the debate. 

What we have learnt is that no sector gets it right all the time; each and every sector has its disasters.  Think banking crisis – where was corporate governance there?

There is a debate among some in private sector as to whether their model is still fit for purpose with shareholders driving short-termism. Each sector has its own context and in schools governing boards are responsible for not only ensuring a good education for pupils but also spending public money well.

Furthermore academies are charities, albeit exempt charities, and the charity model of governance is one where there is expected to be separation between executives and trustees (non-executives).  We are very concerned about the fact that some trusts have a number of executives on them, which creates an enormous conflict.  It is extremely difficult to hold oneself to account in a robust fashion!

Multi academy trusts

Governance in MATs needs to be more sophisticated than in stand-alone schools, which is why the APPG published a second set of questions aimed at MATs. There is more than one model which can work well, but most MATs have struggled to produce stream-lined effective structures.  As from September 2015, MATs have to publish their scheme of delegation to comply with the Academies Financial Handbook, and this has raised the issue among some MATs who are now reviewing their governance structures. In the meantime, we have had substantial experience in advising MATs on possibilities and do get in touch if you are also wrestling with MAT governance.

Emma Knights is the Chief Executive of the National Governors' Association.