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School Governance

Volume 522: debated on Tuesday 1 February 2011

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Bill Wiggin.)

It is a pleasure to introduce a debate, which I believe is timely, on school governance. School administration faces radical reform. More schools are becoming academies, maintained schools face the prospect of changes in local authority control and free schools are on the agenda. In my opinion, the role of governors and governing bodies has never been more important. Apart from reforms resulting from changes made by successive Governments over the past 30 years, the system has not really changed for many more years than that.

The current system can best be described as committee-based. It involves volunteers coming together at various times during the school year. Gatherings of the full governing body, which is normally about 20 people, are often less well attended, and the committee structure is designed around the various disciplines that school leadership teams feel should be addressed.

I am happy to say that the model is not prescriptive. Each school has the freedom to set its own committee structure. For example, Ridgeway school at Wroughton in my constituency, where I served as governor for four years until the end of 2009, had what can best be described as a typical committee structure. We had a committee to deal with the curriculum, a committee to deal with student matters and a committee to deal with finance and premises—the traditional division of work. However, despite the excellent work done by school governors, despite the fact that more than 300,000 admirable volunteers serve as school governors, and despite what they do to support head teachers, staff and the wider community, I believe that more can be done to improve the effectiveness of their work.

I am not the only one to say that. Head teachers and governors whom I know and respect, along with national organisations, are making similar representations to the Government. I am delighted that, under the White Paper process, the Government are committed to reviewing the efficiency of governing bodies and to working with organisations and schools to improve things. I welcome that, and today’s debate gives the Minister the opportunity to put some more flesh on the bones of that valuable commitment.

I say that the debate is timely because, under the previous Government, and despite a promising start, two years were lost during which there was much debate and discussion about the role of governing bodies. The former schools Minister, now Lord Knight, started that valuable work in 2008, but it was not until the eve of the general election that a report was published. I welcomed that report; it contained much that was positive, and I am sure that the Government will bear it very much in mind when building upon it.

I pay tribute to the work of governors, and particularly to the chairs of governing bodies. They are entrusted with huge responsibility, and it is all done voluntarily. With good practice, they work closely with head teachers and senior leadership teams. They are regularly in and out of their schools, and they help set the school strategy. However, like it or not, I increasingly feel that governing bodies have split into two tiers. The inner tier of governors has the time and wherewithal to become involved in the strategic management of the school; the outer tier does much of the monitoring work: going to the school, meeting the teachers, getting to know the link subjects and following things up excellently, but I believe that we now have a spilt between those two roles.

Those two roles are the essential tasks of a governing body. They help set the strategy, aims and objectives, policies and outcomes of a school, and they monitor and evaluate progress in achieving those things. I am not talking about the crossover between operational work and strategy. I readily accept that governors do not and cannot have a role in the day-to-day management of the school. That would trespass on the province of the professionals employed to do that job—I am sure that the professionals would echo that. However, if the role of governors is to become more pivotal, more work has to be done to focus their energy, talent and time on the two tasks that I have set out.

Time is a valuable commodity. It is given freely by governors. I hate to think of them spending their time at long and unproductive meetings, feeling that nothing much has been achieved. I do not say that that is universally the case, but I would be telling an untruth if I said that there were not times during my service as a governor in various schools when I came away from rather long meetings feeling frustrated.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this excellent debate. Between us, we represent the two halves of Swindon, so I am sure that we must often have spoken to the same people. Indeed, one governor to whom I have spoken supports what my hon. Friend says. I sum it up by saying that they are money-rich but time-poor in middle England. That is one of the biggest challenges, given that we presume that some schools would be awash with potential school governors. I wonder whether my hon. Friend has heard that from other governors.

My hon. Friend is right to mention middle England. Like me, he represents a seat with a wide spectrum of social indices. We have schools in leafy suburbs, schools in challenging areas and schools with a large percentage of black and minority ethnics. Time is a precious commodity wherever one lives, but energy is even more precious. It is incumbent on policy makers to lead the debate when it comes to focusing the valuable talents and energies of our school governors.

I mentioned earlier the frustrations that I felt about long and unproductive meetings, but those frustrations are often shared by head teachers. They spend a lot of time having to prepare long documents that are then read out to the governors. With the best will in the world, head teachers do not always have the time to do the important early pre-meeting circulation that can improve accountability. It is rather like a half-baked cake; it has good content, but it has not set in a way that makes it digestible. I am sorry to say that that experience is repeated throughout the country.

I do not criticise the entire system, nor do I criticise volunteering. I am entirely in favour of the system, but we must maintain the important principle at its heart. With a little adjustment here and there, and a little imagination, we could get it right. We should fit the system around the talents of the governors rather than trying to fit the governors into a rather tired and stale system. That is the essential point that I wish to make today.

I am fascinated by the idea of the half-baked cake, and where we are going with particular parts of it. May I raise the matter of special educational needs? My hon. Friend knows that I have experience in that field, and I am curious to know his view on it, and the interaction between what the headmaster and the governors are doing, on an ongoing basis.

My hon. Friend has a long history as a lawyer in dealing with SEN tribunal cases. He will know that my last role in my last school was to be the SEN link governor. Therein lies the essence of the dilemma often faced by governors. I was working with a dedicated and talented SENCO—a special educational needs co-ordinator—with years of experience. She would come to me with issues that sometimes strayed into operational areas. As the SEN link governor in a mainstream school, I felt that I had a duty to raise her concerns and to ensure that the issues of SEN and of those students who had statements or who were on a school action plan or school action plus were put centre stage of key strategic decisions.

