In a recent edition of School Governor Update David Marriott explored whether there was a future for governance.

He concluded that : ‘Governance does appear to be here to stay and still has important responsibilities and work to do but may not be allowed to continue in its present form, given governmental pressures. No one should pretend that the existing model is perfect or a sacred cow.’

Since then a number of projects and documents on the subject of new forms of governance have been set up or published. They include Strengthening Public Accountability on the School Governing Body (CfPS April 2006, www.cfps.org.uk); a paper by Demos, School Governance Scenarios (www.demos.co.uk) and information on the governance of federated schools (www.standards.dfes.gov.uk). A major research project has also begun, conducted by Warwick University.

It may seem to serving governors that this somewhat covert debate is a little abstruse and not particularly relevant to their lives. That’s understandable, but to ignore it is to miss the opportunity to reflect on how their governing body works now, what it focuses on and why some things may not work as well as they should.

Executive versus scrutiny

Strengthening Public Accountability on the School Governing Body argues the case for separating the executive from scrutiny functions of the governing body.

What does that mean and what has it got to do with us? Well, sometimes governing bodies can get too involved in the day-to-day running of schools and have to be reminded that their main roles are to be strategic, constructively critical and to provide accountability. Yet there remains confusion about how to manage these roles and functions.

Executive means decision making and doing or carrying out specific actions. Scrutiny is about monitoring and evaluating the effectiveness of those decisions and actions. Separating the executive responsibilities (such as school planning, budgeting and resourcing, including staffing) from the scrutiny role (which could include school self-review, interrogation of school performance, review of the SEF, consultation with, and reporting back to, parents/pupils and other stakeholders, publication of the school profile, review of the budget for value for money and monitoring exclusions and absences) could make for a more workable model.

The Centre for Public Scrutiny suggests that, in this set-up, ‘a small executive board would be appointed from the full governing body with full delegated powers to direct and manage the school. The executive would include the headteacher and, as appropriate, members of the senior leadership team, who would meet regularly, perhaps monthly, to formulate and implement the strategy for school improvement.

The full governing body would usually meet once a term to carry out the scrutiny function. ‘One member of the full governing body would be appointed to the role of Chair of Scrutiny to lead the new function. This would be a separate role from the Chair of the Governing Body who would sit on the executive. It promotes the concept of distributive leadership on the governing body which matches developments in senior leadership teams.’

The paper’s authors conclude that: ‘Guidance will be needed to clarify the work of executive groups, the scrutiny function and how the executive-scrutiny split will operate. However, there is nothing within current regulations that would prevent schools from operating this approach and thus any new powers to schools should be enabling, rather than mandatory, in the first instance, promoting the executive-scrutiny split model as best practice.’

Whether one agrees with the proposals or not, the paper presents governing bodies with a new way of organising themselves now, should they so wish. Consider the questions in the panel above to see how you might do this.

Six scenarios

Readers will be aware of the proposals for Trust schools outlined in the Education and Inspections Bill 2006. As regards governance the DfES says: ‘Each Trust school will be a foundation school supported by a charitable foundation or Trust, which will appoint governors to the school’s governing body. A school’s governing body will decide if it wants the school to become a Trust school, who it wants to work with, and how many governors it wants the Trust to appoint.’

Behind the scenes the think tank Demos has published six scenarios for governance arrangements in Trust schools. Again, it may not be immediately obvious what this has to do with existing governing bodies but each scenario envisages a development of a current trend in education. Many of the scenarios envisage partnerships of schools and governing bodies working together for a common good. There are already many varieties of such collaboration and federation around the country and there is considerable pressure on all schools to work in this way.

In considering which scenarios it likes or dislikes, a governing body is carrying out part of its strategic role. Being strategic means thinking actively about the future, identifying priorities and planning accordingly. In each case, the governors could consider:

  • How different is this from the way we do things now?
  • What would be the advantages of this model?
  • What would be the disadvantages of this model?
  • How achievable is it and how long would it take to establish?

The examples below give a much edited version of the scenarios.

