Who is Governing You?

Academic (and Personal) Perspectives on School Governance

by Dr Stephen Whitehead (views are author’s own)

For a period of five years though the mid-1980s I was governor of three English schools; a large primary school and two ‘special’ schools (both boarding).

My full-time job was pub landlord and restaurant manager in a comfortable north Leeds suburb (Yorkshire). The only qualification I had was a sports coaching diploma from Carnegie College, Leeds, obtained in 1983.

I’d left school at 14.

So, what qualified me to be a governor?

Nothing. Well, only the fact that I was at the time heavily involved in local politics (council candidate and political agent for the local MP in the upcoming UK general election).

It was necessary (I was assured) to have our political party adequately represented on local school governing bodies plus it helped provide up and coming political activists such as myself with experience of educational/local issues while adding to their community/political profile.

I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, nor indeed what I was expected to do (despite receiving volumes of papers, guidelines and documents from the Ministry of Education). Though by then my experience in local politics had taught me how to put on the required performance of (rhetorical) knowledge, wisdom and experience commensurate with my public/political image.

The first meeting I had to attend of one of the special schools was a disciplinary meeting, chaired by a senior officer in the city’s Education Department.

The teacher under question was accused of violence against a student. I was well out of my depth and I knew it. Fortunately, an experienced political colleague of mine also sat on the governing body and before the start of the meeting she just advised me to ‘follow what I do”.

The meeting started tamely enough, at least for me, until mid-way by which time it was reduced to a stand-off between the teacher’s union rep and the chair of the meeting. At one point, the male chair rose, went to one of the other governors asked them to stand up whereupon he immediately put the (unsuspecting?) bloke in a very effective full-nelson arm/head lock and proceeded to keep him there while he explained his point, which was to demonstrate the difference between ‘excessive and permitted physical control’ of a student.

I was mightily relieved he hadn’t chosen me for the demo.

To be honest, I was in a minor state of shock, as I think were my co-governors. If I recall correctly, the teacher being disciplined was officially reprimanded but kept their job.

A number of things struck me about being a governor, at least back in the UK in the 1980s

1. They are mostly amateurs trying to exert some authority and oversight over professionals.

2. They may have good intent and experience in other walks of life, but are easily manipulated by confident head-teachers and political activists.

3. School governing bodies attract a potpourri of characters most of whom have little first-hand experience of teaching.

4. The only reward is some local status/power and a sense of doing something worthwhile.

5. The penalties for messing it up are severe, if not for the actual governor then certainly for the school and its students.

6. The time-effort demanded in no way corresponds to the benefits.

7. The responsibilities are onerous, the training negligible, the problems potentially massive and invariably complex.

8. The whole process and constitution of UK school governance is heavily wrapped up in (local) politics

9. Most teachers have no idea who is on their school governing body and nor do they care.

10. The ‘job’ attracts a lot of well-intentioned retirees whose memory of school is wrapped up in the mists of time.

Five years as school governor was more than enough for me. I resigned all posts and began a new career as a further education college lecturer.

Over the next decade I got myself a PGCE FE, an MA, and a PhD. I became a college senior manager, a fully-fledged educationalist, no longer wanting to be actively involved in politics even from the side-lines.

That was 35 years ago.

Have things improved much for governors and their schools?

Not according to the articles and studies under review here, the first of which (by Forrest et al) takes us straight into the crux of the issue – should governors be paid – should they in effect be treated as professionals?

‘The members of the governing boards of schools, colleges which provide vocational education and training, and universities in the UK have traditionally been volunteers.

Whether volunteer governors…should be remunerated is the subject of debate. This article analyses various aspects of that debate.’ (p.1)

The nature of volunteering

‘Typically, volunteering entails contributing time benefiting others with no financial or material benefit.’ (p.2)

Given that time is our most precious resource, and extra money is usually hard come by, what would motivate someone to give one without the other? The authors list the benefits as follows:

1. Building the volunteer’s social capital

2. Character building

3. Fostering interpersonal trust, toleration and empathy for others, and respect for the common good

4. Improving an individual’s physical and mental health

5. Improving the volunteer’s occupational achievement

6. A ‘great way to meet new people, gain new or use existing skills, get experience and make a difference to your community.