One of the issues facing us was that the SENCO was not part of the senior leadership team. There was a champion for special needs—an assistant deputy head teacher who was a talented and able person—but it would have improved things if the SENCO had been part of the senior leadership team. That ties in with some of the suggestions made by the National Governors Association, which takes the view that there is no need for a SEN link governor because that work falls under operational matters. I hesitated when I read those observations, because making such a move is all very well, but unless the SENCO is at the heart of the leadership team, a link governor is necessary to represent the interests of not just the special needs staff, but the children with special needs and their parents.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) for his comments. It is important that we get down to detail when we consider that sometimes troubling division between setting strategy and operational matters. The same can be said about looked-after children. My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson), who sadly cannot be with us today, is campaigning assiduously to ensure that the needs of looked-after children in mainstream schools are properly represented. He is championing the cause for a link governor for those children. I make exactly the same observation as I have with SEN. The matter can be dealt with if there is proper representation for looked-after children in the senior leadership team, with the deputy head teacher ensuring that their voice is heard and that their interests are taken into account.

I have talked about autonomy and the gradual decline in the role of local authorities, which places quite a significant role on governors. Many schools in my local area are considering academy status. Some have formally applied for it and others are considering it. Some schools are thinking about federation, which is a huge opportunity to enhance the strategic approach taken by the governing bodies. Moreover, it is an opportunity to enhance that division of work between strategy and monitoring.

With devolution of power to schools goes devolution of power within schools. That means that learning departments—whether English, maths or modern foreign languages—will have link governors to liaise with governors whose strategic role is to monitor the progress that each department is making. Many schools, including my own governing body, have such a system in place, but whether it is working as well as it could is another matter. If we accept the role of volunteers, we have to acknowledge that volunteers’ time will depend on the nature of their other commitments. That is why it is vital that we understand the principle of matching the talent to the available roles.

Some governors have particular expertise in procedures to do with exclusions and complaints, particularly those made by parents. An increasingly important part of the role of governors is dealing with complaints. The Government are doing all they can to simplify and rationalise the exclusion system. I know that they quite rightly view exclusions as a last resort. It is the last option for a head teacher, who will use it as their ultimate sanction when dealing with a particular issue in the school, and that is the right approach. However, it means that more emphasis will be placed on pre-exclusion work, and the role of governors in that regard will become more and more important.

In respect of exclusions, does my hon. Friend welcome the fact that we will be doing less work on a long-term basis on exclusion procedures because they will be simplified as we move forward?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I was putting it in a slightly more roundabout way. Although there will be less work on formal exclusion procedures, there will be a growth in other types of intervention, most notably in parental complaints. I know that every governing body will have a policy on complaints, but they must be assiduous in ensuring that those policies are comprehensive and understandable to the parents themselves.

I have used that example of special work as a way of engaging people in the community who have a talent, a training or an understanding of such principles but who may not have the time to commit to regular committee meetings. Although I do not want to see visitors coming into the school with no knowledge of the environment, people with specialist knowledge have an important role to play. If they get the training to deal with specific procedures, they can help out schools with particular challenges. One example is the big issue of finance that faces school governing bodies and head teachers. There is no doubt that the most onerous part of the duties of academies, free schools and maintained schools will be the maintenance of their budgets. It is already a big challenge for many schools. Some schools are getting it right; others are finding it more difficult. I am not casting aspersions on individual schools; I am simply stating a reality. Having spoken to many teachers and head teachers over the years, it is my understanding that they are always receptive and open to the sort of input that people with specialist financial training can provide. Although the Government are doing all they can to simplify financial structures, make financial information easier to understand and remove some of the labyrinthine documents that I have had to view over recent years in the context of SEN funding, I can see a key role for people with financial expertise in not just the strategic running of a school but in assisting head teachers and finance officers with the management of budgets.

Talking to school governors in my North Swindon constituency, I have found that many are attracted to the role because they are keen to get involved in operational issues, which they obviously cannot do. As governors who are either interested in or have the necessary skills to deal with the finance side are in chronically short supply, they often get put on to those committees and that drives them away. One of the biggest challenges is attracting people with the right skills, not necessarily parents, to come in and take that very important role in schools.

My hon. Friend has hit on a central issue in the debate on school governance—the balance between the need to have skills and the need to be representative of the wider community. The two are not mutually exclusive. Imaginative governing bodies—there are plenty out there—are striking that balance at the moment. Professionally skilled people who live in the local community, perhaps trained accountants, lawyers or doctors, can become partnership governors—if it is a foundation school—community governors or a representative of their local authority. We then balance them out with the parent governors, who play an important part in governing bodies. Indeed, some play a huge role in running their schools, which is welcome, but more can be done to engage the wider parental community. Loads of parents are out there who, because of their work and family commitments, do not have that precious commodity of time. However, if they were on a database of supporters, or friends, of the school, they would, I am sure, give what time they had on specific projects, such as enhancing the appearance of the school. They can be given something to match their own talents to enhance the life of the school. What better way of cementing the role of the school in the community than creating this wider support base?

Of course, with that support base comes the obvious imperative, which I know sensible governing bodies are addressing, of working with parent teacher associations and organisations that exist alongside them to help raise funds for various school projects. There needs to be a lot more constructive thought about how we involve the wider community in our schools. With the end of the centralised role of local authorities, that imperative for schools to look outwards as well as inwards has never been more important.

It is said that every governing body is only as good as its clerk. Again, all of us in this room and others elsewhere will have known some experienced and hard-working governing body clerks. We must not forget those clerks in this process. If there is to be the type of change that I envisage, they will need support, training and help to tackle what might become an increasing burden of work for them. The chair of the governing body should never be in a position where he or she is left, if you like, to do it alone. Succession management is a vital part of a functioning and effective governing body, and again more work needs to be done, if not to formalise best practice then to encourage it among governing bodies that might have had a chair for some considerable period and therefore need that change to continue in a successful vein.

The key points that I want to reiterate before retaking my seat are: respecting the difference between establishing strategy and operational management, a difference that has always been at the heart of the principle of school governance; understanding the different roles involved in the establishment of strategy and the monitoring of results, and trying to create a system that reflects the talents required for those different roles; and involving the wider community in the work of governing bodies in a way that not only fits in with people’s demanding lifestyles but that can do so much to enhance the life of our schools, and, importantly, encouraging everyone to move away from the idea that one or two meetings a term will cut the ice when it comes to modern school governance. There are so many better and more imaginative ways to do the job, and I am sure that my colleagues in Westminster Hall today will give more examples of that as the debate proceeds, hopefully stimulating an important and useful part of the process of change.

