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School Governors and School Improvement

Volume 568: debated on Tuesday 8 October 2013

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship—not for the first time, Mrs Main. It has always proved a success, and I expect it will do so today. It is great to see that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Schools survived yesterday’s activities, as we would expect. I am wondering where the reshuffled Opposition education team are. They will now be led by an historian, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), which will certainly be interesting.

I want to talk about the importance of governors and governance, and to say that I enormously appreciate all that governors do. It is a tribute to our national life that 200,000 people are able and willing to serve as governors on our school and college governing bodies, and we should all thank them enormously. I have been a governor of several schools and colleges, so I know about the stresses and strains, the sometimes unsocial hours and the sense of accountability and responsibility that they normally feel: I have been there and done that.

I am pleased that there is an appetite for debate about school governors and governance. I was particularly glad that the Select Committee on Education, under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart), agreed to hold an inquiry on school governance. That inquiry exposed some interesting issues that I want to discuss, although I will not do so in a detailed or completely comprehensive way. The inquiry certainly raised a few interesting issues, and the Government have responded. They were sometimes in agreement with the Committee, and sometimes less so, but they always considered what we said, which is a tribute to the Select Committee process.

The context of this debate is straightforward, in that we are experiencing and will continue to experience a changing structure of education, because more and more academies are coming on stream and there is more competition. Of course, the arrival of free schools will be a key factor in accountability as regards the role of governors and school governance.

Another key issue that informs the debate is the need to focus on performance and outcomes. Never before has the education system been in a situation where performance and outcomes are so pivotal to the debate, which is quite right, because it is absolutely essential to give every child a proper chance and a fair opportunity to perform as best he or she can. Nothing less than that will do.

The changing role of local authorities is another factor, on which we will touch throughout this debate. That factor should be recognised, because schools often used to have the local authority to help them along or to deal with issues, but schools are now more autonomous, and with that autonomy comes more responsibility.

There are also challenges, including the issue of children who are not necessarily best dealt with or given the best chances in their schools. That was brought out extraordinarily well by the chief inspector of schools and colleges, Sir Michael Wilshaw, in his report, “Unseen children”. We cannot allow that to happen. As people interested in education, we must drive forward the highest standards across our whole country, not just where something happens to be relevant to an individual MP. We must ensure that delivery is good all over.

That point is reinforced by the chief inspector’s focus on leadership and management in schools. I will not talk about individual schools—that would be inappropriate—but I will say that where we have good leadership and management in schools, we have a good chance of having schools that are good and have high standards of teaching and learning. That is what we should talk about in the context of school governors and governance.

I pay tribute to my colleagues on the Education Committee, first for agreeing to do a report on school governance and secondly for contributing to that report, because we had some lively debates—quite rightly. The report was important as another way of keeping the question of school governance and governors on the agenda, which we must do. As I have said, the structure of education is evolving, and one question that we must tease out is how we deal with accountability, in which school governors of course have a role to play.

In the Select Committee, we discussed in detail some issues that are relevant to this debate—for example, the size of school governing bodies. It is generally accepted that smaller committees sometimes achieve more than larger ones, partly because they are more dynamic and tend to rely more on individuals with specific gifts. We should therefore try to streamline governing bodies into smaller ones, so that they can be more dynamic, flexible and innovative. The Government agree, but it is important to make it absolutely clear why smaller governing bodies will improve performance and, to underpin that, the Government must be strong in making sure that governing bodies get that message.

My hon. Friend, like the Government, seems intrinsically to believe that smaller governing bodies are necessarily more effective. Will he share with the House the evidence to back that up?

I can do so, because the Education Committee looked into that issue, and if people read the report, they will see that answers to many of the questions I asked yield such evidence. We need to look at that evidence when we consider questions like the one asked by my hon. Friend, the Chairman of the Committee. That dynamic can be seen at work not just in school governing bodies, but often on company boards and in other organisations. It works, and it should be considered.

The role of business is very important. That arises in relation to the question of why we do not have the best interface between business and education, which is a general problem. For example, it is certainly a worry that only 28% of A-levels are in STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and maths—when the business community is seeking a bigger pool of STEM-educated children and students.

