Those governing our schools are not happy with the direction of Government education policy. Only 12% of the 5000 respondents in the NGA/TES 2016 annual survey were positive about how the Conservative government had performed in education in its first year, more than halved from 27% the previous year happy with the Coalition government. What’s more, this is nothing to do with the recent grammar school announcement as the survey took place in the summer term.
More than half (52%) of respondents are very negative about the direction of Government policy increasing from 31% a year before. Those governing academies were a little bit more positive, but not that much: 70% of trustees of multi academy trusts (MATs) are negative about Government policy. So many of the very people who are in the business of helping the government deliver its MAT agenda are not in tune with the rest of the Government’s approach to education.
A year ago Nicky Morgan had been the first secretary of state to address NGA’s summer conference, and had promised delegates what they wanted to hear: a period of consolidation to give schools time to implement curriculum reforms and fairer funding would be in place from April 2017. Neither of those things has happened. Far from it.
Being a school governor or academy trustee is a never an easy gig but 2016 is a particularly tricky time. The issues raised by our survey included funding pressure, the pace of reform, confusion about curriculum and assessment, teacher workload, recruitment of staff and too much focus on academisation.
We have been told since 2010 that more decisions are to be made locally; that those leading schools are being given more freedom and autonomy to make decisions that are best for their community and their pupils. What that means in practice is more decision-making for governing boards, which are very difficult decisions with funding so tight and cuts equivalent to about 10% expected over the next few years.
Yet at the same time as the rhetoric on autonomy, governing bodies of local authority maintained schools have been up against constant pressure from on high to academise. Respondents to our survey whom had decided not to convert gave a range of reasons, of which the common ones were: deciding there would not be sufficient educational benefits for pupils, concern that it would change the ethos of the school, valuing the support the local authority provides, and having strong links with other schools in the area.
Our surveys over the past four years have showed a slowing down of academy conversions, with 15% in 2012 having converted in the previous year down to 3% this year. Recent national policy debates, however, have pushed the issue of academy conversion back up the agenda of many governing bodies. Since the announcement that the Government’s aspiration for all schools to be academies by 2022, three quarters of maintained governing bodies reported being in discussion about conversion. They need to remember that while their school is performing well, the decision remains theirs.
The survey opened in May, following the publication of the the White Paper ‘Educational Excellence Everywhere’ in March. It closed in June. In that brief space of time, there was a change of plan on proposals for full compulsory academisation. NGA very much welcomed the Government’s change of heart, and it surprised me that it made practically no difference to the responses – the percentage with a positive view only grew from 11.8% to 11.9% emphasising that the level of dissatisfaction is not a flash in the pan. These results cannot be dismissed or diminished.
A snap poll of nearly 1000 governors, conducted after the main survey closed, found 8/10 are opposed to the government's plans to introduce more grammar schools.
These respondents should not be portrayed as moaning minnies: they are the people who are getting on and coping with restricted budgets, changes in assessment and performance data, difficulties in recruiting staff and changing school structures. They know a lot about the way schools are being managed and led: their opinions should count.
A frequent refrain from senior leaders and sometimes governors themselves is that we cannot expect too much from volunteers but NGA refutes the idea that being unpaid means one cannot be professional. School governors are not alone; there is the history and practice of charity sector trusteeship to draw on. We asked respondents if the role was manageable within the 10-20 days often quoted for trustees: similar to last year, 55% agree it is and 3% say not. It is not just teacher workload that’s high – the DfE needs to pay some attention to the working pattern of those who govern. We don’t want to render the role impossible to manage with a job.
Half of those governing are in full-time work, a quarter work part-time and another quarter are not earning, mainly retired. The vast majority of governors are also skilled people, with 89% of employed governors in professional or managerial roles. The Government’s main campaign on school governance over the last three years has been to encourage more skilled people to volunteer and NGA has worked with the DfE and Education and Employers on the Inspiring Governance portal which provides a bank of volunteers for schools to approach. Under half of boards interview candidates for appointed posts and NGA will continue to promote this good practice.
The Government has also been keen to reduce the size of governing boards to improve effectiveness and over the past four years, there has been a gradual change in that direction: those with smaller boards (up to 10 members) have increased from 17% to 26%, and those with 16 or over have halved from 29% to 14%. It is interesting to note that stand alone academies tend to have the larger boards with 35% 16 or over, compared with only 9% of local authority maintained schools. There is also no correlation between Ofsted grade - if anything, outstanding schools tend to have the larger boards.
Although about half of governing boards reported finding it difficult to recruit volunteers most governing boards are filling their places, with only 20% reporting two current vacancies and a further 10% with three or more. We advise the latter to register with Inspiring Governance right away.
30% were parents of pupils at the school where they governed and just over 60% of them had been elected to their current role. The first governing role of 44% of all respondents had been as an elected parent governor, which underlines the importance of this route as a way into volunteering. NGA is extremely pleased Justine Greening understands this and is not going to allow academies to close this down.
So overall, lack of skill does not appear to be the greatest barrier to effective governance. There was almost complete unity on the importance of high quality induction training with only 4% of respondents disagreeing that it should be mandatory for all those new to school governance. NGA will continue to press the Government to invest further in development for governors and trustees.
Thank you to every one of the 5000 governors and trustees who completed the survey: it is invaluable. We use it to track change in schools governance over the past five years. We can see if practice is changing but can also gauge whether opinions are changing. The NGA/TES 2016 survey is not a few case-studies. It is a real state of the nation of school governance
So the high level of dissatisfaction found by this survey means the new Secretary of State needs to have a major rethink about the way her department is approaching the army of volunteers responsible for overseeing the education of millions of pupils and the expenditure of billions of pounds of public money.
There is a revolution in school governance going on in many schools, and amongst everything else happening in the education sphere, the DfE is finding it hard to keep up. Those governing are still largely overlooked – and the great majority of them are fed up with the situation. They have a huge amount of knowledge and experience. The Secretary of State needs to tap into that collective wisdom and the National Governors’ Association can help her do it.
But this does not just mean a few platitudes about valuing the time given, although those would go down nicely. It is quite extraordinary that the response DfE gave to TES this week on the survey results recognised the contribution professional staff had made and the challenges they face, but did not mention the contribution or challenges faced by governors and trustees. When three quarters of governors and trustees are saying government education policy is not going in the right direction it is time to start having some serious conversations.
More on this:
NGA news: School governors deliver damning verdict on government policies
TES: Eight out of ten governors give government 'negative' verdict