I apologise in advance if I have to leave the debate early, Mr Dobbin. I have been appointed—joy of joys—to a Delegated Legislation Committee that begins at 10.30 am, so I mean no discourtesy if I have to leave the Chamber before that time.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) on securing this debate. I know that he has a huge interest in school governance, and I agree with much of what he has said. I want to make a couple of observations based on my own time as a school governor. I have been a governor at the same school for the past 10 years, and before that I served on the governing bodies of two secondary schools. I serve as a local education authority governor in a school that I attended as a child and that is in the area where I was a councillor. Consequently, I felt that my role as a LEA governor was to be a link between the community and the school.

I associate myself with my hon. Friend’s comments about the work that governors and governing bodies do in general. Very often, governing bodies are full of dedicated individuals who have the best interests of the school and their wider community at heart. As we change the education system in this country, however, the time has come to question whether we are necessarily doing things correctly. I have a couple of observations about some of the flaws in how governing bodies work at the moment.

My hon. Friend has discussed schools accessing the wider community, members of which might have particular skills in finance, law and such like. However, that is not a scenario for all school catchment areas, particularly if the school is in a deprived area, where some of those skills might not be available—it is sometimes a challenge to attract people to be governors in such schools.

One way of tackling that problem, which my hon. Friend has touched on, is to set up a federation of schools, whether it involves a better performing school pooling and federating with a poorer performing school, or whether it involves a cluster of schools pooling and federating, such as a secondary school and its feeder primary schools. I say that because if there is a gentle criticism to be made of governing bodies—I make it very gently, because nobody here wants to attack or insult the work of people who are giving their time for free—it is that sometimes the governing body sees its role as being to support the head teacher in the decisions that they make. Often, governing bodies lack the robust challenge and scrutiny role that they are actually there to fulfil, and I have seen that myself as a governor. Frankly, that sometimes happens because governing bodies are full of educationists. I say that as a former teacher who still serves as a school governor, but I have sat on governing bodies where the people who have fulfilled the parental governors’ roles might well be parents of children at the school, but very often they also work in the LEA or are teachers themselves. The question whether we get the wide representation on governing bodies that we desire is sometimes open to debate.

When I was a councillor in Hull, one thing that my local authority looked at was using the children’s trust model as a way of changing the governance arrangements within the city. The idea was to bring together the primary schools and possibly one or two secondary schools through the children’s trust, to try to get some of the more strategic thinking that has to be done within schools fed through that process. I supported that model, and I hope that we can build on it. Indeed, it is a model that becomes more important as we move towards the academy structure and increasing numbers of free schools.

The situation has changed in schools. At one time, head teachers saw themselves as looking after their particular parish, as it were—it was almost as if their responsibilities stopped outside the school gates and, perhaps quite reasonably, they focused on what went on within their own schools. However, that has changed, and secondary schools are much better at engaging with their feeder primary schools, and primary schools are much better at working with one another. There are initiatives that have helped that process along the way. One of those is school sports partnerships, which have brought together schools that would previously not have communicated with each other. Perhaps it is time to consider whether the current structure works and whether we should put a greater emphasis on schools’ governing bodies to get their schools either to federate or to work more collaboratively with other schools in their area, so that we can introduce strategic thinking into the system and, perhaps, a more robust way of challenging of things.

I am making only a mild criticism of governing bodies, because, as I have already said, people who serve as governors tend to be incredibly hard-working, and I would not wish to besmirch them in any way. Nevertheless, we must accept that they do not necessarily always challenge things robustly. It can be hard to challenge things. If a motivated parent becomes a parent governor, their reason for doing so is often that they want to support the school, and it is a natural conclusion that supporting the school involves supporting the head teacher in the decisions that they take.

Another criticism concerns the links between the LEA and governing bodies. LEA governors often work in the LEA or as teachers themselves, and they sometimes serve as community governors or parent governors. However, governing bodies can sometimes become a little too LEA-centric. I have sat at many governing body meetings where we considered a paper from the LEA that included a recommendation. In such cases, people around the table often conclude that, because the recommendation has come from the LEA, they should, of course, approve it. Their reasoning is, “Why would the LEA suggest it if it was anything other than in the interests of the school?” That process is sometimes reinforced by clerking services being brought in from the LEA, which further builds the link between the governing body and the LEA. In one sense, that link is important, but there needs to be a clear separation of power.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon has touched very eloquently—much better than I could have done—on the roles that particular governors play. Those roles have changed in my time as a governor, and more governors seem to engage with the school. When I was a local councillor and a school governor at the same time, I always saw my role as providing a community link, but other governors were determined to get involved in the school and spend some time in it. For example, if they were the foundation link governor, they spent some time with the foundation stage teachers, or if they were the literacy governor they spent some time talking to the literacy co-ordinator. That situation has improved, but it is still open to debate whether it has improved scrutiny.

My hon. Friend is giving a good overview of the different assets provided by particular governors. Does he see an ongoing role for a pastoral support programme, and would that help us to go forward? It used to be in the programme, but it is not currently included.

That is absolutely vital. When we had a debate on disadvantaged children, I pointed out that in some ways pastoral care has been sidelined in recent years. Pastoral care is more important than ever, particularly where behaviour is concerned, and we all agree that we want to reduce the amount of exclusion.

I am straying a little from the topic, but I point out to the Minister that one of the biggest sadnesses of the changes in recent years is that classroom teachers, particularly in secondary schools, have often had their pastoral roles taken away and handed to other people in the school—albeit those people are often very capable—including learning mentors and teaching assistants. I have always believed that classroom teachers are not just educators but part-time social workers, occasionally parents and sometimes, depending on the class, just childminders. We have a multiplicity of roles as classroom teachers, and we have been losing our role in pastoral care. Hopefully, the Minister has heard my pleas on that issue.

