Overlooked “The work of governing bodies goes largely unnoticed” according to the University of Bath’s excellent school governance study published in October 2008 (and described in the Nov/Dec edition of School Governor Update). It recommends that “The status of governing bodies should be enhanced, their contribution more widely recognised, and greater publicity given to school governing in all sectors of society especially the business community”. It does not say how this should be achieved, though.
The complementary report from BITC “Governing Our Schools” recommends a series of actions by government, including the proposal that “Greater public recognition should be given to the importance of serving as a school governor, and the work done by good governors should be more publicly celebrated.” It goes on to mention some existing strategies for raising governors’ profile and offers some good ideas for businesses to promote governance amongst employees. (It will be interesting to see whether the current recession has a positive or negative effect on governor recruitment. Recession tends to be good for teacher, but not necessarily for governor recruitment.) However, the report offers no new proposals to address the problem that “the public at large has little awareness of the role of governors”. It is baffling that school governors, the largest volunteer force in the country, are invisible to so many people – nationally, in their local authorities and even in their schools. Why?
Most people have been to school, so they know what teachers and heads do – even if things have moved on since they sat in a classroom. Few will recall seeing any governors, except, perhaps, on a speech day or other awards ceremony. Who knows what governors are for and what they do?
Heads and teachers are salaried professionals, with professional associations to protect and promote their interests. The National College of School Leadership’s remit does not include governors. Governors are volunteers and amateurs – although they are charged with very significant responsibilities which they must carry out professionally. Their representative groups are run on a shoestring. In any walk of life the professional always has more power and influence than the amateur – and a higher profile.
Government has to pay attention to the voice of the professionals, since the education system depends upon them. If governors vanished, would the system collapse? The answer is no, in the short term. Yet as bankers face the wrath of the politicians and public alike for the current financial crisis, one key question being asked is about their lack of accountability and the failure of governance of the industry. The same would be true if schools went under since governors are the responsible body to whom the head is accountable.
Those same professionals often have a slight or non-existent understanding of governors’ roles and functions. A teacher could spend their entire career without ever meeting a governor. It’s often only when a teacher becomes a head or deputy that they have to relate to governors. Teacher and head training pays scant regard to governance. Many SIPs and Ofsted inspectors have teaching backgrounds, so lack first-hand understanding of governance. Roughly half of all governors are untrained, since training is not compulsory, so even governors themselves may not understand their place in the system or what they’re supposed to do.
Governors are rarely mentioned in national and local media. When they are their role is often misrepresented or ignored. For example, when governments proudly boast of new money for schools, it is reported as new money for heads, even though the governing body is responsible for the school’s budget. And, of course, bad news sells, so stories referring to governors are often negative. Governors’ magazines, like this one, are largely read by governors, not the wider public. In addition to the main national organisation representing governors’ interests, the NGA (National Governors Association), there are others, like NCOGS (National Co-ordinators of Governor Services), ISCG (Information for School and College Governors) and SGOSS (School Governors One-Stop Shop), all with their own particular brief. Whilst they endeavour to work together in the interests of better governance, this multiplicity can confuse the public and dissipate the effect of any common messages or campaigns.
In local authorities the governors’ voice may be heard in scrutiny panels and the Schools’ Forum but it is only one amongst many and cabinet government has diminished any chance of direct influence by Parent Governor Representatives on local policy making. Many authorities have local governor associations, many of which are affiliated to the NGA – but not all are. Some authorities have no association at all. Governor Services teams are not always located at the heart of the LA, especially since the advent of Children’s Services which has seen some teams marginalised and/or reorganised into a department or branch other than School Improvement, where they belong.
At school level there are wide variations in the profile of governors. Each governing body has its own priorities and self-publicity is usually way down the list. Some governors are only interested in their own school, not the place of governors in the wider community or on the national stage. A natural modesty can work against their real achievements being celebrated publicly. Isolated governing bodies may not even know when they’ve achieved something worth celebrating.
So can anything be done to redress the situation?
One very powerful way of drawing the public’s attention and increasing their understanding is through storylines in soap operas – whether it be child abuse or domestic violence, for example. Surely there must be school governors in Walford or Coronation Street? There have been stories in The Archers about the Parish Council but, to my knowledge, never anything about the primary and secondary school governing bodies. Sadly, the closest we’ve ever got is probably in the Vicar of Dibley – not a good advertisement for governors! Even series set in schools, such as Waterloo Road, tend to avoid anything to do with governors, except in passing. It’s time we saw a good juicy story about governors handling a tricky problem in a soap school. There are plenty of real life examples on which to draw, not least in relation to parental objections to school meals, for example, or segregation of students.
A few years ago somebody wrote and published a murder mystery set in a governing body. It hasn’t been televised or made into a film…yet…
Teachers’ TV features programmes on governors – but, again, it’s aimed at the already converted. The national Teaching Awards (including the governor of the year), televised each autumn, have done a lot to celebrate the achievements of individuals and their regional contests also reach the local media. The NGA’s governing body of the year award is newer and lacks the resources and media exposure of the Teaching Awards, but is another very positive celebration of governance. Last autumn’s national conference for “employee governors” did a lot to promote governance in business and industry and further events and networks are planned to maintain momentum. In this context it would be good to see a major national organisation sponsor the Governor of the Year award, which is currently backed by the DCSF.
There could be a national governors’ day at some stage in every year, when governors in all walks of life could wear an appropriate symbol to show their colleagues and acquaintances that they are a governor. National publicity and leaflets could back up individual efforts to spread the word amongst the public.
Locally, governing bodies qualifying for Governor Mark can be worthy of media and public attention, but so far only a handful have done so. Governor Service teams often celebrate long standing governors though this can sometimes reward stamina and inertia, rather than inspirational governance. Perhaps each LA could be persuaded to run its own version of the Teaching Awards and choose a Governing Body of the year?
Closer to home, what can governors do to raise their profile in their own school and community?
Many governors have their photographs displayed on school notice boards alongside the staff. A team photograph can help convey the sense that the governors work together and are a friendly bunch
Make sure all key school documents (eg the prospectus) give space to the role and purpose of governors and add a little detail about who they are
Governors can make sure they have a presence at all major school events attended by parents, taking the opportunity to talk to them about what they do
One or more governors could lead a question and answer or training session on their roles and achievements for the head and staff
Governors could be interviewed by young people about who they are and what they do
A regular slot in the school newsletter and a presence on the school website can keep governors in parents’ view
In addition to the regular feeding of information and stories to the local press about what the children are doing, try to include stories about governors and their work. As an example, in the school where I’m a governor we recently held a vision day and lots of photographs were taken, which we published in a punchy report within 24 hours of the event
Opening up governing body meetings to prospective new recruits and parents generally can help raise awareness of what we do
Collaborating with governors in our local cluster to raise our profile can be more effective than all of us working alone
Whilst I would never suggest creating one deliberately, a crisis resulting in a public meeting led by governors can do wonders for bringing us to the immediate attention of our community
Our role and achievements deserve to be better understood and more widely known. We need to start with ourselves and our own patch. Why not make raising our profile a key area for development over the next twelve months?
David Marriott David is the author of “Monitoring and Evaluation” and “Being Strategic” published by Adamson Books (www.adamsonbooks.com)