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Enhancing policy and improving practice in school governing in England

Our research has contributed to significant improvements in school governing policy and practice over the last 12 years.

A teacher in a suit talking to a pupil at a desk with a computer.
There are an estimated 350,000 volunteer school governors in the UK.

Professor Chris James along with colleagues Michael Fertig and Dr Ioannis Costas Batlle from our Department of Education has contributed to research over the last decade improving school governing policy and practice.

School governance

The governance of schools in England varies by the type of school. State-funded English schools depend on the contribution of over a quarter of a million volunteer governors. These governors have a responsibility for helping to ensure that their schools continually improve and perform well.

The English school system has changed substantially since the 1990s. The work of schools has become more complicated and demanding and the role of governance in the future will be more important than ever.

First substantial, national inquiry

Between April and September 2008, Professor Chris James led a research project; The School Governance Study. The study was the first substantial, national inquiry into the nature of school governing in the UK.

The study used a variety of in-depth research tools, including:

  • a national survey
  • expert interviews
  • case studies of primary and secondary schools

The researchers found that governance had been overlooked in policy and research terms and that governors’ responsibilities are made unnecessarily difficult by unclear and contradictory policies.

Other key findings from this study highlighted:

  • the importance of school governance
  • existing governing was working well, but there is scope for improvement and adapt to the changes facing schools
  • current school governing is overloaded and overcomplicated
  • issues with recruitment, complicated training and difficulties retaining governors
  • school governing does not have a sufficiently high profile
  • opportunities through new arrangements for school governing

Recommendations to improve governance included:

  • raising the profile of school governing, for example amongst the public and employers
  • clarifying governors’ roles and responsibilities
  • strengthening Ofsted’s inspection of school governing
  • placing greater emphasis on individuals’ skills and capabilities
  • improving recruitment routes; and enhancing training

The report was submitted to the 2009 Ministerial Working Group on School Governance and the findings were cited in the 2010 The Importance of Teaching Schools White Paper.

Inspiring future governors

Further research took place in 2014 with another national survey of school governors. This was conducted in partnership with the National Governance Association (NGA), Education and Employers Taskforce (E&E), Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and other sector leaders.

Although some improvements in the quality of school governing practice were seen across schools, there was a need for a more strategic and coherent approach to governor recruitment in the face of ongoing recruitment challenges.

Based on this research, the Department for Education launched the Inspiring Governor’s Alliance to inspire people to volunteer as governors and encourage more governing bodies to recruit governors based on their skills. This also led to a £1 million investment in the online governor recruitment Inspiring Governance service.

Between 2011 and 2013, further research addressed the lack of understanding of the role of the school governing board chair identified in the original School Governance Study. Attention was paid to the skills and attributes required in a chair and the importance of training to help chairs develop them.

Ofsted, it was suggested, should play a role in scrutinising training in order to elevate its importance. The significance of the chair-headteacher relationship and the qualities that underpin a successful one were also highlighted – signalling areas for future support and development.

The research led to a change in focus for Ofsted’s on governance in the Inspection Handbook, created a mandate for governors to include an external review of governance where governance deemed to be ineffective, and provided additional training for inspectors on governance.

Improving the recruitment and selection of headteachers

Further research focused on the governing body’s role in the recruitment and management of headteachers.

In a mixed-method Department for Education funded project on managing headteacher performance, the overarching conditions essential for effective headteacher performance management, including the importance of the relationship between the headteacher and the governing body and their shared understanding of the significance of the performance management process.

In 2016, Professor Chris James collaborated with the NGA to investigate the issues surrounding the recruitment and selection of headteachers.

In doing so, the research showed that governors faced a number of challenges, such as:

  • complex, demanding and resource intensive nature of the process
  • specialised skills required
  • benefits and challenges of utilising an external advisor
  • key role of the chair

This research informed the creation of some guidelines for recruiting a headteacher that have been published by the Department for Education.

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Related groupings

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Department of Education

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We conduct research and teach courses to further our understanding of a range of education-related issues nationally and internationally.