I have identified some of the problems that I see at the moment, which I am good at, but I am not quite so good at identifying the solutions, which is why I do not hold ministerial office—that is a job for Ministers. The time has come, however, to question whether school governance arrangements work as they should, and if I had a solution, it would be, as I have said, to encourage federation.

My hon. Friend has made an exceptionally thoughtful contribution based on his experience in the teaching environment. Does he see federating schools as adding to governors’ time commitments, or will that approach reduce them because the work load is spread out?

That is a difficult question. In some respects, federating would lessen the burden, because some people who join governing bodies want to take on that strategic role regarding the direction of the school but do not necessarily want to be engaged in the nitty-gritty. I have sat on governing bodies where it has been about who can outdo the others and who has been in the school the most, but that does not mean that that person has necessarily been the most effective governor. There is a role for both kinds of governor, which might be achieved through federation. You can have governors who give their expertise to the strategic direction of education in a particular area, and you can have others who play the community role or a much more involved role in a particular school. That is something that we need to look at.

I will not speak for much longer, because I know that other hon. Members wish to contribute. I associate myself with many of the thoughtful comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon, who has a great deal of experience in this area. I am sorry that I will not be here to listen to the Minister, but I will, of course, read his speech in Hansard tomorrow.

Before I call the next speaker, I remind Members when making interventions not to use “you” to refer to other Members. Please use “hon. Friend” or “hon. Member”.

I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) has secured this debate, and that I am able to add to it.

I welcome the Government’s plans to allow and encourage more schools to become independent of local authorities, but it has to be acknowledged that the role of governing bodies will therefore become more pivotal in the school system. With the increased freedom, there need to be clear guidelines, a coherent line of accountability and, should it be necessary, clear sanctions that can be imposed. Such clarity will add to the smooth running of a school, and to decisive action should there be a dispute.

I have personal knowledge of this matter, and am here today not just to seek clarity from the Minister but to share experiences—experiences that we could all learn from and which could shape future school governance policy and accountability. I am proud to boast of exceptional schools and teachers right across the board in my constituency, and of a strong tradition of grammar schools, faith schools and specialist colleges. I was, therefore, greatly dismayed when a dispute began between the governors and head teacher at Calday Grange grammar, one of the best schools on the Wirral, with more than 360 years’ experience and history. Over a year later, the matter is still not resolved. The school is without a permanent head teacher, which a school needs; parents and pupils are unhappy—rightly so—as well as confused by the whole affair; loyalties are split; and Ofsted has downgraded the school’s performance from outstanding to good. There have been parent demonstrations, newspaper coverage and a Facebook campaign to try to resolve the festering situation. In fact, in the local Wirral newspaper only yesterday there was yet another article on the ongoing dispute, about a survey that exposed that two thirds of parents quizzed did not believe that the governors were managing the school well.

I have a series of questions for the Minister, which I hope will be of use. What plans do the Government have to ensure that disputes between a head teacher and a board of governors are resolved amicably, quickly and for the benefit of the whole school? In this particular school, the head teacher became ill, creating further complications and a greater impasse. How would the Minister seek to resolve such a situation? When governors and head teachers have disputes, is there not a need for the utmost transparency, including fully informing teachers and parents? As more schools are freed from the direct control of local authorities, do we not require a better balance of powers and responsibilities, and in a dispute should parents perhaps not have the ultimate say? Under what circumstances could a board of governors be dissolved and a new one created? What would be deemed to constitute a fundamental breach of governors’ duties and obligations to a school? When would a school be deemed to be failing, allowing for intervention by the Secretary of State or parents? The meaning of “failing” appears to be vague, especially when dealing with a large and outstanding school, such as Calday Grange grammar, which might take many months to reach that criterion. Perhaps a drop in standards of certain kinds might constitute a failing.

Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to invite the Minister to the Wirral, to meet the staff and parents of Calday Grange grammar.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) for raising this subject for debate. The issue has been thought through well, and it is important in a week when we are trying to reassess education, bring a degree of change and bring things forward in a difficult field.

I know that many hon. Members are school governors; I confess that I have “failed” in that—I think that is the technical term. Some people would regard that as a deficiency in my background, but I regard it as an asset in some respects. I have spent the best part of 15 years attempting to advise school governors and head teachers, and have represented them on a special educational needs tribunal. When things got particularly feisty, I also represented the state and the individuals in a judicial review.

My last client, in spring of last year, was the then Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls). I was co-defending with him in an action on this exact point: how school governors’ role is being affected and how people are coming in and saying, “You’re doing this wrong. How are you going to take it forward?” The way forward is vital, and I hope I can give the benefit of some wisdom regarding why changes should be made, how they might be made and what the context is in Hexham.

Hexham has four secondary schools, at Haydon Bridge, Ponteland, Hexham and Prudhoe. The constituency is vast, spanning more than 1,100 square miles. Haydon Bridge has probably the largest catchment area in that part of England; it is the size of the area within the M25, and is a huge superstructure that has to be taken in. It is one of the few secondary schools with a large number of boarders, because many students have too far to come every day. All those schools are struggling in different ways with a lack of investment. They are well supported by their governors and well led, particularly by school governors and head teachers, but attempting to introduce change is a struggle.

I lack experience as a governor, but I hope that my time at the Bar has helped me, as I fought for and against local education authorities, appeared on behalf of people who were suing LEAs and addressed various individual concerns. I could talk for a considerable period about the extent to which I have been involved.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon—apart from his interesting analogy involving cake-baking, which I particularly enjoyed—asserted that the role and influence of school governors will take on new significance in the running of our schools. As we speak, heads and teachers are using academy or federation status to take their schools forward by reducing class sizes, improving the take-up of modern languages, targeting resources on the poorest and pioneering new disciplinary techniques. Surely it is now governors’ responsibility to help newly liberated heads use their responsibilities and freedoms to best effect.

