This week saw the publication of the Education Endowment Foundation’s guide to being an evidence-informed governor. However, what I found deeply ironic was the complete absence of any reference to research evidence about the relationship between school governance and school improvement. So to try and address this evidence gap I checked out the Ofsted (2019) overview of the research underpinning the new inspection framework. Unfortunately, a word search in the document – using the terms governor and governance – found not a single reference to either term, which I must admit I found surprising My next port of call was Google and Google Scholar – where I used the search terms ‘school governors and school improvement’ – and low and behold – the first article returned was Ransom et al (2005) paper ‘Does governance matter for school improvement? – which although behind a paywall, could also be found as freely available PDF. Using, Ransom et al as my ‘crib’ the rest of this post will:
· Articulate a theory of change for governance and school improvement
· Report of Ransom et al’s national study on the relationship between governance and school improvement in Wales
· Make some observations about a second major limitation of the EEF’s guidance on being an evidence-informed governor
A theory of change for governance and school improvement
Using Long et al’s (2018) PIT—B model for a theory of change as a prompt, I’ve come up with the following theory of change for governance and school improvement.
All schools need to be constantly seeking to improve. Our theory is that if governors reinforce the importance of instructional leadership, provide strategy, scrutinise practice, offer support and ensure accountability this will improve the effectiveness of leadership and management of the school. Increased effectiveness of school leadership will lead to an improvement in the environment of learning and teaching, which we believe will lead to increased standards of educational attainment and generate better results for pupils.
Researching school governance in Wales
Ransom et al undertook a research project into the governing bodies of 72 schools – both secondary and primary – during the period 1998-2002. Preliminary interviews were held with the headteacher and chair of governors, with questionnaire being administered to each member of the governing body. Thirty schools were chosen for more focused case-study research as they illustrated elements of good governance. Field work as undertaken with members of the school’s senior leadership team, along with observation of governing body and subcommittee meetings. School performance data appeared not to be made available by LEAs, although GCSE and Key Stage test scores were provided by the Wales Assembly Government. Of the 72 schools – 44 showed changes in performance over time – either improving, declining or being ‘stuck’ at a particular level of attainment.
Ransom et al analysed types of governance – deliberative forum, consultative sounding board, executive board and governing body (see end of post) – and found that there appeared to be a link between school performances and good governance. Practices which seems to be associated with the improvement of primary schools included in the study.
1. Governance and governors are valued: because they provide a different voice and perspective, because they bind the school to the wider community, strengthen the corporate nature of the school and the public, collective stature of its decisions.
2. Governance that represents the diversity of its parent communities: Including the participation and voice of different parents helps the school to understand the variety of learning needs as well as securing their commitment to supporting learning in the home.
3. Partnership between head and governors are of mutual support: The head values and supports the governing body in their roles, just as the governors seek to support the head and staff in the school. Heads do not seek to superintend, to take over the role of governance.
4. Clarity of roles: Heads are chief executives providing professional leadership and day-to-day management, while the governing body has oversight of the school: it is the publicly accountable body.
5. Organised as an executive board or governing body: exercising functions of scrutiny, strategy and accountability.
6. Scrutiny as the strategic function of the best primary school governing bodies, assuring the quality and standards of education in the school. This is achieved by:
· bringing high expectations to school;
· ensuring full deliberation and questioning of the policies, budgets, and practices of the school;
· putting in place systems for monitoring and reviewing the standards of achievement, financial plans and policy developments of the school.
1. Embodying the values and ethos of the school: The governors express the public values and purpose of justice and fairness as well as any particular denominational or language ethos.
2. Close attachment of governors to the life of the school through a system of links to curriculum areas and classroom visits in order to develop knowledge and understanding of the key practices of learning in the school.
3. Close ties with the community: Involving parents and the community is key to the success of the school and the governors have a key role in securing that partnership. P13-14)
Ransom et al go onto note that what is particularly distinctive about this set characteristics is the focus on ‘practices of scrutiny’ which are believed by headteachers and governors as being important in bringing about school improvement. As such, governing bodies as there appears to be a relationship between governance and school improvement.
How useful is the research for English schools in 2019?