Another issue is why more businessmen are not on school governing bodies, increasing that interface and bringing in leadership and management expertise. The Government have recognised that the Select Committee is right on that count, and we must ensure that we start to break down some of the barriers. The Government are right, and I hope that they will persist with the idea of creating a legal requirement to give people time off for service on a governing body.

I will finish by raising several points. The first is that we must strengthen the mechanism for imposing interim executive boards—IEBs—when schools are identified as failing. I believe that if an Ofsted inspection finds that a school is in serious trouble, there may well be a case for having an IEB, and the Select Committee suggested that Ofsted should be able to use its powers to impose one. The Government have said that there are other ways of solving the problems. If a school is in a federation or some other structure, they might get some assistance. None the less, we need to send a signal that setting up an IEB might just be the right option. It will not be right in every case or in every situation—for example, when a primary school is allied to another school—but it is certainly right for a secondary school that is failing in an obvious way.

There needs to be a pool of governors on those IEBs. Too many areas of the country do not have a sufficiently large pool of good people to be on IEBs. We need to redouble our efforts to find and properly train people. One structure that could solve that problem is the National College for Teaching and Leadership.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I support much of what he is saying, but I recommend that he looks at other models that promote collaboration between governing bodies. The experience from Darlington shows that a school can be turned around quickly by encouraging better collaboration, even when, as in Darlington, almost all the schools are academies.

I thank the hon. Lady for her helpful intervention. That was one of my points. She is absolutely right, and I thank her for her support.

I want to touch on sub-regional structures, academy chains and other such structures that one might expect to find when schools collaborate. Collaboration certainly does make a difference. I suggest that some formal federal structure might be the answer in many situations. Mutual help, by which I mean learning best practice from others, getting support when there is a problem and being able to reach out for expert help, is really important. I accept the point that has just been made. I would even go further and say that the Government might want to consider making sub-regional structures more formal where that is appropriate. A horizontal or vertical structure, or a combination of both, is a good way of ensuring that the best leadership is available to schools. That applies to rural areas where there is a variety of smaller schools, or to a secondary school with a number of feeder schools.

Another point relates to the question of skills versus stakeholders. The Select Committee talked about that in some detail. It was right to do so, not least because I encouraged it to take on the issue. It has always concerned me that if schools are boxed in with certain stakeholders on their governing bodies, they might not be able to reach out for the appropriate skills. I have never been completely satisfied that all stakeholders are accountable to the body that appointed them or that they represent, so calling them stakeholders is, in some cases, an exaggeration. The Government need to focus on getting the right skills, and all barriers to that should be removed, which means that there should be considerably less focus on stakeholders and more focus on skills. I call on the Government to consider that point.

My hon. Friend is making some powerful points. I expected as much, given his strong personal experience of both a further education college and a secondary school in Stroud. On the point he was making, does he agree that governors in constituencies such as Stroud and Gloucester are by definition volunteers and community-minded, and that given the right experience, training and help they can play an invaluable role in the success of a school? What more does he think the Government can do to help on the training side?

My hon. Friend, whose constituency neighbours mine, is absolutely right. Of course we need to encourage people to become governors. We do not want to frighten them off, and good training is critical. The Education Committee has made some powerful recommendations on training, which the Government have largely accepted. The National Governors Association has constantly talked about the importance of training. I want also to highlight the work of the all-party group on education governance and leadership, which has produced 20 questions that feature in a number of reports, including those of the Wellcome Trust and our Select Committee. Those 20 questions include a reminder that we should focus on the training of governors. We must ensure that those training packages are up to scratch and relevant to the challenges of governance now, and not to what we think it was. The Government are right to talk about setting up memorandums describing what academies turn into and how governors should respond.

Order. This is a 30-minute debate, and the hon. Gentleman who called the debate has graciously allowed another colleague to speak for a minute or two. The Minister also needs to make a full reply. I therefore ask for any interventions to be brief.

I am grateful for your guidance, Mrs Main. I shall be brief. In my experience, local authorities have always put on a great deal of training, but it was not well attended and its quality was questionable. How can we ensure that the quality of training is improved now that schools are far more independent?

I have already mentioned the National College of Leadership and Training, and that is one way forward, but there are other organisations that are independent of local authorities that should be doing the training.

