Release date: 15/12/2016

The schools inspectorate Ofsted has published a new report today on the state of school governance, called ‘Improving governance: Governance arrangements in complex and challenging circumstances’.

Ofsted - Improving governance: Governance arrangements in complex and challenging circumstances

The report draws on responses to Ofsted’s public call for evidence last autumn, evidence from 96 routine inspections or monitoring visits, and dedicated visits made by inspectors to 24 schools which had recently improved standards.

Read NGA’s response to the call for evidence (January 2016)

The report identifies “three critical factors that made improvements possible” in schools where weak governance had improved rapidly:

1)      the schools became aware of the weaknesses in their governance arrangements

2)      professional knowledge, understanding and insight was developed within the governing board

3)      clarity about governors’ roles, responsibilities and lines of accountability was established.

The report also identifies a number of common issues where governance was not effective:

  • many governors lack the expertise to hold school leaders to account
  • governors need better access to educational expertise and professional clerking
  • recruitment and retention of governors is a challenge in many areas
  • clarity about lines of accountability, role and responsibilities is an essential part of effective governance
  • weak governance is at risk of going undetected until inspection
  • paying chairs of governing boards can act as a means to create a more professional partnership between the board and school leadership team [There was, however, no evidence of where this has happened. We think Interim Executive Boards and Governing Boards are being confused by Ofsted: see below]
  • commitment to and knowledge of the school’s local community is essential to governance.

NGA is not surprised by these findings as they confirm our own work and findings on what makes an effective governing body.  NGA’s long-established eight elements of effective governance set out the blocks needed for good governance and their absence (as indicated above) will inevitably lead to less effective governing boards.

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As reported by TES today, Emma Knights, chief executive of the National Governors’ Association, said. “In a way, the Ofsted report is a missed opportunity. What they could have done is said, ‘This is what strong governance looks like.’

“There’s quite a lot of work in train in order to improve governance, and that perhaps wasn’t appreciated enough in the report. Theirs is very much a deficit model: it’s a very basic description of what weak governance looks like. More interesting is the question: is governance getting weaker, and if so, why?  Our experience is that governance is getting stronger as there is more good material and support now available to governing boards, such as our induction guides."

NGA’s eight elements of effective governance:

1.The right people around the table
2.Understanding roles & responsibilities
3.Good chairing
4.Professional clerking
5.Good relationships based on trust
6.Knowing the school – the data, the staff, the parents, the children, the community
7.Commitment to asking challenging questions
8.Confidence to have courageous conversations in the interests of the children and young people

Understanding the role

Ofsted has identified clarity about lines of accountability, role and responsibilities as an essential part of effective governance. Understanding the role and responsibilities is one of NGA’s eight elements of effective governance.

Three quarters of the 2,632 respondents to Ofsted’s call for evidence said that governors need more clarity about the expectations of the strategic leadership role. As the first of governing boards’ three core functions, setting the vision, ethos and strategy is a vital but challenging part of governance. In NGA’s experience, both governors and school leaders often need to develop their understanding of this function; when they do, it is usually a catalyst for long term, sustainable improvement.

Growing Governance resource pack

Particularly in groups of schools where there are multiple layers of governance, clarity around how decision making is delegated is critical. Ofsted’s report made recommendations for multi academy trusts (MATs) on ensuring that the scheme of delegation is clear, well understood, and available on the academies’ websites. NGA has had some concerns about how well Ofsted understands MAT governance and this was not allayed by some of the language used in the report.

NGA guidance: governance in multi academy trusts

Governor effectiveness

Recruiting governors with the right skills, knowledge and commitment is a challenge for many governing boards and, as Ofsted has identified, essential to effective governance. The results of the 2016 NGA and TES survey indicate that the majority of governing boards take this seriously, with 83% having carried out a skills audit in the past year.

This report is actually a missed opportunity. Ofsted reports that the consensus view among those who participated in their call for evidence was that “it is initial induction training followed by regular refresher training that makes a board member effective”. NGA supports this view and has long been calling for induction training to be mandatory for all those joining a governing board. We are therefore disappointed that HMCI has not reiterated his previous support for induction training to be made mandatory.

Payment for governing

The call for evidence asked whether governors should be paid; Ofsted report that of the 1600 respondents who answered the question around a third thought all governors should be paid and a fifth thought that some governors should be paid, such as the chair or vice chair.

Ofsted conclude that “paying chairs of governing bodies can act as a means to achieving a professional and open relationship between governors and school leaders” but do not recommend that payment becomes the norm.  The evidence contained in the report does not make a strong case for paying governors other than in exceptional circumstances.

The report makes reference to instances when experienced governors have been paid to sit on interim executive boards (IEBs). This is, as the name suggests, an executive role and one that is distinct from governing under normal circumstances. Because of the operational nature of the role and the time commitment required, NGA supports the payment of IEB members and is calling for the practice to be embedded.

Professional clerking

NGA are pleased to see Ofsted acknowledging the centrality of professional clerking to effective governance. Our own Clerking Matters campaign seeks to highlight the importance of clerks and provide support and information. 

Reviewing governance

Being aware of the quality of governance is, of course, essential to ensuring its effectiveness. NGA recommends that governing boards conduct annual self-reviews as well as regular external reviews.

The report found “mixed views on the usefulness of external reviews of governance (ERGs). Among the governing boards visited, the majority of those that had commissioned ERGs had found them useful. However, others told Ofsted that their experience of ERGs had been less positive, with “concerns expressed that they were either a bureaucratic exercise or being carried out by people without the relevant skills or knowledge to do the review effectively”.

Governing boards are responsible for commissioning ERGs and should ensure that whoever carries them out is genuinely external (in the sense that they have no prior knowledge of or interest in the school or governing board), appropriately qualified, and that there is some element of quality assurance of their work.

More NGA guidance is available to members on the guidance centre

Read the Ofsted report

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