The important role of governors in school improvement is acknowledged in a report by the National Audit Office.

The report, Improving poorly performing schools in England, prompted headlines suggesting that up to one million children were being let down by the state education system. This figure came from rounding up the NAO’s estimation that 980,000 pupils attended the 1,557 schools that were judged to be poorly performing in July 2005. Only 577 of these schools were identified as underachieving by Ofsted. The rest were those judged by the DfES to be underperforming according to its analysis of performance data.

The NAO stressed the importance of a governing body having a close, supportive working relationship with the headteacher, but also being able to challenge senior management on important decisions.

In its report the NAO identified five main reasons for a school falling below acceptable standards. One of these was weak governance, which was found in most poorly performing schools. The appointment of the headteacher is singled out as the most important responsibility that the governing body has and the report’s authors suggest that: ‘Given the importance of leadership and management to a school this decision is vital and can have far reaching and potentially damaging ramifications if an unsuitable candidate is selected.’

They pointed to the fact that local authority school advisers in their focus groups expressed concern that, even when faced with a serious situation, some governing bodies would still appoint the candidate they were most comfortable with, rather than one who might ‘ruffle a few feathers’ but be just what the school needed to put it on the path to improvement. They conclude that: ‘Recruitment and selection requires skill and experience, so it is important that governors get good training and support, and that they take seriously the advice they are given.’

Among the report’s recommendations is that local authorities should provide sufficient training for governing bodies so that they can be effective in appointing headteachers and managing their performance.

Some local authority advisers told the NAO that they believed the role of governor had become so demanding and complex that keeping it as a volunteer role was no longer feasible. They thought some form of remuneration was required, at least for chairs of the main body and committees, to add professionalism to the position of governor.

Problems of recruitment and retention of suitable governors were also identified, although the report made no specific recommendations for improving the situation. The only recommendation made specifically for school governors themselves was that those helping poorly performing schools to recover should ‘be ready to take any hard decisions necessary to maintain the performance of the school; this includes helping the headteacher to take such decisions’.

The report says that fewer schools would fail if their symptoms were identified much sooner so that effective remedial action could be taken quickly. It identifies the main indicators that a school is experiencing problems as: – lower than expected pupil attainment and progress; – ineffective leadership; – poor standard of teaching; – increasing problems with pupil behaviour;

– declining applications for school places.

It calls on the DfES and local authorities to combine their efforts to identify schools at risk and intervene before they fail.

The NAO has calculated that the government spent £837m in 2004-05, on a range of initiatives, not including academies, to help prevent poor performance and turn around failing schools in England. While a straightforward case of weakness in a small primary school can sometimes be put right at little cost, a large secondary school with complex problems and a long record of poor performance can cost at least £500,000 to turn around.

Improving poorly performing schools in England (ISBN 0102936633) is available, price £11.25, from The Stationery Office on 0870 243 0123 or It can also be downloaded free from

Problems common to many poorly performing schools:

Ineffective leadership

‘Without an effective headteacher, a school is unlikely to have a culture of high expectations, or strive for continuous improvement.’ – Weak governance ‘School governors must balance the twin demands of supporting the school leadership and challenging it where necessary.’ – Poor standards of teaching ‘Most poorly performing schools suffer from poor standards of teaching and a consequent lack of progress in pupil learning.’ – Lack of external support ‘Schools are at risk should their local authority not give funding or advice that fully reflects their circumstances.’ – Challenging circumstances

‘Some schools have high proportions of pupils receiving free school meals, pupils whose first language is not English, and pupils who regularly change school. In January 2005, 29% of all schools in Special Measures were located in the most deprived 20% of communities.’

Key areas contributing to the recovery of failing schools 1 Initiatives to improve pupil learning 2 Increases or changes to teaching staff 3 Initiatives to improve performance monitoring 4 Changes to management team 5 Initiatives to improve existing leadership/management 6 Change of headteacher 7 Initiatives to improve pupil attitudes/behaviour 8 Changes to governing body 9 Additional funding and resources 10 Strengthening of links with parents

(As ranked by headteachers)