Demos is keen to stress that these are speculative models and it is perfectly possible for other scenarios to be imagined. Having considered these scenarios, your governing body could also go on to draw up an outline of its own preferred future – which could, of course, be the status quo! In order to do so, it would be a good idea to carry out a SWOT analysis of the governing body:

  • What are our strengths?
  • Where are we weak and need to improve?#
  • What opportunities do we see? (eg to do things better, differently)
  • What are the threats facing us?

From this analysis the governors could then write a simple action plan for improvement. So consideration of possible models of governance in the future can easily lead to practical improvements in the way the governing body works now.

Change upon change

It is clear that, whilst the key functions of governance are unlikely to be unravelled in the future, since many are embodied in primary legislation, trends in education such as collaboration, federation, extended services and services for children working together more closely challenge the way governing bodies are constituted and operate.

Undoubtedly the current system has much to recommend it and it has stood the test of time reasonably well. It’s not going to change overnight. But keeping up with the debate means that we won’t be left behind or caught out if and when the bigger changes come.

Scenario 1: The conglomerate

Imagine a set of schools run like Tesco: a repeatable format extended across a number of sites, delivering highly standardised but high-quality, reliable, branded services, according to a centrally driven format. Formal accountability would be through a board of directors accountable to ‘shareholders’ in the Trust. The board would retain policy-making decisions about educational process and curriculum but delegate operational issues. Governance would be formal, deal in quantifiable performance figures, in a set timetable of quarterly and annual reports. Leadership would be driven by a highly entrepreneurial central executive team working with branch managers.

Scenario 2: The community

This kind of Trust would be akin to a political federation such as the United States or the EU. Core to education would be adherence to a set of principles – ‘truths we hold self-evident’ – rather than a process. Governance would depend on principles of subsidiarity setting out decisions the individual schools take and those the Trust takes. Community Trust schools would have considerable local discretion. Headteachers would be much more than branch managers. Individual schools would be akin to states in the union. Each would select representatives to sit on the Trust’s governance forum. Alternatively governance might be less direct, akin to the Council of Ministers in the EU. Key to successful Trust-community would be combining democratic ethos with dynamic leadership.

Scenario 3: The alliance

Imagine an alliance of schools organised along the lines of NATO. The alliance model would allow a school to retain a distinctive ethos but combine with others to share resources where it was economic to do so. The alliance model would allow schools to compete and collaborate at the same time. The members of the alliance agree to collaborate and pool resources, but for limited objectives, with different educational philosophies, admissions policies and distinct governance procedures.

Scenario 4: The self-organising network

Imagine an eBay style Trust that operated a platform for sharing educational content and teachers, matching learners to providers. The networked-Trust delivers education without schools. Governance of self-organising communities relies on a strong, shared ethos and limited but effective governance. These self-organising Trusts would rely on high levels of user engagement and participation. Leadership would emerge from within the community, through peer recognition. The leaders of these communities tend to be self-effacing, humble, high on moral leadership and respected by their peers.

Scenario 5: The employee-owned school network

The partnership-Trust in this model could be a coming together of professionals from different institutions. The governance framework should maximise their commitment. Employee and mutually-owned businesses are common in farming, such as the Ocean Spray drinks business, based on a cooperative of fruit growers. As in a professional service firm the partners would hire managers to administer the business. The point of the partnership would be to allow skilled professionals to focus on what they do best. The key to governance would be the way partners made decisions.

Scenario 6: The consumer-governed school

Parent-controlled schools are common in some other countries. Parent governors play a critical role in the day to day management of many British schools. This model would be an extension of these trends – the parent-Trust. This form of governance is designed to maximise parental commitment. Parent owned and governed schools would come together in a larger collaborative, sharing resources and a philosophy of parental involvement in education. Parents would be directly involved in electing a board or governing council. The key to this model would be dynamic parental leadership. The model may be of less value where parents have few of their own financial and social assets to contribute to the school.

David Marriott is the author of The Effective School Governor, published by Network Educational Press Ltd, and Monitoring and Evaluation and Being Strategic published by Adamson Books (www.adamsonbooks.com)

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