Education Secretary Gavin Williamson’s announcement that schools can expect £14bn over the next three years, with £7.1bn more in 2022-23 compared to 2019-20, has received cautious welcome.
Whether the amounts promised are enough to solve funding challenges is open to debate.
Regardless of where one sits on that issue, the impact of additional funding is undoubtedly dependent on the effectiveness of school governance. Without good governance, throwing money at schools won’t solve anything.
The quality of the board of directors can make or break a business. Likewise, the board of governors at a school or academy influences its prospects for success. Yet we rarely hear about this essential aspect of school organisation when politicians discuss school standards.
As chief governance officer at Wellspring, a multi-academy trust managing 23 schools across Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, I am acutely aware of the importance of both our trust-wide board members and our governing bodies at school level. Of course, good governors cannot entirely solve the myriad issues affecting the education sector, but they have a significant role to play.
The academy system has faced criticism. From ideological opposition to them being outside public ownership (despite their charitable status) to accusations of unethical behaviour through to financial impropriety, it is easy to see why academies come under such scrutiny.
These are all problems that won’t be overcome by simply increasing school budgets. Systemic problems within organisations are always about culture, not funding.
This is a space in which the right governance can have real impact. At Wellspring, our ethos is about behaving ethically and treating all children with unconditional positive regard. We have never permanently excluded a child and we believe all school pupils have the right to an excellent education, however challenging that may be to deliver and whoever it is educating them. That culture and ethos is supported and driven by a board totally committed to that approach.
In England alone, a quiet army of more than 250,000 volunteers devise our schools’ strategies and visions, hold the leadership to account and ensure the finances are being properly managed.
Without these individuals, schools would lack the checks and balances and strategic direction that any well-managed organisation should have. They are doing fantastic work, but there are obvious concerns with a system that is run entirely on the goodwill and sense of duty of volunteers.
First, the composition of school and trust governing bodies does not accurately reflect today’s society. According to the recent School Governance Report by the National Governance Association, 93 per cent of governors are white and just 10 per cent are under the age of 40. Diversity matters. Without a good mix of different life experiences and world views, it is easy to fall into groupthink which can be disastrous when it comes to determining a school or trust’s vision and strategy. Getting a wider range of skills and experiences into our schools needs to be a priority.
Linked to this is a shortage of governors overall. The NGA’s report also revealed that each governing body or academy committee has an average of 1.26 vacancies, and an estimated 18,000 additional governors are needed to sustain school governance at current board sizes.
These volunteers are collectively responsible for £48bn of public money and Ofsted has repeatedly cited that effective leadership and management – including the governing board – is a key feature in the most successful schools. Yet the funding for training them and supporting them is not seen as a priority. If we are relying on goodwill for these important roles, the least we can do is make sure all their training needs are met.
As Emma Knights OBE, chief executive of the NGA, states in their report: “Government Ministers stress the importance of governance from many stages, but little has been said or done more widely over the past year to ensure the people who take on this responsibility are recognised.” It is time these essential public servants gained the recognition and support they deserve. Our schools are counting on them.
Karen Froggatt is the chief governance officer at Wellspring Academy Trust.