School governing boards have three core functions: to ensure clarity of vision, ethos and strategic direction; to hold executive leaders to account for the educational performance of the organisation and its pupils and the performance management of staff; and to oversee the financial performance of the organisation, making sure its money is well spent.
The governance handbook and competency framework as of March 2019 (see tinyurl.com/governance-hb) gives advice on the skills, knowledge and behaviours expected to ensure effective governance. All boards should sign a code of conduct – the National Governing Association has devised a model that many use, while one of the boards I belong to has one based on the Nolan Principles of public life. We’re similar to a number of other boards in that we’re now engaging in new initiatives based around the concept of ‘ethical leadership.’
Ideally, all members of a governing board, including the headteacher, will be aware of the above expectations. There are extra expectations placed on the chair of the board to facilitate supportive, challenging and professional relationships among the board’s members, with a particular emphasis on their relationship with the headteacher. The National Governance Association, NAHT and ASCL sought to further define these relationships by collectively drawing up the handily titled document, ‘What governing boards should expect from school leaders and what school leaders should expect from governing boards’ (see tinyurl.com/gb-sl-17) – so that’s all okay then. But is it?
As a national leader of governance (NLG) and experienced chair of governors across primary, secondary and special schools, in MATs and maintained schools, I’m not so sure that everyone has got the message…
The over-eager chair
Holding a headteacher to account can be problematic if there’s a mismatch in how the aforementioned roles are viewed. In many instances, this type of mismatch will only become apparent during an Ofsted inspection.
Consider the following scenario. The chair of governors is in school so frequently that their oversight verges on the operational, rather than just the strategic. They’ll ‘pop in’ to speak with the headteacher unannounced, which in turn causes the headteacher to feel under pressure from the constant interference.
The headteacher in this instance may therefore decide that some refresher training for the whole board would be appropriate, in order to remind everyone of what their roles ought to be. They may seek to support the chair with guidance from a consultant or an NLG (the latter of which will offer their advice free of charge).
The passive board
Issues can also arise when information provided to the board by the headteacher is taken at face value and goes unchallenged. Evidence of this will be clearly seen in the minutes of meetings where most reports are merely ‘noted’, with no ‘curious questions’ recorded by the clerk. In instances such as these, the likely verdict of an Ofsted inspection would be that the board is over-reliant on the headteacher for information.
To prevent this, the chair must develop a good relationship with the headteacher and remind them that their reports should be provided in a format governors can understand, so that they can effectively offer challenge and support. There needs to be a culture of openness and transparency.
It can also help to reach agreement on the frequency and purpose of visits to the school by members of the board. A visit policy and reporting form should be drawn up in order to ensure that school policies are being adhered to and embedded as part of the board’s monitoring role. This will, of course, require headteachers and governors to fully understand their respective roles.
The special measures
What if, following an inspection, the board is temporarily replaced? Imagine a school that goes into special measures, following which the LA decides to put in place an interim executive board (IEB). Only a few of the original board of governors remain.
The IEB proceeds to successfully challenge the school’s senior leaders, play a key role in driving broader school improvement efforts and provide other forms of support, all of which has a positive impact and contributes to the school ultimately being rated Good.
During the time of the IEB being active, a range of searching and challenging questions are put to the school’s leadership team, including the governors. At what point can governors help to lift some of the pressure? The data is good – solidly so – and the school is no longer in imminent danger of going back into special measures. The governors know that they have to hold the executive to account, but as the school improves, they haven’t refocused themselves accordingly, and the governance structures originally needed for an IEB are no longer relevant.
As an NLG, I’ve had leaders ask me to help with the restructuring of their board. In an ideal scenario, weekly meetings of the board and committee will cease being necessary, since governors are conducting purposeful visits, holding the school’s executive properly to account and undertaking independent CPD and training. All governors have a duty to minimise unnecessary workload, balanced against their requirement to fulfil the three core functions outlined earlier. In this case, a refocusing of the committees can reinvigorate the board.
The aggressive board
Conversely, what should happen when governors take the ‘holding to account’ aspect of their role too far? What if the board’s collective attitude towards the headteacher becomes one of ‘We don’t trust you,’ for no good reason, when the data is perfectly fine? Mediation will be required in such circumstances – and the behaviour of the chair will be critical.
Leaders must be able to share and think aloud, without fear of reprisal. Equally, however, the conversations had between heads and their chairs are privileged; not just in terms of subject matter, but also in terms of respect and trust.
Holding an individual to account should never be an act of aggression, but rather be used as a stepping stone towards more effective governance. The modelling of approaches by an NLG can provide a good starting point in cases such as these. When combined with getting people to talk freely in a safe space, it will hopefully lead to a renewed level of trust on both sides. When relationships flounder, it’s easy to lose sight of the ‘why’ of governance.
Most instances of mismatches can be dealt with by providing training to governors and, indeed, headteachers. There’s plenty of information available to help ensure governors know what effective governance is – we just need to be outward-looking enough to find and use it.
Jane Owens is an experienced governor, having previously served as a chair of governors within primary, secondary and special school settings, and is a national leader of governance; she also provides external governance reviews both locally and nationally via her consultancy, Purple Governance