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School Governors

Volume 551: debated on Wednesday 24 October 2012

[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]

It is a great pleasure and honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I also welcome the new Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss). This might be her first performance as a Minister here—perhaps not. I am sure she will enjoy this one as much as she may have enjoyed the previous one. She has appeared before the Select Committee on Education and gave a fine performance. I am sure that we are in for a treat.

I asked for this debate because it concerns an important policy that should be deliberated. We need to think how we can adapt the role and recruitment of governors for the challenges ahead in the education system, which is still being reformed, quite rightly.

I want to thank all the governors who govern. We have nearly 300,000 possible governors; there are some vacancies at the moment. They meet regularly, often in relatively difficult circumstances, to deliberate on their schools and education policy. They must be thanked for all that they contribute to their communities and their schools. What I have to say about reforming governors and governance has nothing to do with the devotion of most governors to good practice and to the future of their individual schools.

Lord Hill of Oareford, one of the other Ministers in the Department for Education, said:

“The most important decision-making group in any school is the governing body… Governing bodies should set the overall strategic direction of a school, hold the head teacher to account and have a relentless focus on driving up standards but not get dragged into micromanaging the school or the minutiae of its day-to-day activities.”

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate, and I echo his words on the efforts of school governors. What does he think of the Secretary of State for Education’s description of school governors in his speech last July? He described them as

“Local worthies who see being a governor as a badge of status, not a job of work”.

Out of a total number of several hundred thousand governors, there are bound to be some who are not as good as others and some who are there for reasons not necessarily those that we would all expect or salute. As I said, we have to congratulate and thank all governors generally speaking but note that there are bound to be some who do not rise to the challenge.

I return to Lord Hill’s quotation because I shall address the debate in that spirit. I have been a governor—whether I am a local worthy is another matter—in total for about 20 years in various organisations, such as further education colleges and primary and secondary schools, so I do have some experience. I dealt with a difficult situation quite recently where governance had been judged inadequate and the future of the head teacher became an issue. I am no stranger to controversy in school governance, as well the more reasonable activities of a governor.

I managed to persuade the Education Committee to conduct a full-scale inquiry on school governance, and I see that a member of that Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds), is here. He will know that I was keen to do that, and I am pleased that we have an inquiry under way and that the first evidence session will take place in January.

I have also established an all-party group on school governance and leadership. The striking thing about that is that every time we have had a meeting we have had standing room only. There clearly is an appetite and interest in governance, governors and the policy around them. We have produced two publications: “Stronger Boards, Better Education” and “Who Governs the Governors?” We draw two significant conclusions from each of them. I will refer to the direction of travel in my remarks. The question of accountability is clearly at the core of who governs the governors. The question of skills versus stakeholders is clearly at the core of the quality of boards. I will set out those issues in more detail in due course.

As I have already said, there are a number of changes in the world of education, and the academies programme is clearly one of the most significant. It has significant implications for governance in several ways. I have referred to accountability, but the fact is that, as schools become more independent from local authorities, we should ask our governing system to fill the vacuum created. That is not an unfortunate vacuum—it is quite deliberate and quite right that schools are more independent and autonomous—but we must have a proper accountability system within schools.

Might it not have been a good idea, rather than to have had the vacuum and then work out how to fill it, to build the capacity first, so that there was no vacuum to fill? Would that not be a more consistent and sensible way to make public policy?

As I have already quoted Lord Hill’s view of governance and as the Education Act 2011 included reference to governance and talked about governors and the membership of governing bodies, that is on the agenda. I am simply saying that we need to think more about it now, but it has not been ignored. That is the key point. The context is the changing role of schools in terms of autonomy and accountability with implications for local authorities.

The next thing we should talk about is the role of Ofsted, which has a significant responsibility to check what governors are up to with regard to the performance of schools. The sad fact is that the chief inspector of schools, Michael Wilshaw, has said that 40% of governing bodies are satisfactory or inadequate. Therefore, 60% are doing a good job, but too many are not doing a good-enough job and some are doing a fairly poor job. We cannot have that because it is inconsistent with our objective of ensuring that all schools are good schools and, as part of that process, that governing bodies play their part.

That brings me to the question of local authorities when schools start to fail. Are they acting quickly enough and do they take bold enough decisions? For example, do they introduce an interim executive board when necessary, or do they wait until it is too late? There is evidence that they do the latter. We need to test that out and be bold enough and courageous enough to admit it. I am pleased that the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) is nodding in agreement.

There is no defying the facts, which are that on occasion local authorities do not act swiftly enough. Interim executive boards are quite useful tools. The interesting thing is that when they are introduced they are swift at dealing with some of the problems that they encounter, largely because they have focused skills and are not stakeholder-oriented. They focus on how to make a school better. In my experience, putting in place interim executive boards has produced encouraging results. The kind of governing body that we should consider for all schools in the future should be more like an interim executive board and less like the kind of boards that we sometimes have, which are too big, too cumbersome and too focused on stakeholder situations.

The concept of a temporary executive board underlines the question of what exactly should be the role of the head teacher—we need clarity on this—which I had always thought to be executive, and the governing body, which I had always thought to be non-executive. In a sense, if we are talking about establishing an executive body, we must question whether the non-executive piece has done the right job. However, I am not sure whether we can equate the work of an executive temporary body with that of the governing body. I am interested to hear about the clarity that we will need between executive and non-executive bodies.

That is an interesting question, but what I am trying to sketch out is the nature of the board itself. A board of 20 members and stakeholders, which effectively salutes the status quo and wants the status quo to be maintained, is a different thing from a smaller, more flexible and more responsive board that is charged with the task of improving the school. That is the distinction that I am trying to draw out, and we should have that in mind when we think about future governing bodies.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate and on his work in the all-party group. It is encouraging that such issues are being discussed. I apologise, Mrs Main, that I will not be able to stay for the rest of the debate. We have a Minister appearing before the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, so I will have to disappear shortly.