Finally, we all rely on good school governors and on volunteers to be school governors. The question of payment has been discussed by the Education Committee. There is a possibility of paying chairs of governing bodies because of their exalted status and their great responsibilities. That should remain on the table to encourage a kind of progression of governorship—from governor to chair. That might be part of the answer to the question of federations, structures, academy chains and so on.

My contribution might come in at under two minutes, Mrs Main. It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, to follow my distinguished colleague on the Education Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael), and to see the Minister in his place and other colleagues in the Chamber. The Government recently produced their response to our inquiry and report. In the brief time I have, I want to focus on the opportunities for getting greater business involvement with school governing bodies. The CBI has offered to work with the Government, and the Government have taken that up, and are looking to work with other business organisations. We have a real problem with careers advice and guidance in schools. We know that we need to ensure that careers understanding is embedded across the curriculum. What better way to do that than by having governors from business bringing their understanding of local and national business to the governing body? There is a real opportunity for business organisations to stand behind those individual governors, and to provide them with resources, tools and a template to ensure that their school provides a curriculum and an experience that provides young people with the skills—soft as well as academic—that they need. There is a tremendous opportunity to strengthen our governing bodies and better to align our education system with the world of work that follows.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) on securing a debate on this very important topic; on the work that he has done in founding and chairing the all-party group on education governance and leadership; and, of course, on the contribution that he and his hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart), who is the Chairman of the Education Committee, have made to the Select Committee’s report on this issue, which came out earlier this year and which we, as a Department, have looked at very closely indeed.

Our Department believes that school governance has a vital role to play in driving up school standards and pupil performance, and—as my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud himself mentioned—we recognise the dedication of the hundreds of thousands of volunteers who serve as school governors and who are passionate about supporting and improving their schools. The success of our education system relies upon the expertise and hard work of those governors, and we need more skilled governors to help schools to improve, particularly in many of the disadvantaged areas where school performance is, at most, inadequate.

Every school needs a high-performing governing body that understands its responsibilities and that focuses on its core strategic functions; that is made up of people with the relevant skills and experience; that operates efficiently and effectively through appropriate structures and procedures; and that strives for continuous improvement, in order to perform to its full potential.

We need governing bodies that think innovatively and strategically to create robust governance arrangements, including across groups of schools, which is a point my hon. Friend mentioned in his contribution. It is this Government’s ambition that that is true of all governing bodies in terms of their quality standards, and I will say more about each of the key critical areas that we expect governing bodies to be able to address.

To begin, let me consider the core functions of governing bodies. In our view, high-quality governance is characterised by a relentless focus on three core strategic functions: first, setting the vision of the school; secondly, holding the head teacher and senior managers of the school to account for their educational performance; and thirdly, ensuring—of course—that the school’s money is well and properly spent.

Those functions reflect the criteria that Ofsted inspectors use when considering the effectiveness of governing bodies. All governing bodies, in both maintained schools and academies, should focus on these functions, leaving the senior leadership team responsible and accountable for the day-to-day management of the school. They should stay focused on these big issues and other specific statutory duties, and avoid being distracted by the myriad other things that might compete for their attention.

We believe that governing bodies are best placed to determine how to carry out their strategic functions, and their approach needs to reflect their own specific local circumstances and should be guided by Government only when that is genuinely necessary. That is why we have already reduced prescription and cut back on some of the unnecessary regulations that exist. Our ambition is that all governing bodies are made up of people who have the necessary skills and competencies to carry out effectively the demanding strategic functions that I have just outlined.

As my colleague in the Department, the Under-Secretary of State with responsibility for schools, Lord Nash, has said on previous occasions, in our view it is right that governors should be volunteers but they cannot afford to be amateurs in an area that is so critically important. We need to professionalise the quality of school governance, so that sitting on a board of governors is seen as being akin to the strategic responsibility of sitting on the board of a company or of a charity.

