Author: Emma Knights
For eight consecutive years, NGA has been running a survey of school governors and trustees in partnership with Tes, regularly achieving more than 5,000 respondents from across England. A huge thank you to the 5,923 individuals who made the time this year to respond; without you there would be no report. This is particularly impressive on top of governing duties, especially given the workload reported by some volunteers. We appreciate we are asking busy people to do one more thing; this may skew those who can respond. But even so, we do have the right proportions of all the different types of state-funded schools.
Obviously schools are different and their context is important; the views and experiences of governors and trustees vary considerably. While we cannot claim the school governance community speaks with one voice, the concerns being raised across the country are becoming more consistent. We ask respondents to choose their five biggest challenges, and this year for every region, type and phase of school these include:
Balancing the budget is the top concern facing governing boards whether of maintained schools or multi academy trusts. Once again over three quarters of respondents said that they are not confident that funding pressures can be managed without any adverse impact on the quality of education provided. School Governance in 2019 details the wide range of decisions taken by governing boards to-date to balance budgets. The reported financial stresses do now seem to have been accepted by the Government under a new Prime Minister; the Chancellor has announced increased school and college funding for the next four years.
NGA of course welcomes additional funding, but we will be scrutinising the detail of the announcement to ensure that governing boards really are going to be able to begin to reverse the many difficult decisions that they have had to make over the past few years. It is highly unlikely though that all shortfalls and cutbacks experienced by governing boards will be immediately and fully plugged. However the information provided by governors and trustees through our Funding the Future campaign and beyond, added to that from school leaders, teaching unions, and families to make the case.
According to leaked reports in the press, we were also expecting a Department for Education (DfE) announcement on pushing academisation again. NGA sought clarity from the DfE on the claims, and it has confirmed that maintained schools will continue to only be required to become a sponsored academy as a result of “educational underperformance, if they are judged ‘Inadequate’ by Ofsted”. We welcome this clarification; it is right that the decision to convert to academy status should rest solely with the governing body of a school, and what is needed is for us all to concentrate on the issues which make most difference to pupils and the education they receive.
There is no evidence that simply changing the legal status of a single school results in better outcomes for pupils. However there can be advantages to pupils being part of a formal group of schools under one governing board: a maintained federation or a multi academy trust. Governing boards are well placed to judge what it best for their school. For almost ten years we have been providing information to help governing boards considering a structural change, and those considering joining or forming a group of schools should take a look at Taking the Next Steps. Some governing boards are in the process of doing this, some reporting for financial reasons, others because of diminished local authority support or diocesan policy.
Over the last few years governing boards’ concerns about inadequate provision for pupils with SEND has increased as the needs have grown but resources diminished. Over three quarters of respondents said their school was not funded adequately to meet SEND needs and many identified SEND as a priority area for any additional funding from the Government. There is also evidence reported that cuts in a range of other services for vulnerable children has put additional strain on schools, often requiring them to step to attempt to fill gaps. This is neither good for families who need specialist support nor for schools which exist to educate pupils.
Three in five respondents said they lacked funds to support the needs of disadvantaged pupils. Disadvantaged children generally continue to do less well at school, despite attention - both at policy and school level – for a very long time. The survey confirms pupil premium spending is being concentrated on the classroom in the belief that is where schools will have the most impact. However some respondents identify the very fundamental barriers to learning that some pupils face, sometimes as basic as not being well fed at home. NGA will continue to explore these challenges through our Spotlight on Disadvantage project.
Worries about the workload, welfare and morale of staff is now the second highest concern of governing boards. However the good news is that more governing boards this year took decisions with these concerns in mind, and attempting to put in place policies which help reduce workload and stress. Many are considering incentives to retain staff, particularly financial incentives but also access to professional development and promotion opportunities. Staff recruitment is still being reported as much more challenging in London and surrounding areas and also slightly more difficult in schools with lower Ofsted grades.
The request for professionals to be valued more and listened to by policy makers once again came through loud and clear. Similarly the governance community needs to be listened to more by the powers that be. Here is an enormous group of people - quarter of a million volunteers across England - who know a lot about state schools and are responsible for setting their ethos and strategic direction. They are motivated to govern in order to give something back or to improve schooling for children and their community.
This survey provides details about those who are accountable for state schools. Here I just pick out one issue: for more than a year NGA has been running our Everyone on Board campaign to promote the importance of diversity on governing to boards, with a particular focus on increasing the number of younger and ethnic minority volunteers. The average age of those governing is 55 years, although this is actually lower than other charity trustees!
There are good numbers of potential volunteers registered on Inspiring Governance who are under the age of forty and/or from an ethnic minority, and this approach of targeted recruitment has been very well received by governing boards. Although the overall percentages of younger and BAME people responding to this survey have not improved significantly, of those who have been recruited in the last two years, the number are from ethnic minorities have doubled. However this is from such a low base: we are committed to this campaign for the long term.
There is a related bit of good news: last year 38% boards reported two or more vacancies and this year it’s 34%, a slight decrease. Recruiting volunteers is reported as being difficult by 55% of respondents, and of course is a continuous task as people come to the end of their terms of office or move on for other reasons. It is healthy to have some change on a board, but the survey results also highlight that the sector needs to be very aware of the expectations of the roles. For a number of years we have documented the increasing workload of governing. Not only have 77% of those responding given the equivalent of over 20 days per year to governance, but of that, 27% are governing for over 30 days a year. This is the biggest challenge for those who volunteer to chair the board. These results should be useful in our on-going discussions with DfE to persuade them to take this more seriously.
Given that 78% respondents to this survey had a negative view of the Government’s education policy, there is clearly as much work as ever to do to persuade the DfE to listen more, to value the input from those who govern and to act. Government ministers stress the importance of governance from many stages, but little has been said or done more widely over the past year to ensure the people who take on this responsibility are recognised.
Read the School Governance in 2019 report
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