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What we knew and what’s new: key findings from NFER’s investigative study into school governance


Last week, the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) released its investigative research report on school and trust governance commissioned by the Department for Education (DfE). Reassuringly for us at the National Governance Association, the report confirmed much of what we has thought, known and reported on for many years but it is good to have those issues reinforced from another source and the research also introduced some interesting new findings. Since 2011, NGA has been running its own similar but different annual survey of governors and trustees across England into ensure we can represent the voices of those who govern on a national stage and we have also been involved in a variety of research projects in the school governance sphere. School and trust governance does still remain an under-researched area and therefore as our chief executive Emma Knights has commented, NFER’s research adds significantly to our knowledge on school and trust governance.

There are distinctive differences between NGA’s survey of 6,864 self-selecting governors and trustees and NFER’s study which includes a survey of 2,751 individuals involved in school governance which was supplemented by a series of 30 telephone interviews to follow up the initial findings from the survey phase. 

The considerable agreement between the findings of the two studies reinforces that there are particular areas the government needs to focus on in supporting and improving governance, and raising the profile of those volunteering in these vital governance roles.

Here we take a look at some of these areas, outlining what we knew and what’s new, and what NGA is doing to tackle these challenges and assist governing boards.

What we knew

1. Diversity

“Broadly, there is a lack of diversity among those involved in governance, with regards to age and ethnicity, which means that boards are not necessarily representative of the communities they serve.”

The NFER study confirms the results of NGA’s annual school governance survey 2020 (and indeed many years before), mirroring closely the demographic breakdowns of school governance volunteers with both surveys demonstrating that those over 60 are overrepresented as shown in the bar chart below.

It is worth noting that this is not an issue unique to the sector with research into charity trustees finding that on average charity trustees were between 60 and 62.

NGA and NFER’s survey data also both found that a disappointingly low percentage of governors and trustees were from Black, Asian and other ethnic backgrounds (4.7% and 3.5% respectively) which falls far below from the proportion within the national population.

Many of NFER’s telephone interviewees noted that even though their board did not have any skill gaps, they felt their board lacked diversity. This echoes findings from NGA’s survey in 2019 which found that over finance, HR and risk management skills, 54% of respondents reported that their board lacked volunteers that reflect their community. NGA has raised the issue of board diversity for a number of years and launched its Everyone on Board campaign to champion the benefits of board diversity and encourage volunteers from under-represented groups. NGA has now set up an equality and diversity group to inform and guide our work in this area, and has published pledges for action.

2. Recruitment and retention

“There are considerable challenges in the recruitment and retention of governors and trustees. Most governing bodies had vacancies (averaging from 1.1 for MAT trust boards to 1.8 for SAT trust boards) and time commitment and workload were seen to be the biggest barriers to recruitment.”

Recruitment for governing boards seems to be becoming a more difficult task and this year our annual survey found that 63% of governors/trustees surveyed report that recruiting new volunteers to their board is difficult compared with just half of those surveyed in 2015, a 13% increase. It also found in 2019 that on average boards reported that they had 1.26 vacancies with a third (34%) reporting that they had two or more vacancies, roughly matching NFER’s study’s findings.

With regard to retention, both NGA and NFER found that the majority governors and trustees surveyed had no plans to end their voluntary role; 75% of NGA survey respondents reported that they were not planning or considering resigning from their board while 77% of NFER survey respondents reported that they were planning to stay in their post for the next 12 months. Concerningly, two-thirds of interviewees in NFER’s study identified that their board experienced retention issues and most commonly pinpointed this on ex-governors and trustees having a change in personal circumstances or being unable to fulfill the time commitment of the role. NGA’s time to chair series identified that many of chairs of governing boards are spending substantially longer than the recommended timeframe for their governance activities and the research also delved into ways in which boards can fairly delegate tasks and reduce their workload.

3. MAT governance

“The complexity of MAT governance presents a unique challenge in ensuring clarity in the roles and responsibilities of the different tiers of governance. The research found that there was confusion between the different tiers of governance as to where responsibility for certain areas of decision making were held.”

