School governors are very much part of the Big Society. They work unpaid. Often the same people help with school trips, fundraising, volunteer reading. In return they have to put up with a lot of jargon, dubious training sessions, and sometimes CRB checks – despite it being quite untrue that these are a statutory requirement. Talent scouting for really good people who could be persuaded to serve as school governors is an important part of my role as a local councillor.
In view of all that one might be surprised to read that the Education Secretary Michael Gove has attacked school governors in a speech yesterday.
Except that he hasn't.
This was what he said.
Good schools need good governors. And we have thousands of reasons to be grateful to those who give up so much time to help support school leaders in the work they do.
It’s because governance matters so much that the difference between good and bad governance matters so much.
We all know what good governance looks like.
Smaller governing bodies, where people are there because they have a skill, not because they represent some political constituency. They concentrate on the essentials such as leadership, standards, teaching and behaviour. Their meetings are brief and focused; the papers they need to read are short, fact-packed and prepared in a timely way; they challenge the school leadership on results, and hold the leadership and themselves responsible for securing higher standards year on year – every year.
And, all too sadly, we also know what bad governance looks like.
A sprawling committee and proliferating sub-committees. Local worthies who see being a governor as a badge of status not a job of work. Discussions that ramble on about peripheral issues, influenced by fads and anecdote, not facts and analysis. A failure to be rigorous about performance. A failure to challenge heads forensically and also, when heads are doing a good job, support them authoritatively.
We cannot have a 21st century education system with governance structures designed to suit 19th century parochial church councils.
Ofsted, in their new inspection framework, will now be asking searching questions on governance – including assessing how well governors hold the head and senior leader to account.
When it is our children’s future at stake, we cannot afford the archaic amateurism of old-fashioned committee protocols – we have to be more professional.
So praise for school governors. Stress on the importance of what they do. Concern for them to have greater clout. Recognition that many are effective and that, where they are not effective, it is often the fault of the system rather than the individual.