The ‘Hidden Givers’: A Study of School Governing Bodies in England

A report by the University of Bath (Chris James, Steve Brammer, Michael Connolly, Mike Fertig, Jane James and Jeff Jones), commissioned by the CfBT Education Trust

This study sought to establish the relationship between governing body effectiveness and pupil attainment in primary schools and secondary schools in high and low socio-economic settings. The report combines a quantitative, multi-level analysis of pre-existing study data (Balarin et al., 2008, a survey with a pool of over 5,000 respondents from more than 1,000 schools) with a series of in-depth case studies to draw its conclusions. They matched pupil data from the National Pupil Database to school-level characteristics using the Department for Education’s Key Stage 2 (ages 7 to 11) and Key Stage 4 (ages 14 to 16) Primary and Secondary School Achievement and Attainment tables, data from EduBase and data from Ofsted Section 5 school level inspection judgements. Attainment was measured using a Context Value Added scale to, which takes into account other factors outside a school’s control known to affect pupil performance, making it a “much fairer” measure. After matching with the pupil and school level data necessary for the analysis the final sample consisted of 545 primary schools and 169 secondary schools.

Quantitative findings were that “the quantitative data thus far does not reveal a single aspect of governing that significantly enhances its capacity to influence and significantly enhance pupil attainment and the value that a school adds to pupils’ capabilities as they progress through the school.” Despite not locating a particular feature of governing that impacted on attainment, researchers found that “the effectiveness of primary school governing bodies strongly links to pupil attainment. The link between secondary school governing body effectiveness and pupil attainment is only very weak”. Also, consistent impacts were felt regardless of the relative advantage or disadvantage of the area where the school was located.

In addition to the quantitative analysis, thirty case studies were selected for high and low governing body effectiveness, high and low socio-economic status and high and low school performance. Data collection consisted of an interview with the headteacher and the Chair of the governing body, plus an observation of one of the governors’ meetings. Follow-up telephone calls with members of the governing body and in some instances repeat visits for more face-to-face conversations and observation of meetings occurred in the majority of cases.

Most importantly, researchers concluded that weak or poor governance “is not a neutral absence” but can significantly harm the capacity and effectiveness of the school. The most important relationship to act as a determiner for good governance and a school’s success was the collaboration between the headteacher and the Chair of Governors. They also emphasised: “a powerful and substantive matter emerging from the data was the importance of viewing the governing of schools as a collective activity in which the headteachers, members of staff and lay members collaborate in the governance of the school.” There was a fairly clear difference in governance activities for primary and secondary schools, the former being more “operational” while secondary governing requires “a more business-oriented structure”.

Researchers developed and explored the notion and importance of “governance capital”, defined as “the network of individuals and their capabilities, relationships and motivations that are available for the governance of any particular school”. They highlighted the role of employers in supporting this network, while noting that “there was evidence that recruiting governors from the business community could be difficult”. There were clear benefits in increasing the availability of lay governors from professional backgrounds or those with particular skillsets.

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