Many of the difficulties faced by governing bodies stem from the unresolved tensions between three competing rationales for their work, writes Alan Dyson

Schools serving areas of disadvantage face significant challenges. Driving up achievement, managing behaviour and attendance, dealing with crises in the lives of pupils and their families are all more difficult here than in more favoured areas. In this context, governing bodies can make three powerful contributions:

  • They can keep their eye on school performance and challenge heads and their staff to do even better.
  • They can act as sounding boards for headteachers, making available their local knowledge.
  • They can act as a link to local people who may feel disenfranchised, giving them a voice and encouraging them to be involved in their children’s schools.

In practice, many governing bodies are working effectively in each of these ways. However, we know that others struggle. Occasionally, they are associated with high-profile school failures. More often, they are simply unable to make a difference to their schools – and so, to the lives of the children in those schools. In a recent study, sponsored by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, my colleagues and I set out to find out more about why this should be. We spoke to governors, headteachers, local authority officers and others in 14 schools serving three disadvantaged areas – one in inner London, one in a northern city, and one in an area of semi-rural disadvantage in the north. Our findings have implications for governors in similar areas. However, we suspect they may have implications for all governing bodies, wherever their schools are located.

The issues

What we found was not a single issue, but a nest of interlocking problems. Recruitment, particularly of parent governors, was difficult for many governing bodies. This was not simply a matter of finding people willing to put themselves forward. It was also about finding the right kind of people, who could tackle a complex and demanding role. Most local people lacked the time, skills and confidence for this, so ‘outsiders’ were recruited, perhaps with managerial or professional backgrounds. As a result, the membership of the governing body tended to be a fairly poor reflection of local families. In general, governors were older, better qualified, and more likely to be white. When governors were recruited, they told us that they were often daunted by the significant demands on their time, and the expectation that they would deal with complex educational issues about which they knew little. As a result, many stayed in the background, and let a small core group take the lead. This core almost always included older governors with professional backgrounds, so was even less typical of local people than the governing body as a whole. All of this made it difficult for most governors to feel confident in challenging heads and teachers. In any case, many felt uncomfortable with the government expectation that they should work in this way. Their job, as they saw it, was not to challenge, but to work alongside the head as public-spirited lay people, acting in the best interests of the school and its children. They disliked conflict, and were suspicious of fellow governors who seemed to have a personal axe to grind, or to be working on behalf of some particular sectional interest. On the other hand, governors seemed untroubled by questions about their mandate for determining what the ‘best interests’ of the school and its pupils were. So far as they were concerned, their undoubted commitment to the school, and the many years some of them had spent working on its behalf, gave them an understanding of ‘what is needed here’. Whilst many did indeed have strong local connections, they were as likely to see their role in terms of selling the school to local people as of representing the views of local people to the school. From the point of view of headteachers, governing bodies were a mixed blessing. Where there were well-informed governors, heads greatly appreciated the critical friendship they could offer. However, many complained that their governors were so far ‘off the pace’ that they spent all their time trying to inform and train them rather than being held to account by them. On the other side, there were also stories of heads deliberately keeping their governors in the dark so that their own freedom of action was not impaired. In any case, the extent to which governors could influence the direction of their schools was strictly limited. They and their heads had to obey the imperatives of central government and, to a lesser extent, of local authorities. Whatever they thought might be needed locally, the reality was that these imperatives left precious little room for local discretion.

A confused role

It struck us that many of the difficulties faced by governing bodies stemmed from the unresolved tensions between three competing rationales for their work. Much government education policy implies that they should be managerial and strategic, acting like the high-powered non-executive directors of major companies. Other aspects of policy emphasise the need to revitalise democracy – particularly in areas of disadvantage – by getting local people actively involved in decisions about their lives. As we have seen, governors themselves preferred a gentler version of localism, where their views as honest citizens would stand proxy for the wishes of local people. Our evidence suggests that these three rationales pull governing bodies in different directions (see table below). Amongst other things, each demands governors with different skills and different backgrounds, and governing bodies find themselves making trade offs in this respect. In any case, the problems we have outlined above mean that governing bodies are often in no position to pursue any of these rationales to the full. They recruit who they can and do what they can. Sometimes, due to the strenuous efforts of key governors, the mix works. Equally often, it only works in part, or not at all.

