The DfE  has finally done something good...

The Department for Education has been described as the most ineffective of all government departments and is regularly castigated by the National Audit Office for its lamentable financial management. It has missed its targets for recruiting teachers for the fifth year running.

But...the new and significantly revised Governance Handbook, published by the DfE just last week, is really good!

I've worked in governance for over 20 years now and can remember the old Guide to the Law, the precursor to the Governance Handbook, which was an A5 sized booklet, colour coded for different kinds of schools. It went through various incarnations over the years and morphed into the Governors Handbook more recently and its previous revision saw it renamed the Governance Handbook for the first time. So it's been through the mill.

It's never been a document that most governors read from cover to cover and was mainly of use to governance professionals in LAs and national organisations, as well as clerks. Even in its current form, I doubt whether many governors will ever read it fully, if at all. I do lots of induction training for new governors in several different local authorities and always tell them about the Handbook. Often at least half the group has never heard of it or seen it and very few have actually read it. This might be because it is no longer given to them as a hard copy, so they have to find it online and it's a very long document to print out - 130 pages.

Sadly, if that pattern continues, governors will be missing a trick. If I were a chair of governors I would print out pages 9-13 and hand them out to my colleagues, asking them to read it before scheduling a discussion.

Why? Because the Handbook has been completely restructured against six key features of effective governance, bringing real clarity and coherence to the document. We're used to the idea of the three core functions of governance, which underpin these key features. The key features help to break down the essence of good governance into interlinked and understandable chunks, paying as much attention to the people involved as to the compliance tasks to be managed. They are:

  • Strategic leadership that sets and champions vision, ethos and strategy.
  • Accountability that drives up educational standards and financial performance.
  • People with the right skills, experience, qualities and capacity.
  • Structures that reinforce clearly defined roles and responsibilities.
  • Compliance with statutory and contractual requirements.
  • Evaluation to monitor and improve the quality and impact of governance.

Whilst much of the text is unaltered, it has been redistributed under more relevant headings. Useful advice from other previously separate documents, such as guidance on reconstitution (much more interesting than its title suggests) has been incorporated, again adding depth to the Handbook.

A supporting document provides a competency framework for governance. This framework is based on the same six features of effective governance that characterise the Handbook. Wow! Joined-up thinking at last!

It is clear that quite a few organisations have contributed to the revisions, notably the National Governors Association but at least the DfE had the good sense to consult and take advice. It is also significant that much of the new text seeks to address some of the embarrassing weaknesses and abuses of governance in the worst multi-academy trusts, such as a stronger emphasis on ensuring financial propriety, a new explanation of the risks associated with close family relationships between those involved in governance or between them and senior employees and clarification that all boards are required to publish a scheme of delegation to explain their governance arrangements, together with new guidance on what makes an effective scheme of delegation.

Whereas the previous edition was very unbalanced in favour of prioritising academies and multi-academy trusts - let's not lose sight of the fact that the vast majority of schools are still not academies and therefore most governors are not academy governors - this one is less so and all the better for it.

This doesn't stop Lord Nash from continuing to claim that "When boards govern a group of schools we also then see further improvement in the quality of governance - as boards gain a more strategic perspective". Where, pray, is the evidence for that? It certainly wasn't in Ofsted's criticism of the worst MATs, published last year.

Academy governance is undoubtedly more complex than that in maintained schools, which is ironic given Michael Gove's lofty ambition to set academies free from local bureaucracy. I defy anyone to read through the Handbook's attempt to explain the different functions of Members and Trustees and emerge enlightened. It's a worthy effort but my direct experience of talking with governors and clerks in academies tells me that this is a continuing issue - especially when we add the terms "Directors" and "governors" to the mix. Oddly, it's made much clearer in the introduction to the competency framework: "Members are not directly involved in governance, which is the responsibility of the board of trustees."

At the same time, the Handbook is refreshingly clear and robust about a couple of the recently-departed Michael Wilshaw's favourite canards - paid governance and compulsory training. Read through the sections on Pay (p37-38) and Training and development (p34) to see what I mean. This clarity contrasts dramatically with Ofsted's pathetic whimper of a commentary "Improving governance" published just before Christmas.

The Handbook is not perfect. Most importantly, it is simply too long for most governors to read and use on a regular basis.

The competency framework is a comprehensive and very ambitious counsel of perfection, risking making effective governance seem well-nigh unattainable by ordinary mortals giving freely of their time once the day job is done. We still need hundreds of thousands of people to volunteer as governors. Even though the competency framework is non-statutory, it might be seen by some as a step too far even for full-time paid professionals. I would defend its ambition but it would need a lot of explanation before most governors came to accept it for what it is, an attempt to show how seriously we should take governance nowadays and what it takes to get it right.

Overall, though, this is the best iteration of the document in twenty years and for me, at least, it provides to basis for a clearer approach to governor training and advice. Well done, DfE.

Now maybe you should get to work sorting out how you manage your budget and recruit enough good teachers to keep the system running so that governors will have schools to govern in the future.

 

 

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