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Should we be concerned about the direction that school governance is currently moving in and what are the views of serving school governors in the city? Initiated in response to concerns over the increasing intensification of the work of school governors amidst increasing accountability to central Government, Dave Trotman and Stan Tucker from Newman University share some of the findings of a pilot study conducted with school governors presented at a recent public meeting of BCASE.

Governance capital

Successful schools in affluent areas, not surprisingly, are more likely to secure governors from a range of professional backgrounds with relative ease. In these schools governors are predominantly recruited from professional backgrounds such as law, education, policing, accountancy and business. Schools in these areas often have waiting lists for governor vacancies. Schools in inner city, urban working class areas, in contrast, frequently struggle to recruit governors regardless of their occupational background. Hence, the study has revealed sharp divisions in ‘Governance capital’ -where capital is ‘likely to be greater for schools that are well regarded compared with those that are not; are in higher socio-economic status settings; and have higher levels of pupil attainment’(James et al, 2010, 4). The situation is exacerbated further with some governors in inner-city and urban schools reporting increased pressure for a particular governor skill-set in preference to those applicants who bring a substantive knowledge, history of participation and commitment to the local community of the school. While such community representatives had, in the eyes of a number of governors, significant positive social capital, they did not necessarily possess the sort of skills required to meet the demands of the more instrumental and ‘high stakes’ aspects of contemporary school governance.

Responsibilities and accountabilities

The 350,000 or so school governors in the UK comprise the largest group of volunteers in the country (Balarin, 2008). With regard to Chairs of governing bodies their work is considerable; to the extent that many respondents regarded their role as untenable if it were not for the flexibility of their employment. Mostly, this means self-employment or part-time work, the support of employers for civic engagement, and governors retired from full-time work.   According to the respondents, hours per week committed to governance varies from 3-5 hours a week, 250 hrs per term, or 500 hours per year. In addition to scheduled meetings, the work of the Chair of Governors typically involves a substantial amount of reading (one governor noted that the most recent Raise-Online document ran to 47 pages). Added to this is a regular round of emails, phone calls, school visits and attendance at school events.

Ethics and governance

Many of the respondents in the study reported an intensification of accountability with concomitant emotional and mental pressures. Some governors reported that their personal educational values were compromised by policy diktats, such as enforced academisation, to the extent that they had no choice but to resign. These accounts underscored not only the significant mental and emotional burden involved in exercising personal ethical judgements around school governance, but also the invisibility of often damaging policy effects on those acting in unremunerated voluntary capacity.

Ofsted

A significant majority of respondents were highly critical of Ofsted as a government organisation, citing frequent and often contradictory changes in inspection frameworks, inconsistencies in practice between inspections and the punitive approach of inspection in general. The range of viewpoints expressed extended from one of general frustration to a disdain and discredit of Ofsted as a reliable body for the assessment of school achievement.

For some governors their experience of inspection teams was widely contrasting from one inspection to the next, from the supportive and critically engaged to the adversarial and negative.   From the perspective of the governors, these differences in approach make a significant difference to the positive or negative ecology of school improvement. Overwhelmingly though, Chairs of Governors were concerned about the impact of Ofsted inspections on the wellbeing of the Headteacher.

Conclusion

As both government diktats and the reports of our participants have affirmed, governing bodies have become increasingly shaped by preferred skillsets and attributes, and that these can be best described as aligning with a neoliberal model of managerial educational practices. This alignment is at odds with, and often at the expense of, other paradigms of school governance that have a broader conception of community engagement.

The expertise and personal commitment of school governors remains largely obscure in the policy rhetoric of school improvement.   It is clear from our pilot study that governors make a significant contribution of personal resource while also having accrued a range of technical knowledge in the exercise of school governance. Moreover, governors commit to their work on largely ethical principles for the ‘common good’. In addition to the often considerable time commitment involved, little attention appears to have been given by the DfE, its predecessors or local authorities to the emotional labour of school governance. In particular, where governors find themselves at odds with prevailing macro-policy imperatives such as academisation, their work can be both an isolating and demoralising experience. Coupled with significant legal accountabilities, the demands of governance, both visible and mental, cannot be overstated.

References

Balarin, M., Brammer, S., James, C. and McCormack, M. (2008) ‘The school governance study’. Business in the Community, London, UK. Opus: University of Bath Online Publication Store.

James, C., Brammer, S., Connolly, M., Fertig, M., James, J. and Jones, J. (2010) ‘The ‘hidden givers’: a study of school governing bodies in England’. Other. CfBT Education Trust, Reading.

For a full copy of the report please email   d.trotman@newman.ac.uk

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