New role needed for 'crucial' amateur school 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.

Posted: 14 November 2014

image for news story New role needed for 'crucial' amateur school governors
Dr Andrew Wilkins has caleld for a new role for 'amateur' school governors

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 study, 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’ had 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 also highlighted problems faced by schools in deprived areas. “Schools in prosperous areas benefit disproportionately from access to professional skills,” Dr Wilkins said.

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 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.

Dr Wilkins presented his findings at an ESRC conference at Roehampton called Governing schools: professional power and the changing responsibilities of school governors.

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