I do not want to be overly party political, but I have spent more than 13 years watching changes to school freedoms and responsibilities come before the courts to be decided. The legacy is a national curriculum—designed by ideologues and policed to a certain extent by bureaucrats—that has demoralised and demotivated our teachers and downplayed the vital role of knowledge. I applaud entirely what the Secretary of State is doing. Radical change was needed. The reforms to schools will put us where we need to be, which is unambiguously on the side of teachers as guardians of the best that has been thought and written, and who introduce each new generation to our precious intellectual heritage.

The head teachers of Hexham are nervous about applying for academy status. They have elected to watch the process during the original year, and perhaps for one more year, but I am hopeful that things will progress in the next couple of years and that they will go down the federation route. They are already integrated to a large extent: an art teacher might teach in one school and then go to another school for two days. They have opportunities. They are excited about the possibility of long-term change, but without changes to buildings as well, they will struggle.

This is not the time to discuss Building Schools for the Future, but the Secretary of State discovered the state of schools in Northumberland recently when he visited the constituency of the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith). One school was all but falling down. Two schools in my constituency, Prudhoe and Queen Elizabeth high school, are struggling. Those are long-term problems that the Secretary of State—my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) put it beautifully—will have to deal with as we go ahead.

Turning back to school governance, governors’ main responsibilities are providing a strategic view, acting as a critical friend and ensuring accountability. I see those as interwoven in all their activities. I was pleased to hear, when I asked about the pastoral support programme, that someone with a lot more experience of being a governor than me sees it as something that used to exist in the system, but was phased out. We must do the best that we can. Most governors have a direct interest in a school’s success. Almost all are the type of person who is forced to get involved, and most either attended the school themselves or have children who attend it.

However, it is important during the reform process that we examine the model for school governance. We must consider how the governors’ role might change as responsibility and power are decentralised from Whitehall and given to head teachers. It is a seminal change to take the large amount of power now in Whitehall and give it back to individual teachers. Teachers are excited. The ones I speak to are excited about the opportunity to take greater control.

The role of governors in holding heads to account will also take on a whole new meaning and level of responsibility. The process of examining their role is made easier by the fact that most are eager to know how they can be better at what they do. If the role of governor is to become much more crucial to a school’s success, as I think it is, it is wise to consider who governors are and how schools attract them to the position. I endorse a huge amount of what my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon said about taking governors on board and making ongoing use of them.

We cannot have top-quality schools without top-quality teachers, but that also requires top-quality school governors. We must continue to try to attract the best people to those roles. Must a governor always have attended the school in question, or have a child there? I do not consider that necessary, although it helps tremendously; sometimes, outside people are a good thing.

In these times, many people who might be interested in becoming more involved in the running of schools are put off by assumptions about why they want to. We must also be careful about whom we prevent from going into schools. There are ways to restrict governors’ ability to get involved or commit to the extent to which they would like. School governors will often be new, and we will need the most competent individuals.

I finish by mentioning a couple of points relating to my specialism. Special educational needs provision has been under review for a considerable time. The hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) and other Members know what they are talking about when it comes to such issues; there are about five who know the issue well. We must retain SEN provision, but we can reform it. The amount of time devoted to SEN can be improved and be more focused. When the Minister winds up, I urge him to consider that SEN should be very much at the top of his agenda. If we fail the children who go into SEN, they will not be in as good a position as they could have been. The reality, therefore, is that the big society has a huge role to play in schools—or, should I say, that schools have the potential to play a huge role in the big society.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Dobbin. I congratulate the hon. Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) on securing an important debate. I recall how passionate and knowledgeable he was about special educational needs during our deliberations on the Academies Bill on the Floor of the House last summer. Indeed, he mentioned during that debate—as he has today—the role of the governing body in securing suitable provision. He has demonstrated that passion and knowledge again this morning and I thank him for it.

I also pay tribute to the high quality contributions from the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), who drew upon his considerable knowledge of teaching and governance, and the hon. Members for Wirral West (Esther McVey) and for Hexham (Guy Opperman).

This has been a high quality debate and it gives us the opportunity to do several things. First, it enables us to thank governors throughout the country for their work in our education system. Secondly, I would like to build on some of the comments that have been made and ask the Minister with responsibility for schools about his vision for governors, governance and governing bodies as his Department radically alters education policy in our country.

As the hon. Member for South Swindon has said, there are more than 300,000 school governors at work today. Governors are one of the largest groups of volunteers and one of the best examples of civic engagement in this country. This quiet army of hundreds of thousands of people play an unheralded, and often unsung, but nevertheless critical, role in providing the best possible environment for children to grow and learn. At their best, governing bodies set the ethos and strategic direction of a school, appoint a great head teacher and a high calibre senior management team to drive through that strategy and provide support, and challenge and scrutinise the leadership team, holding it to account on behalf of parents and the local community. They have a big responsibility in our education system.

As we have heard, there is a clear relationship between governance and the performance of a school. Good governance improves the quality of leadership and management in schools, as well as that of teaching and pupils’ achievements. Conversely, where there is poor or unsatisfactory governance, and where the relationship between the governing body and the head teacher has broken down—as the hon. Member for Wirral West expressed so vividly—pupil potential goes unfulfilled. Given the importance, therefore, that school governance plays in educational success, I am surprised that this Government have said so little about it.

In an education White Paper of nearly 100 pages, I counted only four small paragraphs on school governors, and one highlighted how the governing body could decide on the time of the school day. The publication of the White Paper was accompanied by a document, “The Case for Change”, which provided a rationale for education reform, but did not mention the role of the governing body.

