The secrets to strong governance


In the face of the many challenges embroiling education, David Hanson looks at why and how strong governance, and good working relationships with headteachers, can help schools to be successful.

We all know education is facing enormous challenges, not just the socio-economic issues that dealing with the most serious recession since the war inevitably brings, but unyielding political pressures also.

Issues such as curriculum and exam reforms and the government’s academies programme, continue to dominate the headlines, as well as performance-related pay and other changes.

Good governance is key to ensuring the success of all schools, independent and state, and the relationships between governors and heads are central in school leadership and management. Strong, co-ordinated leadership is critical in ensuring schools, and their pupils, can continue to prosper and flourish both in the immediate and long-term.

Successful schools remain alert to, and knowledgeable about, the ever-changing world in which they operate. They recognise that while history and tradition are important factors in an institution maintaining its identity and core ideals, sometimes fundamental changes are required in order to remain successful. 

It takes bravery and a willingness to take calculated risks, but there are things possible now that have never been possible before. If heads and governors can temporarily put aside the daily routines of governance, health and safety, budgets, buildings etc, and peek over the horizon at what could be, they would hopefully enjoy a welcome reminder that they can develop their school as they choose to.

That open-mindedness can only happen when the relationship between a school’s head and its governors is rooted in respect and trust, and yet is robust enough to endure sometimes very significant differences of opinion in school strategy and direction. The most successful, vibrant schools do this already.

In successful schools you find the head, senior leadership team and governors manage to achieve great understanding and trust in what each part of the leadership team brings, and what those different parts make up. They can be open, share ideas and listen to and learn from each other for the common good of the school. The governors can take care of the strategic issues but trust the head to get on with the day-to-day running of the school.

Strong leadership is a key factor in all successful schools yet leadership can be a very lonely job. In the challenging environment the education sector is experiencing it should not be leaders going it alone, but everyone working together to recognise where opportunities exist and then supporting each other in assessing whether an opportunity is a viable, cost-effective and realistic proposition that would benefit pupils.

Let us not forget for all the debate around governance and strategy, there is nothing more important than the benefit these bring to the school’s pupils. 

The governing board should be a head’s “critical friend”. “Critical” in that they have to challenge, ask the tough questions and invoke debate. But “friend” because the support, expertise and experience they can bring is invaluable in a head delivering the objectives. 

A board of governors, by its very nature, has to consider risk and can err on the side of caution. But they should also be able to display courage and ambition for the school. That comes down to having good people around the table. Within schools we have the talent, skills and expertise to build sustainable models to create bright futures, but trying to do this alone does not work. It can only be done by working together.

I consider it best practice for schools to operate an education sub-committee chaired by an expert governor such as a serving head or deputy. 

Such a structure can include sub-committees for education, regulatory, development, finance and other general purpose matters, and provide schools with the chance to do some really exciting work to levels of detail previously not possible, typically for resourcing issues. 

It also provides another system of checks and measures to ensure the right decisions are being made at the right times by the right people to the overall benefit of the school. 

There are three common problems we see in schools. First, there is no sense of a common mission. If you were to ask the head, senior leadership team, department heads, or other junior staff what the school was all about, and what it stood for, you would not get one common message.

There is little understanding of the bigger picture and almost a silo mentality of “this is what I do each day and then I go home”. Successful schools foster a sense of common purpose and belonging among staff and governors.

Second, there are no defined goals or finished tasks. Pressure and panic driven by bottom line figures and spreadsheets often sees schools frequently changing direction, and failing to keep faith in a long-term strategy in favour of short-term breathing space. 

But constantly moving goalposts means there is never a sense of achievement among staff or pupils. The only certainty is that if people are to remain motivated they must feel a sense of achievement in completing whatever task they have been set to the best of their abilities. 

Finally, and tied in with the point above, there is all too often a lack of simple recognition, thanks or appreciation of a job well done. Who is going to stick around, or go the extra mile for the school if they feel what they are doing well will never get any credit?

There is also a notable issue in all-through schools, with a feeder junior school into its senior school. There are many differences in academic approach, pastoral care, support and ethos between junior and senior departments. In all-through schools, the senior school is inevitably the dominant partner. But this sometimes manifests itself in status being attached to the age of the children, with those teaching younger children not as valued or taken as seriously as those teaching the senior children. In successful schools there is respect for the role played by everybody on the child’s learning pathway. 

Elsewhere, the value of dedicated time outside of school hours for heads and governors to reflect on the current issues and opportunities in education cannot be underestimated. It also provides the chance to network and share ideas with other heads and governors.

Before I joined the Independent Association of Prep Schools as CEO, I spent five years building new academies and then working in the city in a highly competitive asset management environment. What I learned from these experiences is that very successful people can speak without prejudice, and openly, even about very difficult subjects and issues. 

Like businesses, head and governors must understand their customers (pupils and parents), communicate the value proposition and be flexible and responsive to the changing market environment. Education is a very passionate environment, but it is not always business-minded. Schools have a moral obligation to be run as effective businesses, driven by the passion of education with which we are all so familiar.SecEd

  • David Hanson is chief executive officer of the Independent Association of Prep Schools.
Further information
David Hanson will speak at A Time to Lead heads and governors conference at Trent College in Nottingham on June 7. For more information, visit, contact 0115 8494977 or email


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