So will paying governors ‘undermine such motivations and distort values’? Some researchers quoted in this article fear so and argue that payment – an extrinsic reward – may ‘crowd out’ public spirit and the intrinsic value of volunteering. (p.3)

What is being discussed here are what I would term the ‘soft aspects’ of volunteering (as a school governor). That is, they don’t address the wider and more influential, political contexts.

The socio-political context for volunteering

‘All volunteering takes place in a particular social and political context, which must be addressed in any consideration of voluntary action. A key aspect of the context for voluntary action in the UK, and indeed, further afield, is the pervasive and dominant effect of neoliberalism and the preference for ‘bringing market-based principles’ into public policy making.’ (p. 3)

What this quote does is draw our attention to the tension in school governing body membership – that between the performative managerialism which has come to dominate education in the UK (and elsewhere) since the early 1990s, and notion of the dedicated, good intentioned, amateur.

But is bringing the market into volunteering the answer to this conundrum?

The market is omnipresent in most aspects of society, do we lose something precious by bringing it into volunteering – effectively losing a core aspect of the ‘common society’?

Sandel (2013, 2019) challenges the notion that payment for altruistic actions will bring about desired outcomes arguing that there are some things money cannot buy. He asserts that markets and market values have ‘moved into spheres of life where they don’t belong’ something he considers to be a ‘fateful change’.’ (p. 4)

Paying school governors would also be a ‘fateful change’ on school finances. Just how great, no one knows, but assume it to be significant.

Recent research done into volunteering in third sector organisations in the north of England shows that 81% of the 3,500 organisations surveyed reported that ‘they could not keep going’ without volunteers.

‘Based on the financial replacement cost at the level of the national minimum wage (Gov.uk, 2020b) volunteering in the north of England contributes £480 million a year.’ (p. 4)

Interestingly, the authors fail to recognise the arguably key aspect of the political context of school governance in the UK, at least based on my experience, and that is the omnipresence of local political appointees on school governing bodies.

Depending on which political party runs the town or city council, and is represented in the borough, that party is able to place more party members on school governing bodies – by law. When I was in local politics one way of personal political profiling was through school governance. The three main political parties all knew which local school governing bodies were dominated by which political party and they strove to ensure such membership ratios suited them.

My assessment is that no political party in the UK would support the paying of school governors not only on grounds of cost, but because it would immediately jeopardise the traditional political character of school governing bodies.

Nevertheless, the authors recognise the ‘growing impetus for paying governors’ and summarise the issues as follows:

1. High Stakes Governing: The weight of responsibility, accountability and reputational risks to the individual. All of which have increased since the mid-1980s.

2.  The marketized and competitive context for governing educational institutions: Are current governors equipped to handle their roles in a profession which has become (through neoliberal policy directives) intensely competitive, performative and managerial?

3. Remuneration as compensation for time commitment: Back to the paying people for the time sacrifice they make.

4. The need to improve the diversity of governing bodies: I’m not convinced any UK political party would welcome more diversity on school governing bodies. What they seek is more control of the governing bodies.

5. The need to improve governor recruitment: Will paying governors improve not only the retention of governors but enable recruitment of those with the ‘right skills’? As I say, political parties will strongly differ on what are the ‘right skills’ for governors.

6. The varied pattern of remuneration across the UK: Right now, the policy and political responses to paying school/FE/university governors are varied across the UK. FE college governors in Northern Ireland are now paid, so there is a model and precedence for doing it.

The article then proceeds to explore each of these factors in more depth. Their analysis is detailed, informed and insightful.

However, their final point is probably the most pertinent:

‘A significant issue would be the performance management of paid governors. If governors are remunerated, some form of performance management review is a reasonable requirement…with perhaps the setting of performance criteria, for example, setting benchmarks for attending meetings, participating in development activities, and engaging with institutional events…The issue of who undertakes the chair’s performance and sets the chairs’ remuneration is problematic…To ask board members to undertake the review could unduly disrupt the operational dynamics of the board.’ (p.13/14)

That is putting it mildly.