The recently published Education Bill has 79 clauses and 17 schedules, but I could find only two small clauses on the role of the governing body. Given the vital role that school governors play, I hope that the Minister will give a definitive reassurance that professional, passionate and high quality governors are an essential and valued part of our school system. I also hope that he will give the Chamber an explanation of why, in the first few months of the new Government, governors and school governance have been largely overlooked or ignored by his Department. I have several questions about specific parts of governance and the role that governors and governing bodies can play, and I hope that the Minister will be able to provide some answers.

On size, when the Government mention governing bodies, they invariably state that a smaller governing body is more effective. The White Paper notes:

“Smaller governing bodies with the right skills are able to be more decisive, supporting the head teacher and championing high standards.”

That may well be the case, but the Government do not provide any evidence to substantiate that assertion. Why would smaller governing bodies necessarily be better? Where is the evidence? How does the Minister reconcile that view with last year’s advice from the ministerial working group on school governance—I think that the hon. Member for South Swindon cited this—that 14 members can be the optimum size of a governing body? Surely the effectiveness of a governing body is more complex than sheer size, and takes into account matters such as turnover of governors, blend of skills, participation and work load. If the Government’s direction of travel is to reduce the size of governing bodies, what will be done to retain corporate memory and expertise? It would be much more difficult to do that if a governing body with five members, as opposed to one with 15, lost a member.

The hon. Member for South Swindon mentioned the importance of retaining and obtaining skills such as finance, personnel and so on. How will a school with a much smaller governing body be able to obtain all that much-needed expertise, which includes marketing and strategic planning? I will be interested to hear the Minister’s response.

The vehicle to reduce the size of governing bodies is the Education Bill, which was published last week and is due to have its Second Reading next week. I imagine that the Minister and I will have lots of discussions about many issues in the Bill, but I should like to draw his attention at this stage to one clause in particular. Clause 37 refers to the constitution of governing bodies in maintained schools in England, and it will amend section 19 of the Education Act 2002. This change ensures that governing bodies will consist predominantly of parent governors and the head teacher of the school.

I have a number of questions about that. First, how is this approach reconciled with the sentiments expressed by the White Paper? It notes:

“Many of the most successful schools have smaller governing bodies”—

we have already established that that is what the Government think—

“with individuals drawn from a wide range of people rooted in the community, such as parents, businesses, local government and the voluntary sector.”

That point was expressed eloquently by the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole, who has left to attend a Delegated Legislation Committee. What precisely is the clause designed to do to help encourage a diverse range of potential governors to come forward? Given that the ministerial working group on school governance concluded that governing bodies already have the flexibility to determine the best size for their school and for them, what does the clause actually do? What does it propose that the 2002 Act prevents?

The White Paper also states that from early 2012 the Government will allow all schools to adopt a flexible model of school governance, while ensuring that governing bodies have a minimum of two parent governors. Will the Minister further outline how he anticipates that to be undertaken? How will governing bodies do it? What will be the role of the head teacher? Will he or she outline to the governing body what they believe will be required, or will such a role be retained by the governing body? How will the process work?

Recruitment and retention are important and have already been touched upon. I think that the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole has already mentioned this, but some 11% of governor posts are vacant, and they are, disproportionately, in disadvantaged or inner-city areas. We have heard that schools with more vacancies on the governing body tend to perform more poorly due to the lack of challenge, scrutiny and support for the school’s leadership team. What proactive steps is the Minister taking to ensure that vacancies on governing bodies, particularly in areas of deprivation, are filled?

The hon. Members for Hexham and for Brigg and Goole mentioned the importance of retaining and attracting good governors to governing bodies. Given the demands of modern life, what are the Government doing to recruit good potential governors? As the Government’s focus on governance moves towards parent governors, does the Minister accept that the problems of recruitment and succession planning will increase because parent governors will inevitably leave after four or five years as their children move through the school? Parent governors might lose interest in being a proactive member of the governing body and leave that body. What does the Minister anticipate will happen about succession planning?

Common barriers to participation in school governance include lack of time, family or work commitments, lack of publicity and awareness of the opportunities for involvement, and a reluctance by some governing bodies to take on a governor who is not previously known to them. Will the Minister let hon. Members know what steps he is taking to remove those barriers as far as possible? Another important point mentioned in today’s debate is that of having a federation of schools. Are the Government actively looking at having a federation of governing bodies, whereby a single governing body can play a strategic role for a number of schools? If the Government agree with that approach, what additional initial support and assistance can they provide to allow that to happen?

That brings me to an important point that creates a bit of a paradox in the Government’s education policy—the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole was good at hinting at this during his comments. Education policy is moving towards a position whereby schools stand alone and are independent of the local authority. The move is arguably—although I would dispute this to some extent—away from Whitehall. I think that the Education Bill will centralise matters between schools and the Secretary of State in a way that we have never seen before. However, how can we reconcile a situation in which schools stand alone with the fact that the previous Labour Government, through the former Department for Children, Schools and Families, moved towards collaboration and partnership, with the local authority helping to provide a strategic overview? The local authorities were not running schools, but they were providing strategic direction in an area. What steps will the Government take to ensure that that collaboration and partnership at a school governance level can be maintained, if not enhanced?

I would also like to ask about training and induction. It is very arduous to become a school governor, particularly a good and effective one. What are the Government doing to ensure that individual governors and collective governing bodies identify any weaknesses and help plug those gaps, either with additional training, additional recruitment to the governing body or focused training? Does the Minister agree with the concept of mandatory training for governing bodies? The hon. Member for South Swindon mentioned the important role of the chair of a governing body. What additional support can be provided to enable the chair to perform his or her duty to the best of his or her abilities? He also mentioned the vital but often overlooked need to have a high calibre, knowledgeable and experienced clerk to the governing body. What steps will the Government take to ensure that that is also very much a key part of school governance?

