Emma Knights

Author: Emma Knights

11/09/2020 12:10:32

This is tenth year of the annual school governance survey and in the summer term 2020 over 6500 governors and trustees responded; thank you to those volunteers who once again give freely of their time in the interest of children and young people. Without them there would be no survey data, but more importantly there would be a huge hole in the most important level of school accountability, which is not inspectors, not performance tables, but governing boards making decisions for institutions. 

Today we publish the first two of six subject reports on school governance 2020: covering funding and staffing. These two topics continue to challenge more respondents than any others.

Despite increased government funding, balancing the budget remains the issue concerning more governing boards than any other. This is the case for respondents from all types of schools, although it was reported most by local authority maintained schools as a top concern (43%), then by stand-alone academies (38%) and lowest for multi academy trusts, raised by 34% of both trustees and those governing at academy level.  The only time it was knocked out of first place was by schools that not been graded by Ofsted as good or outstanding, and then raising attainment was the top concern.

More respondents reported that they were able to balance their budgets in the coming year, 63% compared with half in what was then their current financial year.  We do not know whether this is a result of increased funding awarded by the Government or measures taken by the trust or school to reduce expenditure. It is likely a combination of both for most.

Respondents were still reporting a large number of areas in which spending is being curtailed. Many schools are continuing to make some posts redundant, including two-thirds reporting reducing the number of support staff and a third reducing teaching staff. This is more than last year. Half of respondents have reduced spending on buildings and maintenance, again up from 2019. The trend to reduce the number of subjects and qualification offered at secondary schools also continues.

Just over a quarter of schools and trusts responding are using reserves to cover an in-year deficit, but six percent report that they are using a licensed deficit from the local authority or a loan from the Education Skills and Funding Agency

We discovered that the practice of asking for parental contributions is not always reflective of the organisation’s financial position. Almost a quarter of those governing schools building reserves reported that their school/trust asked for parental contributions.  It is a route only available to some, and those governing state schools needs to consider whether asking for parental contributions is the right way to go about increasing their income.

Effective governing boards know their senior leaders well, relationships built on trust, mutual respect and professionalism. Challenging and supporting senior leadership is one of the governing board’s most important functions. Recruiting the senior leader – whether a headteacher or a chief executive of a trust – can be the most critical decision that a board takes. Attracting talent to those posts is much harder in London, followed by the South East and the East of England.

And governors/trustees believe that the most important factors influencing the recruitment and retention of quality staff are workplace culture (65%), followed by school or trust reputation (53%), managing workload and wellbeing (45%), and continuing professional development and opportunities for professional growth (43%). This growing emphasis on organisational culture is really welcome.

Senior executive leaders must be provided with relevant quality development. Organisational management very clearly tops the list of topics that new school leaders find most challenging, followed by other elements of the headteacher’s and chief executive’s role outside their experiences as a teacher. Some respondents told us about their particular experience:

“How to deliver more than just an academic curriculum and deliver the wider aims of the school. Teachers don’t seem well equipped to do strategy well. We are spending a lot of time coaching the senior team regarding delivering strategic aims rather than just those against which they are measured by Ofsted.”

“He was quick to pick up the culture of the school and the community it serves but this was something that governors had raised with all candidates at interview and he found it very different from his previous school. Also identifying where 'custom and practice' cut across his and the Governors priorities and dealing with them robustly but fairly.”

“Parental engagement was a big priority for the new HT.  She has made excellent progress but the newfound accessibility of the HT also takes its toll.  Supported by advising her to find a balance and have a protocol in place.”

This data has been shared with the Department for Education as it is imperative that the professional qualifications currently under review take this knowledge gap on board.

Governing boards are the employers – or act in place of the employers – of all staff.  Respondents made it clear they value the people who are educating our children and providing leadership with the issue of staff wellbeing and workload being high on many agendas. However, there is still more that can be done in some schools and trusts as a quarter of respondents did not report using any method of engaging with staff.  Furthermore, four out of five chairs report that their board monitors and addresses staff workload and wellbeing compared with just under half of staff governors saying the same. Let’s make sure this current school year is the one when we review this work, improving where it’s possible, making this work clear to all.

These two top concerns – money and people – are intertwined. Education is a people business, and most of a school budget is spent on staff salaries and pensions. While a good majority of governors and trustees support the government in raising the starting salaries for teachers, there is considerable concern that these pay increases may not be adequately covered by the current school funding levels. Some respondents told us: 

“Teachers like all key workers should be valued commensurate with their contributions to society and the generation of people to come. The discrepancy in private sector pay and public sector worker pay is a scandal.”

“There would have to be a massive increase in budget, as all pay points would have to rise by the same percentage.  You can't have MPS2 paying less than MPS1, and so on.  I fear that the budget requirement to achieve this would not be met by government funding, particularly after the massive amount of funding the government has just put into the COVID-19 measures.”

And of course those governing are aware that diminishing the number of posts, which is cumulative over a number of years, can put more pressure on remaining staff, often increasing the time they are in the classroom with less time for preparation and development.  Courses and conferences are not always the best option (say she who leads an organisation which provide development courses, webinars and a range of events for members): time spent reading research, shadowing colleagues, sharing practice, meeting mentors, undertaking Masters degrees is important.

Governing boards don’t want to reduce the breadth of the education offer, but this is a consequence of the budget constraints. We didn’t actually ask respondents if they lost sleep at night over the challenges facing their schools, but it was clear much care is taken in exercising their responsibilities and balancing the tensions. Using resources well is central to their discussions.

Governors and trustees are often overlooked in the school system; they know their schools and trusts well. They have a huge amount of knowledge which is largely untapped and this annual survey tells us so much about the state of the school system and its governance.  Of course, different schools and trusts across England have their own stories to tell, but it is NGA’s role to bring the big picture, the common themes to the attention of the school system.  We will continue to publish reports over September, but what these first two today tells us is that we cannot pretend that all is yet well in terms of the level of funding needed to employ and develop staff to lead our schools and teach our pupils. With schools now having to manage in a COVID pandemic surrounded by economic uncertainty, we must not take our eyes off the resources needed to secure what all of us are in agreement about: the importance of ensuring the best possible education for the children and young people in this country.

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