The key issue here is power. And governing bodies can wield it. Indeed, they are expected to. They have responsibility, accountability and in return they must have power. At least the chair must have.

No thinking UK school or college principal wants a powerless or ineffectual chair of governors. She/he wants someone with enough political clout to not only protect the institution but advance its interests. It matters less to the school Principal what the political affiliations of the chair might be, what is vital is their ability to get things done beyond the school gates and in the corridors of (local political) power.

This power dimension surfaced in another encounter I had with a board of governors, this time in an independent international school in South East Asia. But before I tell that story, let us explore the second of these articles on school governance, this one concerned exclusively with international schooling.

Fit for Purpose?

As a (hopefully, regular) reader of EDDi you’ll be more than familiar with the changing landscape and character of international schooling. No need for me to therefore repeat the statistics in the growth of schools and students over the past decade.

However, what you may not be aware of is how this growth has directly impacted on international school governance.

This article by Leila Holmyard provides some valuable insights into how international school governance has adapted to what is has been, in effect, a rapid new professionalisation.

The number of international schools is growing at an unprecedented rate and the landscape has shifted from mainly not-for-profit institutions to a patchwork of for-profit and not-for-profit schools, differing in terms of their culture, language, composition of nationalities, curriculum, accreditation and governance. Governance is known to impact the educational outcomes of students yet little research has been undertaken into school boards.’ (p. 50)

The governance issue for modern international schools is therefore rather different to that of traditional state schools – the former being increasingly profit-orientated, the latter supported by the state. Yet these disparate professional spaces have in the past adopted the same governance model – largely reliant on good-willed amateurs or experienced retirees.

Surely having amateurs as governors of multinational, multilingual, profit-orientated, highly competitive, branded, and ambitious international schools is asking for trouble?

Governors may get away with a degree of eccentric good-willed amateurishness in the (UK) state system, but that won’t cut it in the world of (corporatised) international schooling.

‘…governing bodies are crucial to the success of international schools because they are responsible for selecting the head of school, safeguarding the school’s finances, and creating and enacting a strategic vision… [at the same time]…‘i t is difficult to define ‘effective’ or ‘high quality’ governance.’ (p. 52)

So how have international schools responded to this issue of governors being fit for purpose?

They have tended to adopt a mixed approach’, which consists of an amalgamation of the following:

1. The traditional board model in which long- and medium- term strategic planning tends to be separated from the day-to-day operations of the schools.

2. The stakeholder model which is represented by parents and teachers.

3. The skill-based model which emphasises skills over representation and constitutes boards based on expertise.

Does this address the international school needs regarding governance?

Not entirely.

‘Such boards tend to be self-perpetuating, where the board itself appoints new members. Self-perpetuating boards have an increasing potential to become set in their ways, reluctant to take risks, yet become involved in the micromanagement of the school. Self-perpetuating boards are also viewed by heads as lacking both stakeholder voice and transparency…There exists a tension, therefore, between the individual capabilities of governors and the participation of stakeholders in governance.’ (p. 52)

To overcome this weakness, what the author suggests is a ‘hybrid model’ of IS governance and she bases her argument on research into the nature of hybrid governance operating in an international school in western Europe.

The Research

‘The aim of the research was to investigate the nature of hybrid governance in one international school, supplemented by interviews with experts in international schooling on their experiences of international school governance more generally. To this end, an exploratory case study was undertaken of an established international school in western Europe. This is a ‘Type A’ school (Hayden and Thompson, 2013), a not-for-profit school predominantly serving globally mobile families based in its area. This school’s governing body comprises six elected and five appointed board members. An additional seat is reserved for a faculty member, elected by employees of the school. Two methods of data collection were undertaken; individual interviews with board members and school leaders, and observations of board and committee meetings.’ (p. 53)

The Findings

1. Having self-perpetuating boards does provide stability and means that members develop strong and deep appreciation of the school issues. However, this approach does not resolve the issue of transparency and lack of dynamism that might emerge.

2. Elected boards, members brought in by appointment, does bring in specific skills but such boards tend to have a high turnover and the members lack strategic oversight.

