The Challenge of “Challenge” for School Governors

Professor Colin Richards unpicks the notion that school governors should challenge and hold school leaders to account.

Ofsted’s report Improving Governance was criticised for being too negative in tone and for failing to recognise the many positive features of contemporary governance. One of its main and oft-repeated findings was that “Many governors lack the expertise needed in an increasingly complex education system to hold school leaders to account.” Closely associated with holding to account is the notion of challenge. Ofsted argued that in many of the schools it surveyed “ governors did not have a sufficiently challenging relationship with the head teacher” Or again, “Governors did not have the necessary skills and had not accessed the necessary training to challenge effectively”.

As a national leader of governance preparing for governing body/board reviews I have spent time reading minutes of governing bodies for evidence of challenge. As chair of a governing body I have encouraged my colleagues to ask challenging questions of our head teacher. I have also wondered whether I am challenging enough or perhaps too challenging. But what does challenge actually involve and does it require particular kinds of expertise or skill on the governing body?

The Chambers Dictionary offers five meanings of the term. Challenge can mean “to summon someone to settle a matter by fighting or by any form of contest”. No one would see physical aggression as an appropriate way of conducting governance but governance can develop or, more accurately, regress into a contest of wills between chairs and school leaders, especially given the fine line between governance and school administration/management. This remains a blurred area. More explicit guidance, including case law or detailed examples, from the DfE would be helpful in delineating mutual responsibilities.

Challenge can mean “to accuse”. In the governance context this implies at the very least confronting some minor dereliction of duty by school leaders and at the far extreme some element of criminality. The former might, on rare occasions, need to be raised in governing body meetings but these are not appropriate fora for more serious issues. So accusation would seem an inappropriate usage of challenge except in rare circumstances.

Challenge can mean “to subject to stress, examination or test”. This seems very much within the purview of school governance especially if the emphasis is on “examination” rather than “test” or “stress”. School plans, policies and associated practices do need examining from time to time to establish their relevance, applicability, clarity or usefulness. All types of governor can play apart in this “lay” scrutiny of policy but especially perhaps those with experience of strategic planning or project management and those who as parents or members of the local community are on the receiving end of many such policies.

School’s performance data also need to be examined, though it’s arguable that your typical governor only needs headline figures and trends leaving a small minority of governors au fait with some, but not all, of the detail. Again, more detailed guidance on what can be reasonably and realistically be expected of governors would be helpful. The intricacies of current performance data would argue for an enhanced presence on governing bodies of education professionals from outside the particular to help in this process of data interpretation. It is doubtful whether governors with experience of industry, project management or human resources are any better equipped than their governor colleagues to “get inside or behind” the mass of performance data currently available in ever-changing forms.

There is, however, a strong case for governors with experience of financial management to serve on sub-committees scrutinising the technicalities of budget management and procurement. The usage of challenge as scrutiny seems to be the one most commonly adopted by Ofsted. Detailed case studies of interesting but realistic practice would be useful – both to governing bodies themselves and to those who inspect them. The notion of “best practice” with its vale-laden connotation is best avoided.

A fourth meaning of challenge is “to object to or dispute a statement of judgment”. In the context of school governance “object to” and “dispute” can seem inappropriately confrontational but certainly governors should be able to question school leaders’ judgements and ask for their justification. Arguably those should be key features in governing body meetings. It does not require highly skilled experts from business, finance and commerce to engage in this kind of questioning. Those without such expertise are just as likely to be able ask sensible questions or to see through inadequate justifications. The seemingly naïve question from a lay person can be telling in exposing inadequate thinking or even cant from school leaders.

Challenge can also mean “to stimulate” It is doubtful if many governing bodies consciously see this as one of their major functions but their meetings can be occasions in which new issues are raised, different perspectives offered and school leaders’, as well as governors’, horizons widened. Governors with experience of business or commerce are well placed to “stimulate” school leaders’ thinking, though the very real differences between schools and other organisations need to be acknowledged and factored into discussions. But no type of governor has a monopoly in this area.

It is challenging to provide challenge and too many governing bodies do not see that as their business, particular because of the negative connotations associated with the term. However, challenge as scrutiny and as request for justification of policies and practice are central to properly functioning governance, whether governing bodies operate on the long-established “stake-holder model or the more recent, perhaps over-hyped, skills-based model. 

Professor Colin Richards is chair of governors of a Cumbrian secondary school in challenging circumstances.


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  1. Because on Ofsted World headteachers never do anything correct that obviously does not need any challenge.
    Governors should be paid for making up all this ‘challenge’ to appease Ofsted.

  2. Anonymous

    It’s difficult to challenge something that you know little about. People do not become educational experts just by virtue of becoming a governor.

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