The best governing bodies identify explicitly the skills and competencies they need, and regularly audit the skills of their current members. They actively seek to recruit new governors and to invest in the professional development of their existing members, to address any gaps that might exist. Because governing bodies are best placed to determine the types of skills and people they need, we have given them more flexibility to decide for themselves the number and mix of governors that they need. Maintained school governing bodies can opt to reconstitute under new regulations, which my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud will know we introduced last year. Those new regulations allow the governing bodies to be smaller and more skills-focused, which is something I think my hon. Friend supports and which he has raised with my colleague, Lord Nash, on previous occasions.

We have also updated our model documentation, to give academies themselves much greater freedom in how they constitute their governing bodies. While our priority is to give governing bodies the freedom to decide their size for themselves, our view is that governing bodies should be no bigger than they need to be to secure all the crucial skills necessary for effective governance. In our view, it is not helpful to have anyone on a governing body who is in a passive or inactive role. In general, we think that smaller governing bodies are likely to be more dynamic and effective, as shown by the success of many of the tightly focused interim executive boards and by the testimony of many academy sponsors who need to reform the unwieldy governance in the schools they inherit. However, I will also accept the challenge put by the Chairman of the Education Committee, and the view taken by the Committee in its report, when I acknowledge that ultimately it is the quality of these individuals, rather than counting heads, that is particularly important.

In line with the core functions that I have outlined, governing bodies should not necessarily see themselves as the primary vehicle for ensuring meaningful engagement with parents and other stakeholders. It is vital that the governance of the school is informed by the views of parents, and for that to be done well it requires dedicated and appropriate arrangements. So, while there are still rules that governing bodies need to follow on how they are constituted, the emphasis should be on recruiting governors for the skills that they can individually contribute. After all, all governors—no matter what constituency they are drawn from—are there, once they are around the table, to govern in the interests of pupils and not primarily to play a representative role.

People from the world of work can bring a particular range of transferrable and relevant skills, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud mentioned in his contribution. That is why we plan to work more closely with the CBI and other business partners to engage more businesses in actively promoting governance to their employees. Forging links with business can be of huge value to schools, but the strategic nature of school governance also means that employees develop key skills that are often of benefit to them and indeed to their own employers.

The Government already fund the School Governor’s One Stop Shop to offer a free service to schools and local authorities, in order to help them to find new and highly skilled governors. The number of governors that SGOSS has recruited has risen year-on-year to nearly 1,600 volunteers in the financial year to date, compared with 1,400 for the same period last year. I hope that my hon. Friends will promote the work of SGOSS to local authorities and schools in their constituencies.

Governing groups of schools can be highly effective, and it can also bring many benefits. In particular, it can help to drive up standards by enabling governing bodies to compare and contrast across schools, thereby creating more robust accountability. It can also enable highly skilled governing bodies to have an impact in more schools. We in the Department encourage governing bodies to put aside any issues of territorialism, and to consider—where it is appropriate—forming a single governing body across a federation of schools. Alternatively they can, of course, consider a multi-academy trust or an umbrella trust, which benefit from the greater freedoms of academy status.

Before I talk about what happens when there are issues or problems, I need to address the importance of governing bodies striving for continuous improvement, and the ways that we are helping them to improve. To achieve the very best for the children in their school, every governing body needs to reflect regularly on its effectiveness and performance, and governing bodies should not be shy of paying for high-quality training and development to help improve their skills and effectiveness. There are many options, including the expanding offer from the National College for Teaching and Leadership. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud will know, the NCTL has also developed the national leaders of governance programme to provide free peer mentoring support for chairs. We are looking to develop the number of NLGs, with another 150 being selected this year.

I now come to the crucial role of Ofsted. It is a sad fact that in too many schools governance is still weak and does not create enough robust local accountability for standards in schools. When Ofsted identifies underperformance, we share the view expressed by both its chief inspector and my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud that there is a need for urgent and timely action.

In each particular case, there will be various considerations in determining the appropriate response, which will not always be the need for an interim executive board; for example, some governing bodies may themselves decide to seek a sponsored-academy solution. For that reason, we do not envisage this sort of recommendation being made in the inspection report before the various contextual factors have been taken into account. However, good, clear reporting by Ofsted on the weaknesses in governance will help to inform decisions on what action would be appropriate.

This Government recognise and celebrate the role of governors, and we are committed to improving the quality of governance in the ways that my hon. Friend has indicated today.