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Skills and Governance

Skills and Governance

Recent years have seen an increasing focus on governors around the table possessing an appropriate mix of skills, rather than purely reflecting key stakeholder groups. This perhaps reached its most recent apogee in the release by the Department for Education of the Competency Framework for Governance in January 2017; itself built upon the honeycomb of six key features of effective governance summarised in the Governance Handbook which was revised at the same time.

In my work with governors, I have seen boards attempting to build upon this structure through various models of skills audit.  In doing so they have tended to think more about the ‘what’ (i.e. the content) than the ‘how’ of conducting such an audit, with consequent impact upon the accuracy or reliability of the product. Some of these have been used to inform governor recruitment, deployment within governance structures or in planning for the development of governance skills, individually and/or collectively. Some boards have been unclear at the outset about the purpose to which they intended putting the results of such an audit, other than to be seen to have ticked the box of having ‘done’ one. As a consequence, any analysis of responses, if indeed one exists, has languished in a file somewhere. Further, in conducting audits focused purely on the competencies identified in the Department’s framework, what a number of boards have failed to recognise or have simply passed over are the principles and personal attributes which precede the competencies in the framework. Principles and personal attributes which should be exhibited by ‘all those involved in governance’ [Competency Framework for Governance].

Undoubtedly, from what I have observed and experienced standards of governance have improved overall in recent years. In part at least this is as a result of the increased awareness of the importance of governors being appropriately skilled. Yet where I have sometimes seen quite explosive problems occur, they have generally emerged in one, or more problematically both, of two main areas. 

Firstly, governors who have particular skills can come to be relied upon for those skills on occasion, to an extent that they stray over that difficult to define line between governance and management. Well intentioned by all, I have seen instances of this leading to friction between governing board and executive leaders and staff with negative, if unintended, consequences; potentially leading to a breakdown in the relationship between the board and school leaders, or to that relationship becoming dysfunctional. 

Secondly, in terms of principles and personal attributes, governors whose behaviours reflect a lack of understanding of the need to be collaborative, or who are unable to build strong working relationships, can erode the collective nature of governance itself, leading to an unhealthy level of friction and dispute within the board and ultimately to the board itself becoming dysfunctional.

So, where am I going with this? The focus on skills has been a positive development, but there is a danger that boards can become so focused upon skills that they lose sight of governance; the importance of recognising that a difference exists between governance and management and that governance is ultimately a collective activity.

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