The distinction between academy committee members and governors

Whilst the term governor is used in many schools to refer to those who volunteer on governing boards, committees or councils, there are significant distinctions in accountability, responsibility and involvement depending on whether they are in a local authority maintained school, a single academy, or a school in a multi academy trust. As part of my EdD research, I am beginning to examine some of those differences and to ask what motivates a person to become an academy committee member?

In this post I consider those differences and draw on previous research into school governors. I suggest that empirical research has tended to ignore those at academy committee level, focusing more on governors generally.

Introduction

Since the late 1980s, school governors in England have had an important role to play in the running of schools. The 1988 Education Reform Act gave a governing body responsibility for its school’s budget and devolved power and responsibility to schools rather than local education authorities (LEAs). In the last two decades, significant changes to the English education system have meant that accountability for school governance has shifted, for nearly half of all schools, from the school’s own governing body to a board of trustees in a multi-academy trust (MAT). The power and influence of the collective members of the ‘old’ governing body have all but gone, yet people still continue to volunteer. There are regular national surveys of governance, and research into governance in schools generally, yet little is known about this particular group of volunteers who remain connected to their schools with little, or no, accountability.

Beginning in the year 2000, with the support of private sponsors, city academies began opening followed by a significant Government White Paper in 2005 which reinforced the academies programme. In 2010, the Academies Act enabled Outstanding schools to join the programme and to opt out of local authority (LA) control.

There are now 9,200 academies (including free schools, university technical colleges and studio schools, and covering primary, secondary, special and alternative provision), which represents 42.6% of schools in England. Of these, 7,730 schools are in a MAT of two or more schools. (Department for Education, 2020)

Research on governance in schools

Much of the empirical research into the role of school governors concerns LA maintained schools, even into the first decade of the new millennium when the academies programme was in its infancy. Following the introduction of local management of schools (LMS) and the 1988 Education Reform Act, as with governments everywhere, the notion of volunteers were part of the solution to manage public services where the money to provide them was no longer there (Thody, 1994, pp. 12–13). In a research project funded by the UK Economic Social Research Council, ‘The Reform of School Governing Bodies – a sociological investigation’, Brehony (1994) and colleagues began a pilot study of 15 schools in two local authorities, both primary and secondary schools. From 1988 they attended governing body meetings and, from 1990, reduced the number of schools in the study to ten. Their methods included observations at meetings, including sub-committees, working groups and training sessions, and the use of two questionnaires. The team carried out semi-structured interviews with 43 governors from the 170 in the ten schools. In addition, they considered a range of documentation including agendas, meeting and briefing papers.

The study considered the representation of governors and found that where representation was questioned, it usually concerned co-opted governors and that nearly all of the governing bodies experienced difficulties in making co-options. In the new regime of LMS, skills that could be useful on a governing body might be, for example, from accountants, solicitors and bankers, more because of a desire to get those services free where such services would be declining from the LEA. They found that schools in working-class areas found attracting such people more difficult. “What happened was that the required business people were found but in most cases they were parents or had been parents of pupils at the school” (Brehony, 1994, p. 57).

“Governors turn out to be recruited disproportionately from a rather narrow sector of society, namely those that have the resources of time, money, cultural and political capital to enable them to assist others in a voluntary capacity. (Brehony, 1994, p. 58)

Brehony (1994) recognised the importance of governance under LMS and post 1988, but research into school governance following subsequent changes to legislation post 2000 would include volunteers in academies, yet this is often either insignificant, or not made explicit in the outcomes of research. At the time McCrone et al. (2011) reported on governance models in schools (see later), just 1% of schools in England were academies.

The 2002 Education Act amended the constitution of governing bodies (and again in 2007), and the latest DfE publication (2017) gives arrangements for the constitution of governing bodies of maintained schools constituted under the School Governance (Constitution) (England) Regulations 2012. “Governing bodies should be no bigger than they need to be to have all the skills necessary to carry out their functions” (Department for Education, 2017, p. 6). In a maintained school, available governor categories are:

  • parent governors (at least two)
  • staff governors (only one)
  • the headteacher
  • local authority governors (only one)
  • foundation governors (where there is a foundation, at least two)
  • partnership governors
  • co-opted governors
  • associate governors

In a maintained school, without a foundation, a governing body of seven may consist of two parent governors, the headteacher, a staff governor, a local authority governor and two co-opted governors.

In a MAT, governance accountability lies with the trustees. Operating as a company, a MAT has Articles of Association. In the Model Articles of Association (DfE, 2016), Article 100 states that the trustees “may appoint committees to be known as Local Governing Bodies for each Academy” (Department for Education, 2016, p. 36), the only stipulation being that any Local Governing Body shall include at least two parents. However, there is no requirement for a MAT to have local committees.

If trustees choose to have local committees, it is then up to the trustees to decide what aspects of governance are delegated to a local governing body, hereafter referred to as an academy committee (to distinguish that of a LA maintained school and because the National Governors’ Association – the representative body for school governors – uses that term) (Allcroft, 2016, p. 22).

In a study of school governance by the University of Bath (commissioned by Business in the Community and funded by Freshfields Bruckhaus and Deringer LLP), Balarin et al. (2008) included an on-line survey as part of their data collection. Through the National Governance Association (NGA), School Governor One Stop Shop (SGOSS) and the National Co-ordinators of Governor Services (NCOGS), they were able to sample over 5,000 serving school governors. 3,183 gave complete answers to the survey. Of significance to this study, they found the distribution in age of school governors to be:

Age group Distribution
Under 29 2%
30-39 13%
40-49 34%
50-59 26%
60 or over 25%

Figure 1 – age profile of governors in Balarin et al. (2008) study

There was also a link where governors had, or previously had, children in the school where they served on the governing body – 61% (Balarin et al., 2008, p. 44).

