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Changing the rules of the game: The professionalisation of school governance and its implications for governor recruitment and retention

Joanne Doherty, Lecturer in Education at University of Manchester Karen Healey, PhD student at University of Manchester

A recent National Governance Association (NGA, 2023a) report suggests that governor workload and lack of time are key contributors to the current crisis in the recruitment and retention of school governors. While we acknowledge these factors, we argue that this problem requires a more complex response and consider some of the wider issues stemming from the professionalisation of school governance. Although school governance requires civic engagement, neoliberal policy discourses have constructed it on business practices and therefore narrowed perceptions of who has the right skills (Wilkins, 2015). Those able to successfully negotiate this hurdle find themselves required to ‘play a game’ they did not envision in their quest to contribute civically (Healey, 2022).

In this blog post we use Bourdieu’s (1998) metaphor of ‘the game’ to make sense of the crisis in recruiting and retaining school governors, considering who is excluded from the game, its changing rules and the subsequent isolation of some of its players. In doing so we draw on supporting data from 18 interviews with school and academy governors and trustees in England exploring their lived experience of governance.

Excluded from the game

School governance itself has become characterised by a shift from a ‘stakeholder’ to a skills-based model (Wilkins, 2015). This professionalisation has occurred alongside a concerted strategy by politicians and policymakers to prioritise governors with ‘skills’ (such as legal and financial) over those with local knowledge or community links (Wilkins, 2015). This message about getting the right people ‘with the right skills’ is explicit in policies and guidance for school governors (DfE, 2020; NGA, 2023b). Our research suggests that these ideologically driven selection criteria are leading to candidates who may be grounded in their local communities but do not possess the right skills, are being excluded from the game.

‘Our research suggests that these ideologically driven selection criteria are leading to candidates who may be grounded in their local communities but do not possess the right skills, are being excluded from the game.’

Navigating the changing rules of the game

Those who do get to play the game are doing so in a context where schools are positioned as integral to their community, requiring civic engagement to support public policy and address inequalities. Civic engagement often attracts those committed to supporting their communities and/or addressing social justice issues (as was the case for many of our research participants). However, ‘modern’ school governance is underpinned by a managerial framing of participation (Newman, 2000) where engagement is often utilitarian and instrumental (Wilkins, 2017). Despite buying into what Bourdieu (1998) called the illusio of the game and the promise of civic engagement, our participants found themselves caught up in a game where players are focused on external outcome measures, compliancy and efficiency as schools and trusts compete in the edu-market.

The isolation of the game

The game our research participants have inadvertently become part of is characterised by a ‘culture of blame’ as governors are positioned as responsible and accountable for overseeing performance and find themselves monitoring others (such as school leaders and teachers) while being monitored themselves (through the process of Ofsted inspections). Governors’ own performance then becomes guided by the ‘disciplinary tools of professionalisation and inspection’ (Wilkins, 2015, p. 188). Alongside this, regulatory pressures and responsibilities are juxtaposed with multiple demands in an increasingly fragmented education system. However, this lack of recognition of the complexity of school governance can leave governors and trustees feeling isolated and unsupported in a competing edu-market that is quick to apportion blame when the game’s goals are not achieved.

In conclusion, we argue that the game of governance needs reframing and revising. There needs to be a recognition among policymakers at a national level of the complexity of school governance in the lived experience of schools locally. But this would involve a reconsideration of what are acknowledged as the ‘right’ skills for governance as players with local, civic and participatory knowledge join those players with market skills as one of many teams supporting the education of our children.


Bourdieu, P. (1998) Practical reason. (R. Nice, Trans.). Policy Press.

Department for Education [DfE]. (2020). Governance handbook.  

Healey, K. B. (2022). Engaging parents in multi academy trusts (MATs) as local civic knowledge experts. Management in Education. Advance online publication.

National Governance Association [NGA]. (2023a). Taking stock of governance workload.  

National Governance Association [NGA]. (2023b). Getting the right people around the table.  

Newman, J. (2001). Modernising governance. Sage.

Wilkins, A. (2015). Professionalizing school governance: The disciplinary effects of school autonomy and inspection on the changing role of school governors. Journal of Education Policy, 30(2), 182–200.