Schools: New role needed for ‘crucial’ amateur governors

The rapid expansion of academy schools has seen increased demand for high-calibre governors with management and professional skills. Amateur lay governors must be found a new role if schools are to remain accountable to their communities, according to researchers at London’s University of Roehampton.

Dr Andrew Wilkins, an expert in school governance models from the university’s School of Education, also called for increased state financial support for headteachers in deprived areas to buy in specific support, but said across the country, a balance had to be struck between amateurs and professionals on governing bodies.

The research, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, found strategic planning in governing bodies was often controlled by a ‘big four’ or ‘senior clique’ who tended to exercise ‘hard and fast’ influence over decision-making. In some cases, amateur governors interviewed for the research said decisions were presented to the wider governing body as  faits accomplis rather than being debated first to arrive at a consensus.

Dr Wilkins said action needed to be taken to enhance accountability, to avoid worst case scenarios like the Trojan Horse issues in Birmingham schools.

Core ‘technocrat’ governors are often skilled in project management, business, accountancy, marketing and risk management, and focus on efficiency and accountability to the Department for Education and Ofsted. These people are needed in schools, especially academies, as expectations rise, Dr Wilkins and his team found. However, he said the need for non-experts willing to ask ‘the stupid question’ has become even more important.

Dr Wilkins said: “The opportunity for ordinary, local citizens to shape school governance is crucial. The redistribution of power from Whitehall to local communities, as envisioned through David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’, can only be truly realised if civic empowerment and participation is at the heart of governance.”

The findings, launched this week (23 October) at the Governing Schools conference at the University of Roehampton, also highlight problems faced by schools in deprived areas. “Schools in prosperous areas benefit disproportionately from access to professional skills,” Dr Wilkins will explain.

The researchers call on central government to pay disadvantaged schools a ‘governance premium,’ which they could use to buy in consultants to assist with legal or financial issues. “This would reduce local discrepancies in access to networking and ‘high calibre’ governor recruitment,” says Dr Wilkins.

The Roehampton research argues the case for opening up opportunities for more ordinary, local citizens to work with governors and senior leaders in shaping governance. “The role of parent governor would be more effective as an intermediary moving between the parent body and the governing body, helping to develop bottom-up strategies on governance, such as parent-led councils and increasing the visibility of governors,” Dr Wilkins says.

The research also calls for:

·         Greater collaboration between governors in different schools through local networks and forums.

·         A co-operative approach to school governance whereby students, staff, parent/carers and the local community vote for members of a board of trustees responsible for appointing governors.

·         More transparent decision-making with clear and accessible communications.

·         Prompt delivery of easily readable, non-jargon minutes from all committees to all governors to ensure senior leaders can be held to account.

·         Development of regular skills audits to enable chairs of governors to identify gaps and appoint people with relevant qualifications.

The main presentation at the ESRC conference on Governing schools: professional power and the changing responsibilities of school governors, which took place on Thursday, October 23, was given by Dr Andrew Wilkins. It was followed by responses from a panel of leading academics and a panel of representatives from governors’ and leaders’ organisations and the Department for Education.

For further information contact:

·         Dr Andrew Wilkins

Telephone:  0208 392 3290

ESRC Press Office:

·         Susie Watts
Telephone: 01793 413119

·         Aaron Boardley
Telephone: 01793 413122

1.      This release is based on the research findings of Governing schools, professional power and the changing responsibilities of school governors, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of the Future Research Leaders scheme, and conducted by Andrew Wilkins and Anna Mazenod at the University of Roehampton.

2.      Methodology: The two-and-a-half-year study involved collecting data over a period of 18 months from nine state primary and secondary schools situated in London and a rural area of England. The schools operate under a range of legal structures including free schools and academies. The results are based on telephone and face-to-face interviews with 102 participants including senior leaders, school governors and parents. Observations of 42 meetings were carried out and key governance documents were also analysed.

3.      The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funds research into the big social and economic questions facing us today. We also develop and train the UK’s future social scientists. Our research informs public policies and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. Most importantly, it makes a real difference to all our lives. The ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the Government. In 2015 the ESRC celebrates its 50th anniversary.