Rationales and realities in governing body roles

The Rationale The Reality
Managerial – governors offer strategic leadership and challenge headteacher performance Governors with the necessary time commitment and expertise are difficult to find. Governors feel ill equipped to challenge heads. Governors and heads are wary of conflict.

Many governors find the role alien.

Localising – governors bring local knowledge to bear on decision making. Governors feel relatively comfortable with this role. Governors have little scope for local decision making.

Governors have no local mandate.

Democratising – governors give local people a voice in service delivery Governors are not representatives of local people.
Governors have limited freedom of action.

It is easy to see why this situation has arisen. Since the 1980s, schools have become increasingly independent of local authorities and increasingly accountable to central government. As a result, governing bodies have had more and more responsibilities heaped upon them. Yet their basic form – a group of lay volunteers (for the most part) rather loosely connected to local stakeholders – has remained unchanged. It may be that this is the best that can be achieved. Perhaps a little more investment in training, better induction systems, more proactive recruitment, and a more creative use of governors’ expertise are all that is needed to make the system work well enough. Perhaps, in disadvantaged areas, the advent of academies and ‘trust’ schools will bring an influx of sponsor-nominated governors with enough managerial expertise to make the difference. It may be, though, that some structural changes are also needed. There is no shortage of options: paid governors; a corps of semi-professional governors serving a number of schools; federated governing bodies; a significant reduction in responsibilities; parent councils with an advisory role. It is perhaps worth remembering that other countries (even Scotland) have quite different governance structures from those in England, without any obvious damage to their school systems. However, it may be that even more radical thinking is necessary. The very different systems in other countries remind us that ‘governance’ and ‘the governing body’ are not synonyms. Somehow, we need to be sure that headteachers and their staff work to national priorities, understand how to shape those priorities to local conditions, and respond to the needs and wishes of local people. However, there is no reason why governing bodies should have to take responsibility for all – or, indeed, any – of this. Even in this country, it is not so long since governing bodies would have been quite minor players alongside much more powerful – and democratically-constituted – local education authorities. Those days may be gone, but there are now fundamental changes happening in the landscape of service delivery at local level. Local strategic partnerships, children’s trusts, district commissioning of services, neighbourhood management initiatives, local authorities as advocates for local people – all offer the potential for new models of governance. Areas of disadvantage in particular are likely to be awash with decision-making bodies, partnerships and consultative groups trying to coordinate action in the interests of local people. If there really is a problem with school governance in such areas, we have to stop thinking of this only in terms of the governing body. Above all, we have to stop overloading governors with unrealistic expectations. Instead, we have to think more broadly about how schools can be locked into multiple forms of governance in this new landscape. Only if we do so are we likely to find whether governing bodies still have a role to play and, if so, what that role might be.

‘If you took my secretary away, or the school keeper, or any one of my class teachers away, it would have a huge impact. The governing body can be highly effective, full of very good people – but if it didn’t exist, you might not notice.’     Headteacher ‘I went, “Oh my god what have I let myself in for?” because the amount of paperwork is unbelievable… Generally we get the paperwork beforehand and it’s that that kind of plays on my mind a bit I suppose, because I didn’t understand a lot of it, which I kind of felt shame on me as well, as I’ve been a parent of children going to school for many years. But I really didn’t understand it at all, even as a governor, and I’m still finding it, two years later, still going – panic attacks and things.’     Parent governor

‘We’ve been made into civil servants.’     Chair of governors

‘It’s a toss-up isn’t it, between either governors who are representative of the community of the school population, but also you need governors who can actually pull their weight and get the work done, because there’s an awful lot of work.’     Chair of governors

‘How do I say to a teacher with 20 years’ experience, “You need to push up your numeracy by 2 or 3%. What are you going to do about that?” That teacher could think, “What are you going to do about it then? You tell me. I am here working my socks off and you come in here and tell me that?”’     Governor

‘Generally we all seem to work together and want the best for the school and the children, basically.’     Chair of governors

Alan Dyson is Professor of Education in the University of Manchester where he co-directs the Centre for Equity in Education and leads work on education in urban contexts.

The full report, Schools, governors and disadvantage, by Charlotte Dean, Alan Dyson, Frances Gallannaugh, Andy Howes and Carlo Raffo, is published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. It is available as a free download from the JRF website.