Advice for effective school governance

As the summer term came to an end, my son and his classmates enjoyed their final days of the primary school year. It is during this time I become particularly grateful for the efforts of all the volunteers who help raise money for the school through such events as the fair and the car boot sales, thereby enabling the school to purchase valuable new equipment.
I have noticed that some of these volunteers – members of the Parents’ Association – go on to stand for election as members of the governing body. The governing body member role is a task that is both hard work and rewarding. But what qualities do those seeking election require, and how should they view their new role?
The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) have worked with the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC) to develop an International Framework: Good Governance in the public sector. And from this framework comes advice for academy governing body members who will be new to their roles in the 2014/15 session.
But firstly, who do I mean by ‘academy governing body members’? In academies, the governing body is normally called the ‘academy trust board’ or ‘board of trustees’. It operates on behalf of the academy trust, which is the legal body responsible for running the academy - these will be the governing body members I am referring to in this article.
Also in existence in multi-academy trusts, are ‘local governing bodies’ which may operate at a local level at each constituent’s academy. Individuals who sit on this body might not be trustees of the overall trust, although they may have duties delegated to them by the trustees. However, these are not the governing body members I refer to in this piece.

Implementing standards
A governing body considers the effectiveness of its own performance by asking whether it is living up to the code of conduct and thus setting the right tone for the school. However, the real challenge is in the effective implementation of set standards, and it is the here that the International Framework and its supplement can provide valuable assistance.  
Our International Framework states that the function of good governance in the public sector ensures entities achieve their intended outcomes while acting in the public interest at all times. And it means that decisions made by the governing body must be made in the public interest even if this is against a perceived organisational interest.

This requires governing body members to behave with integrity, demonstrate strong commitment to ethical values and respect the rule of law, building on and expanding the Seven Principles of Public Life.

Preventing conflicts of interest
Behaving with integrity means that holders of public office must avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that inappropriately try to influence them in their work. School governing body members may find conflicts arise between their own personal interests and those involved in making decisions in the public interest. A key question that must always be addressed is whether the duties or responsibilities of a governing body member might be affected by some of their other interests or obligations. It is important to focus on the overlap of such interests, i.e. whether they could influence or be influenced by something that the school may be considering.
It is far better for a governing body member to err on the side of openness when deciding whether or not to disclose such interests, rather than trying to manage the situation on their own. Not only do conflicts of interest need to be taken into account, but so do those issues that might be perceived as conflicts. Governing body members need to consider how such issues could be viewed from both inside and outside the school.

Blowing the whistle
A key role for the governing body in terms of integrity is ensuring that ‘whistle blowing’ processes are in place in the school and working effectively. Such processes enable individuals or groups to draw formal attention to practices that are unethical or violate policies, rules or regulations and ensure that valid concerns are quickly addressed. Whistleblowers can play an essential role in detecting fraud and mismanagement. However, they have, in some public service bodies, experienced bullying and even dismissal from their job.
It is essential that whistleblowing processes reassure individuals raising concerns that they will be protected from any potential negative repercussions. As part of their role in scrutinising and challenging the school’s management, governing body members may ask whether employees would know what to do if they suspected misconduct or fraud. They might also seek to find out if there is a process in place to ensure all employees are treated equally.
The governing body itself should be regarded as a role model. Therefore, members will need to keep the school’s values at the forefront of their own thinking and decision making. The governing body should try to ensure that ethical values are embedded throughout the school. These values should permeate all aspects of a school’s operation, for example, the procurement of goods and services, the appointment of staff on merit, the performance of job responsibilities and the use of public funds.

The need for clear policies
Our International Framework also describes how acting in the public interest requires openness and comprehensive stakeholder engagement. To maintain public trust and confidence, the governing body should be as open as possible about its decisions, actions, plans and resource. The body should provide clear reasoning for its decisions and should be explicit about the criteria, rationale and considerations used in the decision making. It is helpful for a school’s stakeholders – parents, pupils, parents of future pupils etc – to know the types of issues to which they will be consulted. Therefore it is important for the governing body to draw up a clear policy on the issues it will consult on with all stakeholders (individually and collectively), through balanced and fair communication methods. They may need to ensure that the more vocal stakeholder groups are balanced against other stakeholder interests so that no one group becomes too dominant (i.e. guarding against ‘pushy parent’ syndrome).

There are many ways in which stakeholder views can be expressed – through surveys, websites, and direct feedback to name a few – so a school should be able to communicate effectively with its stakeholders. Questions governing body members might like to ask with regard to their school’s openness include how the school ensures adequate consultation takes place and what feedback it provides on the results of the consultation.
A related, but separate issue is a school’s need to comprehensively engage with its institutional stakeholders. Academies need to work with these stakeholders, including other public service entities, to deliver and improve their education provision. As a result, an academy will have a diverse network of entities, varying in range and strength. Good governance requires the governing body to clarify the purpose, objectives and defined outcomes of these relationships. Other considerations include carefully considering and monitoring the risks associated with joint working arrangements.

An important role
Good governance plays a key role in the success of all organisations, so those who put themselves forward to become governors at our schools must be applauded. As Professor Mervyn King noted in the foreword to the International Framework, it requires ‘integrity, transparency and accountability, built on a foundation of intellectual honesty’.
These fundamentals should be firmly in mind of those that aspire to this demanding but satisfying role.

Further information