Release date: 07/10/2020

New research on school and trust governance published today (7 October) - commissioned by the Department for Education (DfE) and conducted by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) - reveals that nine out of ten school and trust leaders feel adequately supported and challenged by their governing board.

The study explores governance structures, who is involved in governance and why, recruitment and retention of volunteers, experiences of governance and the perceived effectiveness of governance. It engaged with 2,751 individuals including those governing and executive leaders from 1,207 schools between November 2019 and January 2020. It aimed to “inform future policy development” and “enable evidence-based prioritisation of resources to support school and trust governance throughout England”. It recognises that the “effective governance of schools and trusts is essential for the provision of a high-quality education for young people throughout England” and says that “volunteers fulfilling the role of governor or trustee in schools and trusts make a vital contribution to the education system”.

Emma Knights, chief executive of the National Governance Association said:
"School and trust governance is an under-researched area, and so it is terrific to have another source of data which adds to the significant information collected through NGA’s comprehensive annual school governance survey over the past decade. The vast majority of NFER’s findings tally with what we already know and understand about the huge volunteer force overseeing state education. However, what is new and is incredibly positive is that most executive leaders feel well supported and challenged by their governing board. I am quite often told anecdotally that this is not the case, but now I will be able to quote this data: 89% of executive leaders agree that they feel adequately supported and 91% agree that they feel adequately challenged and scrutinised. This survey was carried out pre-COVID and NGA’s work has shown that over the last six months relationships between governing boards and senior leaders have tended to become stronger than ever before; this is especially important as schools and trusts navigate the ‘new normal’. NFER’s key findings confirm the importance of issues that NGA has been amplifying and addressing for many years such as the lack of diversity on boards, the need to tackle governance workload, difficulties with recruitment and retention, and the importance of high-quality clerking. We expect that the Department for Education will want to review its role in supporting and promoting volunteering in the light of this report."

Key findings of the report include:

  • Executive leaders surveyed were overwhelmingly positive about the support and challenge they received from their board, with very few disagreeing. Similarly, over 90% of governors and trustees ‘agreed’ or ‘strongly agreed’ they were confident holding the senior leadership team to account.
  • Perceived levels of effectiveness of the board were high with 38% of respondents rating their board as ‘very effective’ and 53% as ‘effective’. Respondents were also positive about their performance in the three core functions of governance and about the perceived skills of their board.
  • Recruitment of governors and trustees – particularly to co-opted and foundation roles –  was assessed as difficult with most boards having vacancies. Time commitment and workload were viewed by participants as the biggest barriers to recruitment of volunteers. Despite this most boards were relying on word-of-mouth recruitment through local and personal networks to fill vacancies which the report says affects “their ability to recruit to high quality, skilled and effective individuals”.
  • Boards are not necessarily representative of the communities they serve, with a lack of diversity among those involved in governance in terms of age and ethnicity according to the report. It notes that “White ethnic groups and people over the age of 60 are over-represented on governing boards compared to the national population” and found that some participants said that they are “actively seeking to improve the diversity of their board” using links with local community groups and recruitment services. 
  • Governors and trustees commit a significant amount of time to their role spending on average over 4.5 days per term on governance activities. Chairs spend around 9 days per term on their role, which further increases for MAT chairs. 
  • Ensuring new governors and trustees understand their roles and responsibilities, particularly around how to be strategic rather than operational, was seen as essential by participants. The research also identified a “mismatch between the skills the governors/trustees felt their [board] had and those which the executive leaders felt they had” particularly in relation to knowledge and understanding of the education sector.
  • Training and support were well received and greatly valued by governors/trustees. However, time and cost were considerable barriers to accessing this.
  • School and trust governance can draw on considerable accumulated experience which is testament to the commitment of volunteers who fulfil these roles, though some are staying on boards longer than the best practice guidelines of two terms of office (8 years).
  • Having and effectively using a professional clerk “is key to effective governance” as they “are able to offer insight into the effectiveness and efficiency of the [boards] they support, particularly regarding repetitious decision-making processes and maintaining a strategic focus”. However the report notes that not all boards are making good use of their clerk.  

It also identified some specific challenges facing boards governing different types of schools. In trusts, the report found a “lack of separation between the different levels of governance … due to individuals taking on multiple roles across different levels” which “may impact their objectivity and ability to oversee trust governance impartially”. In maintained schools, governing bodies “appear to feel less confident in their strategic oversight role than trust boards” with respondents from these schools being both “less likely to rate their board as very effective at the three core functions of governance compared to trust boards” and “less likely to have received most forms of training, support and guidance than trustees”.

Read the research

Read our blog on "What we knew and what’s new: key findings from NFER’s investigative study into school governance" 

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