3. Direct stakeholder participation is important for promoting accountability and transparency, and connecting the school to the community.

4. Direct student involvement is not considered vital.

5. Governors need to have ‘desirable disposition, capabilities and motivation’.

6. Having full-elected boards can result in gaps in the skills and capabilities of governors.

7. There is only a small pool of potential governors in the world of International Schooling.

8. Experts caution against undesirable motivations of governors such as gaining status in the local community.

9. Governor screening needs to take place ‘in conjunction with capability audit data’

10. Too many meetings with too many people involved ends up being counter-productive.

11. Financially remunerating governors may cause problems of motivation whereby applicants would be motivated by the money, not altruistic reasons.

Based on these and similar findings, the author presents their solution to the issues raised.

The Hybrid Model of Governance

1.  Capability gaps identified by the board – resulting in head-hunting and open application followed by screening for desirable motivations and capabilities.

2.  Election of some members in order to address and ensure full representation, and the appointment of other members with specific skills and knowledge.

3.  Training for all governors.

Hopefully, this mix of elected and appointed governors, followed by training, would result in ‘good governance’.

Actually, I am not so sure, though I do recognise the limitations of the governing body system, both for state schools and international schools. Perhaps this ‘hybrid model’ is the best model possible for a less than satisfactory situation?

However, as far as for-profit international schools are concerned, there is little chance of governing bodies being given the authority to dictate strategy, oversee finances, or even appointments.

And why should they?

If you were a school owner or CEO of the school directorship, would you allow your chair of governors to have authority over these vitally important aspects of management and leadership?

Definitely not.

Which brings me to my second story concerning my experience of governing bodies, this time with a private, for-profit, international school operation in SE Asia.

A case study in governing body ‘power’

This particular school was family owned and headed by a charismatic person. She had established the school over 25 years earlier and was CEO of the whole business, which had expanded to become five schools, including this highly successful international school.

Her family occupied the key directorships. The schools were located in a SE Asian country that was ruled by a single (incredibly wealthy) individual. Consequently, nothing much happened without the ruler’s approval, and that included running any large businesses, especially schools. With his blessing, anything was possible. Without it, you were stuffed.

Given such a situation, who would you put on your school governing body?

Yes, you’d make sure you invited someone who was compliant enough to let you get on with running your business/school without interference, but who was also very well connected to the ruler.

And that was what had happened with this particular school.

The chair of governors was the wife of the previous Minister of Education; wealthy, connected, and a good ally for the owner.

In reality, the governing body played little if any role in the school operation, either at a strategic or micro-level. Indeed, the board rarely met. The ‘boss’ handled it all. But the chair of governors was important in one respect – they had the ear of the ruler and his family and could consequently ‘make things happen’ especially within the otherwise torpid and ego-centric corridors of the Ministry of Education.

This mutually satisfactory arrangement continued to everyone’s satisfaction until the ruler unexpectedly and very publicly denounced a number of Ministers and ex-Ministers for corruption. And yes, you guessed it, one of those denounced was the husband of the chair of governors. Literally overnight, the ex-education Minister and all his family went from being in the ‘inner circle’ to being cast out into the wilderness, ostracized and rendered invisible. A very nasty business and ego-shattering for those on the receiving end of it.

Would you want his wife to continue to be your chair of governors?

Answers please, in the comments.

As I said above, this is all about power. There is only one really important job on any governing body and that is the Chair. If they have political clout (whether it be Leeds City Council or a South East Asian autocracy) then they can be allies in your cause, if not then no point having them around.

Power itself an amorphous quality. It comes and it goes.

And so do governing bodies.

The kids, however, still need teaching. Which means that the most important decisions are not taking by governing bodies, they are taken by teachers and every day of the week.

by Dr Stephen Whitehead (views are author’s own)

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Forrest C, Hill R, James C. The pressures for the remuneration of volunteer governors of UK educational institutions and the potential consequences. Educational Management Administration & Leadership. January 2021

Holmyard L. The nature of hybrid governance: A case study of a large and well-established European international school. Journal of Research in International Education. 2021;20(1):50-68.


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