NFER’s research found significant overlap in the roles carried out by those involved in governance with 51% of chairs of MAT boards also reporting being members of their trust which was very similar to the proportion of MAT chairs surveyed in the annual school governance survey 2020 (54%). Both studies also found considerable overlap between those serving both on academy committee and trust board level.

The study also found that there was confusion surrounding responsibilities at each tier which suggests that academy committees and trust boards have different views on what is delegated with academy committee members believing they had more decision-making powers than they did. These wider themes on delegation are present in NGA’s Moving MATs Forward report which identified that some MATs “have a poorly written scheme of delegation which includes confusing […] and contradictory delegation and […] key duties being duplicated or missed off entirely”. To help trusts define lines of responsibility and accountability, NGA has developed over the years its scheme of delegation guidance which has been widely used across the sector but NFER’s study may suggest that even if well written scheme of delegations are used, they may not always been understood by all those involved in governance.

What’s new

4. Support and challenge

“Half (51%) of executive leaders ‘strongly agreed’ that they felt adequately supported. The same proportion ‘strongly agreed’ that they felt adequately challenged and scrutinised. The proportion agreeing was 38% and 40% respectively.”

This is undoubtedly both a new and positive finding for the school governance community with nine in 10 senior executive leaders (SELs) reporting that their governing board is providing adequate support and challenge. SELs who were interviewed in NFER’s telephone interviewees also emphasised the effectiveness of their board with one noting that their board are both “compassionate to staff” while they also offer “a strong level of challenge”.

This was broadly consistent by board type as shown in the bar chart below, however, MAT trust boards had the highest proportion of SELs strongly agreeing that they felt adequately challenged and scruntised by board type.

5. Skills on boards

"There was a mismatch between the skills the governors/trustees felt their governing board had and those which the executive leaders felt they had, particularly in relation to knowledge and understanding of the education sector."

To be a governor/trustee does not require specialist educational knowledge or background but those working in education or those with a background in education can certainly offer important knowledge and experience. NFER’s study suggests that some boards may need a more balanced range of skills and NGA knows boards most commonly do this through a skills audit, which can help to identify knowledge and experience gaps within the board, and their usage among governing boards has risen according to NGA’s annual school governance survey, used by 72% of respondents in 2012 and 87% in 2019. 

For boards lacking educational skills on the board, recruiting someone currently involved in education can be a good way to increase education knowledge on the board while providing benefits for educationalists who decide to volunteer. Half of staff governors in the annual school governance survey 2020 reported that they joined the board to develop skills for their professional life (52%) and NGA’s Educators on Board campaign aims to encourage teachers and school leaders to get involved in governing in other schools that the one they teach to reap the same benefits while also aiding boards with vacancies. Boards with specific skillsets in mind might want to use Inspiring Governance, a free online school governance recruitment service which connects boards with a wide range of volunteers from different backgrounds, professions and sectors. 

6. Governance professionals/clerks

"Clerks, when utilised properly, were seen as key to the effective running of governing boards, but not all boards were making the most of the resource clerks can offer.”

This is something NGA has believed anecdotally for years from our extensive work with governing boards and with clerks and other governance professionals, and it is pleasing to find this was a key highlight of the research. Clerks who were interviewed in NFER’s study noted their dissatisfaction with both the lack of understanding around their role and lack of value assigned to itWhile NGA’s annual survey does not capture the views of clerks, it did find that very few governors/trustees reported that their clerk received an annual appraisal (37%) despite the importance of the role. Those in leadership positions on the board were more likely to indictate their clerk received an annual appraisal (64%)  which suggest that not all those on governing boards are fully aware of the appraisal process. Both these studies signal more governing boards must be aware of the benefits of a well-trained clerk. To assist boards with the appraisal process, NGA has created a a model appraisal form and also continues its Clerking Matters campaigns which champions and increase awareness around the importance of the role of clerk. 

NFER’s report is available to read at  To read NGA’s series of reports from the annual school governance survey 2020, please visit the NGA research page.