The Department for Education (DfE) has published a new version of its handbook for school governors. Martin Hodgson, a school governor for over 10 years, looks at what is new in the updated version.

Governance Handbook for Academies, Multi-academy Trusts and Maintained Schools, published in January 2017, sets out the Government’s vision and priorities for effective school governance by:

  • outlining the core role and functions of governing boards

  • summarising and providing a first point of reference on the legal duties of boards

  • providing information on the support available to boards to increase their effectiveness.

As with the previous 2016 edition, the new handbook covers all forms of governance, referring to governing bodies as “boards” to indicate that it covers everything from the governing bodies of small local authority maintained schools right through to the boards of large multi-academy trusts (MATs) and federations.

Other subtle shifts in language run through the guidance.

Schools or groups of schools are referred to as “organisations” while the term “executive leaders” is preferred to describe those who are responsible to the board for the performance of the organisation. The guidance states that this may be the chief executive officer, executive Head, Head or principal, as well as other senior staff. The terms “directors” or “trustees” are used for those that sit on the board of an academy trust, which can be free schools, university technical colleges, studio schools and MATs.

These changes reflect what the Government sees as the evolving nature of school governance and the changing legal status of schools themselves.

The six key features of effective governance

As in previous editions of the handbook, the guidance defines the core functions of school governance as:

  • ensuring clarity of vision, ethos and strategic direction

  • holding the Head to account for educational performance

  • overseeing financial performance and making sure money is well spent.

However, the updated handbook expands on these and identifies a framework of six “key features” for effective governance. These form each section of the new book. They are the following.

  1. Strategic leadership.

  2. Accountability.

  3. People.

  4. Structures.

  5. Compliance.

  6. Evaluation.

The first two features are described as the “core pillars” of a board’s role and purpose. The second two are about the way in which governance is organised. The last two are about ensuring and improving the quality of governance.

Strategic leadership

Previous versions of the handbook have stressed the importance of governors setting a school’s overall strategic framework, including its vision and strategic priorities, and modelling its culture, values and ethos.

The new guidance adds information about the decision-making powers of governors.

It states that the board may delegate operational matters to executive leaders and governance functions to committees or individuals, but the board as a corporate entity remains accountable and responsible for all decisions made. Executive leaders, such as the Head, operate within the autonomy, powers and functions delegated to them by the board.

The Governance Handbook states that in most cases it is for the board to decide whether to task individuals to take a particular lead interest to support decision-making in certain areas. However, the guidance specifies that all boards should have:

  • an individual to take leadership responsibility for the organisation’s safeguarding arrangements, including the Prevent duty

  • a member with specific oversight of the school’s arrangements for SEND.

Regarding the diversity of views within the board, the new guidance states that:

  • boards should welcome and thrive on having a sufficiently diverse range of viewpoints

  • while noting the role of foundation governors in schools designated with a religious character, boards should be alert to the risk of becoming “dominated by one particular mind-set or strand of opinion” whether related to faith or otherwise.

The guidance suggests that having board members who have no close ties with the school, or who come from outside the faith or ethnic group of the majority of pupils, can help ensure sufficient “internal challenge” to decisions made.

Accountability

The section on accountability in the new handbook maintains the strong emphasis of previous guidance relating to boards holding their executive leaders, such as Heads, to account for improving pupil and staff performance. It stresses the need for governors to ask the right questions and to be familiar with specific data about their school to help inform their questions, such as that provided by RAISEonline and school performance tables.

A stronger emphasis is placed in the guidance on ensuring financial propriety. The handbook states that:

  • boards should have at least one individual with “specific, relevant skills” and experience of financial matters

  • everyone on the board should have a basic understanding of the financial cycle and the legal requirements of the school on accountability and spending.

The guidance states that this is particularly important in MATs or large schools or federations where larger budgets make it even more critical to have robust financial planning and oversight.

People

The handbook includes updated information about how boards can build an effective team of the right kind of people.

The guidance:

  • reflects updated requirements that all those involved in governance in maintained schools, as well as in academy trusts, must have a Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check

  • includes new advice on conducting informed elections

  • brings together material on the important role of the chair and the clerk

  • highlights the risks associated with close family relationships between those involved in governance or between them and senior employees

  • provides details of the duty on boards to provide information about individuals involved in governance through Edubase.

Also, published by the DfE alongside the new handbook, A Competency Framework for Governance contains further information about the knowledge, skills and behaviours needed for effective governance in maintained schools, academies and MATs.

Structures

The lengthy section on structures explains the different forms of governance for academies and maintained schools and describes how they must be constituted. It includes updated guidance on the role of trustees and members on MATs and on umbrella trusts.

The handbook includes clarification that all boards must publish a “scheme of delegation” to explain their governance arrangements. The scheme of delegation is described as setting out the structure and remit of the board and any committees, as well as the full names of the chair of each. The scheme for a MAT must describe details of local governing bodies (LGBs).

Compliance and evaluation

The sections on compliance and evaluation describe:

  • requirements for the board to comply with statutory and contractual requirements

  • actions that boards need to take to monitor and improve the quality and impact of governance, including the use of regular skills audits, aligned to the organisation’s strategic plan to identify governors skills and knowledge gaps.

The guidance includes new safeguarding advice on handling allegations of peer abuse made against other children. The guidance requires governors to ensure that school safeguarding policies reflect the different forms peer on peer abuse can take and state how victims will be supported.

Also included in the updated handbook is new content on schools causing concern and on “coasting” schools. The definition of a coasting primary school or secondary school is based on published performance data over three years and focuses on the progress pupils make at the school. Once a school has fallen within the coasting definition, the Education and Adoption Act 2016 allows the Secretary of State to intervene.

Further information

Both the Governance Handbook and the Competency Framework for Governance can be downloaded from the GOV.UK website.

Last reviewed 1 February 2017