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Primary Education News
News Pay is not the only way to raise the standard of school governance
It's more critical that governors understand their roles and the practical ways to make a difference, argues Lord Bichard
Since Sir Michael Wilshaw suggested last month that we might have to pay governors to join the boards of schools in tough circumstances, there has been a lot of debate about competent governance and how to achieve it.
Over the past 18 months I have travelled around the country speaking to governors and local authorities about how to raise standards of governance - and the message is clear: at times school governors can be ineffective, not because they lack motivation or incentive, but because they can lack the confidence and understanding as to what good governance actually looks like.
In this country we have developed a system of governance that is driven by an army of highly-skilled volunteers who are responsible for millions of hours of altruism and good will. Governors do what they do because they want to exchange their own particular blend of skills and experience for better education outcomes for children. The rewards need not be financial; governors turn up because they want to make a difference.
So if we have an abundance of motivated governors all keen to make their mark, what is the problem? What are we trying to solve? To my mind, the central issue in the debate, and one which Sir Michael Wilshaw raised in his speech, is of governor effectiveness. He suggests that there is "... too much time spent looking at the quality of school lunches and not enough on maths and English". He is right to say that too often, too many governors are unsure of the sorts of issues they should be confronting.
In my time advising Ten Governor Support, a question-answering service for school governors, we have collected web usage data on the sorts of practical problems and issues that governors across the country are trying to overcome; and by some distance, the most common questions are "what is my role?", "what do I have to do?" and "when do I have to do it?" Looking through a list of the most popular articles on our website reveals a lack of certainty on the part of school governors. Of all the articles most frequently read, two of the top three, 'Governors' year planner' and 'Annual work plan for the governing body', specifically address the "what should I do and when?" type question.
This level of uncertainty highlights the fact that the role itself is complex and largely unrecognised. A recent survey conducted by YouGov for Ten Governor Support shows that even though school governors control more than £38bn of public money, 82% of the public are oblivious of their influence. When asked who decides how to spend a school's budget, answers ranged from the prime minister to Michael Gove, with 41% simply confessing they didn't know.
The elephant in the room is the chronic disparity between the good will of the governor community and the investment required to make sure that governors' time, their goodwill, is put to effective use. Governors need to understand their roles and appreciate how they can practically make a difference; they need examples of where other governing bodies have succeeded and failed. The reality is that a reduction in local government spending has heavily impacted upon the quality of local authority delivered governor support.
Governing bodies need to own the fact that, to all intents and purposes, they are the responsible body for their school. If the school succeeds, they are doing a good job; if it doesn't, they aren't. But if they are to fully embrace this accountability, they must be provided with the training, information and support they require in order to be effective. School governors embody the very spirit of the 'big society', which is why pay is not the critical issue.
Lord Michael Bichard is a former public servant chief advisor at Ten Governor Support.