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Getting Strategic about School Governance

13 Nov, 2014

FP0000141FD01 Children, at primary school

This weekend the Wellcome Trust and the National Governors’ Association launch a new Framework for Governance as part of their work to improve science education. Wellcome Trust Education advisor Sir John Holman and Nancy Wilkinson from the Education and Learning Team share the findings from the pilot study that led to the new framework, and discuss the importance of good governance in schools…

Look at any schools’ mission statement and you will likely see inspiring statements about helping pupils feel confident, secure and ready to take their place in modern society. Yet when you look at how schools measure their success, it is mostly in terms of exam league tables and Ofsted judgements, the two remorseless drivers of schools’ behaviour. And that is hardly surprising, when a headteacher’s job is on the line every time the exam results are published, or when Ofsted comes to call.

Beset by regulations, targets and with Ofsted looming over all, it can be hard for headteachers to step back and think about what really matters – nurturing pupils who are not only getting good exam grades, but who are resilient, engaged with their subjects and have high aspirations for the future. This is where governors can play an important role. School governors need to help the school take a strategic view of what really matters, to help the headteacher to see the wood, as well as the trees.

A Framework for Governance

With all this in mind, the Wellcome Trust got together with governors, headteachers, the National Governors’ Association (NGA), Ofsted and others, and drafted a strategic framework for governance (which we originally called a ‘Recommended Code of Governance’) to help governors take a strategic view of what matters in their school. The most innovative part, which we call ‘Element C’ gives ideas for high-level school performance indicators. These measure all the things that matter to the school, going beyond exam results and asking questions about whether pupils are resilient, whether they enjoy coming to school and whether there are plenty of opportunities to experience success through extra-curricular activities.

After several rounds of review, we published a pilot version of the framework, which we tried out with governors in 21 schools for two years from November 2012. The 21 pilot schools were spread across England, and included primary, secondary and special schools.

What did we learn?

FP0000142F02 Child, at secondary schoolSchool governors liked the simple and concise style of the framework that made it easy to understand. Despite this, most schools told us that they needed more support and training in using it and many schools struggled with how to get started. This was especially true of Element C: although governors accepted the importance of wider outcomes, they found it hard to see how they would measure things like pupils’ future aspirations or their wellbeing and resilience. They also expressed concerns about whether concentrating on these priorities/outcomes would be ‘what Ofsted is looking for’ – confirming what a powerful driver of schools’ behaviour the inspectorate is.

Another thing we learnt from the pilot was the importance of good leadership in school governing bodies. During the pilot, four of the 21 schools dropped out, and this was usually because the person who had originally volunteered to take part had moved on. If a school wants to improve its governance, it is essential to have an ongoing champion – usually the chair of governors – who is able to take the lead.

What happens next?

We learnt a lot from this pilot, and using the feedback from participants, we’ve worked with the NGA to produce a revised Framework for Governance. We’ve worked particularly hard on improving the section that helps schools understand the importance of the suggested high-level performance indicators, and offered more guidance on how these can be measured. For example, there are suggestions for how ‘wellbeing and resilience’ can be measured through pupil and parent surveys and by analysing data on absence and behaviour. The NGA will be running a training programme to support schools in using the new Framework for Governance, which will be launched at the NGA’s Annual Conference in Birmingham on 15th November 2014.

In their hearts, headteachers know that there is more to education than exam results alone, important though these are. But in their heads, they know that their future depends on the next crop of results. Governors need to help headteachers think strategically about what really matters in their school, and we believe our new Framework for Governance, developed with the NGA and supported by their training, is a powerful tool for doing so.

You will be able to access the revised Framework for Governance soon on the NGA and Wellcome Trust websitesPlease let us know if you would like to receive an email alerting you to its publication by sending an email to with the subject “Framework for Governance”. The Wellcome Trust is committed to a continuing programme for improving school governance. Alongside the work described here, we are also developing Questions for Governors to help governors ask the right questions about the quality of science and mathematics in their school.

Image credits: Fiona Pragoff/Wellcome Images

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