On the potential conflict, or clash of ideas, between stakeholder and skills, does the hon. Gentleman not feel that it is possible to stick with some form of stakeholder model but look at how we can ensure that the balance of skills is there as well, so that we cover both perspectives?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I hope that he will join the all-party parliamentary group, as we need to replace an officer who is leaving.

I have been contacted by Emma Knights from the National Governors Association, who has asked me to do that, and I have replied that I would be happy to do so. I might therefore see more of the hon. Gentleman in the future.

I knew that the hon. Gentleman had been approached, which is why I felt at liberty to mention it and to encourage him to participate as vigorously as he obviously will. He is absolutely right about the stakeholder versus skills matter, but I believe that we need more skills and less emphasis on stakeholders. If we have too many stakeholders with vested interests, who are thinking about the status quo and not wanting to upset the apple cart, we are going down the route of not facing up to the big decisions. Governing bodies would be wiser to focus more on skills than on stakeholders, and that is the direction of travel that we should go in. The Government have already relaxed the rules about local authority governors, and we should go further and say, “Look, there is the emphasis on skills rather than the stakeholders.”

I have been the chairman of several governing bodies and a member of many, and I have seen stakeholders represent their groups and their communities extraordinarily well, but they do not necessarily ensure that the tough decisions are made in the school, and that is the distinction that I draw. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for putting the spotlight on that.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I agree with him about ensuring that governors who come on board have those skills, which they can use to hold the head teacher and the rest of the executive to account, but at the moment there are some 30,000 governor vacancies in the country. How do we go about filling them and ensuring that the people who are chosen have the right skills?

That is a really good question, to which there are two answers. If you have everything corralled off into stakeholder groups, you are—are you not?—limiting the number of people who you can recruit. By definition, the pool is necessarily smaller. If you say that you must have parent governors or local authority governors—

Order. I have waited quite a while before saying anything, but may I now issue a gentle reminder to the hon. Gentleman? Quite a few hon. Members seem to be speaking directly to him rather than through the Chair. I have not had any input into this matter, so I advise the hon. Gentleman to direct his comments through the Chair.

That is a really important point, Mrs Main. I am suitably chastened.

If a governing body is recruiting from a relatively small pool, it will, by definition, be harder to recruit. That is my first point. My second point is whether we need to have 20 people sitting around the table. Should we not be looking at smaller governing bodies?

Governing bodies should recruit people from outside the education field as well, because it is imperative that schools have a better relationship with businesses, thereby improving career opportunities for their pupils. Part of a governing body’s role is to provide an interface between the school and future employment and further and higher education.

Let me now focus on the role of the chairman and the need for them to be properly trained and, possibly, remunerated. If we want someone who is going to spend quality time with the head teacher and who is able and willing to challenge them and to support them when they are implementing necessary changes, we need someone who has the commitment, the appropriate professional skills and, if necessary, the reward. I want to put on the table now the idea that we should be remunerating people. This is not a new idea, and it has been advanced by others, not least the chief inspector at Ofsted, and we need to consider it very carefully.

Another element of the role of the chair is whether or not they have been formally assessed. We need to introduce a system in which assessment is rigorous. We do not want a few old friends gathering around for a cup of coffee, slapping one another on the back and saying, “Hey, you have done a really good job.”

The other key person in a governing body is the clerk, and they must be someone who is capable of taking notes, ensuring that meetings run properly and advising the governing body on its statutory responsibilities and any other legal implications of its actions. I have seen too many governing bodies struggle without such advice and make inappropriate and sometimes quite useless decisions.

An issue that I have already raised in relation to one of the reports is whether, when parents have lost confidence in the school governors, they should be able to dismiss the governors en masse. That would be a final accountability mechanism that was not necessarily used often, but which was an ultimate threat. Such a mechanism would ensure that governing bodies were mindful of the need to interface properly with the parent body.

Those issues are important with respect to the chair and other aspects. On the structure of governance, I want to focus on three areas. First, it would be sensible to think in terms of more federal structures for governing bodies. The evidence is—this certainly shows up in the academies programme—that where we have governing bodies looking after more than one school, the likelihood of outstanding schools being developed is much higher. That is a statistical fact and one that we need to note. However, it is also important that we bear it in mind that good schools can spread best practice to the schools that need to improve, and through a federal or a partnership model of governance, that might happen more often and more readily. It seems to me that that is a direction of travel that has already started with the academies programme, but it should be promoted.

Does my hon. Friend think that with small rural schools, including primary schools, that sometimes have particular challenges in attracting sufficient governors, the model he described—a single governing body for multiple schools—could be especially important?

I thank my hon. Friend for that very astute question, and the answer is an emphatic yes. I believe that smaller schools in rural areas would benefit from one good governing body running two or three schools, and we should also look at vertical models, by which I mean secondary schools with feeder schools and not just primary schools. To some extent, it is horses for courses, but we must put this idea on the agenda as a direction of travel to ensure that we get better governance for schools, including those that he mentioned.

I assume that in all this discussion my hon. Friend still recognises that there is a real value in the governors’ relationship with and understanding of the school. The point, probably, is to look at all the players and ensure that they all play their part appropriately, because it would be unfortunate if the governance structure became so dislocated that it became a form of Ofsted. I do not think that is what even my hon. Friend wishes to see.

Absolutely, my hon. Friend is right. It is not wise to say that we will go in completely the opposite direction. There is a balance to be struck, which is that where there are neighbouring schools with common interests and common issues that would benefit from a federal or partnership model of governance, that model would be good and should be welcomed. However, where there is a school that clearly does not fit that description, that type of model would not work. It is up to governing bodies to think that matter through. I am simply saying that the federal or partnership model of governance is one that we should promote where it is useful and relevant.