McCrone et al. (2011) surveyed school governors and coordinators of LA governance services through online questionnaires in 2010. 1,591 governors and 62 coordinators responded to the survey. This was followed up with 24 case-study telephone calls in order to complement the survey data. As part of the study, they considered “perceptions on changes to school governance in the light of greater school autonomy” and received 16 responses from those in schools that had become academies. Comments concerning changes to governors’ roles and responsibilities included:

  • School policy was now set by an overarching trust;
  • Governing bodies were felt to be focused on local community issues;
  • The academy sponsor had taken on the role of the local authority;
  • Extra governors had been recruited.

Amongst coordinators surveyed (21 respondents) two responses suggested that there were now fewer responsibilities for governors. (McCrone et al., 2011, pp. 23–24)

We therefore have school governance system that is hugely different for school governors in LA maintained schools and for academy committee members in MATs, yet research into school governance has not generally recognised this distinction. Whilst volunteers in LA maintained schools are a legal entity and hold accountability, why would someone want to volunteer to sit on an academy committee where they may just be reporting to a board of trustees and have little or no authority?

Wilkinson and Long (2019), in a House of Commons Briefing Paper, recognise the different structures of governance in England, Northern Ireland and Wales, and state that in English schools, “the different models of governance have raised concerns within some governing bodies in MATs. As schools convert to academy status or join MATs, responsibilities of local governing bodies may diminish and some school governors may no longer be required” (Wilkinson & Long, 2019, p. 6).

To support my research into academy committee members, I am fortunate to be able to draw on the framework of the NGA’s annual survey of school governors. The survey has been running for nine consecutive years and regularly captured the responses of almost 6,000 respondents from English school governing bodies (including academy committees). Whilst this is a significant representation of governance and probably the most wide-ranging of any such survey, there are around 300,000 school governors in England (Allcroft, 2016; House of Commons Education Committee, 2013), and so data from the NGA survey represents just 2% of the volunteers.

Other research conducted on school governance appears to have a relatively low response rate. In the above research from McCrone et al. (2011) they received 1,591 responses out of a potential 300,000 – a 0.5% response rate. (McCrone et al., 2011, p. 9)

References

Allcroft, G. (2016). Welcome to a multi academy trust: A guide for newly appointed trustees.

Balarin, M., Brammer, S., James, C., & Mccormack, M. (2008). The school governance study. Business in the Community. http://opus.bath.ac.uk/15827/1/Governing_our_schools_%2D_a_research_study_by_the_University_of_Bath_for_BITC_14th_Oct_08.pdf

Brehony, K. (1994). Interests, accountability and representation: A political analysis of governing bodies. In A. Thody (Ed.), School governors: Leaders or followers? Longman Information.

Department for Education. (2016). Articles of association for use by mainstream academies, special academies, 16 to 19 academies, alternative provision academies, free schools and studio schools. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/academy-model-memorandum-and-articles-of-association

Department for Education. (2017). The constitution of governing bodies of maintained schools: Statutory guidance for governing bodies of maintained schools and local authorities in England. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/640562/The_constitution_of_governing_bodies_of_maintained_schools_2017.pdf

Department for Education. (2020). Open academies, free schools, studio schools and UTCs and academy projects awaiting approval: July 2020. Department for Education. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/open-academies-and-academy-projects-in-development

House of Commons Education Committee. (2013). The Role of School Governing Bodies: Second Report of Session 2013–14 (HC 365-I). The Stationery Office Limited. https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201314/cmselect/cmeduc/365/365.pdf

McCrone, T., Southcott, C., George, N., National Foundation for Educational Research in England and Wales, & Local Government Group (Great Britain). (2011). Governance models in schools. National Foundation for Educational Research.

Thody, A. (1994). School governors: Leaders or followers? Longman Information.

Wilkinson, N., & Long, R. (2019). School Governance. UK Parliament. https://dera.ioe.ac.uk/34771/1/CBP-8072.pdf

1 Comment

  1. N

    I have been a Governor in Surrey and Hampshire since 2011 . Twelve instances (one twice) of which one was a failure and one was an attritional experience with no value add. One is current. Five were Academies.

    In my experience, while there is on paper a profound difference between the statute-based role of a FGB and the Scheme-of-Delegation-based LGC, in practice there is precious little difference. Hence, I have never discerned a difference in profile between those who volunteer for a maintained school compared with those in an Academy. What is becoming an issue (outside of the scope of this paper) is finding people who can add value and are available. It’s either entrepreneurs who can manage their diaries, parents who have a level of self-interest, or retired professionals who are hopefully not in their dotage.

    Why have I found no discernible difference? I fear that it is because many Governing Bodies fanny about with minutiae and tangible things (the School Bus is a classic), they are benign and largely irrelevant. MATs tolerate them to ease the pain of transition and then lack the resolve or capacity to close them or put them on a new, reduced footing.

    My opinion is that a substantial minority of MATs have not put their Governance house in order; if they were to do so my instinct is that any resulting structure would be much reduced in scope and numbers.

    IEBs are a different kettle of fish and very focussed but they are hand picked.

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