The State of Education 2017: view from the governors’ meeting

Friday, May 26th, 2017

by Rosemary Hill - Researcher

I think no-one can deny that 2017 is providing us all with some interesting times. Especially so the governors of our schools, who over the last year have – without pay or much recognition – quietly assimilated a lot of pretty profound changes.

Between new performance measures, consultations on a funding formula, a competency framework for governance and now the prospect of a general election to really shake up the education sector, it’s been hard to keep track of everything that’s going on.

But what is it that governors are really thinking about? Well, the results from our State of Education Survey 2017 are in, and there are definitely some themes emerging…

Money, money, money…

… must be funny etc. Well, maybe not for schools in 2017. Perhaps unsurprisingly, and in common with their school leader counterparts, the most widespread area of concern for governors is: the budget. 79% of our respondents foresee stormy financial weather ahead, and it’s not hard to see why.

The stream of headlines relating to the state of our school’s finances feels pretty relentless right now – from crumbling school buildings, to homeless teachers, to governors going on strike to protest funding cuts.

Given these headlines, as well as pretty damning findings from the National Audit Office, I would have to cordially disagree with anyone who tries to imply that schools have never had it so good. And while headteachers are at the sharp end of trying to make less money do more, it’s always the governors that are signing off on the budget.

There may be trouble ahead…

Perhaps it’s not all doom and gloom though –56% of governors who replied to our survey told us that they are confident that their school will cope will any financial pressures over the next two years. That said, I can’t help but note that we are left with another 44% who are, at best, ambivalent about how their school will cope.

Couple that with the 72% of governors who are not sure that standards can be maintained if there’s a cut to their staffing budget, and the two thirds of school leaders who are anticipating cuts to that very area in the next few years, and a worrying picture begins to emerge.

And that’s not the only thing – because funding being trimmed does not stand alone as a future stumbling block for school governors.

Other big and looming issues include: adapting to new ways to monitor their school’s performance; supporting the morale of a profession some say is in crisis; filling board vacancies with keen new recruits who match the increasingly professional expectations of the DfE – the list could go on.

And let’s not forget – in 22% of primaries and 62% of secondary schools, governors are doing all this within a academy system whose governance structures, if we’re honest, haven’t quite had all their creases ironed out yet. The remaining governors are watching these new trustees and local governors try to make the system work, and keeping an eye on when they might need to make the leap too.

It almost feels like a truism now to say that education is facing tough times, but I think that the challenges facing school governors are particularly significant, and sometimes overlooked. Maybe this is because they tend to relate less to sensational, on-the-ground dramas in school and more to long-term, strategic issues that can come across as (whisper it) a little… dry.

In any case, I think it’s true to say that there may never have been a more challenging time to go into school governance.

Don’t let it get you down

I appreciate that all of the above may come across as a little depressing – and I’d be depressed, were it not for what I know about school governors.

I hear from governors every day –  answering questions, giving reassurance, and hopefully saving them a little time so they can get on with the important things. I know that they are motivated by a genuine desire to do right by their schools, and even though some may feel like the choices they’re making right now are impossible, they are still there, quietly making the education world turn.

More than 90% of our survey respondents told us their board has the skills to hold their schools to account, and I am happy to believe them. I also think that, whatever this general election throws at us – be it the second coming of the grammar schools or the rise of the National Education Service, governors will continue to meet, occasionally drink sherry, and make sure things are kept ticking over.

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