Last November, at the NGA’s (National Governors’ Association) joint conference with the British Educational Leadership, Management and Administration Society, Graham Stuart MP described school governance as being “almost sexy”.
These are perhaps not the first words to come to most people’s minds when they think of governance, but they do summarise Mr Stuart’s wider point about how governance has evolved over the past few years. It has become increasingly dynamic, with any idea of a cosy chat about how nice the school is over a cup of tea left firmly in the past.
One noticeable change is that there has been an increasing emphasis on governing boards’ strategic role – setting the strategic direction of the school is one of the governing board’s core functions, but it can be challenging for some. Therefore in January, the NGA and the Wellcome Trust jointly launched a free resource for governing boards: The Framework for Governance.
This is a flexible guide which aims to help governors and senior leaders to take a broader and longer term perspective, by setting the strategic direction of their school and monitoring progress against this. The Framework consists of three “Elements”: A, B and C.
Together these are designed to reflect the cyclical nature of the governing board’s work. Part of the flexibility is that the Element a particular governing board engages with first will depend on their own situation.
First things first, the governing board needs to establish some broad principles about the way it works; without these in place the governing board will not have the tools to effectively set and monitor the school strategy. Therefore Element A sets out the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Governance and Leadership’s Twenty Key Questions for a school governing board to ask itself.
Drawing on NGA’s eight elements of effective governance, the Twenty Questions allow governing boards to undertake a health check of their practice. They are organised into three categories which reflect the Elements of the Framework, covering governing board effectiveness; vision, ethos and strategy; and effective accountability.
The Twenty Questions were first developed in 2012, and since then have been widely used – our most recent membership survey indicates that 40 per cent of governing boards have used them to evaluate their practice.
We hope that their inclusion in the Framework will make them accessible to even more governing boards, as we want to engage as many as possible in this simple exercise to reflect on their practice.
Element B focuses on how governing boards should approach setting the school strategy. Doing this well is a vital part of the governing board’s role in driving school improvement – it is also one of the governing board’s three core functions as set out in the Governors’ Handbook.
We are all too aware that competing pressures – from Ofsted, the government, and other sources – can result in schools taking a fire-fighting approach to school improvement.
But put quite simply, the only way to ensure sustainable school improvement is to take a long-term view. For example, when a headteacher leaves and a new one starts, the school’s long-term strategy should stand the test of time without the vision being lost or abandoned in this move.
The first step is to establish a vision for the school. Vision is one of those words which is sometimes used interchangeably with terms such as “values” and “ethos”, but in the context of setting the strategy it has a very distinct meaning. The vision should, in a few sentences, describe what the school will look like in three to five years’ time. In comparison, the schools’ values and ethos describe the manner in which the vision is achieved. The school’s vision should:
Be ambitious but achievable.
Take into account where the school is now.
Describe what the pupils will have left the school having achieved – covering attainment, progress and being prepared for the next stage of their education and life beyond the school.
Take account of stakeholders’ views.
Be agreed and owned by the governing board.
Once the vision has been agreed, the governing board should work with the headteacher and other senior leaders to turn this into a strategy. The strategy should consist of a limited number of key priorities – no more than six – which are measurable and for which targets are determined.
These are also known as key performance indicators, or KPIs (these are discussed in more detail below.) It is then up to the headteacher and senior leaders to turn this strategy into a school development plan (SDP), which is updated every year.
The SDP is the operational document which sets out what school staff will do on a day-to-day basis to achieve the school’s vision – in effect how the strategy will be turned into a reality.
The next step is to monitor progress towards the vision, using KPIs which define the success criteria against which progress can be charted. Element C contains a table of possible KPIs, including information about why each KPI is important and suggestions for the evidence governing boards can use to monitor it.
Importantly, the suggested KPIs in Element C do not only cover things that are easy to measure, such as pupil attainment and progress. They also include those things that are less easy to measure, but by no means any less important, such as staff morale and pupil wellbeing and resilience. The Framework also encourages governing boards to reflect on the range of evidence they use.
Some of the data used to monitor progress will come from the headteacher or senior leaders, but this should not be the only source of information. For example, the Fischer Family Trust governor data dashboard provides governing boards with an independent overview of school data, which they can use to ask questions of the headteacher.
Of course the intent here is not to attempt to trip the headteacher up, but constructive challenge is vital. Indeed, evidence from across the education and other sectors identifies holding the executive to account as being the cornerstone to strong governance.
Although we believe that schools should not base their practice entirely on Ofsted’s expectations, it should be noted that inspectors will consider to what extent governors “understand and take sufficient account of pupil data” and use this to “provide challenge and hold the headteacher and other senior leaders to account”.
We understand that some governing boards will need help in engaging with The Framework for Governance, and so we are currently developing a training package on the Framework. This will be tailored to individual schools and will be available in the Spring.
Ellie Howarth is research and information officer at the National Governors’ Association.