June 7, 2016

It’s the end of the school governance world as we know it…

“This is the way the world ends” says the poem*, “not with a bang but a whimper”. I’m hearing the whimpering of the school governance system I’ve known all my working life at the moment, and I’m mourning its passing, and hoping we can carry forward the best bits into a new system. We have to if we’re going to do the best for the children and young people in our multi-academy trusts in the future.

Why am I being so melodramatic? Well the government’s agenda is clear. ‘The era of the standalone school is coming to an end’ reads the Regional Schools Commissioners’ slide. And, while there are some token mentions of maintained school federations, it’s no secret that “the government is committed to every school becoming an academy”. And there aren’t any governors in academies. Really. There are trustees, who are also directors of the academy trust. And in a multi-academy trust there are often the confusingly named “local governors”, who aren’t governors, and sometimes don’t discover this until it’s too late.

I’m not the only person who’s noticed of course. NGA has been talking about this for a while. In one of their recent blog posts they suggest the changes being brought about in the governance of MATs could constitute “a revolution going on in governance, but largely in what used to be called smoke-filled rooms”.

So in the future we are likely to have a number of academy trust boards, who delegate some functions down to committees at academy level or over groups of academies. How many schools will these boards be running? The National Schools Commissioner, Sir David Carter, has recently labelled trusts of 5-6 schools ‘starter trusts’, laying out a clear vision for significantly larger trusts becoming the norm. And with the drive towards smaller boards it may often be the case that fewer than 10 non-executive individuals carry the legal responsibilities for large groups of schools. Is this a problem? Not necessarily, but it seems to me to pose significant challenges:

  • How will trustees ensure they know their schools?
  • How will the role of academy level “governor” be made meaningful when it has no legal authority?
  • How will trustees ensure that they are managing the significant financial and other risks in the organisation?
  • How will those moving from governance of a single school into a MAT environment develop an understanding of the role and the skills need to effectively fulfil it?
  • And perhaps the question I hear most often: how will we recruit these people (and the members that appoint them)? The role has moved so far from what brought most maintained school governors into the role in the first place a different approach will be needed to ensure we have effective governance in place in our school system.

Because the role of school governor as we know it may be disappearing, but in a self-supporting system the need for effective governance will be greater than ever.

*’the poem’ is of course ‘The Hollow Men‘ by T S Eliot. Not, actually a poem about school governance …

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