The parent governor: 1980-2022?

Oliver Kean
Oliver Kean

Since they first appeared on governing bodies, parent governors have been on the receiving end of many accusations: that they focus on their own children at the expense of the wider school population, that they dwell on insignificant detail or that they bring an axe to grind.

It’s not just high profile critics of governance who have expressed these attitudes about parent governors, experience tells me it’s often headteachers and other governors who feel this way too. And I’m sure some of the time they’ve been justified. But only now that the government has announced its intention to remove the requirement for academy trusts to have parent governors does it bring into sharper focus what schools could lose. Because despite their flaws, it’s important to remember the large part parent governors have played in improving schools over the past thirty years or so – not just in a theoretical sense, but in a concrete one too: with every meeting attended, every headteacher’s report read, every question asked and every school visit made.

First mandated by the Education Act 1980 (one of Mrs. Thatcher’s early pieces of legislation, no less!), parent governors have since gone on to play a significant role in school oversight. Such was the importance attached to them that the government planned in the mid-80s to make them a majority on all governing bodies (though this was eventually scaled back and they were given equal representation with staff and local authority governors). Granted, a lot else has changed since the early 80s, but the presence of parent governors has nevertheless coincided with a period in which schools have become far more accountable to, and focused on, their community. Standards have risen. While not every parent governor has taken on the responsibility with the conduct and commitment expected, a great many have.

One criticism you often hear about parent governors is that they can’t always provide the targeted and high-level challenge the headteacher and senior leadership team need to secure improvement. This has been the main narrative behind the government’s skills drive and dismantling of the so-called “stakeholder framework” for governance. There is something to be said for this, but such a straightforward view risks overlooking the unique role parent governors play. Their presence on governing bodies has emphasised that the business of schooling should be a shared endeavour. It helps to engage parents by recognising their critical interest in the education of their children, and headteachers are reminded of the need to consider and explain the reasons for their decisions. In doing so, headteachers and other leaders are provided with a crucial grounding. Many academy trusts, I’m sure, will want to hold on to this.

Responses to the announcement have undoubtedly been intensified by uncertainty over what parental accountability will look like in the future. While the government says it expects all academy trusts to ramp up representation on so-called “parent councils”, it’s likely, in the spirit of the academy programme, that whatever systems emerge will vary considerably. In any case, at a time of fiscal pressure for schools, I’m sure many will feel confused that the government “expects” academy trusts to expand payment of appointed trustees while moving away from the pool of committed and interested parents they currently draw upon for free.

The challenge for academy trusts will be to maintain a sense of shared purpose with parents. For more than thirty years, parents have been invited to take joint responsibility for the performance of their child’s school. If those overseeing schools seem distant and inaccessible, the risk is that parental participation could more quickly turn to protest, should something go wrong.

Comments 4

  1. clairesaul 29th March 2016

    We have probably all come across the parent governor who fits the stereo typical “only interested in my child” mould, but as Oliver states there are many more who have played a valuable role in governance over a period of years. Many of us started life as parent governors and have gone on to fill roles in different schools bringing with us a wealth of experience, both from a governance and professional perspective. In a time of struggle to recruit governors, this is worth remembering.
    A difficulty within the current system of parent nominations is that the GB has no control over the calibre of candidates, or indeed the outcome of a parent vote. The candidates will of course vary enormously across different schools & across different areas of the country. But we must not dismiss the thousands of governors from professional, senior leadership roles with a critical interest in education who also have the word “parent” within their governance designation.
    I completely agree that a dialogue between a school and the parent body is vital and have seen first hand many “protests” over the years. Whatever shape governance & parental accountability takes in the future uncertain educational climate, we mustn’t dismiss the parental perspective out of hand. Great article, Oliver!

  2. John Hoadly 6th April 2016

    After almost 20 years as a governor, I am a chair of governors for two schools, vice-chair at another and an LA governor at a fourth. I think I bring a high degree of challenge and support, have helped several schools through failing times, and developed governance and accountability at all my schools. How did I start? As a parent governor; and many of the best governors I have and still know started in the same way.
    Being a governor can be time-consuming, stressful and without much obvious reward. Without a ‘vested interest’, why would anyone seriously consider becoming one these days. Yes, not all parent governors maintain a proper perspective, remain strategic and avoid becoming personally involved in issues they should not. But they are the most reliable source of new governors; they are among some of the most committed governors; and often move on to become co-opted and foundation governors in time.
    Even if giving the parental constituency a place on the governing body was not intrinsically right, they would be sorely missed!

  3. Ian 29th April 2016

    We have to plan for what the landscape will look like in say 5-10 years. An average MAT will teach say 20,000 pupils, employ around 2000 staff , have revenues at current prices of about £120m, assets of up to £250m. All run not for profit and all in effect owned by the State , accountable to the DFE and definitely not privatised .

    These are organisations are of course doing very serious valuable work, with serious scale and complexity. On any measure they are exciting enterprises to be involved with and so many do great things that they can take pride in. Naturally they face significant opportunity and carry many risks , both need to be managed.

    The risks include managing parental engagement, another is building effective management teams in a sector where there is not a huge universe of proven executives to chose from and of course there is the imperative of managing change. Opportunities exist in better CPD , in knowledge sharing, better hiring strategies and improved procurement .The list goes on.

    Tricky waters to navigate suggest we would do well to select governors and trustees according to skills , experience , character traits and motivation .They can help the captain and crew plot their voyage safely and take some of the pressure off the skipper’s shoulders too.

    One skill is to work out how to build parental engagement with the school and with education and the value of learning – who better than a parent to pick up this role . Moreover being an indirect beneficiary of a good education, through their children , they have a motivation.

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