According to the DfES: ‘Governing Bodies are and will be school leaders.’ (Governing the School of the Future, 2005).

The White Paper, Higher standards, better schools for all says: ‘The governing body remains responsible for the strategic leadership of all our schools whether Academy, Trust or voluntary aided. We see an enhanced role for governors as schools increasingly become more autonomous.’ These statements seem to offer some reassurance but looking around one cannot fail to spot a series of challenges, if not to the concept of governance itself, then certainly to the current model of governance – and many are posed by the same government that seeks to reassure us.

At the time of writing, the White Paper has become a political hot potato and much of the detail may change through the process of it becoming the new Education Act, but the main thrust is very clear.

Reminder First, though, we should remind ourselves of the reasons why we have governing bodies in the first place. A 19th century definition – which still holds true – sees a governing body as ‘a body of local people to represent the public interest in the school’.

We’re familiar with the three key roles of the governing body – the strategic, the critical friend and accountability – and their inter-connectedness. Of these, accountability is most directly under threat, in that the annual report to parents and the annual meeting have both been sacrificed on the altar of streamlined communication. The standardised, brief replacement is the school profile, which does not promote or guarantee governors’ accountability.

Does that threaten the core rationale for governance? Yes, unless the governors secure more effective ways of communicating with and being accountable to the parents. Remove accountability and governance is emasculated and becomes pointless. Democratic accountability – or scrutiny – is a common feature of most, if not all, public services. Different services do it in different ways. School governance is arguably the most radical approach, involving the largest number of participants and based on the twin principles of volunteerism and stakeholder representation. If, however, we assume that accountability remains a key function, albeit in a weakened form, then the main challenges are to the stakeholder principle and the identification of those stakeholders.

The Labour Party election manifesto 2005 stated:

‘A strong, effective governing body is essential to the success of every school and governors must be given support to help them play this role. We will allow more flexibility in the structure of governing bodies, including the ability to have smaller governing bodies, of 10 members or less, to streamline management while strengthening the position of parents.’

The current position, of course, is that governing bodies, having reconstituted by the deadline of September 2006, may then change their constitution whenever and however often they wish, as long as it conforms to the stakeholder representation guidelines. Many have taken advantage of drafting in associate members to strengthen and extend the core membership, so flexibility does not pose a problem at present.

However, the vast majority of governing bodies are larger than the 10 or less mentioned in the manifesto. How can a governing body be smaller and yet more representative of parents if the stakeholder principle is to be maintained? What signs are there that this reduction is on its way?

The most dramatic assault on democratic representation can be seen in the government’s academies programme, in which the school’s sponsor gets to appoint the majority of governors. The DfES recommends one local authority governor and one staff governor. One elected parent governor is all that’s required in addition. Some would argue that this will lead to greater efficiency and effectiveness, but the jury is still out on that and could be out for some time to come.

The new trust schools promoted by the White Paper will probably see the appointment of the majority of governors by the trust, balanced by a parent council ‘to ensure that parents have a strong voice in decisions about the way the school is run’. All new schools will have to be trust schools. No new community schools will be built. As yet it is very difficult to see how the governing body and parent council could work together effectively – let alone with the parent teacher association. The government promises that ‘we will produce statutory guidance for Trust schools on working with their Parent Council’.

The language of the White Paper implies criticism of the effectiveness of the current system of school governance but never has the courage to make this explicit or present any evidence. Consider these phrases:

‘Setting up charitable trusts who can appoint governors is a way of strengthening school governing bodies, preserving their ethos, helping to invigorate school leadership and providing an external source of direction, continuity and focus for the school.’

‘…the drive and direction brought to the school by Trust-appointed governors…’

‘…many parent governors lack the time and the skills to make this kind of sustained commitment…’

It is pretty obvious that, for reasons which are never explained, the government (or those who drafted the White Paper) have an Orwellian belief of ‘appointed governors good, elected governors bad’. Trust schools could well end up with a two tier system of governance in which the appointed governors have superiority over the parent council, which destroys the notion of the stakeholder model.

