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Governing board evaluation

The professional verdict on school and trust governance

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Governance is the first line of accountability for schools and trusts in England. It defines who has the power, how decisions are made, how other players make their voice heard and who is accountable for how an organisation and its people behave and perform.

When giving oral evidence to the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee’s (PAC) enquiry on school oversight and intervention ten years ago, I suggested that there was very little known about the standards of governance across the system:

  • “We know that some governing boards are absolutely terrific and that some are pretty woeful, but what we don’t really know is, do we have a bell curve? …. and where are governing boards in our schools really placed?”

    I gave MPs our perception, based on NGA’s daily contact with governing boards, that governance was improving. I probably shouldn’t have been so reticent to commit, as NGA’s experience of school – and that, of course, includes trust – governance across England was second to none and remains so in 2024. And our perception in the decade since that PAC interrogation is that overall governance practice has continued to improve.

    MPs also asked if we knew what good looked like – and of course NGA does. We have been instrumental in defining this for the sector. I am hugely proud of the success we have had in adding ethical and accountable governance alongside the need for effectiveness and how this has been followed, including by the Department for Education (DfE) has followed as can be seen in their reworked 2024 governance guides.

    Despite the DfE commissioning a feasibility study, all attempts to develop scalable and adaptable metrics to assess the quality of governance have proved fruitless. Therefore, external reviews of governance (ERGs) - bespoke in-depth explorations of governance at the organisational level – continue to be the most reliable methodology for assessing the quality of governance, but only when conducted by experienced, quality-assured assessors.

    Over its lifetime, NGA has carried out more than one thousand ERGs, with many more in trusts than in maintained schools. Having established ourselves as the market leaders for ERGs, we were appointed, after a competitive tender, to deliver the reformed NLG programme in May 2021. This required us to recruit and train sufficient NLGs to begin work within five months.

    During the two-year period from October 2021 to the end of September 2023, NLGs carried out 410 reviews, often working with those schools and trusts where the commissioners had some concerns. Unfortunately, the DfE decided it did not have the funds to continue the programme despite its good results to date.

    The report Growing Good Governance analyses the reviews to provide the nearest thing we have a real state of the nation of the quality of governance practice in England’s schools and trusts. The key issues identified in the trusts and schools reviewed - remember mostly facing difficulties or change - were almost all weaknesses in boards’ core functions, particularly holding leaders to account and setting a strategy.

    The good news is that the common themes tally with the rest of NGA’s development work. We can highlight the solutions. They simply have to be taken seriously. None of this is new or surprising. The sector must not waste valuable time and energy reinventing wheels. Often practitioners are new to governance, whether new trustees, governors, governance professionals or leaders; there is such a need to ensure induction for all is carried out really well.

    The second piece of good news is that the habit of board self-review is ingrained; the progress that has been made with this becoming custom and practice in the years since the publication of the 20 and 21 questions for review is fabulous.

    Overall, we have a sound governance sector where boards take their development seriously. Of course, there is room for improvement, but this is now about improving on previous bests, not a sector that is struggling without anywhere to turn.

    External and self-review packages

    In order to realise your board’s potential for continuous improvement, NGA recommend having an external review of governance every three years, and an annual self-review. Our online self-evaluation tools and external review packages are here to support with this process.

    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.

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