Comment: School governors are struggling against a tired system

School administration faces radical reform. We have more academies and free schools coming online and changes to maintained schools at local authority level. Some schools are also considering federation which will be an opportunity to enhance the strategic approach taken by a governing body. So the school governance debate that I introduced on Tuesday was a timely debate.

By Robert Buckland

I described the current system as committee-based, involving governors coming together regularly during the school year, and there being sub-committees based around various disciplines such as finance and premises that the school leadership feel should be addressed. We should fit the system around the talents of the governors rather than trying to fit the governors into a rather tired and stale system.

I believe that more can be done to improve the effectiveness of governors’ work. Headteachers and governors, along with national organisations, are making similar representations to the government. I am delighted that, under the white paper process, the government are committed to reviewing the efficiency of governing bodies and are working with schools and organisations to improve efficiency. This is building on much of the positive work of the former schools minister, now Lord Knight, in his earlier report on this.

I pay tribute to the work of governors and particularly to the chairs of governing bodies. They are entrusted with huge responsibility and it is all done voluntarily. With good practice, they work closely with headteachers and senior leadership teams. They help set the school strategy. However I increasingly feel that governing bodies have split into two tiers – the inner tier having the time and the wherewithal to become involved in the strategic management of the school, with an outer tier being less involved with this but who are still part of the monitoring team. Succession planning is also important – particularly when governors, chairs, or headteachers have to move away, often at short notice.

If the role of governors is to become more pivotal, more work has to be done to focus their energy, talent and time on both setting the strategy, aims and objectives and also monitoring the school’s progress against those objectives. Time is a valuable commodity, given freely by governors, and it is not helpful for them to spend their time in long and unproductive meetings, feeling that nothing much has been achieved. It is also important that the clerk can get the documents to the governors early before the meeting so that the governors have adequate time to read through them.

If devolution of power to schools happens, devolution of power within schools will naturally follow. Individual departments – maths, English or foreign languages – will have link governors and it will be their job to liaise with other school governors whose responsibility will be to monitor the progress that each department is making. This is another example of why it is important to understand the principle of matching governor talent to individual roles.

Some governors have particular expertise in procedures to do with exclusions and complaints, particularly those made by parents. An increasingly important part of the role of governors is dealing with complaints or exclusions. The government are doing all they can to rationalise exclusions and quite rightly see them as a last resort. However, more emphasis will be placed on pre-exclusion work, and the role of governors in this regard will become more and more important.

People with specialist knowledge have a role to play. They can help out schools with particular challenges. One example is the challenging area of school finance and maintaining school budgets. Some schools are getting this right and others are finding it more difficult. Having spoken to many teachers and head teachers over the years, it is my understanding that they are always receptive to the sort of input that people with specialist financial training can provide. The government should do all they can to simplify financial structures, make financial information easier to understand and remove some of the bureaucracy surrounding finance. I can see a key role for people with financial expertise in not just the strategic running of a school but in assisting head teachers and finance officers with the management of budgets.

There is a balance to be struck between the need for a governing body to have the right skills and the need for the governing body to be representative of the wider community. Professionally skilled people who live in the local community, such as accountants, lawyers, HR professionals, doctors, members of the local authority can then be balanced with a core of parent governors, who play an important part in governing bodies. More can be done to engage the wider parental community. Lots are parents do not have that precious commodity of time due to their work or family commitments. However if they were on a database of supporters or friends of the school they may be able to help in other ways, such as enhancing the appearance of the school. They could be given something to match their own talents to enhance the life of the school. What better way of cementing the role of the school in the community than creating this wider support base? So there needs to be a lot more constructive thought about how we involve the wider community in our schools.

Robert Buckland is the Conservative MP for Swindon South

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