The Department for Education has recently published new statutory guidance on the reconstitution of governing bodies for schools, with a new focus on the skills that each governor can bring to the table.
Every school in England must reconstitute its governing body by September 2015, to conform to legislation published in 2012 on the make-up and role of governing bodies.
The guidance suggests that part of this process should include a skills audit of the governors, to ensure that the necessary skills for good governance are represented on the body.
However, if we are to shape our governing bodies around a set of skills, we need to think carefully about what those skills should be. If we do not, we run the risk of creating a governing body that is very different from what we desire, or in fact, need.
A number of skills audits already exist for this task, but none of them are specific to Church Schools – a gap I intend to address here.
Before I do, it is worth questioning whether ‘skills’ are the right measure against which to judge the constitution of governing bodies.
We need to recognise that the shift to a skills-based governing body is a very significant change of tone.
Historically, governors have been selected on the basis of the communities they come from, not by what they can offer. Once elected, they are not considered representatives of their group, but are supposed to make decisions based on what is best for the school as a whole.
Both these ideas, a governing body defined by its skills and that a governor is not a representative, sit uncomfortably with me.
They both extract the utility of the person out of their personhood; they separate the ‘doing’ from the ‘being’. It fails to recognise the vital importance of connection to the school community, to the local geography, that governors need to embody the school’s unique ethos, values and culture.
All schools have their rituals, and their myths: when Mrs Such-and-Such set fire to her dress; the time the lorry backed into the classroom; the head before the head before who used to bring her dog to school.
Stories are passed down, child to child, teacher to teacher, governor to governor; each school is unique by these stories: its geography, its ritual, its people.
Sometimes, these cultures, rituals and even people need challenging and refreshing, and the governing body is a driving part of that.
But to do that, they need to be a connected, integral part of the school: a person, not a utility.
It is each person, each governor, the community that we make together, the fact of just living, loving, making decisions together, doing and being that gives life and shape to a school.
This is not to say that a skills audit is not a worthwhile exercise, merely that it should not be the foundation on which to build a governing body.
In considering skills however, we should add to a skills audit firstly the sense of connection I have already discussed, and secondly, something to recognise the role of foundation governors.
The new guidelines state that:
Foundation governors have a particular purpose to safeguard the character of the school and ensure it is conducted in accordance with any founding documents.
This mention was only included due to the intervention of the National Society, and unfortunately appears to imply that the only role of foundation governors is to safeguard the character of the school.
The Christian foundation of the school becomes some ancient tablet, secure only so long as the governors keep it locked in the school safe.
The reconstitution guidance also states that:
Foundation governors need the skills to understand the ethos of the school and its implications for the way it is governed.
For the Diocese of Ely, the core ethos of a Church of England School is that:
The school aims to serve its community by providing an education of the highest quality within the context of Christian belief and practice.
In a Church School, Christianity is the key foundation of the ethos of the school, and so understanding this and applying it to school governance is part of a foundation governor’s role.
The necessary skill of a foundation governor is, then, understanding this Christian foundation and applying it to decision making.
This overarching skillset requires breaking down into several subsidiary skills.
1) Reflecting theologically on real issues – a concept that many governors will baulk at, but are likely already doing.
‘Doing’ theology is the process of seeking understanding through faith.
So, if you have ever struggled with a decision and have prayed, or listened to a sermon, or read the bible and gained some insight into the problem, then you are ‘doing’ theology.
Active engagement, or training, helps this.
Clergy and lay ministers already receive training in this skill; however it is easy for them to forget to apply it to their work as a governor.
2) Having the confidence, experience and authority to speak prophetically.
Putting aside the cultural associations of fortune tellers, this speaks of the person who can tactfully raise a difficult issue, challenge ‘group think’ and speak out for what is ‘right’, not what is ‘convenient’.
People with this skill are not always easy to have on a governing body but they can send the discussion in a new direction, bring the group back to their core purpose, and sometimes vocalise what everyone else is thinking but not saying.
This person helps to reconcile differences, by asking questions to reveal the heart of a problem, by suggesting a compromise or finding a middle ground.
This is not a role that forces a false atmosphere, hiding any conflict, but instead draws out opinions and facts that help decision making.
The Diocese of Ely description of the ethos of a Church of England school goes on to say:
[The school] encourages an understanding of the meaning and significance of faith and promotes Christian values through the experience it offers to all its pupils.
4) This, suggests a skill which can be added to our skills audit: understanding how people receive and make meaning through experience, particularly how this works in childhood.
This skill requires some training and knowledge. The ideal it suggests is a combination of educationalist, theologian and psychologist.
Lay or ordained ministers and children’s or youth workers may have this skill, but need inviting to use it.
Consider if any of your governors could learn more about this area, there are books and training courses that could help, and the Church Schools of Cambridge is currently working with Ely Diocese to develop such training.
5) Finally, we turn back to the question of connectivity.
This is not a need against which we can put a specific skill.
It would be too easy to say that you need a governor with a good network in the community, yet this would entirely miss the point.
I think on this point, it is enough to say: don’t be too swift to remove those who seem to come with little to offer. Judge them on their impact, not on the number of words said in a meeting.
Think what your governing body would be like without them.
If you feel there would be a hole, maybe there is something more going on that a skills audit can show you.
They may not represent a group, but they might embody the group.
And if, after all this talk of skills that is feeling inadequate, then I’ll leave you with these words:
‘What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him,
Give my heart.’