The long-awaited report of the Ministerial Working Group on School Governance comments on the performance of governing bodies and makes recommendations for change. David Gordon examines its findings

Along with everyone else involved in education, school governors are wondering what changes the new government will bring to their roles, responsibilities and the way they work.

Governors had already been anticipating change for the best part of two years as they waited (and waited) for the Ministerial Working Group on School Governance to report. That report was finally published on the very last working day before the General Election was called and its conclusions are likely to at least provide a starting point for setting the future direction of school governance.

Although the report contains recommendations for change, the review’s overall conclusion was that governing bodies had done a good job in supporting improvements in school standards since 1997. The key findings were:

  • The majority of governing bodies do a good job.
  • Governing bodies need to be clear about their purpose and follow a defined set of principles for good governance of schools.
  • There needs to be more clarity concerning the strategic management role of the governing body and the day to day management role of headteachers to ensure that neither party crosses over into each other’s role.
  • The principle of stakeholder representation on governing bodies is essential but needs to be balanced against a requirement that all governing bodies have the necessary skills to carry out their tasks.
  • Improvements to the training for governing body chairs, new governors and governing body clerks need to be made.

When it was finally published, the working group’s report was linked into the Labour government’s plans for a 21st century schools system, as reflected in its title, The 21st Century School: Implications and Challenges for Governing Bodies. But the 21st century vision had yet to be unveiled in May 2008 when the group was set up in response to The Children’s Plan. At that time the government seemed set on making governing bodies smaller and more like the boards of businesses and many felt that the working group’s remit was essentially to find a way to bring this about.

The Children’s Plan itself made the unsubstantiated claim that ‘smaller governing bodies tend to be more effective and highly skilled’ and continued: ‘We believe smaller governing bodies can be consistent with the stakeholder model and so we will make governing bodies more effective, beginning by consulting on reducing the size of governing bodies.’

However, when the members of the working group were unable to agree with the premise that smaller was better, the speedy overhaul of governance that the government had been anticipating ground to a halt. Then, as the group continued to discuss the issues, the White Paper on 21st Century Schools was published in June 2009, complete with its own proposals for school governance, focusing on the need for improved training to create ‘more highly-skilled governing bodies’.

It began to seem as if the working group’s deliberations had been overtaken by events and would never be made public. But when Vernon Coaker replaced Jim Knights as schools minister and inherited the chairmanship of the group, he responded to appeals by the National Governors’ Association to see the review through to its conclusion – which he just managed to do.

In the end, the disparate members of the working group seemed only to have agreed to differ over the size of governing bodies. An expectation that governing bodies should not exceed 14 members could not be agreed on and so the final report settled on a consensus that governing bodies already had appropriate flexibility to choose the right number of members for their local circumstances.

The group was encouraged to take up the themes of flexibility and better training contained in the White Paper and endorsed its proposals for:

  • relaxation of the governor proportions in the stakeholder model, without disenfranchising any category of governor, to allow more flexibility so governing bodies have the right skills mix and a strong stakeholder voice;
  • skills audits of governing body membership to identify skills gaps, training and development needs and target recruitment;
  • improved governor training and mandatory training for chairs of governing bodies;
  • all governing bodies to have a trained clerk.

In the light of the strong emphasis on the need for training, it does seem a little strange that the group’s report did not recommend compulsory induction training for governors. Although it came out in favour of mandatory training for clerks, the majority view that new governors should also receive compulsory training was over-ruled by the fears of some members that this would deter some potential governors.

Instead, the review decided that: ‘Governing bodies and individual governors should also review their effectiveness and carry out self-evaluation of their own skills and evaluate the skill set possessed by the governing body as a whole so that any skills gaps can be met.’

The familiar theme of clarity in the separation of the roles of governors and the school leadership team also received plenty of attention. The review concluded that ‘there are issues with the way some governing bodies work currently that should be addressed at school-level’ and suggested that governing bodies should ‘focus on strategic decision making and leave operational matters to the school leadership team and other members of the school workforce’.

The review added that: ‘Too often governing bodies have tended to focus on details, to the detriment of the consideration of key strategic issues affecting the school. It is the governing body’s role to set up a strategic framework for the school, setting its aims and objectives, setting policies and targets for achieving those objectives, reviewing progress and reviewing the strategic framework in the light of that progress.’

The idea of there being a formal code of conduct for governors was also raised, but outside the main group. It was noted that several local authorities have produced such codes and it was left that the DCSF would make further investigations into the issue.

However, the working group did come up with its own statement of principles for good governance:

Principles for Good Governance in Schools
School governing bodies need to be clear about their purpose and equipped with the knowledge and skills to ensure:

  • clear strategic direction;
  • the establishment, protection and promotion of the school’s ethos and values;
  • high standards of education and well-being for all children;
  • probity and value for public money;
  • effective scrutiny of plans, policy and performance;
  • robust challenge and support in holding the headteacher to account;
  • that decisions are taken based on good quality relevant information and advice;
  • the effective discharge of their responsibilities towards the pupils and school workforce;
  • effective mechanisms to engage with and take into account the needs of pupils, parents and other stakeholders within the community;
  • the development of effective partnerships with other schools and community services, as well as employers, to enhance the school’s capacity to deliver the best possible service;
  • accountability to parents, other key stakeholders and the community including through the Children’s Trusts, for decisions taken about the school;
  • high standards of governance through the evaluation and continual improvement of their collective capabilities;
  • that all dealings are consistent with the values of public service and the Nolan Committee’s ‘Standards of Public Life’.

For those still looking for clues to what the future holds, it may well be that the ideas that appeal most to the new Department for Education are those involving federation and collaboration. ‘It may be unrealistic that we should have 22,000 governing bodies for 22,000 schools,’ the report suggests.

It goes on to say that: ‘Schools should collaborate: trusts, diplomas and federations demand collaboration; Governing bodies’ responsibilities will no longer be defined exclusively in terms of their own school and the pupils on their roll; they will need to adapt their organisational structures and working practices to create a 21st century school that is outward looking, visionary and intolerant of failure.’

  • The 21st Century School: Implications and Challenges for Governing Bodies can be downloaded from the publications section of the DCSF website.
  • Your Child, Your Schools, Our Future: Building a 21st Century Schools System is available from

This e-bulletin issue was first published in May 2010

About the author: David Gordon is an author, writer, editor and qualified lecturer and has also been a parent governor. He has been the editor of School Governor Update since its launch in 2000