Free schools seem to be rarely out of the headlines these days, for all the wrong reasons. These schools initially were championed by many as putting the power in education back in the hands of parents and communities, after receiving strong backing from the Coalition Government and a great deal of publicity. However, some high profile school failures and questions about governance has led to a public debate about the effectiveness of this model of schooling, and whether it meets the needs of children and communities. Some free schools have been accused of cost cutting and profit focus, others of financial mismanagement and of a ‘chaotic’ teaching environment.
But the free school model has much to recommend it if governed and managed with appropriate controls and balances in place. Much of this comes down to carefully selecting a good governance team and ensuring that they fully understand what is expected and required of them – their responsibilities in setting out the strategic direction for the school and steering it through what is a challenging economic environment for the education sector.
A good free school board, as with any other school, needs to be a good mix of skill sets, experience and business knowledge. As an auditor working closely with schools, I see many excellent examples of well balanced and accountable boards supporting their schools to achieve great educational outcomes for children. Unfortunately, I also see cases where poor governance acts as an active hindrance to the school’s performance, in some instances leading to a breakdown in the relationship between trustees and school management. This approach does not ultimately lead to better educational outcomes for children.
So, how can free school governance be improved? Labour has called for local oversight of free schools and that action to be taken on underperforming schools, a point that they will likely reiterate as we enter an election year. But there are measures that can be taken internally by free schools when selecting their governance board, and setting out the procedures they operate under.
Setting up a free school board A free school is, by its very nature, borne out of a need identified by parents and community members. It follows logically that parents tend to be well represented in free school governance. While on one hand, this brings a fresh perspective and passion to the governance of the school, there is also a need for balance. Having diversity in the board membership and independent voices from outside the community that set up the school, brings different perspectives to discussions enabling healthy debate and, ultimately, a more balanced approach.
A good free school board is made up of people with diverse skill sets and a strong understanding of their roles and responsibilities and the risks and opportunities facing the school, who actively participate in decision making. Structure is also important, with specialist committees formed to make decisions on specific focus areas – human resources, finances and so on – so that you have people with specialist knowledge making decisions in these crucial areas
If trustees are too closely connected to their school, there can be a tendency towards emotional attachment to ‘sacred cows’ sometimes hindering progress. This over-involvement and feeling of personal attachment to the school itself can cloud trustees’ decision-making processes.
A board made up solely of interested parents and community members may not fully understand corporate structure or the way a commercial board environment operates, which can cause problems in the decision‑making process.
Some boards embark on a flurry of impulsive actions in response to a reduction in pupil numbers and make changes without fully understanding the underlying reasons for the change and if indeed the fall is likely to be an ongoing problem. Too often these changes can precipitate further collapse. Many changes made over a short period of time can undermine parents’ confidence in the school, create a change in perception locally about the school and result in further reductions in pupil numbers. Taking a balanced approach to decision making is essential.
The community led nature of some free school boards can also lead to situations where one dominant personality type takes centre stage, taking the lead on decisions and talking down any contributions by other board members. This can lead to a passive approach from the rest of the board, letting the dominant person push their ideas through without question.
If this happens, all members of a school board need to recognise that they are all responsible for any decisions made. The chairman needs to ensure participation and ownership of decisions comes from all trustees, not just those who have more dominant personalities.
Building a better board The first step towards building a better school board is to cast the net wider when recruiting trustees. Rather than always looking for local people, recruitment for a school board should focus on finding people with appropriate skill sets and experience of acting on a board. Many companies and not for profit organisations operate corporate social responsibility programmes and encourage their staff to take up non- executive roles where their wider skills sets can be utilised. Approaching these entities and establishing relationships with their social responsibility and human resources teams is a good first step towards recruiting effective trustees.
In my assessment, the key skill sets needed in governing a school are experience in education, legal knowledge, human resources, buildings and estates, marketing and financial management. A good board should contain a mix of these skill sets. The board should assess their current skill set, and look to recruit the necessary skills to include a balance of expertise.
During the board selection process, the trustee’s roles and responsibilities need to be made clear to prospective candidates. Some school trustees take on the role under the misapprehension that they are going to ‘run the school.’ This is not the role of the school board – responsibility for day‑to-day management rests with the Head teacher and the senior management team. The board of trustees is responsible for example amongst other things setting the overall strategy with the Head teacher and the overall oversight of its delivery.
They should be supportive to the head teacher and their Senior Management Team in the delivery of the strategy, but be aware it is the responsibility of management to deliver the strategy, not the trustees. Making such matters clear at the beginning should stand the school in good stead for the future.
An important position on the board is that of chairman, as they have the responsibility for the key relationship with the Head teacher. It can often be a difficult role as the individual needs the personal relationship skills to enable them to manage the relationship with the Head teacher, both professionally respecting their position and capabilities whilst acting in a line management capacity and offering constructive challenge where necessary. It can often be a difficult balancing act. However, with the right skill sets, a strong relationship between the chairman and Head teacher is a valuable asset in the running of any school.
Improving your current board Not every school is in the position to be able to recruit new board members. Improving the performance of the existing board is a priority for many. Training, a more professional approach to board duties and increased awareness of trustee roles and responsibilities, can go a long way towards fostering better trustee performance.
Creating awareness of responsibilities and expectations is the first stage. Speak to your trustees and make sure they are fully aware of what is expected of them, and their duties, and provide specific training where necessary. Ask your board to carry out self-evaluation exercise, and report on their own skills, strengths and weaknesses as well as carrying out an independent appraisal.
Board appraisal and self-assessment can be difficult in some circumstances, particularly where dominant, defensive or sensitive personalities are involved. Performed successfully it can be effective in making necessary changes to a board. A possible solution to this is using an independent external facilitator, who can assist in the process to ensure that any evaluation of trustee skill sets is kept objective, professional and does not become heated or personal.
Once the evaluation is complete, specific training needs to be provided to meet any shortfalls in trustee skills. This should be monitored over time to track performance and any areas that need further development. A school board should work within a culture of continuous improvement with regard to trustee knowledge and skills, rather than looking for quick-fix solutions for specific issues.
The way board meetings are conducted can go a long way towards improving trustee performance. To ensure thorough, well thought out decision-making and consideration of the issues facing the school, board meetings must have structure and an agenda, and be properly minuted. Trustees need to focus on the issues that are important, as well as those that are urgent. This will ensure the board considers the long-term strategic goals of the school, and makes appropriate decisions to achieve them, rather than being distracted by very detailed issues that may not need their time.
The board of trustees is a crucial factor in a school’s success or failure. As school governance comes under increasing scrutiny from Ofsted and other authorities, every school needs to take a close look at their board, and assess whether their trustees have the right set of capabilities to steer the school successfully into the future. A careful assessment of skills, rigorous recruitment of trustees and appropriate training will result in a school board that is equipped to deal with the challenges facing modern schools, leading to a more stable, well‑planned school environment for the ultimate beneficiaries, the students, to achieve educational success.