The second aspect of structure that I want to talk about is size, which my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire touched on. In many cases, a governing body of 20 or more governors is simply unnecessary. Actually, such a body quite often ends up with just a core number of governors playing the decisive role, and once one of that core number goes the rest are bereft of the necessary skill and expertise, and the governing body can fall apart. That relates to the recruitment problem. As we have heard, about 30,000 governor posts are still vacant, so it would be wise to consider relaxing the rules on the size of governing bodies and having fewer, but more focused and more skills-orientated, governors on a governing body.

I have already talked about the importance of governors challenging head teachers. It is absolutely right that head teachers should be challenged, but they should be challenged constructively. However, it is also really important that we have governing bodies that govern strategically, focusing on the long-term interests of the school and its pupils. It is necessary to think in terms of formulating a governing body that genuinely has that capacity to be strategic—to think about the school plan and what it can do to push forward the aims and objectives of that plan, and any other plan that is appropriate. Those are three areas of structure that need to be considered.

On the numbers, I hear my hon. Friend say that 20 governors is too many. Are we looking at around 10 or 12 as the appropriate figure, if those 10 or 12 governors have the skills and in-depth training to hold the head teacher and others to account?

In one of the publications that I referred to, the all-party group certainly came up with 12 as the ideal number. Having 12 governors means having a reasonably good chance of getting a good cross-section of skills, and there would also be a sensible way of dealing with succession planning, which also needs to be considered when we discuss governors and the future structure of governing bodies.

One thing that the all-party group has done is produce a list of 20 relevant questions for governors to ask themselves. We went through a fairly exhaustive process. We had lots of governors in one of the Committee Rooms of the House, talking about the questions that should be asked by governors. They are the questions that we want to encourage more governing bodies to ask of their head teachers and of themselves.

One of those questions is:

“Do we engage in good succession planning?”

Another is:

“Do we carry out a regular 360 review of the chair’s performance?”

Still another is:

“Does our strategic planning cycle drive the governing body’s activities and agenda setting?”

Obviously, there are loads of other questions, but formulating these questions—and, indeed, the other work of the all-party group—has been useful in sketching out ways in which governing bodies might like to consider testing themselves, because we need more rigorous self-assessment by governing bodies.

Members will be pleased to hear that I am nearly finished. I want to finish off by asking a few key questions that are relevant to this debate. The first is, how do we make school governors focus on school improvement, based on a proper understanding of data performance? That question is a combination of wanting to ensure that we have school governors who challenge the performance of the head teacher and who are able and willing to take tough and rigorous decisions, but who are also capable of understanding, analysing and drawing appropriate conclusions from the amazing amount of data and information that fly around.

I have already touched on the second question, but I will repeat it as a sort of finale: are the governing bodies that we have too unwieldy, how do we ensure that we move from a stakeholder situation towards a skills-based governing body, and can we enhance the professionalism of school governing bodies? I want to emphasise the idea of ensuring that the chairmen of governing bodies are properly trained, properly engaged by the head teacher—and vice versa—and remunerated in a way that is consistent with their responsibilities and with the skills that we need to recruit for such posts.

Regarding skills and ability, local authorities such as mine set a minimum training requirement that governors have to do, linked to compulsory aspects of the overall training scheme. Does my hon. Friend agree that that type of training by certain local authorities, in partnership with governing bodies—for example, the partnership between my local authority and Medway governors—works well?

Yes, I do. There are good examples of training schemes and the National Governors Association—a good organisation to which I pay tribute— also does a huge amount of good training work. However, we must ensure that governors and governing bodies recognise that there is a strong need for governors to be trained, because some governors seem to think that training is something that people do only if they are bored, not because it is necessary. We need to promote the training of governors.

We are engaged in a real set of reforms in the world of education, which is an opportunity to look at governors and governance in a way that reflects our understanding of the new autonomous and independent approach that schools should have, as well as the fact that we want to drive up standards, wherever it is necessary to do so. We want not to waste time, but to get on with things to ensure that we have the appropriate leadership, impetus and toolkits to deliver the job.

I am not being prescriptive. I am simply raising issues that should be on the agenda to inform our discussions on changes to school governance. We should at all times—this is an appeal to the Minister and her colleagues —mention governance, underline its importance, encourage people to become governors and recognise that school leadership through effective governance is what we need as part of the mechanism to ensure that our schools continue to improve.

Thank you, Mrs Main. May I preface my brief remarks by paying tribute to all our school governors? They do an incredible job, many of them in difficult circumstances. I can think of hardly any other role that anyone can play in our community that has more potential to help improve the life chances of our young people.

Two years ago, a friend of mine took over the chairmanship of a governing body in a difficult inner London primary school. He has spent most of his spare time in the past two years helping the head teacher to manage out under-performing staff. That school has transformed its performance in those two years, but it has not been a pleasant task. It has taken up a lot of time. He is not paid for it. He does it out of a sense of dedication and duty to the children in his community and their prospects.

I want to say a little about the importance of training for school governors, based on a recent story from my own constituency, which I have spoken to the Minister’s Secretary of State about on a number of occasions. One of my high schools in Exeter was on the brink of being given final approval for academy status, and it emerged that the head teacher at the school was paying himself more than the Prime Minister. He was employing his wife as his deputy, and some other family members were also employed at the school. What happened in the end, thanks to a freedom of information request from my local newspaper, was a call from me to the local authority to launch an inquiry. The local authority went into the school and carried out an inquiry—a thorough one. It recently reported and it was very shocking and damning.

