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The importance of governance: democracy, legitimacy and engagement


Governance determines who has the power, who makes the decisions, how other players make their voice heard and how account is rendered - Institute on Governance, Canada

It is arguable that the processes underpinning our system of democracy, the governance for our country has a whole, need some attention. Some people in the some parts of the county, often those farthest away from London, feel overlooked, as do many of those who are not succeeding, and others, often those in the minority in safe seats, feel disenfranchised. The appallingly tragic events of this week at Grenfell Tower underline the distance even where located side by side between those who have the power and are making the decisions and the powerless whose voices are not heard.

State schools generally play an enormously positive role in providing a safe haven for all pupils, giving them a feeling of belonging, and contributing to their development as citizens. The phrase community cohesion has gone out of favour, but the legislation still exists. Schools are just getting on quietly helping communities to come together and pupils from different backgrounds to understand each other.

Governors and school leaders across the land tend to value that community engagement role. I can say that fairly confidently because I spend much time talking to them about the new models of school governance which are being developed and re-developed. And almost everyone everywhere wants to make sure, that as part of the quite fundamental shift of power to trustee boards of multi academy trusts schools don’t lose that connection with their communities.

The Government in Nicky Morgan’s doomed 2016 White Paper proposed that reserved places for parents on academy boards could become a thing of the past and instead there should be a greater emphasis on parental engagement. Who could be against the latter? We were up for it, and have updated our guidance with PTA-UK. However we are very disappointed despite their warm words by the Department’s lack of interest in championing parental engagement. NGA campaigned hard – and successfully - to retain parent places, first in maintained schools and then in academies, but this was not a campaign in which we were supported by many of the influential voices in the education sector. One exception was Jonathan Simons, then at Policy Exchange, who understood where the uproar came from and has touched on legitimacy in an essay in a more recent publication. It was mainly parents, alongside governors, who made a lot of noise about the loss of connection with academy trusts and contacted local MPs: they didn’t want their schools taken over by remote trustees.

We have been trying, without much success outside NGA membership, to encourage a wider debate across the education sector about the fundamental changes to school governance which are happening largely under the radar, and certainly without any public debate. Over the last seven years the focus has been very much about the skills needed for governance. What gives us the legitimacy to govern – to take key decisions about public expenditure for the benefit of pupils - has barely been considered.

The elegant definition from the Canadian Institute on Governance (above) we have adopted makes it clear how other players make their voice heard is part and parcel of governance. Given its neglect, we are now proposing that this should this should be adopted by the Department for Education in its Governance Handbook as the fourth core function of governing boards.

We would then have to have a debate with the powers that be as to how this might happen best, not just in terms of practice, but also in terms of structure and opening up membership of academy trusts to a wide range of interested parties, rather than an elite few operating behind closed doors.

I have written to the Secretary of State today to ask for this to happen. 

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.