January 13, 2014

Does Size Matter? The 2012 Constitution Regulations

Well, it’s been a while since I wrote that the School Governance (Constitution) (England) Regulations 2012merited a blog to themselves‘, but it was a bit of a hectic term last term, and I’m just catching my breath…

Let’s think about the size issue first. These regulations reduce the minimum membership to seven for all maintained school governing bodies (GBs) except voluntary aided school GBs (dealt with separately below). There has been a long on-and-off debate about whether smaller GBs are more effective. One of the more recent commentators on this has been Lord Nash, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Schools. At the NGA Outstanding Governance Awards in June 2013 he said:

I would urge all chairs of governing bodies and all governing bodies to examine whether they couldn’t operate in a more dynamic way, and I’m urging schools that convert to academies to use that as an opportunity to rethink their governance structures. Large governing bodies may work fine when everything is going well, but we should be putting in place governance structures which can stand the test of time and we all know that life teaches you that when things aren’t going well they are best resolved in a smaller rather than a larger group; and all too often we see that schools that are performing badly have large governing bodies with, frankly, insufficiently interested, talented or trained people making decision which appear to be in the best interest of the adults rather than the children and young people, and that’s something that we simply can’t tolerate. There obviously needs to be a real sense that the governing body is a force for change and not a talking shop or a force for the status quo.

And yet the Education Select Committee’s report on School Governing Bodies concluded in July: “Despite the DfE’s clear preference for smaller governing bodies, there is no evidence base to prove that smaller governing bodies are more effective than larger ones”.

Well I’m a bit of an agnostic on this one, so sorry if the title of the post is a bit misleading. For me the important things are in the other issues that Lord Nash raises, not the issue of size, though I won’t argue with the fact that experience and common sense says that the bigger the group is the harder it is for it to be “dynamic” (not a word, incidentally, that I often hear used about school governing bodies…). For me the important thing is whether the GB is genuinely a ‘force for change’ rather than a ‘talking shop or a force for the status quo’ (don’t get defensive – we’ve all sat in GB meetings that were more the latter than the former surely…?).

Just before I leave the issue of size I will just mention that I sometimes hear the argument that there is so much for a GB to “do” that it’s impossible to operate with a small number. If that’s where you’re coming from I would just ask you to reflect at this point as to whether your GB is really being strategic in the way it operates and things it focuses on. Anyway, I’ve just joined an Interim Executive Board of four so we’ll see… (incidentally, if you haven’t come across IEBs before the most useful information I can find about them is on @clerktogovernor’s website)

Anyway, sorry for the lengthy preamble, this blog is really about whether the 2012 regulations (which only apply to maintained schools incidentally – academies have even greater flexibilities in their governance arrangements) can help your governing body be more effective. And I think they can. There aren’t any official figures on take up of the new regs, but anecdotally it’s not that high, and I suspect that’s because governors aren’t really aware of the potential benefits so here goes:

These regulations were introduced to were intended to fulfill the intention expressed in the 2010 White Paper, that we would be able to establish governing bodies “with appointments primarily focused on skills”. And I should just clarify that when I talk about skills I may not mean exactly the same as Mr Gove does, and I would suggest that you need to think through what ‘skills’ you think you need for effective governance in your school. I think of things like the ability to assimilate and analyse information quickly, the interpersonal skills to get on with people but not to back away from difficult conversations when needed, the ability to ask questions without seeming confrontational. There are other things of course as well, you’ll have your own thoughts I’m sure. Anyway, if the new regs really give us the ability to make appointments focused on skills, how do they do this?

Firstly by reducing the number of elected positions. I accept that this won’t be universally popular, but having experienced parent governor elections from all angles (including being elected twice myself in different schools) I have yet to be convinced that it’s an effective way of engaging with the parent body and there are no guarantees that the most potentially effective candidates will be successful. In one of my own schools we fairly recently had a parent governor election determined on a coin toss because of a tie.

The new regulations require:

  • a MINIMUM of 2 elected parent governors, ie it is for the GB to determine the number but it must be at least 2
  • 2 staff governors – that is the headteacher and one other. That is an absolute, not a minimum or maximum, and the second staff governor can be a teacher or a member of the support staff. If a GB wishes to have more staff members on the governing body they can appoint staff members as co-opted governors, as long as no more than one third of the total governors are employed at the school
  • 1 Local Authority governor (again this is an absolute, no more, no less) but under a different appointment process, of which more below
  • And then ‘the governing body may in addition appoint such number of co-opted governors as they consider necessary’

There are additional requirements for faith and foundation schools which I’ll deal with separately below.

The net effect of this is that the GB can have more co-opted positions, which the GB can appoint to. (See my post on governor recruitment for more on this).

The other significant change is the appointment process for Local Authority (LA) governors. As noted above, newly constituted GBs will in any case only have one LA governor. But where these were formerly imposed by the LA they are now nominated by the LA and appointed by the GB. Now different LAs have taken different views on this appointment process, and I’m glad to say my employers take very seriously their efforts to consult with schools and ensure that LA governors have the appropriate skills and commitment to properly support the schools they’re appointed to. But there are still some that insist on making appointments on a political basis with no consultation with the schools in question. This can’t be the case for newly constituted schools.

In fact the regulations state that a Local Authority governor “is appointed as a governor by the governing body having, in the opinion of the governing body, met any eligibility criteria that they have set”. That puts the onus on the GB to inform the LA of the type of person they are seeking in order to fill their position and the onus on the LA to find an appropriate person, otherwise the GB does not need to confirm the appointment.

Foundation, Controlled and Aided Schools

For foundation and controlled schools there is an additional requirement to have at least two partnership or foundation governors (respectively) and these are appointed exactly as they were under the 2007 regulations. So if a controlled or foundation school also wants to have co-opted governors it will have to have a GB of more than seven to accommodate this.

In Voluntary Aided (VA) schools the requirement remains for foundation governors (appointed by the relevant church body) to outnumber other governors by two. That means that the smallest GB a VA school can have under the new regs is 12 (2 parents, 2 staff, 1 LA and 7 foundation governors). And if they want to have a co-opted governor (this is a new possibility, they can’t have community governors under the 2007 regulations) they would have to go up to 14 (adding an additional foundation governor to maintain the majority).

So maybe the benefits for VA schools aren’t quite so obvious, but I think there are two. The first being the one that I’ve already  mentioned. They can have one or more co-opted governors, ie for the first time they can have governors appointed by the GB itself. The second is the removal of the requirement for some foundation governors to ALSO be parents of pupils in the school. I have known schools where this particular category was almost impossible to recruit to.

So that’s it – my first plea for you to consider reconstituting your GB to try to make it more dynamic, and to give you greater control over governor recruitment.

And it’s genuinely coincidental that I’ve finally finished this blog and am publishing the same day that the government has published a new public consultation on, amongst other things, making reconstitution under these regulations mandatory. But that definitely needs a new blog to itself, so watch this space…

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