I can summarise what went wrong at the school—I have had this experience before in schools that have gone wrong. There was a powerful—perhaps autocratic—head, who ran the school like a fiefdom and who had a rather cosy relationship with the chair of governors, who was, I think in this case, too weak. They basically made decisions together about the school—some of them against the rules, according to the report—and they froze out the rest of the governors.

I am not necessarily blaming the rest of the governors for their failure to ask more questions and to scrutinise more effectively. I think they could have done that, but one of the things that struck me when I looked into what went on at this school—I talked to not only the existing governors, but the staff, some of the new governors who have gone on to the governing body since the scandal broke, and some of the very good public servants at Devon county council who were responsible for supporting and training governors—was the lack of a requirement for governors to receive training.

I know that the Government and particularly the Minister do not like regulation. She does not want to ply schools with more responsibilities and duties. The Government are all about localism, autonomy and local decision making, but—I issue this warning in the gentlest possible way—with the Government’s policy driving towards more autonomy for schools, it is even more important that governors are properly trained because they will be assuming a much more significant role as a result of that autonomy. If a school comes under the umbrella of a local authority, at least the local authority still has a locus to intervene when something goes wrong, which is what happened in the case of the school in my constituency. If that school had already gone through the academy process and become an academy, the local authority would have had no means of intervention whatever. I am afraid it would have fallen to the Minister or her Secretary of State to intervene.

I suggest that the Minister and her Secretary of State are storing up all sorts of future potential problems for themselves by removing that level of local authority scrutiny. Given that that is the policy that they are set on and determined to implement, I urge her to at least consider the pleas from the very good public servants around the country who support governors and provide governor training. I urge her to listen to their appeals that the Government should consider making training for school governors mandatory. Since the scandal erupted, the school has invited the local authority trainers in. They are doing a great job. The governors are realising that there are lots of things they did not know about the job, but they do now.

At most schools in Devon the governors are given training, but there are others—most of them academies—that resent any interference and advice from the governor training bodies. Given that academies have no local democratic oversight, the only backstop is the Secretary of State, so it is more important than ever that governors are given the skills to do their job properly, exactly as the hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) alluded to in his speech. If they are not given the skills, I predict that the Minister will see more scandals. There was another much worse scandal along similar lines in a school or schools in Lincoln. The Minister should seriously consider the impact of her policy and how important that makes it for governors to be properly trained.

I also urge my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), who speaks for the Labour party from the Front Bench, to consider whether we might adopt mandatory training for governors as a policy. I think it would be popular and not too burdensome. It is the least that parents expect. They expect the people who are in charge of the quality of their children’s education at a local level to be properly qualified and properly trained to be able to do a very important job effectively and well.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I thank the hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) for securing this debate and also for the work that he has done through the all-party group in providing information and reports. His 20 questions for governors to ask themselves is a minor classic. I hope that that is recognised.

I should declare an interest—of a sort, at least—which is that until earlier this year my wife served on the executive of the National Governors Association, and so to some extent I get these matters in stereo from my personal experience and also from her background. I want to emphasise the point that our 300,000 school governors are the biggest individual group of volunteers that we have. They are all unpaid, or virtually all unpaid. They work in every constituency and every school across the country, with significant responsibilities that have been increased with the education changes not only in the past two and a half years, but perhaps in the past 10 years, as the various Education Acts have come to fruition.

The governing bodies are responsible for children’s welfare and education and, of course, for the quality control of the teaching and the curriculum that is delivered to them. I think there is a general rule in systems of democracy and accountability that a power cannot be created or destroyed; it can only be redistributed. In a situation in which local education authorities are losing power and in which the Government have a professed wish to localise power, that inevitably means that power and responsibility are increasingly transferred to governing bodies and to governors.

I do not necessarily agree with all the direction of travel here, but local education authorities have a reduced role in supporting and challenging their schools and in monitoring the standards and outcomes of their schools. To a much greater extent, schools are beholden to Ofsted. It is to a considerable extent now an option for schools not to participate in the services provided by local education authorities, and that increases the responsibility that comes to governing bodies. I would say, in parenthesis, it has not taken away the duty of local authorities to have regard to the well-being of all the children in their area, which of course can lead to some tensions.

The Government have what I regard as an excellent localist policy of taking power away from Whitehall and Westminster and bringing it back to local communities. That is being done in some slightly wobbly ways in the educational sphere. I put it to my hon. Friend the Minister that some of the measures do not produce extra localism, but the crucial point is accountability. If power and responsibility are taken away from elected Governments, on the one hand, and elected local authorities, on the other, that accountability has to be held firmly and solidly by school governing bodies.

Now that the right hon. Gentleman is more free to speak candidly than he might have been when he was in government, will he explain his remarks about those aspects of Government policy in the sphere of education that he feels do not contribute to localism?

I suspect, Mrs Main, that you would rule me out of order if I answered that question, because it is important to focus on the issues before the Chamber.

Clearly—this is where I challenge my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud—any Government, if they see the need for change and reform, would be strongly tempted. He talked about changing the balance between stakeholders and skills, and I want to challenge that proposition because it is not a dichotomy. It is not a choice between stakeholders or skilled governors, but a question of ensuring that stakeholders are skilled to retain local community accountability. We jump from the frying pan into the fire if, instead of democratic local education authorities and a democratically accountable Secretary of State, we have professionalised experts with special skills running our schools with no special links to the pupils or staff and no democratic accountability. I want to pull back on what he said, and I remind my hon. Friend the Minister that we do believe in localism and accountability to the local community—both to the local community of parents and the broader community—that every school serves.

The net effect of the changes that have been made in the past few years is that governors have more power and responsibility, which means they need more skills and focus. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud that we need to boost and build that.

