Last reviewed 20 May 2019

Strong and effective governance is a vital element in the running of any successful school or academy. Martin Hodgson, a school governor for over 10 years, looks at the latest guidance.

Updated governance guidance

The Department for Education (DfE) has published a new March 2019 version of its popular Governance Handbook. The handbook represents key governance guidance for academies, multi-academy trusts and maintained schools in England. It sets out the Government’s vision and priorities for effective governance by:

  • reinforcing the core role and functions of a governing board

  • summarising the legal duties on boards

  • signposting where schools and academies can find more detailed information, guidance, support and resources.

The latest edition of the handbook also updates information about the six features that the DfE considers to be key to the effectiveness of governance.

These “key features” are listed as follows.

  1. Strategic leadership.

  2. Accountability.

  3. People.

  4. Structures.

  5. Compliance.

  6. Evaluation.

The guidance describes the first two key features as including the “core functions” of a board’s role and purpose.

The second two are described as relating to the way in which governance is organised. The last two are described as being concerned with ensuring and improving the quality of governance.

1. Focus on strategic leadership that sets and champions vision, ethos and strategy

Having sufficiently robust arrangements in place to ensure appropriate strategic leadership is seen by the DfE as the first of its key features of effective governance.

The guidance states that a board’s first “core function” should be about providing strategic leadership. It describes this as involving setting out the organisation’s overall strategic framework, including its vision and strategic priorities, and setting and modelling its culture, values and ethos.

According to the DfE, a board should ensure that the organisation they represent has a clear vision which is articulated in a specific written statement. This should include ambitions for current and future pupils, the guidance states, as well as for the organisation’s relationship with other schools.

For multi-academy trusts (MATs), the DfE states that the vision should set out the level of ambition that the MAT has for future growth.

The latest version of the Governance Handbook includes a stronger emphasis on parental engagement as part of strategic leadership.

The DfE states that it is vital that boards are connected with, and answerable to, the communities they serve. All boards should therefore assure themselves that mechanisms are in place for their organisation to engage meaningfully with all parents and carers. Parental engagement must also be used by the board itself to inform its strategic decision-making.

2. Make people accountable for driving up educational standards and financial health

In addition to strategic leadership, the Governance Handbook describes the second of a board’s key features as being about creating robust systems of accountability for executive leaders.

This is described in the guidance as covering the other “core functions” of a school or academy governing body, namely:

  • holding executive leaders to account for the educational performance of the organisation and its pupils, and the effective and efficient performance management of staff

  • overseeing the financial performance of the organisation and making sure its money is well spent.

These core functions are well established in law and are underpinned by statutory arrangements relating to the constitution of governance. They involve driving up educational standards by the rigorous analysis of pupil progress, attainment and financial information.

With reference to accountability, the latest edition of the handbook includes:

  • a new section on workload considerations which draws attention to the latest published workload guidance

  • updated guidance to replace RAISEonline with information on Analyse School Performance.

Regarding workload, the guidance refers to the Making Data Work report of the Teacher Workload Advisory Group published in November 2018 and to the Workload Reduction Toolkit developed by DfE as a tool to help school leaders and teachers review and reduce workload.

3. Build a diverse and effective governance team by appointing people with the right skills, experience, qualities and capacity

This section of the updated handbook looks at how boards can build a diverse and effective team. It includes information for maintained schools on the Constitution Regulations 2012 and information on linked competency frameworks for both governors and clerks.

The DfE points out that the effectiveness of a board depends on the quality of its people and how they work together with executive leaders.

The updated guidance covers aspects of governance such as:

  • skills and competencies

  • probity and appropriate behaviours

  • holding elections

  • training and skills development

  • appointing a chair

  • clerking.

The March 2019 edition of the Governance Handbook provides clarification on criminal records checks and updates references to the clerking competency framework, funded clerking training and the employment of a clerk or “governance professional” in MATs.

4. Establish structures that reinforce clearly defined roles and responsibilities

This section explains the specific structures of governance for academies and maintained schools, and how they must be set up to both ensure effectiveness and compliance with legal requirements.

Effective governance structures are described as including:

  • appropriate board and committee structures that reflect the scale and structure of an organisation and ensure “sufficient and robust oversight” of key priorities

  • a clear separation between strategic non-executive oversight and operational executive leadership

  • processes for ensuring appropriate communication between all levels and structures of governance and to pupils/students, parents/carers, staff and communities.

5. Ensure compliance with statutory and contractual requirements

As well as having the right structures in place, effective governance is described by the DfE as involving compliance with key duties and responsibilities as set out in relevant legal and statutory requirements, codes of conduct and best practice.

This section of the handbook covers a wide range of areas where compliance is vital in effective governance. Sub-sections include information about:

  • constitutional and charity and company law duties

  • equality and discrimination

  • the curriculum

  • sex and relationship education

  • religious education and worship

  • safeguarding

  • school admissions, attendance and exclusions

  • safety and estates

  • children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND)

  • financial responsibilities

  • staffing and performance management (including recruitment and employment checks)

  • staff pay and conditions of service

  • discipline, grievance and capability procedures.

The updated version of the handbook covers relevant legal changes since the previous edition, including what a maintained school must publish in relation to the curriculum, the introduction of statutory careers guidance, changes to pupil premium, data protection changes and clarity on a board’s safeguarding responsibilities.

6. Carry out regular evaluation to monitor and improve the quality and impact of governance

The last of the key features of effective governance identified by the DfE is that of carrying out regular evaluation.

The DfE states that boards should regularly evaluate their own effectiveness. They should also carry out regular audits of the skills they possess in the light of the skills and competences they need.

This section of the latest edition of the handbook has been updated to include reference to DfE funded governance development programmes and other areas of support and information which may be of use to boards.

Further information

The updated Governance Handbook can be downloaded from the GOV.UK website.

The new edition replaces the previous January 2017 version of the handbook.

The handbook should be read alongside the Competency Framework for Governance and the Clerking Competency Framework, both also available from the same source.

The DfE workload reduction toolkit can be found at