Lord Nash addresses the National Governors' Association (NGA) conference

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Lord Nash, Schools Minister, unveils extra support for governors.

Thanks, Stephen (Adamson, Chair, NGA) I’m very pleased to be here to speak to you about something that I know is as much a priority for you as it is for me - improving school governance and, in doing so, improving the life chances of our children.

I want to firstly say how extremely grateful I am for all you do. For the terrific amounts of time and energy you devote, out of your busy lives, to give young people a better education.

Your job, as strategic leaders of our schools, has always been crucial. And never more so than now.

We have many excellent schools in this country. But there are still too many that are falling behind and failing their children - large numbers of whom are leaving school without basic literacy and numeracy skills.

And, we know from Ofsted, that where schools are weak, governance is, often, also often found wanting. The regulator found that, in around 40% of schools, governance is not as strong as it should be, so it’s right that Ofsted has sharpened its focus in this area.

Because it’s more important than ever, in our increasingly competitive world, that we do all we can to give our young people the opportunities they deserve. This means tackling underperformance head-on and encouraging all schools to emulate the very best.

As the people who appoint headteachers and hold them to account, you, as governors, have a vital part to play in driving this much-needed improvement and transforming our schools.

Which is why it’s right that we should do more to attract more highly talented and committed governors. And why we should do more to support you to do a good job and aim higher - by which I mean, encouraging the creation of more dynamic ‘boards of governors’ as opposed to governing bodies.

This is not just about a shift in language. It’s about the shift in mindset that we need to see as regards governance.

So that there’s a stronger sense of strategic leadership, of the kind that you see in a charity’s board of trustees or in a company’s board of directors - which is precisely what governing bodies are in academies.

And so we regard governors, not as representing particular interest groups, but as engaged and energetic non-executive leaders.

Leaders who are driven by their core strategic functions of setting vision, holding the headteacher to account for results and making sure money is well spent.

Leaders who are on boards that are no bigger than they have to be.

Leaders who are curious about what’s going on in the classroom and aren’t afraid to innovate.

And, most crucially, leaders who focus ruthlessly on what really matters - raising standards.

Many of you will be familiar with my views on what good governance looks like and the reasoning behind this from my article in last month’s Governing Matters magazine - I’m thankful to the NGA for this opportunity to set out my stall.

I don’t intend to repeat those arguments again today. I would, instead, like to concentrate on the considerable support that we’re providing to help put governance on a more professional footing and to strengthen accountability.

National College announcement

As you know, we’re stripping away red tape, giving schools more flexibility over their governance arrangements and, most importantly, being crystal clear about our high ambitions for governors.

I know that, with support, you are more than capable of meeting these ambitions and really delivering for your children and schools.

Which is why I’m delighted to announce today that we are more than doubling the investment we make in promoting high quality governance through the National College for Teaching and Leadership.

This will mean that the National College will be able to expand the training it offers to include governors and clerks as well as chairs of governors.

We will build on the early success of the college’s leadership development programme. I understand that a thousand people have already signed up to this and I’m getting good reports of how it’s working.

So, I’m really pleased that the programme will now reach over 6,500 chairs and aspiring chairs by 2015 as a result of the extra money we are putting in.

The number of national leaders of governance - exemplary chairs who share their expertise - will also get a significant boost as a result of this funding, rising to over 500.

Support for chairs

Professional boards need professional leaders.

So it’s good to see that we are bolstering the role of chairs in this way because a strong chair is absolutely pivotal to how effective the board is - to making sure every member understands their role, gets the training they need and makes an active and valued contribution.

Chairs can sometimes stay in post too long and, because everyone’s too polite to put the interests of children first, can, themselves, become the barrier to change and progress.

Which is why I think governors should think really hard about appointing a chair for, say, no more than 2 terms of office. And if, at that point, the chair is still doing a great job, governors could consider encouraging the chair to take up the mantle of a system leader and train up their vice-chair, so they, themselves, can move on and help another school.

It’s fantastic when a new chair is grown from within, but governors should also consider recruiting a chair externally. There’s nothing to stop you from advertising for the kind of person you need, appointing them to the board and then electing them as chair. An approach which might just deliver the strong and capable chair that you’re seeking.

Support for clerks

Professional boards also need professional support. Which means clerking that goes way beyond simply taking down the minutes.

The NGA and others have made a very persuasive case for a more skilled approach; with clerks recognised as having a responsibility for providing boards with sound advice on their duties and functions and how to exercise them.

The new regulations for maintained schools reflect this more professional role, with a new duty on governors to heed their clerk’s advice about their functions.

And, I’m pleased to say that it’s an area in which we’re specifically investing, for the first time, by funding a new National College training programme for clerks.

This will deliver 2,000 more highly skilled clerks into our schools by 2015 - which, if each of them serves 5 boards, could reach half of all schools. A fantastic boost for a position that has been under-valued for too long.

Governing in the best interests of children

The extra investment we’re providing will also go towards National College training and workshops for governors on priority issues such as understanding performance data, financial efficiency and performance-related pay. Issues that echo many of today’s key themes and that you are encouraging us to discuss openly and frankly.

I welcome this focus on having courageous conversations.

Asking searching and challenging questions is fundamental to your job as governors. That is true for all types of governors - no matter what ‘category’ of governor you belong to.

That can be hard, for example, for parents cornered by their peers in the playground or for staff loyal to colleagues. But, once gathered around the board table, all governors need to take off their particular hat and focus on governing in the best interests of pupils.

