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Jacqueline Baxter: governors' roles in areas of high deprivation

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The Key has been supporting the research work of Dr Jacqueline Baxter, a lecturer in social policy at The Open University UK, by supplying data insights from The Key for School Governors. Jacqueline’s research interests lie in the fields of education policy and politics, school inspection and the governing of public sector organisations. You can find her blog at and her education column at The Conversation.

Finding your feet in a new job is not always easy, and school governance is no exception. The complexity of the English education system combined with the many responsibilities shouldered by school governors make it vital for them to be able to make sense of their environment and acquire a strong governing identity.

Previous research has shown that acquiring a strong working identity is vital for developing the resilience required to remain in a job even when the going gets tough. Reports such as this one have revealed that in areas of high socio-economic deprivation, the governor role is even more demanding.

For my research study, I analysed quantitative data provided by The Key for School Governors, combined with qualitative interview data from governors in areas of high socio-economic deprivation (SED). This revealed several key areas of focus for governors looking to make sense of their work in these complex and demanding environments.

Asking questions and forming working identities

Asking questions is an important part of forming a strong working identity. It is also, according to the researcher Karl Weick, one of the main ways in which individuals use these identities to make sense of their environments. In environments such as schools, which are subject to constant change, governors must form a strong and resilient identity to cope with the various challenges of the role.

Furthermore, changes to the English school system have led to greater financial and curricular independence for some schools, and the need to cope with complex data and changing school structures has placed greater demands on governors. Research has also shown that, aside from considerable problems with recruitment and retention of governors in schools in areas of high SED, the role itself is particularly demanding in these areas.

To find out how governors in areas of high SED are making sense of their environment, my study looked at which articles on The Key for School Governors were most popular among these governors, and how these differed from the most popular articles among governors in more economically buoyant areas.

Combining this data with data from eight schools in areas of high SED gave rise to a number of interesting insights which suggest that governors in areas of high SED focus on different areas of the role to governors in better-off areas.

The results

Between 1 April 2012 and 28 February 2014, The Key for School Governors was accessed by more than 7,000 unique schools and nearly 14,000 unique members, amassing more than 200,000 article views across 1,357 separate articles.

I broke this data down into schools that registered as being above average and below average on the free school meals indicator, and doing so revealed significant differences in the most popular questions asked by governors in areas of high SED and more economically buoyant areas.

The most popular article among governors in both more and less socio-economically deprived areas was an answer to the question ‘Do you have a calendar of significant dates for governors?’. However, from here onwards the results diverge. The second most popular article from governors in areas of high SED concerned what inspectors may ask during a school inspection. This was followed by an article on monitoring the work of the headteacher and senior leadership team, in an article on 20 questions for governing bodies.

One of the most statistically significant differences between the two groups was the focus of governors in areas of high SED on building governors’ confidence. The Key’s article on this was the 6th most popular among this group of governors, but 28th among governors in areas of low SED. Another statistically significant difference to emerge was the focus of governors in areas of high SED on how to prepare for Ofsted inspection. This ranked 9th among these governors, compared to 15th in schools with average or below average SED.

Teaching and learning

Research into governance in not-for-profit organisations has revealed that governors find monitoring non-financial performance to be one of their most difficult tasks (see this book and this article).

According to my study, school governance is no exception. Questions on assessing the quality of teaching and learning proved very important to governors in areas both of higher SED and lower SED, with governors in areas of low SED seeming slightly more concerned about this than their counterparts in high-SED areas.

There was also a marked concern with guidance on governor school visits, particularly in federations of schools in high-SED areas, among whom the article was ranked 4th, as opposed to 6th among all federations in England. Governors in federations in high-SED areas were also concerned with exclusion processes and how they may have changed, with an article on this ranking 6th among them and 126th across all federations nationwide.


It should come as no surprise that governors were preoccupied with inspection processes and questions that inspectors are likely to ask. In areas of high SED, articles on inspection were ranked at an average of 6th compared to an average of 9th overall. Federation school governors in high-SED areas were particularly interested in what questions inspectors may ask about safeguarding, with an article on this ranked 6th in areas of high SED, compared to the national average of 225th.

Context and collaboration

Combining the quantitative data with the qualitative content showed that a keen awareness of the school’s context was a key motivating force for governors in areas of high SED. These governors had a strong sense that it was their duty to make a difference for all young people in the local area, extending outside the school and into the community.

Governors in areas of high SEN also showed a strong commitment to working with other schools in the area. Again, this reflects their sense of the centrality of the school within the local area, with the governors often portraying themselves as the nexus between the school and the community.

Building governors' confidence

Perhaps one of the most revealing insights to emerge from the quantitative analysis concerned how to build governors’ confidence and encourage them to be more active on the governing body.

In areas of high SED, The Key’s article on this ranked 10th, compared to a national average of 25th. This trend was also reflected in federations, among which the article answering the question ‘Are there questionnaires to check governor confidence and understanding?’ was ranked 14th in areas of high SED, compared to a nationwide ranking of 18th.

Governors in schools with high SED were also more preoccupied with governor skill audits than their counterparts in more economically buoyant areas. The difference between federations and single schools in these cases was negligible.

These insights are useful in terms of thinking about the kind of support which is most needed within governing bodies that operate in very different contexts. Forming and shaping a strong and committed governor working identity is crucial, not only for governor job satisfaction but also to prevent governor attrition.

The research I carried out, although relatively small in scale, has provided vital insights into this often occluded area. It also highlights the need for further investigation into governors’ roles and identities, and the ongoing support they require.

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