There is a significant difference in scale and professional need between a secondary school and a primary school. Here, again, I want to make a localism point. Governments have a strong tendency—I experienced this myself, both in government and out of government—to imagine that there is a solution that addresses all the problems. I urge a flexible approach. We should understand that schools come in different sizes and shapes. A secondary school may have a turnover each year of more than £1 million, while a primary school might have a turnover of just a small fraction of that. We need to ensure that we do not over-engineer what we are asking.

Several references have been made to Ofsted. Schools are, of course, required to meet the standards of Ofsted. Whether, in a democratic structure, schools should be accountable to Ofsted is a moot point, but one of the things that is happening now and will happen more in the next year or so is that, even when a school’s results and teaching standards meet Ofsted’s criteria, it may now fail because it does not meet the governance criteria. It is right that there should be such tests of governance and that those tests should be done by Ofsted, but I suspect that quite a number of school governing bodies across the country are in for a bit of a surprise when they realise that they cannot bumble on in their traditional relationship with their head teachers and school bodies and excel as far as Ofsted is concerned.

I believe hon. Members and the Government need to recognise and support the role and development of governors. They are a crucial link in the delivery of good education to our children, and they are at a crucial point in challenging the professionals on what they are doing in the classroom and how they are doing it. Governors are often hard-stretched volunteers, strong on commitment and enthusiasm, but without the range of skills they need to be fully effective. Increasingly, they are the people who not only pass judgment but are themselves being judged on the quality and effectiveness of the education that their school delivers.

What do I think should be done? We have been strong on what might be called “brave words,” but what ought to be done? We should pick up on the Government’s report of two years ago, in which the Government asserted that school governors are a vital part of the education system who are traditionally undervalued and do not have the respect and support that they deserve. We now need to turn that absolutely correct statement of intent into real action. The plea made by the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) for mandatory induction training for governors is something the Government could take on board. Additionally, imposing a training duty without considering the cost would be a mistake when schools are under pressure. Obviously, the degree to which schools are under pressure is different in different places, but all schools face real budgetary challenges over the next few years and, desirable and essential as training is, imposing that through any system without the matching resources would be a betrayal of what the Government are attempting to do to improve educational standards.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way and to my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) for securing the debate. I apologise for missing some of the opening remarks.

My right hon. Friend points out the financial challenges that a number of authorities and schools are facing and with which governors are grappling, but does he agree that, for governors to be able to do their jobs well and to do their best for their school, transparency and clarity in education funding is absolutely vital so they know where they are heading? Will he join me, therefore, in calling on the Government to provide greater transparency on the new funding formula as soon as possible, certainly before the next general election?

I am sure the right hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) will stay within the remit of the debate.

Within the scope of the debate, I entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker).

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud mentioned the role of school clerks. School clerks, like parliamentary Clerks, are a vital link, and just as parliamentary Clerks ensure that we stay on track by giving us wise and sound advice, so it should be for school governors. I draw the attention of hon. Members to an extremely good programme run by the National Governors’ Association to find the school clerk of the year. There are regional rounds, a national round and, ultimately, a national school clerk of the year. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister whether the Department for Education will consider giving more encouragement to that process so that there are higher levels of participation, and using that to raise standards and improve the spread of best practice across the country. The Department might achieve through promoting excellence what may be much harder to achieve through a strong regulatory framework. I offer that suggestion in the spirit of helpfulness for which I am famous.

We need also to make sure that governors take a strategic view of their role. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud about them not getting too hooked up on the size of the chairs or the colour the toilet is painted, or even what days off the school should have. Instead they should be considering the important strategic issues of staffing, training, the delivery of education, and the relationship of the school to the community. There is a huge job to be done in that respect.

I urge the Government and Members of the House to work with governors, and not to impose things on them as we develop the support that they undoubtedly need for their more responsible and challenging role under our new arrangements. I want to add to the thanks that have been given for all the volunteer work that school governors do, and for the effectiveness of so many school governing bodies in raising standards and playing an active and effective part in providing good education. The debate is an opportunity to celebrate those things. I hope that the Minister will tell us that in the years ahead we shall go beyond celebration to support—and results.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main, and to follow the right hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell). It is always a joy to discover people who realise after they have left the Government that the rhetoric about localism and decentralisation is suddenly not as true as they thought. Perhaps in time, the right hon. Gentleman will discover the same things about the Department for Communities and Local Government as he has discovered about the Department for Education.

I thank the hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) for securing the debate, his interesting practical suggestions and his work on the question of school governors. Like him, I pay tribute to the 300,000 people who serve as school governors in communities, as well as to governors in my constituency of Stoke-on-Trent Central. We, like many cities, could do with more, and higher calibre, school governors—there is no point in hiding from the Ofsted figures on the quality and satisfactoriness of governors—but I am not sure whether the Government’s education reforms are helping to improve governor capacity. In short, the confusing morass of competing initiatives arguably undermines the capacity for local leadership and muddies the waters as to what is required of a governing body. That relates to the importance of building capacity before we establish a vacuum in local governance, rather than finding that a situation has arisen and thinking about how to resolve it.

That point is particularly relevant to academies. The speed and slapdash nature of the academy conversion process under this Government is putting at risk people’s willingness and ability to serve their schools. That is, first, because of the competing powers of academy sponsors and existing governing bodies. Governance provisions for converting to an academy set only minimum requirements and allow for a reduction in size and composition of the governing body. The laxer rules are more open to abuse. As we heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), in academies a lack of governor control can be particularly worrying. Indeed, there are widespread reports of academies selecting their own governors or manipulating the process. If we are interested in proper accountability and a proper non-executive role for governors, we must sort out the relationship between sponsors and governors. Evidence shows that where such changes in governance have taken place previously, the governors nominated by parents, staff and the local authority are the casualties.

