What do we mean by governance?

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Ministers have announced a review of school governance - but will it be a review of governance or of governors? It seems sometimes to be taken for granted that ‘governance’ means the same thing as what a governing body does (or what it ought to do).

Teachers teach; leaders and managers lead and manage; governors govern. Or do they? The concept of governance has evolved over the last 20 years, and it is understood differently in different sectors.

In the corporate world, the usual definition is ‘the system by which an organisation is directed and controlled’. Standards of good governance for UK companies are set out in the Combined Code prepared by the Financial Reporting Council.

The most complete recent statement of the governor role in the public sector is in the Good Governance Standard for Public Services published by the Chartered Institute of
Public Finance and Accountancy and the Office for Public Management in 2005.

Although the standard does not explicitly define governance, governance is described in the foreword as “the leadership, direction and control of an organisation” and the primary functions of a governing body are said to be to:

  • Establish the organisation’s strategic direction and aims, in conjunction with the executive.
  • Ensure accountability to the public for the organisation’s performance.
  • Assure that the organisation is managed with probity and integrity.

Is this what we expect of school governors?  If so, many governing bodies are failing to meet the standard. Even the most effective probably play a rather smaller part in governance than the standard seems to require. That may be because the existing framework of school governance does not encourage them to play this very prominent role, or because they simply lack the necessary skills to discharge their governance duties.

One response might be to clarify the role of the governing body, giving governors full responsibility for governance in its broadest sense. That would need to be accompanied by steps to train, develop and (possibly) performance-manage governors, together with a back-up plan to replace those who could not or would not rise to the challenge. 

An alternative approach would be to define governors’ powers much more tightly, making them accountable only for specified aspects of school performance, with a purely advisory role in other matters. Other governance matters would then become the responsibility of headteachers.

A recent paper, Breakthrough in Governance, published by the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, suggests a possible way forward.  The authors, Professor Brian Caldwell and Dr Jessica Harris believe that the debate on governance has focused too closely on structures, roles, responsibilities and accountabilities. Instead, they propose that governance should be seen as “the process through which the school builds its intellectual, social, financial and spiritual capital and aligns them to achieve its goals”. The structures and roles are a necessary element of governance – but then, say Caldwell and Harris, they are an equally necessary element of all management and leadership processes.

Closely concerned

In emphasising the transformational potential of governance, the authors are at pains to stress that the decision-making structures of governance are of secondary importance. Their research covered 49 schools in 11 countries, and they found wide variations in how the schools and their governing bodies were organised.
Nevertheless, one common feature of the most successful schools was that their executive leaders were closely concerned with governance as well as with the more traditional functions of leadership and management.

Governing bodies seeking to work with leaders in their own schools to transform opportunities for their students and communities will seize eagerly on the self-assessment guide annexed to the paper. This allows users to rate the importance of ten separate indicators which the underlying research has shown to be associated with each of the four types of capital: intellectual, social, financial and spiritual. Users can then rate the performance of their own schools and the priority they attach to further development in relation to each indicator. A fifth section of the self-assessment (somewhat surprisingly titled ‘governance’) applies the same approach to the management and decision-making processes through which governance is exercised.

The paper and the case studies it contains paint a compelling picture of what outstanding governance could be like. A crucial element is the interdependence of governance, leadership and management. These are not separate functions to be exercised by different individuals but complementary approaches to issues that face both non-executive governors and executive school leaders.

While the authors emphasise that there is no one organisational model that will deliver effective governance in all contexts, the paper does prompt several questions about how we currently organise ourselves to lead, manage and govern our schools.

Whose business?

First, if governance is not exclusively the business of the governors, whose business is it? Headteachers clearly have a crucial role to play. But does the current model of an executive head responsible to a non-executive governing body for everything that happens in the school ignore the contribution to governance that other leaders can make? Should the governance of our schools be largely in the hands of teachers (as is the case in one of Caldwell and Harris’s case study schools) with governors forming a ‘supervisory board’, only there to monitor and advise? Or should we be looking at combined boards that bring together senior executives and a number of non-executives under a non-executive chair – a structure that has become accepted as good practice in the private sector and is mandatory for some public sector organisations, such as NHS trusts?

Second, who is responsible for governance when schools federate? If there is an executive head and a single management team, the governance issues are the same as for a single school (although obviously good governance arrangements may be more complex to implement). But where schools remain separate under a shared governing body,  in what  sense  can  there  be  said  to  be  shared governance? Very little, it would seem, if individual schools retain their own intellectual, social, financial and spiritual capital.

Third, if governors are to play a part in governance, how useful is the current ‘stakeholder’ approach to the composition of governing bodies? What reason have we to think that ensuring representation for the corporate interests of parents, teaching and non-teaching staff, the local authority or business sponsors will promote better governance?  Should we be looking at selecting non-executives on merit, as we do senior executives? Or is there scope to have governors elected, either by the whole community or by those members of the community who have registered an interest in education matters (after the model of NHS Foundation Trusts)?

It is clear from the case studies in the SSAT report that there are schools in England with outstanding governance. It is not, however, clear whether this has come about because of or despite the current English model of school organisation. Do these schools succeed because determined heads and chairs of governors simply find ways of getting round the restrictions imposed by the current organisational structure?  If so, do we need to be bolder in encouraging experimentation with different ways of managing the governance function?

These are all issues that a thorough review of school governance would address.  It would be nice to think that the ministerial working group might open up this debate, rather than just looking at how existing governing bodies might be modified. A lot of work is required if good governance is to be as well embedded in the majority of schools as it is  in the SSAT’s case study examples. A willingness to try out some different organisational models might make the task more manageable.

Martin McNeill is chair of governors at a large West Country secondary school and a school improvement partner. He works as an independent management consultant and was formerly director of management services with the Audit Commission.

Taken from Managing Schools Today
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