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What does the new competency framework mean for school governors?

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Last week the Department for Education introduced a brand new competency framework for governance, and governors all over the country have already started talking about what this means for them. Followers of Sunday's #ukgovchat will know that the framework is causing some real anxiety and prompting big questions over the future of governance.

We've put these concerns to our top governance experts, to get their views on these uncertainties.

Will the new framework really make any difference if it isn't statutory?

Martin Owen, qualified Chartered Accountant 

Yes, as those governing bodies who adopt it will demonstrate their commitment, setting the course for others to follow and leading in best practice. Those who don't will inevitably be left behind.

Fred Birkett, experienced governance consultant

If it were statutory, I fear it would become a heavy-handed approach outlining a level of expertise that would be off-putting if potential governors saw them as expectations rather than as something to work towards.

Are you worried that this is 'performance management' for a volunteer role?

Martin Matthews, national leader of governance

Many volunteers, such as magistrates and the army reserve already receive performance management. This is nothing new in the voluntary public sector. The wider question is: “Is this performance management?” At the heart of this is, who makes the value judgements to decide on the performance?

Ofsted doesn't have the subject knowledge, neither do local authorities and headteachers rarely have governance training. If they expect 500 NLGs to cover 23,000 schools annually, then the role would need to be paid. Who would fund this? There certainly isn't the money in the system. It’s a start, but it isn't performance management yet.

Jane Owens, national leader of governance

I worry that it might become a tick list - but it is not intended as one. Professional behaviours should be of course be demonstrated by governors at all times and we should be aware of the responsibilities of the role we have undertaken, even as volunteers. But I have always felt that we must take the time to self-review, either within our own boards or by using someone to help us - like an NLG. This is my view with or without the new competency framework.

Harry James, national leader of governance

I think it is important to get committed governors who have the right skills, if not always easy.

The framework must go hand-in-hand with appropriate training in specific areas where some governors might lack skills or knowledge. I suggest the government should show its commitment to `volunteers' by providing compulsory, free training for all new governors.

What does this framework mean for the future of governance?

Martin Matthews

The move towards a more professional volunteer governance cohort has been gathering pace for the last five years. The framework may come as a shock to some governing bodies, but then any change shocks some.

The framework itself marks a moment in time where the state has started to define what it expects from governors. It’s great that it underlines the Nolan principles - we must continually refer back to the first of these: selflessness. Any governing board which does not have children as its core focus has lost its way.

The flip side of the framework is that as governance professionalises the voice of governance in the education world will become clearer and louder. I wonder if the DfE is ready for that?

Do you have any worries about how this will affect governor recruitment?

Jane Owens

I am certainly concerned that the framework will not be an aide to recruitment and retention for this voluntary role - it should be used with care.

Harry James

Governance is becoming much more professional - in terms of what is expected of governors, and the demands of the role. This may lead to a decline in people wanting to become governors, and existing governors feeling they are not up to the new role.

I think that there's more to do to promote the benefits of being a school governor, such as the experience and expertise you can gain in areas such as finance and HR.  National, regional and local businesses could link up with schools for the benefit of their employees, the schools and the local community.

Fred Birkett

If we see it as a guide to good practice and a resource which will support and inform governors to be the best they can be, the competency framework will be a force for good.  If presented as a checklist of expectations, then it will help put prospective governors off.

What’s your advice to chairs, who may feel they are now faced with a more demanding role?

Martin Matthews

Seek advice and support. Look to articles, governor Facebook groups and peer to peer support. Waiting for a termly LA newsletter or briefing is not an option. The breadth of support out here is far wider than it has ever been.

Harry James

Go through all the attributes, skills and knowledge you require and be honest about what you have and what you need.

Look to fill the gaps by contacting experienced chairs in your area, or an NLG. If you don't have a local network of chairs that shares knowledge and best practice and provides support - look to set one up. If you haven't been on the chairs development course, think about taking it.

What should governing bodies do now? How can they discuss this in meetings?

Brendan Hollyer, national leader of governance

Somebody with reasonable experience should make a first-pass of the document, to determine how the governing body measures up against the framework.

Governors can then use it in a self-review session, identifying areas of strength and those for development. This then forms an action plan, which will drive improvement.

Fred Birkett

Governors would do well to discuss the framework, and become familiar with it as a guide to good practice. They will no doubt recognise elements of their current practice, which will be rewarding, as well as possibilities for ongoing individual and collective improvement.  Thereafter, they should use the framework as an ongoing resource for guidance, evaluation of practice, and a means of informing strategy.

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