Twelve governing top tips

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Karina Carter, a chair of governors and a National Leader of Governance, offers her 12 tips for governing excellence.

This year has seen the first National Leaders of Governance (NLGs) appointed to support what has been called the biggest volunteer army in the country. 

Having served for more than five years as chair of an outstanding school and with the proven ability to work collaboratively and transform schools, each NLG will support chairs of governors in schools and academies, offering the benefit of our experiences to guide our counterparts through their own challenges. 

This will cover a wide range of circumstances. We could be advising new chairs, helping boards to focus on school improvement or supporting them in dealing with significant strategic challenges such as becoming a federation or converting to academy status. 

We will also provide coaching and support their counterparts in a variety of different ways – for example, in using data effectively to improve school performance or by delivering more effective support and challenge for their headteacher. 

In my time as a governor, I have learned a number of lessons that can be applied to almost every school across the country.

Have the courage to change your mind

My school – Stretford High School in Manchester – is part of a local authority that supports grammar schools and which is often keen to recruit more into the system, but we were not interested in becoming selective. There was also an opportunity to become an academy, and I believed this was a route that would be the right option for the school in terms of finance and capital.

As we proceeded further and further down the line, more and more difficulties became apparent, and it became clear that we had got it wrong. It was a situation in which I needed to swallow my pride and admit, at the 11th hour, that we needed to go back on our original decision. 

The governors and school leadership team had also come to this realisation and we were able to halt the process. This was certainly the right move for us, and although we would not rule out seeking academy status in the future, there has been no occasion on which we have been able to see the benefit since. 

Keep your priorities clear

Ultimately, the governors’ job is about ensuring the attainment of children. It is easy to be distracted by personnel issues, for example, when the focus should be on curriculum development. The day-to-day grind of school life must sometimes be set aside to really get involved with curriculum development and securing students’ futures.

Get the best out of your headteachers

It is important that your headteachers feel they can be honest about the progress of the school, and that you are able to extract the real situation from them. The heads are the professionals, but you need to be there to challenge, support and act as critical friend. You can only do that if they are comfortable communicating openly with you, so building a good relationship is key.

Build a capable team

Even for an experienced networker, this can be a real challenge and will take time. The initial board comprised a group of well-meaning parents who ultimately viewed the position as an extension of the PTA. 

Gradually, I have replaced these with people with skill-sets that have been useful to the school: for example, one of my vice-chairs comes from a university background and is hugely experienced in curriculum issues, while another is responsible for equality and diversity at our local Primary Care Trust, and we have brought on a number of experts from Trafford Council.

Governing bodies need to move away from self-nominating groups and towards skills-based committees where every member brings something to the party.

Don’t ignore what doesn’t appeal

While a governing board is being built, the chairperson will often find themselves involved with issues that are outside their existing experience and expertise. Early on, I would chair finance and personnel committees and be forced to get up to speed with these areas, even if I had never encountered them in the past. However, these issues cannot be ignored and it can often be enlightening when fresh thinking is applied.

Look outside the school

When I was first appointed as chair of governors, Stretford High School was in special measures, but became “outstanding” within three years. However, the downside of this was that the school was focusing so hard on getting it right that it had become somewhat insular and had lost important links with the community. Having acknowledged this as an issue, the governors have worked hard to develop links with Lancashire Cricket Club, the Manchester United FC Foundation and our local leisure club to improve opportunities for students and to establish the school at the heart of the community.

Be strategic and hands-on

It is only possible to be genuinely strategic if you know your school intimately. Of course, you must have your eye on the bigger picture, but by being hands-on, you are better placed to forge relationships and get the best out of people. As part of my role, I was involved with the strategic moves behind awarding a new catering contract, but I also run the governor welfare panel, which meets once a term with children who risk exclusion.

Be vocal but broad-minded

One of the problems affecting parent governors in particular is a dogged focus on a single issue that affects their child in particular, which can stall progress on wider issues that the board must deal with. However, it is vital that governors do make a contribution, and do not take on the role as a vanity position and act as a passenger.

Be compliant

Confidentiality and trust are key among boards of governors. It is important to be aware that not every governor might be in it for the same reasons and may seek to discover information to take elsewhere. We have emphasised the issue by reading out our confidentiality agreement at the beginning of every meeting.

Hold your management accountable

This must start with knowing your facts and figures – a task that will be difficult in the beginning, but that will make you a stronger chair once you know what you are looking for. 

By being fully aware of your structure and targets, you will be better able to challenge senior leadership teams and ensure that you are not letting your students down.

Be active

Governors should not be aloof – you must take an active interest in the school and not simply issue commandments from an ivory tower. For example, I and other governors take part in illuminating “behaviour walks”, which will often bring up issues that would have been hidden if approached by a more recognisable face. The advice we are able to give in sub-committees has also proved valuable in bringing a business or university perspective to groups that have otherwise only had experience in schools. 

Demand the best!

This is at the heart of good governorship. Despite all the talk about lifelong learning, children only get one real shot at their education – if you do not get it right in the first place, it will be a lot more difficult for them to catch up when they are older. As governors, we must see ourselves as responsible as the teachers and management team in giving our students the best possible opportunities not just in the future, but every year.


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