I am not ideologically opposed to the academy programme. There are some able academy sponsors in Stoke-on-Trent—notably Stoke-on-Trent college and the Church of England diocese of Lichfield—but aggressive takeovers of governors can put communities’ backs up and affect the success of the academy conversion process. Furthermore, what is happening represents a massive centralisation and accrual of power by the Secretary of State. I always thought that conservatism was about the little platoons of society. I thought that the big society was an attempt to revive the great teachings of Edmund Burke for the 21st century. Instead, we have in our Secretary of State, with his minions, a Jacobin centralist of whom the Rev. Richard Price would have been proud. The Government are intent on gutting local communities and local democracy to hand over the practice of teaching and the inculcation of citizenship often to carpet-salesman chains and car dealerships.

Order. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is going to get back to the debate on governors, rather than carpet salesmen.

Absolutely, Mrs Main.

Since the Education Reform Act 1988 came into force, the Secretary of State has accrued an extra 2,000 powers, including on questions of local school governance. Indeed, the Secretary of State, not Parliament, has almost total de facto control over what schools do, even including the curriculum, thereby subverting the role and contribution of a governing body. There are now often no intermediate bodies or forms of civil society standing between the head teacher and the Secretary of State. That is a recipe for the arbitrary misuse of power—something that the Tory party was originally established to fight against in the late 17th century. Surely good school governance is about respecting local democracy and civic engagement. It is about having the right people round the table with the right composition of skills and a balance of capabilities, and providing effective strategic oversight, not day-to-day management. The comments of the hon. Member for Stroud on the role of federations in that context are particularly germane and interesting.

Good school governance is about conducting professional recruitment procedures, drawing on specialist expertise, and, where necessary, holding teachers to account in the interest of parents and pupils. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter, I have experienced in Stoke-on-Trent a situation involving a strong-willed and arguably devious headmaster and a governing body that was unable to take control. It was up to the local education authority to step in and deal with that situation. Had that happened in an academy, I would have been worried about the teaching of those children and their prospects.

To act properly in such situations, governors require the right support. They need professional induction training and professional clerking services. I take the points made about mandatory training and the costs involved, but we want that to become almost the norm, without it necessarily being mandatory. Although that requires greater professionalisation and dedication on the part of governors, it also requires wider respect for that role from the Secretary of State and the Government. We have had the Teach First campaign, which the Labour Government successfully inaugurated, but what about a “Become a Governor” campaign—not necessarily with a picture of Arnold Schwarzenegger? Instead of talking governors down and undermining their role in the school ecology, we should celebrate them as civic heroes. We need, as the right hon. Member for Hazel Grove suggested, to raise their esteem. That is what the 2010 report suggested. Instead, the Secretary of State has condemned those civic-minded individuals

“who see being a governor as a badge of status, not a job of work.”

Surely, it should be both, as I am sure it is in St. Albans, Mrs Main. It should be a mark of status and should be taken seriously and conscientiously as work. Just as with the stakeholders-versus-skills question, this is not an either/or option.

As the Government’s reforms grind on and local education authorities are stripped of their functions, the role and importance of the governor will only grow. When we think about such questions in the Labour party, we always have in our mind creating brilliant schools in local communities. The Government—a Conservative Government, of all things—seem concerned with denigrating governors’ volunteerism, undermining their capacity and transferring all power to Whitehall functionaries rather than local champions. If we want true governors creating great schools, we should focus on capacity-building, training and raising their esteem.

I shall give the Minister a bit more thinking time. It is not her first outing in Westminster Hall, but I welcome her as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education. She is obviously a woman of many talents: in addition to what might be regarded as the first part of her ministerial job, she does curriculum, exams and—we have found out today—school governance. It makes us wonder what the Minister for Schools is doing with his time. Perhaps he is over in the Cabinet Office, planning on behalf of the Liberal Democrats. I congratulate her; she is obviously doing a job and a half in the Department.

I also congratulate the hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) on securing the debate and on his thoughtful remarks on governance. I thank him, too, for his work on the issue with the all-party group on education governance and leadership. He set out his view that skills should predominate over stakeholders in how governing bodies are set up—he had some interesting thoughts on that—and quoted Lord Hill a lot, as well as in the context of governor training. Lord Hill might benefit from some assertiveness training for the next time he tries to speak to the Prime Minister and resign, so that he is more successful than on the previous occasion.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) made a good point about mandatory training for governors, outlining brilliantly one of the big issues facing us: the unexploded ordnance that must be out there when accountability has been drawn out of the system. There is a worrying vacuum, as some Members have pointed out, in the pell-mell pace of reform set by the Secretary of State in his desire to be seen as a great reformer. My right hon. Friend is not the first to say that, but he said it effectively. I have no doubt that there is unexploded ordnance out there, and that the lack of accountability will result in scandals in the near future.

We have already seen such incidents, whereby powerful head teachers, without mechanisms in place to hold them to account, have been able to misuse public money. In some cases, criminal charges are involved, so we cannot talk much about them here, but I worry, as does my right hon. Friend, about the vacuum of accountability that is developing rapidly as the academies programme proceeds without sufficient thought having been given to the issue of governance.

I welcome the right hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) to the Back Benches following his stint in the Government. Clearly, he was a little unhappy for some of that time. He hinted to us, while rightly staying in order and not going into too much detail, about some of his unhappiness with Government policy in this area, particularly on local accountability and education. I look forward to hearing more from him in the House on that subject in the weeks and months ahead as we debate education policy more widely.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that he will hear more, but it will not be in any way to undermine this Government’s bold moves on localism, including in education. I was pointing out to him—I regret that I did not convey it more accurately—that if we take power away from one institution and give it to another, we must ensure that that institution has responsibility and the skills to bear that responsibility.

