The importance of good governance

Posted: 19th April 2023

by Graham Able, Group Deputy Chairman of Alpha Plus

Many parents do not research closely the composition of the governing board when they are considering a school for their child. Yet the role of governors is critical to the success of a school 

In most independent schools, the governing board appoints the Head and will have a major input to the appointment of the Bursar or equivalent. These appointments are key to the school’s performance, both academically and in terms of financial viability. Prospective parents should satisfy themselves that the school is likely to deliver a good education appropriate to their child and remain financially viable. Governors are also responsible for agreeing the school budget, determining the salaries of the Head and Bursar and setting fees; this latter function is of definite interest to most parents! In a boarding context, it is particularlty important to note governors are also ultimately responsible for safeguarding and health and safety.

The nature of governance has changed considerably over the last 30 years. The role of governors was once just to appoint the Head and give general support. They are now better described as a board of specialist non-executive directors helping to run a mid-sized company with the Head as chief executive and the Bursar or Business Manager as finance director.

‘Critical friends’

Governors need to act as ‘critical friends’ to their ‘chief executive’ and to do so effectively they need to be well-informed and with sufficient experience and knowledge between them to ask the right questions and interrogate the responses thoroughly. To monitor the progress of the school, governors need to take time to observe lessons and activities and to attend school functions outside their termly board and committee meetings. They should be visible but careful not to cross the line between non-executive and executive functions.

The number of governors’ committees will vary from school to school. Finance, property/development and academic committees are common to most schools – they allow governors with particular expertise to look and advise in more detail in specialist areas. If the governing body is functioning well, the work of these committees will make full board meetings more focused and more effective.

The range of expertise needed on a governing body will vary a little according to the type and age-range of school, but all schools will need governors with specialist knowledge of finance and business, law, property, marketing and education. It is also important for some governors to be in touch with the local community. Whereas it is relevant for prep and senior schools to have someone with school headship experience on the board, a senior school will additionally benefit from a governor with university connections. In many boarding schools, one governor will have a special responsibilty for liaison with the boarding houses, and it is helpful if this person has some relevant experience of boarding education.

Parents as governors

Opinions vary about parents as governors. I have always favoured having a current parent on the board, but one elected by the board for his or her expertise rather than a ‘representative’ parent governor elected by the PTA. The latter approach looks very democratic but tends to produce governors with a specific agenda – and possibly without any of the desired specialist skills – and this may not be in the best interests of the school as a whole.

It is important governing boards do not become self-perpetuating oligarchies. There should be clear criteria for the appointment of a new governor and a desired skill set agreed before the board seeks suitable candidates. The alumni and parent (past and present) body will provide a rich source of appropriate talent but there should also be some ‘outside’ influence on the board to ensure it does not become too inward-looking. 

The best boards will have defined terms which governors may serve and will take care in succession planning. Most boards are probably too large and, like turkeys at Christmas, are disinclined to vote for their own culling. No school needs more than 12 governors and 14 is certainly too many. The largest boards often contain governors nominated by groups associated with the school. These nominees may not cover the range of desired skills so the board has expanded in order to address this.

Governors must keep up to date with all regulatory changes and ensure safeguarding and health and safety matters are regularly addressed. So it is important for governing bodies to ensure they receive sufficient training where appropriate. 

Governance is judged as part of the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) or Ofsted inspection process. Governing boards which cannot demonstrate a good knowledge of their schools and a proper contribution to strategic decisions are likely to be downgraded and criticised in the inspection report.

Most schools now list their governors with details of their specialisms on the school website, so, when considering a school, it is certainly worth taking the time to check their credentials and assess their suitability to govern. 

About the author

Graham Able, Group Deputy Chairman of Alpha Plus

Graham Able has spent 40 years in independent schools, the last 22 as Headmaster of Hampton School and then Master of Dulwich College. After retiring from Dulwich he was appointed Chief Executive of the Alpha Plus Group, stepping down from this role in 2014 since when he has been Group Deputy Chairman. Having previously served on the governing bodies of Roedean and Imperial College, he was a governor of Gresham’s School from 2013 to 2020 and is a governor of Beeston Hall, where he was once a pupil and is now Vice-Chairman. A former chairman of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC), he has advised governing boards on their structure and effectiveness.