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The governance of our schools and our children’s education has been under the spotlight over the last month, as Education Minister Kirsty Williams announced proposals to alter the current system.
It is pleasing that the new Education Minister has chosen the reform of school governing bodies as one of her first initiatives in the improvement of education in Wales. Effective governance is an important part of successful schools.
For years, school governing bodies have been made up of a range of different members including head teachers, teachers and non-teaching staff, parents and other members of the local community. Staff members and parents on governing bodies are currently elected.
When we look at the future make-up of these governing bodies and how they might be reformed, there are two big issues that we need to consider.
The first of these concerns who sits on governing bodies. Currently, the number of people from each of the groups is determined by the size of the school. A smaller school will have a lower number of parents and community representatives on their governing body, when compared to a larger school.
The new proposals for governing bodies will allow schools to have a greater flexibility in determining how many parents, staff and community representatives sit on a governing body. This is to be welcomed. It will give schools more of a say in deciding what is right for them.
The second issue to consider is the contribution and skills which individual members of a governing body bring to the school.
In Wales, the ‘stakeholder’ model of governance is currently used, where each governor will contribute their particular interests.
Parents will bring with them a knowledge of the school through their children, their children’s education, and how the school fits into their local community – they may even have been a pupil there themselves. Community members can add expertise from their employment, volunteering, public office or private sector backgrounds.
The changes suggested by the Minister indicate that schools should continue to be governed on the basis of this ‘stakeholder’ approach but with a much sharper focus on the skills that they have within the governance field. This is called the ‘stakeholder plus’ approach to governance.
The continuation of the ‘stakeholder’ approach to governance in Wales is in sharp contrast to the ‘skills based’ approach operating in the academy schools in England. Here, lawyers, accountants and other professionals are appointed to sit on governing bodies and the contribution which others bring in is not valued.
This means that parents who may have the greatest knowledge of schools, and arguably the highest level of interest, are being left out. Retaining the stakeholder approach in Wales is therefore a positive decision as parents have the depth of knowledge and an interest in schools performing at their best.
The Minister’s new proposals, which will be consulted on in the autumn, will mean that schools in Wales will have greater flexibility in terms of the number of people who can sit on the governing body. Even more interests can be represented as the formula which determines how many governors of each type must sit on a governing body may be removed.
There is also an intention to bring in short term co-opted members to assist a school when it is dealing with a particular specialist issue – something that I am sure schools would find useful.
But how will the proposed changes to governing bodies benefit our children’s education?
The new proposals are primarily focused on getting governing bodies to better lead schools and this should in turn mean that the education of pupils is improved.
On the basis of the ‘stakeholder plus’ model, having the right governors in place for each school is likely to assist school improvement and the achievement of pupils. Schools with the weakest governance will not be as successful.
They don’t just need to be the right people, they also need to be able to challenge head teachers and schools to deliver against important issues such as pupil performance, employability and key skills. This is essential if schools are to have robust and effective governance structures in place.
Improving governance is just one part of making schools better for pupils in Wales, but it is a good place to start.
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Now that the re-organisation of local authorities has been put on hold with the election of the new government in Wales, where next for local government?
In the previous Welsh government, it was felt that structural reform was necessary to drive forward on efficiency and cost savings. This view was set within the background of the Williams review of public services in Wales where it was highlighted voluntary collaborations and partnerships did not go far enough. The Local Government Bill suggested reforming the existing 22 authorities to 8 or 9 new ones to ensure that services were not duplicated, to reduce staff costs particularly at the highest levels and most senior posts and to deliver better collaboration. Ultimately, the purpose of re-organisation was to deliver more effective services with the best outcomes.
With the new government in May of this year, priorities may have changed a little. There are new Assembly Members who are probably unwilling to tell their electorates that their local authority is to be re-organised. There is also the maths to think about – the minority Labour government has 29 members and with the ‘appointment’ of Kirsty Williams from the Liberal Democrats to join them to make 30, this number does not allow ‘unpopular’ legislation to be approved. Plaid Cymru or UKIP do not have local government re-organisation as a top priority.
So, where next?
The new Minister would be well advised to identify the effectiveness of the existing collaborative arrangements across local government. Where they are seen to be working and delivering services effectively, good practice should be encouraged to be taken on in other areas. This will mean that authorities will all be responsible for the same services legally but delivering different ones in practice. One authority may take on the delivery of social services for another area or the library function for a range of authorities. These collaborations may also be with third sector voluntary bodies where the function or service is delivered by outside bodies (maybe even private sector ones).
If Welsh government moves in this direction, the key framework which has to be got right is governance. Good governance will involve ensuring responsibility, the agreement of key performance measures and what effective service delivery will look like. Delivery can be undertaken by the best service providers from across the sectors.
Effective services must come first and structural reforms if they are needed, second.
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