When I was a Minister in the Department for Children, Schools and Families, I was concerned about the role of information, advice and guidance, and the importance of interaction between schools and the outside community, particularly with business. The governing body can, through the high calibre business men and women who are active on it, provide that good interaction. Particularly with regards to information, advice and guidance, governors can come into a school and provide real life stories based upon their personal experiences of inspiration and motivation. They can tell students how hard work can help people succeed and achieve their ambition. Given the changes to the information, advice and guidance provision, what further steps can the Minister take to ensure that that interaction between schools, the governing body and outside business works effectively?

Finally, I shall talk about the role of the head teacher in the governing body. May I press the Minister on whether he believes that automatic inclusion of the head on the governing body as a full member can constitute a conflict of interest? I think that everyone would agree that heads should attend governing body meetings and have a right to speak, be challenged and scrutinise. However, does that important role of supporting the head teacher while at the same time challenging mean that good governance should lead us to make the head a non-voting member who does not participate in decision making? In a similar vein, will the Minister confirm that, as indicated by his White Paper and the provisions of the Education Bill, the Government do not necessary agree with the concept of staff governors?

In the past few months, the Government have spoken a lot about their vision for education and how teachers, head teachers, parents and others can play their part in fulfilling student potential and ambition. The fact that they have not highlighted the essential role of the governor is a glaring omission and a further example of weakness in their education policy. However, given the high calibre of today’s debate, I hope that the Minister will rectify that now and highlight more fully than he has in the past how governors and school governance can play an essential role in the education system of our country.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) on securing this important debate on school governance. I know that the subject is close to his heart because he served as a school governor for four years prior to his election to the House. I join the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) in pointing out the high quality of the debate and of the contributions of my hon. Friends the Members for Hexham (Guy Opperman), for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) and for Wirral West (Esther McVey).

There are some 300,000 school governors, which makes them one of the largest volunteer forces in the country. School governors work in their spare time to promote school improvement and to support head teachers and teachers in their work. They are an important part of the big society agenda and play a vital civic role. In the words of my hon. Friends the Members for South Swindon and for Wirral West, they play a pivotal role in our schools system. Every one of the 300,000 school governors deserves our thanks for their work and time and, more importantly, for taking on such important responsibilities. We all know how difficult it is to find people locally to take on such responsibilities. It is easy to get volunteers, but there is often a poor show of hands when it comes to taking on responsibilities. We owe a huge debt of thanks to those who are prepared to take on such a role.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole is right to question whether we are doing things in the right way. Our White Paper, “The Importance of Teaching”, which was referred to by the hon. Member for Hartlepool, was published in November and sets out the coalition Government’s intention to increase freedom and autonomy for schools and to remove unnecessary duties and burdens. It also states that we should allow schools to choose for themselves how best to develop, whether by acquiring academy status, by becoming multi-school trusts and federations—again, those were referred to by the hon. Gentleman—or by continued development as a maintained school. All that is to be underpinned by clear accountability and strong and effective governance.

As we work through our programme of reform, those freedoms need to be extended to school governors, so that they are given the flexibilities, support and recognition they deserve. We know that the quality of school governance has a significant impact on how well schools perform. Good governance and leadership at school level are key drivers in achieving better educational outcomes. Academies provide examples of smaller, high-powered governing bodies that have demonstrated rapid improvements in standards. The arrangements for academy governance allow for greater flexibility in the number and category of governors than in maintained schools, while ensuring that essential groups, such as parents, are always represented. They are charities, so it would not be appropriate or right for us to prescribe the exact composition and size of their governing body. That flexibility is a popular concept and there are many differing governance arrangements in converting schools. They are now able to constitute their governing body to suit their school and local needs.

As my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon will recall, maintained school governing bodies, which include foundation schools, are constituted under the stakeholder model. That model prescribes representation from groups with an interest in the school: for example, parents, staff—including the head teacher—the community, the local authority and the foundation or trust, where schools have one. The model goes on to prescribe the representation from each group.

We want to make it easier for schools to adopt governance models that work for them and which clearly hold the school to account. That is why the Education Bill, introduced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education last Wednesday, includes provision to free up the constitution of maintained school governing bodies. We are legislating to provide that governing bodies will mirror the academies model and be required to have at least two elected parent governors and the head teacher, unless the head teacher chooses not to take up his position as a governor. Then, as the hon. Member for Hartlepool mentioned, they should be able to attend the governing body as the head teacher, but not as a full member of the governing body.

The church or foundation will still be able to appoint the majority of the governing body in voluntary aided and foundation schools. Other governors, such as authority governors, community governors, staff governors, partnership governors and associate members will be appointed at the discretion of the governing body, and in numbers determined by them. Academy governing bodies have built-in safeguards to prevent particular categories of governor from dominating the governing body; for example, staff governors cannot exceed one third of the total membership, and charity law prevents those connected with local authorities from having more than 20% of the membership. We will consider the effect of such restrictions in maintained schools, but we want to move to a less prescriptive model overall.

I apologise to the Minister if he is coming on to this point, but will he respond to an issue raised about the constitution of the governing body? The hon. Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey) made important points about how to identify failure in school governance and what will constitute failure. What will be the mechanisms by which a local authority or some other body—perhaps the Secretary of State—can determine change within the governing body?

If the hon. Gentleman will be patient, I will come to the detailed questions raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West shortly.

We do not intend to prescribe any particular model, which is the overarching policy direction, as we believe that governing bodies are best placed to determine what will work best for them locally. It is important to point out that the changes will be permissive rather than mandatory, and that there is no intention to force any change on governing bodies. We will therefore encourage governing bodies to recruit more governors on a skills basis and carry out skills audits to inform that task. Those were also the conclusions of the working group on governance referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon and the hon. Member for Hartlepool. Its report recommended clear accountability and felt that size was not the key issue for a governing body; a more important issue for the report was the skills of the governing body. It recommended that governing bodies should be free to recruit by relaxing the stakeholder model, which is precisely what the Government are introducing in the Education Bill.