Understanding data

This requires governors, first and foremost, to access robust, objective data which they can use to ask challenging questions. It’s no good if the only source of this data is the headteacher that you’re trying to hold to account.

Governors need information that helps them compare their school to other schools. And they should visit their school to validate for themselves what they’re being told. Don’t get me wrong - it is not for you to judge the quality of teaching, but there’s no reason why schools shouldn’t have an open door policy to governors so that you know what’s going on in classrooms and what’s being taught.

In addition, there’s also Ofsted’s high level dashboard to draw on - a superb resource which means that there’s no excuse, now, for governors not knowing how well their school is doing in broad terms.

But I realise that governors need to go further and drill down into the detail to do their job well. All of this information is available through RAISEonline, but I share the NGA’s concern that it isn’t especially easy to understand

We’re working with Ofsted to make this easier for you. So, for data released this autumn, there will be a streamlined summary report and clearer signposting to the most important sections.

And in the longer term, we will make sure governors’ needs for information are at the heart of the new data warehouse and portal that will replace RAISEonline from 2015.

Because accessing the data is one thing. Understanding it and having the confidence to act on it is quite another. Governors stand to get a lot out of training in this area. Which is why it was good to see that over 2,000 governors took part in the National College’s training workshops on RAISEonline earlier this year.

I can confirm that these workshops will be refreshed and re-launched this year, so many more governors will be able to benefit.

Financial efficiency

And it’s an ability that will stand governors in particularly good stead when it comes to managing school finances - an area in which, according to our recent efficiency review, governors can have a significant impact.

We’re keen to help you with this by improving the financial benchmarking data available to governors, so that you can assess how well you’re using your budgets. In addition, the National College will be developing specific workshops for governors on driving financial efficiency.

But, perhaps, one of the most courageous conversations that you’ll be having, shortly, is around the proposed extension of performance-related pay.

We believe this is far fairer than the current arrangements which see virtually all full-time teachers automatically move up to the next pay level each year, regardless of their impact on pupils’ achievements.

It’s your duty, as governors, to hold heads to account for having a robust, fair and effective pay policy that is directly linked to the performance of individual teachers. So I hope that all boards are taking steps now, with their heads, to consider how they will deliver pay reform and are revising their pay policies accordingly for September 2013.

My department has already published advice on this, which includes a model pay policy that all schools can adapt to meet their needs. And, as I said before, the National College will also be offering training and workshops for governors on this subject, with the help of the funding that we’re providing.

Greater accountability

So, all in all, governors stand to gain a great deal from a major package of support that goes further than ever before to enhance their authority.

As I’ve said before, volunteer certainly doesn’t mean amateur. Which is why it’s right that we not only do more to support governors, but that we also do more to hold them to account. So we can really celebrate and share the outstanding work that you’re doing and act where there’s room for improvement.

Ofsted’s inspection framework is shining a welcome light on governance and giving you, as governors, a clear and helpful guide as to what’s expected.

The external reviews that Ofsted is now recommending should, in particular, be a powerful catalyst for change. I want to see its inspectors setting high standards of evidence when judging whether this has genuinely been achieved during their monitoring visits.

I expect that many schools will turn to national leaders of governance for help with these reviews or for other support - a resource that, I’m delighted to say, is set to grow significantly as a result of our increased investment.

And when Ofsted do come in, I want to see governors demonstrating a real sense of passion and pride in their schools. Which means more governors taking part in inspections and the chair and as many governors as possible attending the final wash up with the inspector and senior school leaders.

But I don’t think we need to wait for Ofsted. Governance should be transparent. I see no reason why every board of governors shouldn’t publish an annual statement on their structure and membership. A statement that clearly sets out the key issues they’ve been addressing and the proportion of meetings each governor has attended. The accounts direction already requires academy trusts to do this.

Need for a bolder approach

It’s this level of challenge and fresh thinking that we all need to embrace as we look to invigorate governance in an increasingly autonomous educational landscape.

It has become easier for all schools; academies and maintained schools, to be more innovative in their approach to governance. I’m excited to see that some are taking full advantage of these freedoms and breaking new ground, making us question, at a fundamental level, the way we do things.

Making us question, for example, whether every school should have its own board of governors. A controversial idea for some. But doesn’t the experience of federations and multi-academy trusts suggest that are rewards to be reaped from greater scale? And not just in economies relating to procurement or in better professional development for teachers. But, more powerfully, in scale that creates opportunity for more strategic governance; that has a healthy distance and a more commanding perspective over its schools. And that offers a more attractive challenge for high quality governors.


There’s doubtless more to say on this and many other aspects of governance. Just this week, the Education Select Committee has further illuminated debate in this vital area. I am very grateful to the committee for all the work that has gone into their report on governance and will study it with care before responding properly.

But I think it’s fair to say that there’s considerable agreement on the need for governors to be far bolder in securing better outcomes for our children and young people, particularly those from poorer backgrounds.

The substantial package that I’ve unveiled today does just this by helping you, as governors, to build the skills and confidence you need to turn this ambition into reality. Together with the greater freedoms and clarity we’ve provided, it’s a package that puts your profession - because that’s what is - firmly on the map.

A profession that is steeped in immense generosity and dedication - I want to say again how enormously thankful I am for all your efforts.

There has never been a better time to be a governor and shape our education system. So I want to see you seizing this unique opportunity, with our support, to not only transform the prospects of children in your own schools, but to transform the prospects of children throughout the system.

They are depending on us all to our very best for them so that, however troubled or difficult their start in life, they have a chance to fulfil their potential and forge a more positive future. They, after all, deserve nothing less.

Thank you.