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General election 2015: what will it mean for school governance?

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With the May general election fast approaching, I thought now would be a good time to consider what the outcome could mean for the next few years of school governance.

Firstly though, it’s important to look at where we are now, and what has changed over the past five years.

To me, it seems clear that school governance has a much higher profile than it did in 2010.

In 2015, governing bodies are more autonomous, held more accountable, and, on the whole are better trained and more prepared to shoulder their considerable responsibilities. In large part this is down to the strong role accorded to governors by the Coalition in delivering the ‘self-improving’ school system.

That said, the Trojan horse affair, and cases of poor financial probity in some academy trusts, have raised pertinent questions about the overall effectiveness of school oversight. (Who governs the governors?)

While it’s unlikely we’ll hear much about school governance during the election campaign, the next five years will be key to the future of school governance.

So what would victory for either of the major parties mean?

The Conservatives

Should we simply expect more of the same if the Conservatives retain control of the Department for Education? I think the answer to that is a definite ‘yes’.

All indications are that the Conservatives will continue to pursue their vision of a self-improving school system, underpinned by strong, autonomous governing bodies firmly held to account by central government.

It’s likely that governors in under-performing schools will continue to find their positions under threat. David Cameron has spoken of his intention to extend the criteria under which schools can be forced to convert to academy status under a sponsor, and regional commissioners are now in place to ensure this can happen more efficiently. We can probably expect more of the showdowns that marked the past five years.

A continuing focus on autonomy and academies means that the promotion of the skills-based, business-style governance culture that will trump any return to stakeholder representation. And with that, we are likely to see fewer staff and parents on governing bodies.

Responsibility will stay with the governing body itself to ensure it has the right skills and performs effectively –  it’s unlikely that training will be prescribed or mandated.

And the growth of multi-academy trusts will continue apace, which means the further development of new and inventive governance structures.  But it's likely that criticisms will get louder that some of these new structures are opaque, bewildering and even dis-empowering.


If Labour forms the next government, how far would it accommodate the reforms of the past five years?

Some have suggested (including on this blog) that the vast majority of the Coalition’s reforms of the schools sector will remain in place. At times, Labour has even given the impression it will go further, by pledging to give all maintained schools the powers that academies have.

Nevertheless, the party has accepted proposals that, if implemented, have the potentially to set school governance on a different course.

Central to David Blunkett’s widely trailed report on the structure of the school system, are new Directors of School Standards (DSS) who will have responsibility for the performance of all schools in an area. If the plans are enacted, the DSS would form a new, local layer of governance and 0versight between central government and school.

Academy governors, who, over the past few years, have got used to minimal intervention, will have to cooperate with DSS. Multi-academy governors will feel this the most – some may find it hard to work with what they may feel is a rival local driver of school improvement. But even maintained schools will be expected to cooperate and collaborate much more than they currently do.

Other proposals include the development of a new national training programme for governors, more local coordination around the provision of information to governors, and the introduction of new requirements about communication with parents.

While Labour insists autonomy will remain a key feature of the school system, and that a strengthened local framework will support innovation and collaboration rather than hinder it, others may feel that this amounts to a step backwards.

Governors at the centre

While the parties have issued alternative visions of the school system, it’s worth recognising that both feature strong, autonomous governing bodies at their core.

Some may argue that the Conservatives haven’t fully addressed the need for proper accountability and oversight, and their policies will continue the fragmentation of the school system. Others may say that Labour’s proposals will tend to recreate local bureaucracy.

Either way, while we won't hear much about them during the election campaign, it's clear that governors will remain at the centre of the school system after 7 May.

Further reading to help

An article on The Key for School Governors looks at the main parties' election proposals for schools.

We also look at the specific proposals for school inspection in this article.

If you are a school leader, we have an election 2015 area here.

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