I interpreted the right hon. Gentleman’s remarks as meaning that he was worried that, in some cases, for “localism” read “centralisation”, but perhaps I was reading too much between the lines. Nevertheless, I look forward to hearing what he has to say on the subject in the weeks and months to come.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) spoke about the need to build capacity within the system, given that a vacuum has been created by what he described as a slapdash approach to reform and its impact on governors and local accountability. I urge the Minister to reflect on hon. Members’ contributions about their concerns over the vacuum that is emerging.

I join others in praising the 300,000 volunteers—probably the country’s largest volunteer force of any kind—who give up their time freely to serve on governing bodies across the country. I suspect that almost everybody participating in the debate has served at one time or another on a school governing body, and that everybody therefore brings a degree of expertise to the debate, having seen how governing bodies work.

In government, we continued a process of giving more responsibility to governing bodies, tried to reduce local authority interference in how governing bodies operate and made changes relating to the composition of governing bodies. We also started the academy programme—a targeted intervention to try to lift the worst-performing schools in the country’s most deprived areas, which successfully raised standards. I say in passing to the Minister that that is different from simply re-badging a school as an academy and expecting school improvement to happen automatically. It will not happen without a genuine intervention to try to improve standards. However, I will not stray too far from governance while making that point.

I praise governors. We tried to enhance their role. Hon. Members have referred to some of the work done latterly by the previous Government, particularly by the former Schools Minister, Lord Knight, who is now in another place. Unfortunately, some of his initiatives ran out of time as we reached the general election. The discussions held at that time outline the difficulties of reaching consensus—I sympathise with the Minister on this—on the right balance between governing bodies’ ability to perform their strategic role in improving performance in schools and, as other hon. Members have mentioned, the need for governing bodies to have their feet on the ground and their roots in the community, and to use local information and intelligence to do a good job. This is not an easy issue to tackle, and it is appropriate that we try to build consensus on reforming governance in our schools, rather than making the issue a big divide between Government and Opposition.

However, it is important that that debate is held in a tone that shows respect for the work done by governors across the country. That is why I mentioned, in an intervention on the hon. Member for Stroud, the Secretary of State’s speech on governors earlier this year. I suspect that he was trying to make the same reasonable point that the hon. Member for Stroud made: standards vary, and governors are a mixed-ability group like any other. However, in his temptation to use figurative and colourful language, the Secretary of State deeply offended many governors across the country by using the phrase “local worthies” to describe the people who give up their time to serve on governing bodies. The full quote is:

“Local worthies who see being a governor as a badge of status, not a job of work.”

That remark deeply offended large numbers of people, whether it was intended to do so or not. When the Secretary of State wants to offend, he is usually quite deliberate about it, but I am not sure whether he did on this occasion. Libby Purves, who has sympathy with the Secretary of State’s approach to some things, wrote on 9 July in The Times:

“The expression ‘local worthies’ has no place under any government, let alone a Conservative one that claims to want a Big Society and less central nannying.”

I make a plea to the Minister at least to tell us that she will not use such derogatory language when talking about our country’s largest volunteer force, who give up their time to do the difficult and challenging job of helping our schools be the best that they can be. That would greatly help to raise the tone of the debate, so that we can get on with discussing the important, central issues.

On another recent occasion, the Government tried to recruit governors effectively as spin doctors for their policies by putting out a plea via e-mail. The Guardian reported in August that the Department for Education, having created a database of sympathetic head teachers, was trying to enlist governors. An e-mail was sent from the National College for School Leadership to approximately 40 school governors saying that the DFE’s school governance unit is planning “communication activities” around new regulations coming into force next week regarding the size of governing bodies.

School governors are volunteers who give up their time to serve their local schools. They are not there to be recruited as spin doctors for the Secretary of State and his reforms. I hope that the Minister will distance herself from that approach by the Department.

There are real challenges to be faced to get the balance right between the strategic job that governors have to do and the local input required for them to represent the local community effectively. Views differ widely. Some colleagues believe that in this new world in which most secondary schools are now academies, and where they are no longer in the orbit of the local education authority, there is a case for the professionalisation of governing bodies and for executive governing bodies to be in charge of a chain of schools, with, perhaps, more local advisory bodies for local schools. That is one end of the spectrum. At the other, there are others who think it essential to maintain that aspect of localism and ensure that every school, whatever its size, has its own governing body and chair of governors.

I want to probe the Minister on the Government’s current thinking on the governance of schools. Is it her view, and the Government’s, that governors should remain as a voluntary force in support of our schools, or that they should be professionalised and become a strategic board, with at least the chair of governors, and perhaps others, being paid for their work? What is her current position on the payment of governors? Is it Government policy to pay more governors?

Does the Minister believe that there should be fewer governing bodies? In other words, rather than having governing bodies for each school, should there be governing bodies that look after a chain of schools? Does she agree with the Secretary of State that governors are glory-seeking “local worthies”, or is she prepared to recognise the work of local governors? I look forward to hearing her answers.

I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate. It has been very instructive and helpful, and we have heard a lot of interesting contributions. I pay special tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) for his tireless work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on education governance and leadership, on which he has worked hard in the past few years. There is no doubt that his questions have been helpful to many governing bodies. He has a wealth of experience, and he has skilfully covered many of the points that I planned to make.

I thank the National Governors Association for its work, and I completely agree with hon. Members who have expressed their thanks to governors who play such an important role in helping our schools, driving up school and pupil performance and ensuring that every child receives the best possible education. As has been mentioned, hundreds of thousands of volunteers serve as school governors. One of them is my mum, who is a school governor in Leeds. I can assure hon. Members that I receive regular feedback from the front line, at all times of the day and night, about what is going on in schools in Leeds. I am not without a direct feedback loop.