First, it needs to be remembered that the research took place nearly 20 years ago in a different educational system. So it’s necessary to be careful in attempting to make any kind of read across from ‘there and then’ to ‘here and now’. Second, as Ransom et al acknowledge there are issues around the causal relationship between governance and school improvement. Does governance lead to improvements or does improvement generate better governance. That said, the research does provide some backing for a claim that school improvement could come about if governors challenge school leaders around practices identified in the EEF’s guidance: how well are your pupils doing; how effectively is the school spending its money; and, how does the school support effective teaching and learning.
An additional observation
Governing bodies differ from school to school. In some schools, school governors who wish to become more evidence-informed or want more evidence-informed decisions, may well be pushing against an ‘open-door’ and where there is a whole-school culture of evidence-use – (Coldwell et at 2017). On the other hand, the school may have a very weak evidence culture, with little or no use of research evidence by senior leaders. Indeed, there is some research by the Sutton Trust that suggests only 68% of headteachers and 45% of teachers in England cite using research evidence to inform decision-making, Governors who are governors in schools with little or no use of research evidence may find themselves quite isolated and subject to challenge, This may well be the case if the ‘evidence’ leads to the challenge of existing and long established practices. Unfotunately, the EEF guidance provides no assistance in how to address this issue.
It’s important for governors to remember that the Department for Education’s Competency Framework for Governance makes explicit reference to governors making decisions based on the best available evidence. In other words, making the best use of research evidence is not an option, instead it is necessary for competent governance – so even if the EEF’s guidance is not perfect, it is essential reading.
Since this post was published, Terry Pearson @TPLTD, very kindly identified additional research on school governance, which is worthy of consideration.
Baxter, J. (2017). School governor regulation in England’s changing education landscape. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 45(1), 20–39. https://doi.org/10.1177/1741143215587306
Marlies Honingh, Merel Ruiter & Sandra van Thiel (2018): Are school boards and educational quality related? Results of an international literature review, Educational Review, DOI: 10.1080/00131911.2018.1487387
James, C., Brammer, S., Connolly, M., Fertig, M., James, J., & Jones, J. (2011). School Governing Bodies in England Under Pressure: The Effects of Socio-economic Context and School Performance. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 39(4), 414–433. https://doi.org/10.1177/1741143211404258
Coldwell, M., Greany, T., Higgins, S., Brown, C., Maxwell, B., B, S., Stoll, L., Willis, B. & Burns, H. 2017. Evidence-informed teaching: an evaluation of progress in England Research report. London: Department for Education.
DfE. (2017). A Competency Framework for Governance the Knowledge, Skills and Behaviours Needed for Effective Governance in Maintained Schools, Academies and Multi-Academy Trusts : January 2017. London. Department for Education
EEF (2019) The EEF guide to becoming an evidence-informed school governor and trustee, London Education Endowment Foundation,
Long M, Macdonald A and Duncan T. (2018) Practical Tips for Developing and Using Theories of Change and Logic Models. 2018 Virginia AmeriCorps Annual Program Directors and Staff Meeting, Richmond, VA: ICF
Ofsted (2019) Education inspection framework: Overview of research, London, OFSTED.
Ranson, S., Farrell, C., Peim, N., & Smith, P. (2005). Does governance matter for school improvement?. School effectiveness and school improvement, 16(3), 305-325.
Note on different types of governance
Ransom et al identify four distinct types of governing body
Governance as a deliberative forum. Here governance constitutes largely a gathering of members, often parents, at which discussions of the school are determined and led by the headteacher as professional leader. Parents will not feel they can question the authority of the head though they may inquire about aspects of the school’s progress.
Governance as a consultative sounding board. Here governors define their role as providing a sounding board for the strategies and policies provided by the headteacher as principal professional.
Governance as an executive board. In these schools a partnership has developed between the governors and the school and, in particular, between the head and the chair with the former leading ‘‘primus inter pares’’. There may be a division of labour between them. The board assuming overall responsibility for the business aspects of the school: the budget, staffing, and the infrastructure of building. Their concern is with their legal responsibility and accountability for the school. The head assumes overall responsibility for curricular and pedagogic aspects of the school.
Governance as a governing body. In these schools, the governing body takes overarching responsibility for the conduct and direction of the school. The head will be a strong professional leader, but a member rather than leader of the governing body that acts as a corporate entity. The agenda and the meeting will be led by the chair. (p12 and 13)