Parents' experiences of becoming and being a school governor in neoliberal times

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Parents’ experiences of becoming and being a school governor in neo-liberal times.

The purpose of this paper is to critically explore and make sense of the changing roles and requirements of parent governors and their positioning by leaders and policy makers within a neo-liberal context. It draws on emergent findings from current research exploring the role of parent governors in schools and focuses on the barriers that parents face in becoming and a being a parent governor. Previous research (Fretwell, Osgood, O’Toole and Tsouroufli, 2018; Hetherington and Forester, 2022; Ranson, Arnott, McKeown, Martin and Smith, 2005 and Young, 2014) has highlighted the underrepresentation of certain groups within school governance and specifically barriers to some parents becoming a parent governor. Young (2017: 815) suggests that the typical profile of governing bodies is ‘disproportionately middle class, white and not young’. The barriers and challenges faced by parents in being school governors have also been highlighted, including the professionalization of school governing bodies (Wilkins, 2018) and the changing nature of the role of governor which is increasingly prescribed by neo-liberal policies and adherence to the requirements of organisations such as Ofsted.

In order to explore these barriers further, this paper draws on emergent data and initial findings from interviews with parents in primary and secondary schools, some of whom are currently governors, some who are not governors but actively participate in school life (e.g. in the PTA) and others who have faced barriers to becoming a school governor. The data reveal links between the parental participation and the under-representation of some groups to the selection of parents with specific skills and values and the marginalisation of parents within governing bodies and their roles (perceived and actual) in decision making. The paper also seeks to further develop our understanding of how schools perceive the ‘ideal’ parent governor, as malleable, passive and with skillsets that can be utilised to address policy-driven managerial level, and not community level concerns. The context of the study is the growing influence of macro-level policy, often informed by neo-liberal values, on school leaders and governing body decision making (Gerrard and Savage, 2022; Hetherington and Forester, 2022). It is a context in which parental involvement is viewed through the prism of ‘professionalism’ (Wilkins, 2015) and what potential governors can ‘bring’ to the school, but also one in which other actors, such as the school leaders themselves, are constrained. The paper therefore explores how governors are selected and actively recruited based on skills they offer to the governing body, not on the basis of providing a critical voice for the local school community, thus discrediting what Wilkins (2018) refers to as ‘stakeholder governance’ .

Tentative observations from this research have also led me to consider how ‘passivity’ (Young, 2017) in decision making is valued and challenges to managerial decisions based on the pressures they face from external forces are not. Participants in this study reported being discouraged from challenging  decisions around school level policies informed by both market-oriented policies (freedom and autonomy) and centralised policies (control), a phenomenon that Young (2016) describes as 'prescribed criticality' or even 'non-decision making'. Within this paper I explore further the way in which parent governors are guided towards ‘asking the right questions’ (Young, 2016) and therefore, the co-option of parent governors to managerial processes and the marginalisation of critical voices within governing bodies.

This paper draws together parent governors’ experiences of becoming and being a governor and situates these experiences in a particular political and temporal context. As such it examines the barriers to governance and the under-representation of some groups in the context of the pressures school leaders face to implement certain decisions, which are inevitably shaped by policies that encourage competition between schools and where performativity takes priority over inclusivity (Crozier, 2019). It suggests holding values that do not fully align with policy driven decisions may be implicated in the underrepresentation of some groups.


Crozier, G. (2019) Interrogating Parent‐School Practices in a Market‐Based System. The Professionalization of Parenting and Intensification of Parental Involvement: Is this What Schools Want? In S.B. Sheldon and T.A. Turner-Vorbeck (Eds) The Wiley Handbook of Family, School, and Community Relationships in Education, First Edition. John Wiley and Sons.

Fretwell, N., Osgood, J., O’Toole, G. and Tsouroufli, M. (2018) Governing through trust: Community-based link workers and parental engagement in education. British Educational Research Journal, 44 (6): 1047–1063.

Gerrard, J. and Savage, G.C. (2022). The governing parent-citizen: dividing and valorising parent labour through school governance. Journal of Education Policy, 37 (5) 744–761.

Hetherington, J.E. and Forester, G. (2022) Values-led governance and parental and community engagement in the Co-operative Academies Trust: An alternative in the neoliberal context of education? Management in Education, 36(1) 34–41

Wilkins, A. (2015) Professionalising 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

Wilkins, A. (2018) Creating expert publics: a governmentality approach to school governance under neoliberalism. In S.J. Courtney, R. McGinty and H.M. Gunter (eds) Educational Leadership: Theorising Professional Practice in Neoliberal Times. Oxon: Routledge.

Young, H. (2016) Asking the ‘right’ questions: the constitution of school governing bodies as apolitical, Journal of Education Policy, 31:2, 161-177

Young, H. (2017) Busy yet passive: (non-)decision-making in school governing bodies, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 38:6, 812-826.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusUnpublished - 14 Sept 2023
EventBERA Annual Conference 2023 - Aston University, Birmingham, United Kingdom
Duration: 12 Sept 202314 Sept 2023


ConferenceBERA Annual Conference 2023
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom


  • parental engagement
  • parent governor
  • school governance
  • Neoliberalism
  • education policy
  • Education leadership


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