Will paying school governors improve their performance?

School governors are under fire from on high, so how do we improve standards? Sheena Hastings reports.

Learning curve
Learning curve

SOME school governors could do better, says Sir Michael Wilshaw, chief inspector at the schools watchdog Ofsted.

He suggests that some governors should be paid for their work, businesses should order staff to become governors at their local schools and that every school will be handed an annual report card to be accessed by parents and used as a crib sheet by governors. This School Data Dashboard (who dreams up these names?) will summarise less data than governors routinely handle, say critics.

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Sir Michael says some governors would rather spend time “looking at the quality of lunches and not enough on maths and English”.

He argues for a more professional approach, especially by those in more challenging schools, and while there should always be a place for volunteers, radical solutions such as payment to governors with the right expertise should be considered in order to support schools which consistently fail to do well.

He said leadership, including governing bodies, were a common weakness in the 60,000 schools rated less than good, and that some governors were “ill-informed” and “not able to make decisions” – although Sir Michael did praise the work done by good governing bodies.

The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) said it was right that governors and parents should use data to hold schools to account, but all data, especially “simple” data, should come with a health warning. “It should encourage people to ask more questions, not draw premature conclusions,” a spokesman said.

In certain circumstances, where a school is consistently performing very badly, a governing body can be removed and replaced with a paid interim executive board, says Gillian Allcroft of the National Governors’ Association. But in an everyday sense, the NGA is against the payment of governors and says they can do a professional job without payment so long as they are given the right support.

“Why is Sir Michael suggesting paying ‘some’ governors and not others, and where would the money come from? More importantly governors’ induction training at the start of their appointment should be made mandatory so that they have a good understanding of the very important job ahead of them and their great responsibility for the spending of a huge amount of public money, and that part of their role is to challenge those in executive roles inside schools where necessary.

“Local authorities offer training courses to governors, and many of the better governing bodies monitor take-up of training. But nothing is compulsory and training levels are patchy,” says Allcroft. “If schools want to interest a wider spectrum of people in school governance there is nothing to stop them advertising. But ‘paid’ and ‘professional’ are not the same thing.”

Jonathan Haslam of York University’s Institute for Effective Education is a school governor and co-author of A Book for Governors: Understanding Schools, and Governing Effectively. He thinks Sir Michael Wilshaw’s idea for companies encouraging employees to volunteer as governors is interesting.

“I welcome anything that widens awareness of school governance,” he says. “I think one of the problems is that governors can get bogged down in the minutiae of the governing process, rather than focusing on the main thing, which is the good education of children. When you have 300,000 governors, the biggest group of volunteers in the country, some are bound to be bad.

“It is a difficult job to get your head around, and it doesn’t help that many documents governors have to deal with are written in jargon. Rather than paying governors or looking for different governors, we should focus on better support for those who are doing it – and the use of plain English.”

Paying governors is a sensible suggestion, says one recently retired long-term high school governor from West Yorkshire.

“At the moment, the governance of our state schools relies on a bunch of well-meaning, ill-trained individuals whose children may go to the school they are governors of. It seems to be that the more difficult the school, the more helpless and hopeless the governors.

“There is an analogy with non-executive directors of companies – they provide the independent oversight and challenge to keep the executive management in check… and they are paid. It’s a very British idea to put key jobs in the hands of unpaid amateurs – and like most of those ideas, this one doesn’t work.”