We know that volunteers from a business background bring a valuable range of skills from the workplace to governing bodies, and are more likely to take on important responsibilities such as chairing committees or, indeed, chairing the governing body. To that end, we will continue to support the School Governors’ One-Stop Shop to recruit and place governor volunteers from the business world in schools with vacancies. That has been very successful: by the end of December it had recruited nearly 11,000 governors and placed them on to governing bodies with vacancies. In addition, the Education and Employers Taskforce is working with CEOs of large businesses to develop partnerships between schools, colleges and employers. It encourages senior business leaders to visit schools, and encourages staff with the right skills and experience to become school governors. In fact, I recently joined Sir Terry Leahy in a school in Hertfordshire during the “visit our schools and colleges” week.

Research tells us that where governing bodies are effective, they take a strategic role, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon pointed out, in guiding and supporting the school’s work and challenging further improvement. They should not get drawn into the day-to-day management that is rightly the province of the head teacher and senior leadership team. In the White Paper, “The Importance of Teaching”, we set out a series of 10 key questions for governors to ask to assist them in setting their schools’ strategic direction and holding them to account, such as, “How are we going to raise standards? Have we got the right staff and the right development and reward arrangements? Do we have a sound financial strategy to get good value for money, and robust procurement and financial systems? Does the curriculum provide for and stretch all pupils?” My hon. Friend is right to say that the committee-based decision-making structure is appropriate for our governing bodies. Governing bodies already have the freedom to bring people with particular expertise on to committees as associate members, and they can commission work from people outside the governing bodies.

My hon. Friend referred to the issue of complaints, on which I want briefly to touch. Parents should be able to send their child to school confident that they are receiving the highest possible standard of education. Any problems should be dealt with by professionals in an appropriate and timely manner. There must be mechanisms in place for parents to express their concerns, secure in the knowledge that they will be dealt with quickly, effectively and fairly by all involved. Since September 2003, all schools have been required to have a complaints procedure, and that procedure has to be published. Generally, schools follow a three-part complaints procedure: investigation of a complaint by a staff member; investigation by the head teacher, or by the chair of the governors if it is about the head teacher; and a meeting of a panel of governors where the complaint has still not been resolved. Governing bodies must act in the interests of the children in their school and must rigorously ensure that those who serve on complaints panels conduct a fair and unprejudiced investigation. Challenge is part of the governor’s role, and a pattern of complaints can inform them of incipient problems in the school’s operation, in the same way that correspondence with an MP can alert us to an impending big political issue concerning how our country is run.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole brought out in his speech, in recent years schools have increasingly chosen to collaborate with other schools to achieve more for children and young people. Partnerships have taken a variety of forms, including local area clusters, as well as more formalised arrangements involving shared governance through federation, shared trusts and shared leadership, with heads taking responsibility for leading more than one school. The benefits of those partnerships are clear in extending the breadth and quality of provision; responding better to pupils’ wider needs; widening the impact of the strongest school leaders, teachers and governors; widening opportunities for collaborative professional development; and delivering greater value for money. There is not a single, best collaborative model; instead, schools can consider a variety of models and adapt them to suit local needs and circumstances.

On that point and my earlier remarks about a move away from partnership and collaboration in the school family towards schools going it alone, how does the Minister reconcile his comments with the provisions in the Education Bill, most notably clauses 30 and 31, where the duty to co-operate with the local authority and the duty to have regard to the children and young people’s plan are abolished?

Legislation is not necessary to require people to co-operate. The best co-operation is engaged in because professionals feel it is the best approach for their school. We need to move away—the Government are moving away—from that tick-box, prescriptive and centralised approach to such issues. We believe that the best partnerships and collaborative arrangements are those that head teachers and governing bodies enter into voluntarily because they know they are in the best interests of their school. We do not want a school to feel bound to find a partner—in a behaviour partnership, for example—simply to fulfil a statutory requirement and to ensure that it has a box ticked when the Ofsted inspection comes.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is always talking about collaboration between professional peers in our school system as a key to school improvement, which is why we are tripling the number of national and local leaders in education. Peer-to-peer mentoring is the key. Professionals working together and spreading best practice is the better way to ensure improvement in our school system, rather than a series of prescriptive statutory requirements for schools and bodies to enter into partnerships with other bodies.

I turn to the general context surrounding the important points that my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West raised about Calday Grange grammar school. She asked about resolving disputes between head teachers and the governors. All governing bodies have grievance procedures which they must follow to resolve complaints. She then asked how the situation can be resolved if the head teacher is ill, which is the case in this instance. The governing body is the employer, and it has to follow grievance procedures in cases of challenge over employment law. It needs to allow the head teacher to present his case, but he cannot do that, of course, if he is ill. That does not provide a solution but presents the legal framework around the current position.

My hon. Friend asked whether parents should be kept fully informed about what is happening during a dispute. Unfortunately, that is not always possible due to the need for confidentiality in some disputes. She asked whether parents should be allowed to decide the way forward. The answer to that is no, unfortunately. Parental views are represented on the governing body, but the governing body itself is responsible for the school. Of course, a responsible governing body should take parents’ views into account and expedite the resolution of matters, particularly when they are of enormous concern to the parents.

My hon. Friend asked when a governing body can be removed. There are three circumstances in which that can happen: when Ofsted has put the school in special measures; when Ofsted has found that the school requires significant improvement; or when the local authority has issued a warning notice and the governing body has failed to comply with it, or failed to comply satisfactorily. I know that she is concerned about the issue. Lord Hill of Oareford and I have corresponded with the governing body and the local authority about the matter, and we would be happy to discuss it with her further, if she would find that helpful.

In conclusion, I want to take the opportunity once again to pay tribute to our school governors, who are the unsung heroes and heroines of our education system. We should thank them for their work, and I am pleased to do that. I am sure that the increased freedom and autonomy for governing bodies, allied with our reduction of burdens and bureaucracy, will make a huge difference to their work as they seek to raise standards in schools, and will enable better deployment of their time and expertise.

Sitting suspended.