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School and Academy Governance: Insights from Across the Sector

In 2020 we conducted research with governors and trustees across England to find out the main challenges and key concerns currently facing these leaders in the education sector, primarily working in academy trusts, and explore priorities going forward.

Read on to learn about the core findings, and examine how these aspects currently fit in with your school or trust’s current agenda.

Governance and Leadership Recruitment and Retention

The issue of recruitment and how this is posing a challenge for governors came up in our research both in terms of governing roles and in how governors and trustees play into the recruitment of executive leaders.

Firstly, there is a concern around how governors without a background in education can effectively hold the school executive to account. So, during the recruitment process, how can governors and school leaders ensure that governor candidates possess the skills and knowledge required? Too often it is felt that those who enter the role without experience in the education sector do not know enough about the inner workings of a school or trust system, and as such lack the understanding needed to ensure the right questions are being asked. Similarly, when a new headteacher is being recruited for example, these governors may struggle to fully appreciate what a good candidate looks like. This places a larger burden on those governors with greater knowledge of education to carry the load in terms of the accountability function of the governing body.

However, those with significant education experience are often found lacking the financial and accounting skills that are crucial to the governor role, with many self-confessing they feel a sense of uncertainty when it comes to numbers. Sitting alongside an acute awareness of the importance of clear and robust financial management, this is something many governors are keen to address.

This clearly highlights a need for more training and development opportunities for governors. There can’t be a one-size-fits-all solution, but headteachers and chairs of governing bodies can likely work better together to scope out the needs of governors in order to work more on up-skilling where necessary. This might be through attending targeted online courses, or networking at larger conferences to meet a wider variety of peers with new approaches.

With many expressing difficulty with recruiting governors, particularly those who aren’t a parent or otherwise involved in school life, having training opportunities that better acclimatise new governors to aspects of the role they may feel less confident in will not only strengthen their performance, but also acts as an incentive to join such a role, and will likely facilitate improved retention.

In addition, if this kind of training could align with a tailored skills checklist or performance board, which governors must meet through the duration of their time in the role, it could help fellow governors and trustees, as well as school leaders, address the challenge of under-performing governors.

Ofsted and the Department for Education

During our research, we recorded mixed feelings from governors in terms of the guidance they, and schools and academies more broadly, receive from the Department for Education (DfE). Some felt that they received enough updates on policy direction, or advice on school/trust management, whereas others, particularly those working in multi-academy trusts (MATs), expressed that more could be done to offer advice and support on the expectations of governors, as well as school leaders.

There was an appreciation for the free trustee education available from the DfE for example, but a desire for more direction around ‘what works’ in governing a complex structure of schools. While best practice may be available from a number of sector bodies, for example the National Governance Association (NGA), many would prefer to hear the expectations for quality governance directly from the DfE.

Similarly, many governors welcome advice from Ofsted and are keen for governance and leadership teams to view the inspectorate more favourably, as a partner in strengthening the quality of education, rather than a body to fear. There is so much ongoing uncertainty relating to the COVID-19 situation and the impact of this on the next academic year, especially for those pupils who have received important exam results this year. As such, many are in fact going to be looking to Ofsted to demonstrate understanding of the difficulty schools are facing and to offer guidance and feedback accordingly. While Ofsted have said they won’t be inspecting school’s responses to the COVID-19 situation, this response will of course have a longer-term impact, and maintaining strong steering of the school is going to be crucial for success.

 The Demands of COVID-19

Thinking about some of the broader issues directly caused by or related to COVID-19, the re-opening of schools was, and likely still is, a key concern for governors. With the u-turns in recent months by the government, not only in England but other nations across the UK too, schools have had to grapple with a number of last minute changes around the requirements to ensure children’s, and wider society’s, safety. This has inevitably placed much pressure on governors to make the right decisions with school leaders; decisions that align with the government guidance, as well as satisfy parents and staff, and meet the needs of pupils.

With ongoing uncertainty about what the September 2020 re-opening of schools is going to look like, how it will work in practice, and how staff will need to be deployed, the challenge for how governors must navigate this situation is ongoing.

In addition, the impact of the lockdown period on pupils from a disadvantaged background, or with SEND for example, has been another key concern. While funding and provisions for pupils who need additional support is always on the agenda of governors, the issue has been heightened at this time where those children and young people have been even harder to reach.

Governors are acutely aware of the attainment gap, and the need for this to be addressed. While this is a longer term issue for many, this gap will have widened during the lockdown period and so it is crucial for schools to examine the extent of this when pupils do return in September. The best way to do this is likely to be something governors and trustees decide with their executive team on a school or trust basis, but it is something that many feel they would benefit from discussing with those from outside their contexts to explore nuances in different approaches.

Collaboration is Key

This fits into the general sentiment demonstrated throughout the research that partnership working and open dialogue is crucial to and for governors. Working closely with colleagues on the board, with their executive teams, and with those working in other local schools or trusts to share common challenges and find communal solutions is important for successful governance.

For further insights you can download our Schools Governance and Leadership Handbook now.

Governance and Leadership Handbook