NGA responds to HMCI’s commentary on the importance of governance


Sir Michael Wilshaw, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector (HMCI), has today published a commentary on school governance and launched a survey into the effectiveness of governance in schools.

Wilshaw says that the role of governors and trustees is vital to raising standards in school and that “amateurish governance will no longer do.” While acknowledging the “huge changes” in the education system in recent years and the fact that thousands of people give their time voluntarily to serve as school governors, he says, “Good will and good intentions will only go so far.”

Emma Knights, Chief Executive of the National Governors’ Association, said:  “There are two definitions of amateur – one is engagement in an activity without financial gain, and the other is unskilled or inexperienced. We completely agree with HMCI that those governing our schools must not be the latter. The National Governors' Association exists to improve the professionalism of school governors and trustees. Sir Michael summarises the requirement well: “Governors have to be perceptive people who can challenge and support the headteacher in equal measure and know when and how to do this”.

“NGA welcomes Sir Michael highlighting the power of effective governance to improve schools and that mandatory training for those governing is the sensible way forward; in fact this is something NGA has long campaigned for and continues to discuss with the Department for Education. Mandatory induction is expected in other responsible voluntary roles; education professionals and the vast majority of governors and trustees support it. It is ridiculous that someone can start governing without realising exactly what it is they have volunteered to do or understanding the educational institution for which they are now responsible. Professional development for those governing our schools is an important area for investment which will pay back dividends.”

HMCI reports that his inspectors have called for external reviews of governance in nearly 500 schools in the last academic year because of concerns about underperforming governing boards.  It is worth pointing out that there are therefore over 23 thousand state schools which have not been found by the inspectorate to need an external review of governance. NGA suggests that 2% or even 10% of those inspected, which are skewed towards the bottom end, is not necessarily a large enough sample to warrant a whole scale change in the way governing is currently carried out; instead we should concentrate more attention on those schools whose governing boards are not fit for purpose. In her address to NGA’s annual conference on Saturday, Emma Knights highlighted “shocking practice” and encouraged experienced governors to become part of a movement for change.

NGA appreciates the urgent need to improve governance in the most poorly performing schools and we are already in talks with the Department for Education and other partners about a possible pilot to provide excellent chairs of governors for those very schools.  We know that great chairs can turn governance round and in the same way, the DfE will be parachuting teachers and middle leaders where they are needed most. We are arguing that a similar scheme is needed for those with the experience to turn around weak governing boards.  HMCI may well be correct when he says that the weakest governance is often found in the poorest areas of the country: “the very schools that stand to gain most from strong, professional and forensic governance”.

HMCI says that the time has come to discuss the idea of paying chairs and vice chairs “in order to recruit the most able people to schools in the most difficult circumstances”.  NGA gave this subject serious consideration last spring – and conducted seven focus groups as well as considering the literature from other sectors where this is also being debated.  The suggestion of paying governors and trustees had very little support among our members and what’s more, research that we’ve seen doesn’t support it either. Rather, it might undermine motivations, and if only applied to the chair and vice-chair it could affect the working of the board as a collective corporate body. Furthermore, HMCI seems to forget that volunteering for the greater good is very much a British value, which is embedded in charity law.  As institutions grow, then this issue may need to re-visited, as in some other sectors, but until then we need to continue the still relatively recent route of recruiting and selecting governors and trustees for their skills.  This needs to be well and truly tried and tested before the charity model of governance is put to one side.

If Sir Michael is concerned about the time employed people have to govern, then NGA would ask him to support our call, and the call of the Confederation of British Industry, for employers to be flexible with time off work to govern; unfortunately our joint survey with TES shows that there is more work to be done.

HMCI says: “It would be unrealistic to expect every member of the governing board to have a deep knowledge of educational issues. However, for the two or three people who hold the most senior roles on the board, and who could be responsible for ‘cascading’ training to other members, I believe this is essential.” Seniority is not a concept used in governance; a board is a team of equals, each individual bringing useful skills and knowledge. NGA suggests that the absolutely critical role of chair is not one in which requires an educationalist by profession. Other skills and personal attributes are key; ensuring all board members are developed but not to ‘train’ them oneself.

Echoing comments made by Nicky Morgan, the Secretary of State for Education, this summer, Wilshaw also took aim at the stakeholder model of governance as it currently stands, particularly the category of “parent governor” - saying that good governance was about having the right amount of skills and experience around the table, rather than about representing particular interest groups.   

NGA has been at the forefront of encouraging modern methods of recruiting governors and last year was one of the founders of the inspriringgovernors alliance. Only two members of a governing body now have to be elected parents, and it is important to have diversity and alternative routes onto the board.  The best decisions are made when people bring different views and experiences to the table. When consulted recently about changes to categories of governors, NGA members told us that they had enough flexibility with their constitutional arrangements and there were more pressing concerns impacting on their ability to perform their core functions well, such as a lack of professional clerks and too many policies to consider.

Emma Knights said: “We share HMCI’s concerns on a great many issues he has talked about in this commentary - particularly the over-reliance on information provided by headteachers, ‘cosy’ relationships between governors and heads, and the risk that trustees in stand-alone academies can become isolated. In September, NGA, ASCL and BrowneJacobson published the well-received guidance to encourage stand-alone schools to consider joining a federation or a multi academy trust.

On the survey launched today, Emma added: “While we welcome Ofsted’s spotlight on governance, and enjoy a debate on governance, we do question whether Ofsted has the expertise in this area to conduct such a review themselves; their own school reports suggest that inspectors do not always understand the governance role and they frequently misunderstand the lines of accountability, almost invariably misidentifying the ‘accountable authority’ for schools in multi academy trusts.”

"Ofsted’s lead HMI role for governance was unfilled for many months recently, and possibly as a result the inspectorate has been missing from the cutting edge discussions - as governance models for multi academy trusts have been developing. We would suggest the way in which Ofsted inspects governance should be included in the scope of this project, and we hope that as well as involving those who have the breadth and depth of governance knowledge in their upcoming survey evaluation, inspectors will soon receive the promised training on governance so that elementary mistakes do not keep appearing.  The NGA looks forward to working with Ofsted in the coming months."

Russell Hobby, General Secretary of the National Association of Headyeachers, said: “The expectations placed on school governors are very high, so proper training is essential. Governors should be entitled to paid time off work to fulfil their duties and to attend training. This training should be mandatory and funded by the government.”

Ofsted’s survey will:

  • examine whether governing boards have the right mix of professional skills and experience needed to perform their increasingly important role
  • assess whether the time has now arrived to make provision for paid governance
  • look at whether local authorities, Regional School Commissioners and others intervene early enough when problems with the governance of a school are spotted between Ofsted inspections
  • explore whether in an increasingly diverse system, the right structures are in place to support governors and trustees, and to deliver the training they need to hold schools to account
  • investigate the level of guidance and support governors receive for headship appointments
  • look at the extent to which governors are involved in succession planning for school leaders
  • look at whether external reviews of governance are an effective tool for improving standards
  • look at the role performed by National Leaders of Governance and whether there are enough of them to make a difference
  • examine some of the specific challenges facing governors of standalone academies
  • explore the relationship between multi-academy trusts and their local governing boards. Our survey will seek to determine the extent to which their respective roles are clearly defined and delineated.

NGA will be submitting evidence to Ofsted on the above themes. If you’re a member of NGA and would like to share your views with us email: