Governance matters at Festival of Education. Part 1

Picture credit: Steve Penny

One of the most awaited educational events, The Festival of Education, took place on 20th and 21st June 2019. This year was the 10th anniversary of the Festival. We were treated to two days of inspirational speakers who presented on a whole range of topics. I’m delighted that governance was represented too, for which the organisers deserve our thanks.

I was very happy that my application to hold a governance session was successful. I’m also very grateful to Dominic Herrington, National Schools Commissioner (NSC), who accepted my invitation and joined me for a chat on the first day of the festival. Below is a short account of what we discussed in the 40 minutes available to us. Where I have added post-event comments, I have done so in pink.

Dominic started by thanking governors for their time and commitment to governance of our schools. He talked a bit about his role. As NSC, Dominic, working with Regional School Commissioners (RSC) and other educational leaders and

  • Helps develops multi-academy trust (MAT) improvement strategies
  • Supports MATs so that they are sustainable and strong, via constructive assistance and challenge
  • Encourages regional teams to share best practice and learn from one another to encourage closer

I started our discussion by asking Dominic what, in his opinion, is good governance and why is it important. Dominic replied that governance has vital role in our schools, particularly due to the degree of autonomy in English education system as compared to the rest of world. We need good governance because governance performance three important functions:

  • It act as a stimulus for improvement
  • It provides an ‘Insurance’ policy for school leaders
  • It is responsible for ensuring clarity of vision and strategic direction

We discussed features of effective governance. Dominic referred to the three core functions which, when performed well, lead to effective governance. These are:

  • Overseeing the financial performance of the school and making sure its money is well spent
  • Holding the headteacher to account for the educational performance of the school and its pupils
  • Ensuring clarity of vision, ethos and strategic direction

We went on to talk about the relationship between the executive leaders and governors. Dominic said that if there is strong executive leadership then we can usually assume that governance is strong too. There is a strong correlation between effective governance and strong executive leadership. This is why Ofsted consider governance under Leadership and Management (L&M). Ineffective governance invariably leads to ineffective leadership and this is not just education sector specific. [There is discussion in governance circles if governance should be considered under L&M. I personally think that it should. We are part of the Leadership and it’s only right that when Ofsted judge L&M, they comment on the effectiveness of governance.]

As we were discussing ineffective governance, I asked Dominic about the role played by NSC and RSC when ineffective governance is identified. Dominic started by emphasising that occurrences of inadequate governance are rare and that the vast majority of schools are not failing [This was good to hear]. We do, however, have to deal swiftly and proportionally where this has been identified. Inadequate governance doesn’t take long to be identified (via Education and Skills Funding agency, RSCs, LAs or parental complaints). Dominic said that prevention is always better than cure so it is important that we identify cases where governance isn’t as good as it could be and offer support before it becomes ineffective. He said he was interested in how we can best enable system leadership. The multi-academy trust model gives school leaders the flexibility to share resources across a number of schools. Dominic said we have seen best outcomes for children being delivered where there are school leaders working across several schools to support weaker schools. We have some excellent examples of where academy sponsorship has had a transformative impact on schools. We do need to ensure that schools are matched with a sponsor who fits the school and has the capacity to raise standards.

Dominic also stressed the importance of recruiting good people and mentioned Academy Ambassadors and Inspiring Governors who can help boards find suitable people. This led us to talk about governor CPD and I asked if training should be made mandatory. Dominic agreed that his was always a hot topic. Personally, he was not very keen on making it mandatory. He said he would be worried about the quality of CPD and would rather that we work from bottom up and offer support. He mentioned that there is training available, including Department for Education funded training. [My personal thoughts on this are that GBs/trusts should make it mandatory for their members to keep up to date and commit to CPD. They should also make induction training available to all new appointees and the expectation should be that this would be done within a reasonable time after appointment.]

I was interested in getting Dominic’s opinion on whether MAT governance was complex. Dominic’s view was that it is not; rather it can be an opportunity as Local Governing Bodies and Trust Boards give us the option of different forms of governance. Dominic emphasised that most MATs are local MATs formed of six or less schools. He did stress the importance of Schemes of Delegation (SoD). Dominic said that SoD need to be clear and these must be explained to everyone. The lines of accountability need to be clearly defined too. We need to ensure that people understand their respective roles. [This is an important point. Good, clearly defined SoD, which are understood by all, are crucial. National Governance Association (NGA) has done some work on this which should help trustees who are reviewing their SoD.]

I was also interested in hearing Dominic’s opinions on how to increase governance literacy across the sector. Dominic started by saying that being a governor is a noble contribution to our communities. He said that governance has a higher profile now than it did five years ago when it was hardly talked about. We need to continue raising the profile of governance and encourage teachers, headteachers, retired teachers, and people from other sectors to join governing bodies. We should talk up governance which is why he was happy to come to the Festival and discuss governance with us. [I think that it is important that we talk up governance and do what we can to raise awareness of what governance is and its importance. Attending and presenting governance sessions at various events in one of the ways we can raise awareness. Taking part in twitter chats and blogging is another. Julia Skinner has been trying to get more of us blogging. If you are a blogger and write about governance, please do let Julia know and she may review your blog for Schools Week.]

Dominic is a governor too and my next question was related to this. I asked him if he was a governor on a governing body (GB) where governance wasn’t as effective as it could be, then what options were open to him. In other words, how could individual governors challenge an ineffective GB? Dominic said that the best course would be to try and find an ally in the GB, perhaps the chair and discuss concerns with them. If that doesn’t work then get in touch with the LA, RSC, etc. Dominic hoped that if ever a governor was faced with this situation, they wouldn’t give up and leave but try and change the GB practice so it does become effective.

The session also included questions from twitter and the floor.

  • In reply to a question about parent governors, Dominic said he was very keen on GBs having parent governors. He is one! At the same time he also emphasised the need to have a diverse board.
  • Asked why the Headteachers Boards are called that and why are there no places for governors on it, Dominic replied that the system allowed for co-option of someone with governance experience and he had co-opted members in the South East. The system is evolving and may change in the future.
  • The next question was about the options open to an academy committee (local governance) if they are unhappy with the MAT. Dominic said that he hoped that it could be solved at the local level but if the situation can’t be resolved then they should contact their RSC. He also made the point that this is not very usual and he had had dealt with only a few cases in his time as RSC.
  • The CEO of a MAT referenced research from NGA and asked if the time being put into governance by chairs was sustainable. Dominic said that some people put in a lot of time because they enjoy the role. The system is still young and developing and further down the line chairs may not need to put in as much time as they do now (MATs are growing slowly now. MATs are joining other MATs which is less demanding than setting up a new MAT).
  • A governor made the point that she worries that she can’t get into school and spend as much time there as she would like. Dominic replied that spending time in school isn’t the only way a governor adds value to their GB. Dominic said he cannot spend time in his school either. He adds value via other contributions. [This is an important point. A good board works as a team. Not everyone has to do everything and every contribution is valuable irrespective of the nature of the contribution.]
  • There was a question about mixed MATs/church schools. Dominic said that Church of England has been running schools for years and have a significant place in the educational landscape. Dominic reported that he had not come across any real issues with mixed MATs as yet.
  • In response to another question Dominic said that there are no plans at the present time to inspect MAT boards.

I am grateful to Dominic for taking time out of his busy schedule to come and talk to governors. I’m also grateful to everyone who attended the session. Dates for the 2020 Festival of Education have been announced (18th -10th June 2020). The organisers are offering a 40% launch discount and there is a special rate for governors (£45 for a day ticket, £59 for both days). I will be attending the Festival and hopefully will see many of you there.

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2 thoughts on “Governance matters at Festival of Education. Part 1

  1. Pingback: Governance matters in Festival of Education Part 2 | Governing Matters

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