Emma Knights addresses annual conference


What we are engaged in here is a movement for change,
a movement to improve governance


The NGA’s Chief Executive, Emma Knights, addressed the 2015 annual conference in London on Saturday, speaking about the issues that she believes matter most for strengthening school governance in England. 

Emma spoke about governors as being in the vanguard with the power to lead change in schools. She told delegates, including school governors and trustees, headteachers, clerks, that the first step was to appreciate the task ahead of them in a sometimes hostile environment. 

“If you are part of strong governing board and only ever meet governors who make a point of ensuring their professional development, it might surprise you to learn that there are still examples of governing boards with frankly shocking practice. Many do not challenge their headteachers, have papers tabled at meetings…never get in-year data and the headteacher’s report is a list of lovely activities the school has been engaged with…All of this not just giving the rest of us a bad name, it is letting down the pupils of those schools, and actually the professionals in those schools.

“Eighteen months ago I wrote a stiff letter to the then Secretary of State for Education, criticising his characterisation of us school governors as ‘sherry swilling and Kumbaya singing’…so why have I chosen to do what Michael Gove did, albeit without his journalistic way with words?  Because what we are engaged in here is a movement for change, a movement to improve governance. It is significant work – about safeguarding and improving the education of pupils in England.

On the current state of school governance, Emma said:

“As I take stock I am concerned that we are losing momentum in that movement for improvement as we develop a more divided system.  The haves and the have nots. Those that have expertise, nous, gumption are powering ahead, developing networks and recruiting new people to govern. 

“You know where to go for support and advice. There is a lot of it about.  You are real examples of great things happening in governing boards across the land, but we rarely hear about it. And I know that’s because the important stuff we do is hard to talk about in public - it often involves very difficult employment decisions…but I know you all have stories to tell, so please: over the next few weeks and months I would like for my in-box to fill up with lots of 700 word (or more) stories.  Capture your good work, your successes, show to the often doubting world of education that governance, when it is working well, can make an enormous difference.

"This movement for change is about spreading the word far wider than NGA’s information and guidance - and you can be at the forefront of it. If there are governing boards in your area from which governors have never turned up to training, cluster meetings or local associations, why not make contact? That’s what the ‘school-led self-improving’ system is all about.

"Last year NGA developed a peer review model for 3 or 4 governing boards.  You could engage a neighbour who you haven’t worked with before. We all need to be challenged.  We need to avoid group think. You might even consider moving to a school which needs you more than your current one. Because many schools, particularly smaller schools, find it difficult to navigate the new terrain and they need help – confident governance which understands the new order."


Emma spoke about the need for urgent individual action to bring issues to the attention of parliamentarians:  

“We are part of the voluntary sector – but we governors don’t lobby our elected representatives as much as much as others involved in working for change.  Any day now, [ministerial] Department’s are going to get their spending settlements, and the bun fights will begin.  You will want to make the case to your MP for whatever is important for your school, your locality – it might be fairer funding, it might be capital funding. But can you please make the point at the same time for some continuing subsidy for clerks’ and chairs’ development programmes – but also for the first time, subsidy for induction training.  We are proud to live in a democracy, so let’s use that democracy. 

"There are 300,000 of us – even a few hundred letters to MPs over the next week could make a difference.  And I do mean tomorrow- in a month’s time it might be too late."

On the need to create and support good working environments for teachers, Emma said:

“Governing boards need to understand the climate of their organisation – we must make sure we are taking its temperature. We must not allow schools to become places where adults do not want to workwe need teachers in our classrooms and we need happy teachers in our schools; making them the happy and vibrant places in which pupils learn best.  And most of our schools are exactly that but let’s make sure we avoid unnecessary pressure.  Keep that vision and ethos at the front of our minds; it’s not just a once a year strategy review day thing.”

In 2016 NGA will be celebrating its 10 year anniversary. Emma gave delegates a taste of what’s in store:

“February 2016 is NGA 10th Birthday – indeed ten years ago members of our predecessor organisations The National Governors’ Council and the National Association of Governors and Managers voted to set up NGA.

“In 2016 the Clerking Matters campaign will be resurrected with a vengeance –since we published the model job description, we have had an increase in questions from governing boards wanting to employ a professional clerk but can’t find one.  We need to take this role seriously and ensure that it has the commensurate trappings and pay. 

Our last Clerking Matters effort was rather successful as it resulted in the National College Clerks’ Development programme. But the work is not yet done, so watch this space – we will be announcing a date for the campaign’s advisory group shortly, and that will include those clerks who have been lobbying us on these issues.

An engine for ideas and change

At its best, governance should be generative, that is, asking questions and posing ideas which can lead to a reconsideration of how the current state may best be understood.  We need to be brave enough to think differently in the interests of pupils and encourage all those in the education sector, whether policy makers or school leaders, to do the same.
“We are not bystanders – we should be setting the agenda and have the confidence to take others with us. We don’t need to deferential and wait for the great and the good in the education sector to come up with the ideas. Improvement is not all about us from outside education understanding educational context, it also needs to be about educationalists looking to other sectors to understand organisational change.”

Emma spoke about the need for governors to look beyond the ‘bricks and mortar’ of school buildings to deliver a better system of education.  

“The education sector for most of the age range is built around ‘schools’ – each of which has a URN number, a headteacher and a governing body. But why do we are so many of us hanging onto that concept with dear life?  We all need to work together to convince governors – and also school leaders - that the accident of history which has brought about the schools in the places they are is not set in stone – or even in the bricks and mortar of our school buildings. 

“We have built the scaffolding of our school sector, the funding, the leadership posts, around those buildings – although one may hold fewer than 50 children and another more than 2000 young people. It doesn’t make sense and it is holding us back, more importantly it is holding pupils back. We need to think differently –and rebuild the system around what makes best sense for improving teaching and learning, which allows our professionals to concentrate on what they came into teaching to do.”



All images: Toby Madden