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A new system and role for National Leaders of Governance


Last year the Department for Education set up an advisory group to make recommendations on the future of the National Leaders of Governance (NLG) programme. The group, which had input from NGA, concluded that the school system had changed significantly since its inception in 2012, and so had the role of NLGs.

As someone who was about in 2012 I can absolutely attest to that. The first time I met Steve Munby, then chief executive of the National College for School Leadership, I made the case for NLGs – in fact I accosted him at a National College event, as you do when you are trying to raise the profile of governance: “There are NLE’s, so why aren’t there NLG’s?”

I am pleased to say that Steve listened, the minister at the Department for Education, Lord Hill, wanted to make a difference to governance, and within the year NGA and the National College had published the first edition of Leading governors: the role of the chair of governors in schools and academies. It became one of the most downloaded of the College’s publications. In our joint introduction, Steve and I wrote: “We are also developing a role where outstanding chairs of governors work with other chairs to help them to develop and improve. This builds on the work the National College has done to support excellent school leaders to lead beyond their schools. We now want to offer the same opportunity to outstanding chairs. This support from outstanding chairs of governors will be targeted at specific schools where improvement is needed and where the chair of governors would benefit from additional support.”

What this quote disguises is a behind the scenes debate which I didn’t win: from the outset NGA wanted NLGs to be paid for three main reasons:

  • We expect a huge amount of our governance volunteers, and we can’t keep adding to those expectations, especially as most have to earn a living.
  • Other so-called system leaders were being paid and we wanted NLGs to have parity with NLEs. If those mentoring headteachers were to be paid, why not those doing the same for chairs of governing boards?
  • Payment in exchange for drawing on volunteer’s time, expertise and professional skills makes the role more inclusive and accessible, widening and therefore diversifying the group of people who have the opportunity to be involved.

Instead, we have had an unpaid NLG scheme for the past nine years, and I want to pay a huge tribute to the amazing amount of time, care and expertise that has been shared by those NLGs voluntarily with others governing in the system. We have said at every occasion that this contribution has not been recognised or celebrated enough. There are still 350 volunteer NLGs, and at its high point there were almost 500.

School structures changed over this period, and the role itself morphed with the types of activities with which NLGs might be involved broadening, adding for example external reviews of governance. But the application criteria did not keep pace with either set of changes.

NGA was involved in all the DfE’s ‘designation panels’, and it was obvious that it was hard to make decisions about a national status based on a written application, much of which related to pupils’ outcomes of a school governed. Lord Nash, the then DfE minister with responsibility for governance, agreed interviews of shortlisted applicants were necessary but then it was decided there was just not the DfE capacity or funding to undertake those, just as there was no capacity for any in depth quality assurance of NLG deployments.

Several other challenges emerged. Targeting the schools most in need of support did not materialise, the demise of the National College reduced NLG support, different structures to facilitate coordination were patchy, the number of days that NLGs were expected to give freely was reduced, and there were areas with few NLGs; yet others found it hard to find work. In addition, almost all NLGs were charging for their external reviews of governance (as we suggested they would and should). This all amounted to inconsistency of expectations, coverage and quality. NGA continued to call on the DfE to expedite its development of governance expertise in system leadership and ensure that it was not relying on volunteers to carry out this important work.

Fast forward to September 2020: the DfE’s advisory group released their findings, recommending that NLGs should be paid for the work they carry out, and that school governance professionals should be eligible to apply to be NLGs. The group recommended a new set of standards with eligibility requirements for the reformed scheme expected to come into effect this autumn, and a robust two-stage selection period. There would need to be higher level of accountability given the public expenditure being invested, and the group recommended appropriate quality assurance of NLG activity with individual designations to be reviewed every three years.

The reformed role will no longer be that of chairs’ mentors; it is that of governance consultant funded for the schools and trusts deemed to be in most need.

The DfE undertook the competitive tender for an organisation to deliver the new NLG programme. It was clear to NGA’s board of trustees that we should employ the extensive expertise that NGA has been built up over many years of running our consultancy team and bid to run the NLG service. NGA’s charitable mission is to improve governance in state schools and academy trusts in England, and NLGs will be doing just that, playing a key role in improving schools and trusts. After a robust tendering process, NGA is delighted the DfE has acknowledged NGA’s track record in awarding us the role, and applications for the new NLG designation opened recently.

The Department accepted the advisory group’s recommendations but with one still pending. The final section of the report says:

“During this transitional period, until end of [academic year] 20/21, the Department should continue to support existing NLGs to provide their valued mentoring support to chairs of governors and trustees, including through the School Improvement offer.

We believe that for many chairs, access to a mentor can be an invaluable support. As this aspect will no longer be a primary role for NLGs, we recommend that the DfE consider ways it could support chair mentoring schemes outside the NLG role.

The group recognises the important, voluntary work that all governors and trustees undertake and their critical role in our education system. In particular the group recognises the voluntary commitment and time, in addition to their substantive governance roles, many NLGs have given over the past eight years and would like to thank them for sharing their experiences for the benefit of their peers”.

Even the 2014 edition of Leading governors described the “essential feature” of the NLG role as “to provide governor-to-governor coaching and mentoring – support that in the past has often not been nationally available”.

That original role of being there to support newer chairs or those with a huge challenge at their school or trust was - and is - of huge benefit, indeed even for more experienced chairs facing some new scenario. A friendly voice, a sounding board, a confidential conversation, an objective view from someone who doesn’t know the other personalities involved in a tricky situation can make all the difference. We talk about it being lonely at the top and that can include chairs of governing boards. It is not an easy role at the best of times – and informal networks, often formed locally, are the lifeblood of the governance community. These relationships aren’t ‘deployments’ which need to be quality assured. They perform another crucial function and they add heart, soul and warmth. That can’t be measured, but all of us who work in governance know it is vital and we know that those who value and support this aspect of the wider governance role will continue to do it. NGA will continue to advocate for a formal mentoring scheme.

This work will go on – really it has very little to do with the current NLG system. Some of those wise folk offering support are NLGs and others are not, in part because the old criteria rewarded those who stayed chairing at an outstanding school over and above those who moved to govern in schools requiring improvement. In some areas, governance networks are thriving, sometimes supported by local governance services and sometimes completely informally, but in other places they are missing: having light touch facilitation of chairs networking in those areas could be of great benefit. That is why NGA has continued to ask for the decision on advisory group’s final recommendation; we will be having that conversation with Baroness Berridge, the current governance minister, next week.

Emma Knights OBE
Emma Knights OBE

Co-Chief Executive

As NGA’s Co-Chief Executive, Emma promotes the interests of the school governance community nationally with legislators, policy makers, education sector organisations and the media. Emma is an accomplished writer and speaker on a range of school governance policy and practice topics.