The emphasis in the 2005 manifesto that small is beautiful is reflected in this extract from the White Paper:

‘We hope that, as part of acquiring a Trust or otherwise, all governing bodies will consider carefully their optimum size. We encourage them to opt for the smallest effective model as we believe (my emphasis) that this is the way to create energetic and focused governing bodies. For Trust schools where the Trust appoints a majority of the governors, the school could have a governing body of 11 members.’

Over the past decade there have been many surveys of governor opinions, not least those conducted annually by the National Association of School Governors. Parliamentary sub committees have looked at governance and made recommendations. Ofsted has reported in detail about the effectiveness of governance on a regular basis. The Education Network (TEN) has published a series of documents on governance issues, notably Governance Matters (2002), based on a national survey.

There is no shortage of evidence and information on which the government could base its policies on school governance if it so chose. It claims it is committed to evidence based policy making, yet its new proposals are based on belief and prejudice. Maybe they believe their chosen approach is more ‘energetic and focused’ than a careful consideration of the evidence.

At the same time, the government is on a mission to see extended schools everywhere. This poses a different kind of challenge and seems to contradict the reductionist approach to governance. A school can be extended in different ways and to different degrees by different providers. Where one or more service providers offer their services to pupils, parents and the local community from the school premises, it could be argued that they should have formal representation on the governing body. Should each service be represented? Should the representatives be elected or appointed? Should there be a statutory limit on the number? As stakeholders, should they be represented by a percentage of the total governing body? Guidance on extended schools is emerging but these are largely uncharted waters.

As the use of the term LEA disappears in favour of the broader Local Authority (LA) in the reorganisation of education and children’s services, should the LEA governor role continue or be replaced by an LA governor representing the integrated service? Should all the services be represented, including voluntary organisations? With Ofsted’s emphasis on the pupil voice, it seems increasingly odd that young people have no representation on the board, especially in secondary schools – though some governing bodies use the flexibility of the associate member category to draft in pupils. Should a stakeholder model not include a percentage of pupils/students?

So there is pressure on schools to have smaller governing bodies with more appointed governors while being encouraged to expand the range of services on offer. The stakeholder model, though reasonably secure, appears to face challenges in the context of trust schools and academies. The identification and representation of relevant stakeholders is increasingly open to question.

Model Is it possible to define a single model for the future of governance? This was an issue debated at the 2005 conference for Co-ordinators of Governor Services (COGS) in Torquay. Looking at the many current and future issues affecting governance, conference agreed on a set of principles that should inform the future development of school governance. There was a series of (sometimes false) opposites from which to choose: – Small v large – Appointed v elected – Voluntary v paid – Strategic v operational – Representation v effectiveness/efficiency

– Stakeholder v free-for-all

Whilst there were many different individual views, conference ultimately preferred a future model of education in which community based learning centres would provide education and other local services for children and others. In this context, the key principles of governance should include stakeholder representation and volunteerism, with the strategic and accountability roles to the fore. Any governing body should have the flexibility to decide its shape and size, which should not be overly restricted by statute. The main responsibilities would include strategic direction, appointment of the headteacher or chief executive, performance management, financial accountability and communication with the community. (More details can be found at

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. But it is depressing that, despite the abundance of information, the main driver for change is prejudice rather than evidence and the outcomes of a public debate.

David Marriott is the author of The Effective School Governor, published by Network Educational Press Ltd (01785 225515), and Monitoring and Evaluation and Being Strategic, published by Adamson Publishing Ltd

Questions for governors to ask

– Are larger governing bodies less effective than smaller ones? Why? Why not? – What evidence is there that appointed governors are more committed and more likely to provide ‘drive and direction’ than elected governors? – Who should have the right to appoint governors? – How should parents best be represented – on the governing body or through a parents’ council? – If governing bodies are reduced in size, should the governors – or the chair – be paid? – Who are the main stakeholders in your school? Are they all represented fairly on your governing body? – How can pupils’ views be represented via governance?

– What would your ideal governing body look like?