A governance skills audit

Written by: Ian Armitage | Published:
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The importance of a skills audit in securing the governors that your school needs should not be underestimated. Ian Armitage advises

Before beginning its search for a new governor, a well-run school governing body will take stock of the capabilities of each of its members and review the committee as a whole, before then going on to compare the existing expertise with the opportunities and challenges the school faces. Done well, this work – often called a skills audit – helps to define, with some precision, what a successful candidate will need to deliver.

It starts by determining the vital health indicators of any enterprise and asking: “What are the determinants of success or failure?”

Research into business suggests that we should look at various areas of skills, as well as experience, motivation and behaviour. I will look here at skills relevant to assessing and selecting leaders.

People

Nothing much can be achieved without the support of teachers and support staff. The quality of the head, the teachers and their assistants in the classroom, determine outcomes and social impact. Schools are in a war for talent, competing against other schools and against employers outside education. So access to good human capital skills seems essential to help schools with their recruitment, training, development, culture, retention and organisational design.

Of particular value is a chairperson who accepts that the most important part of the job is to attend to the wellbeing of the head and contribute to establishing a positive team spirit and healthy morale. A healthy leader tends to be a good leader.

Customers or stakeholders

The “customer” must always be close to the top of this pyramid. There are three critical groups to address, to understand, to communicate with and to serve:

  • Students and pupils who are in school to learn and acquire the ability and motivation to study.
  • Parents, who influence the behaviour of pupils.
  • The “paymaster” – the Department for Education, either via regional school commissioners or Ofsted.

Obtaining a clear understanding of these stakeholders’ varied needs, communicating with them and influencing them to the advantage of the school and its pupils demands balanced and disciplined marketing skills.

Strategy

Organisations can only deliver if their goals are well chosen and are accepted and understood by staff, customers and suppliers. The interim performance measures required to manage the execution of the plans must also be agreed and used. A board which includes a person who has experience and skill in building plans and managing to objectives will minimise wasted time, effort and money and de-stress the organisation.

Risks

Every enterprise faces risks. The ones that hurt are those where we underestimate probability and/or impact. The ones we ignore are what I call “upside risks” – things can happen that are better than you expect. When this happens the goal is to take advantage of your good fortune.

With this in mind, extensive experience of life brings the most to the table. An awareness of the tools and practices that can help schools to manage risks closely but minimise the time they spend on compliance also delivers value. Our schools must comply with up to 60 statutory regulations – the only choice is how much resource you put into remaining compliant. We might complain, but it is the same in other industries so the skills are out there to use.

Finances

The real issue is not to run out of cash. Once a school receives a financial notice to improve, the probability that it will deliver on its core purpose of educating children becomes vanishingly small. A board member who has experience in financial planning, control, accounting, budgeting and forecasting, and operating improvement will keep the wolf from the door and provide the financial foundation for the school to deliver.

Motivation

Successful boards look at each candidate’s motivation. What do they believe and why are they giving their time? Then it is important to align motivations and achieve a high degree of congruence. Typically the chair and headteacher set the tone. They start by making sure all members know the answer to the key questions: “Why are we here? What do we believe in?” Only then can the board progress to discuss the objectives it wishes the school to pursue. The question arises at the “audit” stage – does the board share a set of values? If so, what are they? New members start by following the lead of the existing team.

Behaviours

If schools are to be successful, we need governors to place a high degree of trust in the headteacher and vice-versa. This does not happen overnight; people have to work at earning trust because it makes life easier and organisations more effective. Work and effort are also required of any member who brings value to the table. There are no short cuts.

Boards only work if individual members carry out their tasks diligently, focus on understanding and then, when appropriate, have the courage or independence of mind to make an effective constructive challenge. All candidates require testing on this aspect.

Gap analysis

Gap analysis is necessary once you have set out what you think the school actually needs over, say, the next three years. Is the skill-set it needs well covered? Where are the gaps? What is likely to happen to our environment and do we have governors who wish to retire?

From this work, you can understand your school’s priorities and begin the journey of mapping your needs against the bank of candidates.

  • Ian Armitage is chairman of SGOSS Governors for Schools, a charitable enterprise offering a free governor search and selection service for schools which need to recruit governors or trustees. Visit www.sgoss.org.uk


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