Being a school governor is not only an influential role; it also demands skill, time and energy. We very much appreciate those who volunteer. Governors have four sets of responsibilities. First, they have a strategic function, which many hon. Members have mentioned. Secondly, they use their skills and experience to ensure that the school is doing the right thing, that the school and the governing body run efficiently and effectively and that the school works to continually improve itself. A theme that we have heard in the debate is that school governing bodies need to be not just satisfied with how things are, but to train up and have continuous professional development for the school to improve.

There has been rather a lot of selective quoting of the Secretary of State’s governance speech. He praised many governors and acknowledged the important role that they play. He was describing what he thinks bad governance looks like, as opposed to what he thinks good governance looks like. His comment was certainly not about all governors or in any way meant to be detrimental to the many people who serve their local schools and are an important part of the local community.

I was pleased to hear that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) continues to support the academy programme, which was, of course, set up under the previous Government. I want to respond to the important points raised by him and the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) on school accountability, and explain the Government’s approach.

In September 2012, we introduced new rules for Ofsted that make governance more central to how schools are assessed. In category 3 of a school requiring improvement, Ofsted may recommend an external review of governance. It can also give schools subsidised training for the chairman of the governors—something mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud. If a school is in unsatisfactory category 4, the Secretary of State or local authority may impose an interim executive board to replace the governing body, or it may be forced to become an academy with a sponsor, who may replace the school’s leadership, head and governors.

The essential philosophical difference between the Government and the Opposition is that we think that governing bodies need to be measured on the outcomes that they produce, rather than on inputs. Although I am a great supporter of training and professional development, it should not be a mandatory requirement, not least, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) mentioned, because it will impose costs on governing bodies. We do not know what the content will be. In my time, I have been on a fair few training courses that promised a great deal but did not deliver. That is not to say that I do not support training, but simply to say that it is a judgment that the chair of the governors and the school should exercise to ensure that its governing body has the right skills and experience. Rather than mandating the governing body to carry out things in a particular way, we should hold them accountable for the outcomes. They should take up the kind of professional development and training to ensure they have the right skills, as in the case raised by the right hon. Member for Exeter, to challenge the head teacher and understand the finances of the school. That is our broad approach.

I appreciate what the Minister says, but the performance of the school that I referred to was not bad enough for it to qualify under the new Ofsted rules that she has just outlined. The school was still improving and doing well enough. The problem was not the performance; the problem, basically, was corruption within the school. The worry that I have is that there is no local accountability in academies and that there is nothing anyone can do—except for her.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. What I am saying, though, is that the capability of governors and the outcomes of governance will be assessed as part of the Ofsted assessment. It is not just a matter of looking at the academic performance of the school; it is also about understanding what the governors are doing and how they are carrying out their duties.

The Government have legislated so that some schools that are doing well academically do not have to be inspected. My right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) was making the point that that can mask corrupt practices and there will not be sufficient governance or training in place for governors to monitor that properly and nip it in the bud before it becomes a huge issue.

The Ofsted inspection will take place in due course, if the school performs below satisfactory levels. The reality is that, often—I could tell the right hon. Member for Exeter about similar cases in my constituency—poor performance on financials is related to poor overall school performance.

My colleague, Lord Hill, who leads on governors in the Department for Education, has already presented the awards for school clerk of the year, which was mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove, who also spoke about ensuring higher take-up. I understand that Lord Hill has committed to doing so again next year, which is good news for all of us.

I was interested the suggestion that we run a “becoming a governor” campaign and will take that back to Lord Hill for further discussion. We are, of course, happy to listen to suggestions from all parties in the House about how to improve standards of governance. As right hon. and hon. Members rightly said, there is a process for ensuring that all governing bodies attain the capability that we want, so that they can carry out their functions.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud raised some other issues. His organisation’s work promoting skills in governing bodies is important. He is right; we need wider recruitment of governors, including business people who have financial skills that would help, as the right hon. Member for Exeter mentioned. My hon. Friend welcomed our efforts to relax the constraints on the size of governing bodies, so that we have governing bodies that are fit for purpose and offer the right scrutiny of what head teachers and schools are doing.

Being a governor can help build the individuals’ skills and experience. We have talked a lot about how the governors’ skills and experience can contribute to the schools’ performance, but we should also see it the other way round. I know a lot of people who have benefited from their time as a governor and have been able to build up their capability to understand how a school works and education policy, management and financial scrutiny.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central mentioned the platoons that we are seeking to support in society. In that regard, it is important that we retain governorship as a voluntary service, because it is a two-way process, with members of the community gaining experience as well as contributing to the future of a school and schools gaining from that experience of the community. The Government do not have any plans to pay governors and go away from the well-established principle of voluntary governance. There might be times—for example, if a school is in trouble and an interim executive board is needed for that failing school—when payment might be appropriate, but in the general run of things, we support a continuation of the voluntary governance principle.

If the Government’s policy moves towards for-profit schools, which the former head of the No. 10 policy operation is proposing, does the Minister see paid-for governance as part of that?

The Department has no plans to have for-profit schools, so the hon. Gentleman asks a hypothetical question.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud mentioned rigorous self-assessment of governing bodies. That is important. We must move away from the idea that the Government can mandate what schools and governing bodies should do to the idea governing bodies are responsible for building their capability.

I thank the right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed to the debate and hope that I have answered their questions. This debate has helped highlight the importance of governors and governing bodies in schools. Often, when discussing schools policies, we end up talking about teachers, who are important in delivering an excellent education, but the structures that surround teaching and how we hold them to account are also important, as are the roles played by volunteers in our schools.

I am glad that we have had this debate. I will take up the issues raised with Lord Hill. If right hon. and hon. Members wish to write to me about further issues, I am happy to take those up, too.

Sitting suspended.