Friday, 1 July 2011

Who Governs the Governors: Board models and composition

Board models and composition

Growing autonomy for schools will force governors to take on more responsibility and an increasingly strategic role in a deregulated system. It could also initially place them under even greater strain.

It follows that the Education Bill should define what governors do and what their responsibilities should be. Our research has reinforced our view that this is exactly the right strategy. Too often schools have sacrificed quality in order to ensure proportional representation from parents, local politicians and particular professions to the detriment of other groups or individuals who may not easily fall into a specific category. Whilst we would not advocate any policy which would prescribe and exclude, we believe that governors should be appointed on the breadth of skills and experience they would bring and in relation to each school’s background, future ambitions and any specialisms it pursues.

The Eversheds Board Report (2011) shows the results of a comprehensive investigation that sought to establish the relationship between the composition of corporate boards and their success, in light of the financial crisis. It included an analysis of the size of the boards. The vast majority of board directors agreed that size was a major factor in the overall efficiency of the board in making strategic and effective decisions.

This was also reinforced by the quantitative findings of the report. We believe that this serves as a useful comparison when analysing the structure and relative efficiency of school governing bodies.

The role of chair

There can be no doubt that in the changing political and educational landscape, with the devolution of responsibility to individual schools or federations, that the role of chair will become more important than ever before.

We regard the importance of boards with strong chairs and appropriate succession planning as being vital to ensure that schools both manage risk and secure further and necessary improvements during the years ahead.

The relationship between chairs and parents will also be an increasingly important one as parents – perhaps less well represented on boards in the future –

seek to ensure that schools are effectively managed in the absence of LEAs.

Board numbers: confederations vs individual schools and improving the candidate pool

Traditional school governing bodies will typically number anything from 15 to 30.

It was the widespread view of those we interviewed that 15 should be the upper
limit and that boards should have 12 as a target number. This would focus the
chair and nominations committee on ensuring healthy competition and seeking to
appoint candidates with broad and varied skills.

Having investigated the number of members of governing bodies of a number of prominent education providers, we found this to be an interesting comparison between the size of the board at individual schools and those of confederations.

We would suggest that a large number of governors is not necessary even at ‘cluster’ schools or for those who act on behalf of a group of schools. Greater size does not entail greater strategic success or efficiency; indeed the trend would suggest the opposite to be more commonly the case.

Duration of service

We also considered the duration of term. Whilst there are benefits of continuity and institutional knowledge, we would recommend a maximum term of nine years per governor, with three year terms having the potential to be extended twice. This would ensure that succession planning for both chair and board members was fresh and vibrant and that a sense of immediacy and focus was enhanced in meetings.

Comparisons with membership and trade bodies may be made. Many such organisations have an annual rotation of president or chairman with office holders spending one to three years in the most senior position.

Time commitment

The time commitment given by governors will vary significantly. Fewer governors may well demand a greater individual commitment. However, fewer board members could increase competition and interest and improve the overall quality of those serving in some schools.

We would also consider whether more flexibility of timing of meetings should be reviewed. Although there are no immediate plans to review the school year, many schools are increasingly seeking to remain active and commercially focussed throughout the calendar year.

Confining governors’ meetings to term time should be reviewed and opportunities for board away days – already part of the programme for some schools – could become more widespread as smaller, more focussed boards develop their full operational potential.

Widening the appeal of boards

The majority of those we interviewed agreed that current parents may be attracted to individual school boards for personal reasons such as a direct association with the institution. It is likely that this will remain the case to a greater or lesser extent.

We would regard the number of parents as being a matter for individual schools and confederations.

We did not find any evidence to demonstrate the benefits of a fixed number of governors who are parents of pupils within a school, nor did we see a board without current parents as being in any way less effective than one with a number of them.

We would encourage boards to consider the benefits of all governors – including current parents – on merit through a more arms length appointments process. This would serve both to avoid potential conflicts and to encourage those from outside the institution/s to be considered. Advertising and other forms of recruitment should be seen as important ways to widen the appeal and ensure transparency of process.

Parents continue to have strong presence in particular on the boards of academies and free schools. There is also an emphasis in the maintained sector on parent representation which may evolve through introducing the fixed terms advocated above. Former parents were considered by several of those we interviewed, on balance, to be more constructive and beneficial than parent governors as a category,since parents may sometimes wish to steer the agenda towards matters of immediate concern and away from the more strategic parts of an agenda.

Alumni who are appointed to governing bodies are more widespread in independent than state schools. We saw this as a category which may be able to contribute more governors – again on the assumption of prior skills and experience requirements being met – than may be widely the case in state schools (not least in underperforming ones). There are many ways in which schools may promote wider applications and interest from their alumni and we would strongly encourage this
as another way to widen the talent pool in the future.

The corporate model

We suggest that the corporate model of executive and non-executive boards would be a good one for school governing bodies to emulate. The governors must set the strategy and vision for the school. Executive members – both teaching and operational staff – seem best placed to formulate a strategy for arriving at a given objective however it was agreed that often they do not have enough educational experience to know best how to achieve this vision. It will be highly desirable to have a good mix of experience to ensure an adequate skill set across the board
in preference to the more traditional representative models widespread amongst
schools. We address this area in further detail below.

The NHS Trust Board model

In comparison, NHS Trust Boards members are recruited not only on the basis of their “skills in finance or marketing... they must also represent their communities.” Many parallels can be drawn between the responsibilities of governors in the health 9 Daloni Carlisle, ‘Health Trust Boards are models of diversity’, 27 January 2010, Stable URL: http://www.
, 21st January 2011

A full copy of the report can be found here

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