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Heaping on pressure won’t attract more school governors

It’s not just about sitting through school concerts. Andrew Milligan/PA Archive

Singing, dancing, touchy-feely school governors are in the firing line. A new website designed to attract and inspire more school governors was launched on May 15 by Michael Gove, the secretary of state for education. Supported by a number of organisations including the department for education and the education and employers taskforce, the website is part of a concerted drive to recruit more people to become school governors.

This is not an easy task at a time when the challenges of governing in deprived multicultural communities have hit the headlines in the Trojan Horse Scandal: an alleged plot by hard line Muslim governors to introduce extremist teaching into a number of Birmingham schools.

The scandal comes at a time when a recent survey on school governance carried out by the University of Bath and the National Governors Association (NGA) – the most extensive of its kind to date – revealed that finding and keeping school governors in tough schools in areas of high deprivation is not easy.

In the survey, in terms of ethnicity, 96% of 7,393 governors declared themselves to be in the white category, according to data shared with me by Bath’s Chris James. This indicates the extent of the difficulties already inherent in recruiting representation from different cultural and ethnic groups within school communities.

The same survey also revealed that the more deprived the area, the less likely it is that governors will come forward: a worrying trend in terms of community representation and cohesion. The study concluded that need for good governors was greatest in “schools in disadvantaged settings with low levels of pupil attainment, with low Ofsted grades and poor reputations”.

No time for fun and frolics

As the new website was launched, Gove took the opportunity to launch a scathing attack on “local worthies who see being a governor as a badge of status not a job of work”.

Warming to his subject, he continued by explaining to the 350,000 serving volunteer governors that governance is “not a sherry pouring, cake slicing exercise in hugging each other and singing Kumbayah”.

But anyone who has studied the guidance for school governors recently will wonder where on earth you would get time to indulge in the fun and frolics Gove suggests.

With a job description to rival that of a company director, the new report on school governance estimates that volunteer school governors contribute their time to the tune of an estimated £1 billion towards the £46 billion education budget.

This came to a head in the recent parliamentary inquiry into the role of school governing bodies in 2013: 600 pages of evidence contained in three volumes of the report revealed the true extent of the weighty responsibilities of governors within the present system.

To a large extent this is due to new school structures in the shape of 4,095 academies and 175 free schools now open. Governors at these schools are acting in many cases,as the only middle tier of accountability between school and the secretary of state for education.

Add to this the complex multi-layered governance structures of schools belonging to federations or groups of schools and the challenges of good governance are compounded. A lack of proper recognition of the role also hinders recruitment – 74% of governors in a recent survey by The Key thought governors did not gain enough recognition from government.

Poor schools a struggle for governors

The three core functions at the heart of governor responsibilities – school finance, educational performance and strategic leadership – are crucial to the functioning of any school. Weak governance in any one of these areas is a recipe for disaster.

Because of this there has been an emphasis for some time on recruiting people from a business or professional background. In spite of the clearly useful contributions that can be made from this type of governor, a focus on recruitment purely on the basis of professional skills may partly account for the poor representation in terms of particular ethnic groups and a preponderance of white governors.

The penalties for poor governance are high. In schools deemed to have poor governance in Ofsted ratings, the governing body may be removed and replaced by an interim board. The blame and shame reflecting on board members can reverberate across communities, a testimony to the high personal and professional costs of failing in this role. Responsibility for school failure is a heavy price to pay for a volunteer whose reputation may be damaged within the local community and further afield: academy and free school failures make great front page news – especially in cases of financial mis-management.

Even if the accusations are unproven, the Trojan Horse scandal will leave behind a legacy of doubt in communities already struggling to find governors for their schools. These schools need governors that understand the culture and climate in which their schools are placed. They need governors with the skills and knowledge to combat the particular challenges these schools encounter and steer them to success. The Trojan Horse affair combined with the already considerable challenges in recruitment and accountability may well result in further erosion of the democratic element of school governance in England.

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