Governors aren’t there to be managed by headteachers, just as governors aren’t there to manage staff. The roles are symbiotic, dependent on each other. When this relationship breaks down, the results for the children can be catastrophic and should therefore be avoided at all costs.
The phrase ‘critical friend’ was dropped from the governance handbook several years ago and replaced with ‘challenge and support’. This is a significant difference.
Governance challenge now centres around questions of ‘Why?’ and ‘How do you know?’ (the latter borrowed from Her Majesty’s Inspectors). The first, when phrased in ways such as ‘Why did you choose that resource?’ will likely get clear answers from a headteacher – after all, a reasonable question should get a reasonable response. ‘How do you know?’ queries aim to probe beyond the headline facts and figures, which is something all governors should do with important school decisions.
A school shield
Governors should support their schools in more ways than simply turning up to meetings, assemblies and the odd fête, important though those are. The governing board can be a shield for the school, reducing the ‘noises off’ and enabling educators to concentrate on education. Staff have a hard enough job as it is; if they can trust governors to have their back, they’ll have more time to ensure that the children have their undivided attention. Happier staff will usually result in a better quality of education.
Granted, there are times when it might seem quicker or simpler for school leaders to do things without having to refer them to governors first – but ‘quicker’ doesn’t always mean legal. Besides which, regulations are usually there as the result of something bad having happened and a determination not to let it happen again.
Regulations are there to protect staff from being treated unfairly, leaders from accusations of misconduct and schools as an employer. Unpicking short circuit decisions are always painful, and can be career-ending for leaders and extremely expensive for schools, absorbing money better spent on areas with a positive educational impact.
Checks and balances
School leaders should reasonably expect governors to properly shoulder their workload. If this isn’t happening, you can obtain support for your governing board provided by a national leader of governance – deployments are free. You literally have better things to do with your time.
It’s also important for school leaders to know that their governing board is meant to be there as a balance to the power invested in them as a person. That’s not a challenge to them personally, but a way of building checks and balances into the system in order to prevent the occasional megalomaniac from inflicting serious damage to schools. This is in part why governors make decisions on pay in maintained schools.
A good governing board is a wonder to behold; when you see one, you’ll recognise its worth and the positive difference it can make. Governance should be professional, but not cold. Governance should be supportive, but not cosy. There should be challenge from governance, but never aggression. Governance shouldn’t believe its school to be perfect, but should always strive to be better.
And above all, a school’s governance should never forget that the children come first.
Martin Matthews is a chair of governors and national leader of governance.