How lay governors make better schools

Nigel Gann offers a more democratic vision of school governance. The second edition of his book Improving School Governance: How better governors make better schools has just been published.


School management is often about measurable things – getting the data right, building the numbers up, attaining and achieving and progressing. School leadership, and governance, must be about the rounded things, not just ‘How many . . . ?’ but why and how and who. Governance brings people into schools who will not be slaves to the calculations of annual percentage increases or disappointing statistics.

Now the govern­ment are trying to tie governors down, wanting governing bodies to be more ‘business-like’, efficient, like the institutions of banking and investment and currency manipulation that have made this nation what it is today. Inspectors tell governors what to do and judge how well they do it. The message is that governors need to be skilled, focused, directive – and smaller, to concentrate single-mindedly on results.

The School Governors’ One-Stop Shop (SGOSS) initiative ‘Make Schools Your Business’ launched in 2014 overplays the contribution of business skills. In some academy chains, we see expertise without probity and skills without values, which undermine the local ownership of schools and turn them into just another business.

Holding on to real education

At its best schooling is a magical thing. For a few short years, Ofsted asked its inspectors to report on moments of ‘awe and wonder’. What a magical notion! One inspector accompanied a primary class to walk up a hill near school. A girl, running ahead, sat astride a stile and looked about her and cried: ‘Cor, Miss, you can see the whole of the world from here’. And the inspector thought it worth recording! That’s awe and wonder, and it happened as part of a formal education. When we look back on our own schooling, it’s those moments we remember: unpredictable instants when we were sparked into life by a physical experience, a piece of music, a scientific insight, a poem.

Increasingly, schools are squared off, ruled, fixed and rigid things. People are told to judge them by numbers; by the way everyone behaves the same, doing just what they’re told; by the way teachers and other schoolworkers follow rules, obey government diktats, pro­duce measurable results.

But curvy things like awe and wonder – things more difficult to pin down and measure – happen in schools all the time, too. Jokes and stories force their way in and people do unexpected, not always welcome, but always rounded human things.

Stakeholder or skills-based governing?

In the conservative (consumerist or business) model of society, the public is seen as self-interested, reactive not proactive, having a consumerist relationship, ie disconnected, but if things go wrong, ready to take their business elsewhere.

The stakeholder model of the 1990s was potentially a radical model of public ownership of a service designed to serve the public. Here the community representative is seen as:

  • responsible for the direction, content and quality of services
  • committed long-term to the community
  • acting in the interests of others as well as the self
  • proactive, initiating change.


What lay governors contribute

1 Members of the community have a unique understanding of the expec­tations and aspirations of the community. They can express what par­ents and others expect from their children’s academic, social, personal and cultural education, and what their aspirations are for their children.

2 Schools need the support and understanding of the communities they serve. The community’s expectations have to be communicated to the professional staff so that they can be debated, challenged and met. People expect their voices to be heard nowadays, and can communicate instantly through social media, sometimes aggressively. It is much more helpful to have a positive dialogue between professionals and local people, and parents are more likely to be supportive.

3 Lay governors explain and interpret the school to their community. In return, schools must explain their purposes and reasons.

4 A school belongs to its community, not just to its teachers. Working together provides a stronger defence against government interference. Lay governors provide a channel through which schools can assert their individuality, their response to the community they serve. Governors provide a means through which community ownership of the school can be exercised.

The future of governing bodies

Community governors bring something different to school leadership than an influx of ‘experts’ in accounting, construction, human resources or law. They should form part of a strategic leadership, not simply monitor budgets and outcomes. They bring what Joan Sallis called ‘the precious light of ordinariness’.

School governance may be in crisis. The democratic model is under threat in many academic trusts and chains. The pro­bity of some prominent school leaders, both governors and headteach­ers, is in question. Measures for school performance are narrowing.

Good local school governance represents a form of social capital, offering com­munity engagement in the delivery of a public service for the public good. It can enable communities to develop a sense of ownership over their local school, and enable professionals to be responsive to local need.

Governors also have the potential to initiate democratic transformation across the local area, by working with others. What if a governing body were to demand better support for chil­dren’s mental health & wellbeing? Or to engage in the area’s planning for new housing? To work with social services to help migrant workers and their families? Then, truly, a community might be said to have ‘caught the vision of its own powers.’

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