There is a huge mismatch between the government’s desire to professionalise school governance and the current reality of governance practice.
If you don’t believe me, think how much effort schools take to appoint a new head compared to how they appoint governors. A recent headship appointment I was involved in took six hours of governor, diocese, local authority planning; there were two selection days involving panel interviews, lesson observing and feeding back, leading an assembly, data exam, finance exam, group discussion.
In another school, with a budget in excess of
£8 million, there were three staff governor places up for grabs and three candidates, all of whom were impressed that recent staff governors had gone straight on to senior leadership positions. There was no election, no interview, no matching of skills to board requirements.
I am sure most schools sign up to the rhetoric of stronger governance, but I would argue that most are not yet committed to making their practice congruent with their intention.
Let’s face it, in an era when schools can no longer rely on local authorities or the government to challenge them in the way they used to, we need strong governance.
West Sussex used to have in excess of 100 advisors working with schools. Now there are a handful. This is a pattern replicated in many other authorities. It is not appropriate simply to leave heads to run their schools on their own, divorced from any accountable body.
But strong governance depends on volunteers with commitment and ability. Achieving the right balance of rigorous challenge and encouraging support is a branch of alchemy that some schools achieve, but many don’t, or at least haven’t yet. It takes effort to recruit and build a suitably skilled team.
Lord Nash, the Parliamentary under secretary of state at the Department for Education, has set out the three core accountabilities of a governing board: to set the vision and strategy for the school, to hold the head to account, and to ensure financial probity and robustness.
At Saint Gabriel’s, the secondary school in Lambeth where I chair the board, we meet with the senior leadership team and set seven or eight principle objectives each year; we describe in our development plan exactly where we expect to have reached on each objective by December, by April and by July.
One of the three committees monitors each objective and the committee chair reports to the full board every term on how we are doing. We use a red, amber, green system.
We keep things as straightforward as possible for a number of reasons: we want governors and the senior leadership team to see clearly what our priorities are; we want to avoid obfuscation and promote clarity and transparency; and we want to attract and keep skilled governors who have highly responsible and time-heavy jobs, people who do not tolerate receiving mountains of paperwork. The development plan gives us a very clear roadmap and tells us clearly where we are on our journey.
The big difference in the way we operate from many other schools is that the governors take full responsibility for how the school is doing. The board is run by governors, not by the head or the leadership team, although we give them a lot of air time to provide us with evidence of how the school is reaching its objectives, or to describe the challenges and how they are dealing with them.
When we began this approach almost two years go, we certainly met with some resistance from one or two of the assistant heads, who felt that governors should not be deciding what the school was going to achieve by way of attainment targets.
But we have a history professor, a Teach First director, a finance director, several priests and a senior civil servant on our governing board. The argument didn’t last long and I believe that every member of the senior leadership team now appreciates the discipline of the system we operate. By the way, we agree the objectives with the leadership – we don’t dictate to them.
At The Key we run a service that supports 40,000 school leaders. We also run Ten Governor (which we are soon re-naming The Key for School Governors) which currently supports about 9,000 governors. We want governor members to access the whole world of governance, not just the very small bit that is related to education.
So we have been talking with the CBI, the RSA, the Institute of Directors, Business in the Community and organisations across the third sector in our quest to find examples of excellent corporate governance.
We have asked our researchers to widen their search when they are looking for sources of information about good governance. We want governors to be aware, for example, that there are exceptional training opportunities available to non-executive directors (which most governors are, of course) through the Institute of Directors (certificate, diploma and chartered director qualifications).
I did my MBA at Nottingham University during my first headship in the mid-90s, specialising in public sector management. For each module I joined in with consultants, nurse managers and GPs as well as heads, further education vice-principals and others in education. For my group project we had to produce a new budgeting mechanism for the Nottingham Rehabilitation and Community Care Service. I was struck by the revolution that the health sector was going through – and the stress that this placed on managers. Since then, of course, education has followed suit.
Anyway, my point is that schools have huge amounts to learn from other areas, whether that means public sector, charities or private companies.
The Key has always felt like a strange mixture of public and private sector, as we were forced to exist independently of government when our funding was removed in 2009. I used to report to a board made up of various acronyms – TDA, NCSL and DSCF – as well as a couple of headteachers.
Since that time I have reported to the chair of Ten Group’s board. His way of operating was “unusual”, to say the least. We met for breakfast every fortnight. I had to send him notes the previous day demonstrating how I was taking forward the various strategies we had previously agreed.
The breakfast was always the least relaxing meal of my week, as he would inevitably focus on the one area where I was least confident and proceed to challenge me on it. He wanted intellectual cogency from me, together with emotional commitment. He could spot a mile off if my body language was not quite in sync with what I was saying.
He always insisted I provide strong data to back up what I was proposing. It proved to be a very helpful, if relatively stressful, form of accountability and the organisation benefited accordingly. It has certainly made my fortnightly catch-ups with the principal of Saint Gabriel’s more rigorous, which I’m sure she appreciates...
There are examples of great school governance. At Caludon Castle School in Coventry, governors are asked to collect photographic evidence of the school achieving its objectives, which they then share at board meetings. I’d love to see examples of what they show. The mind boggles.
Fergal Roche is CEO of The Key. He is a former headteacher of three schools and was a director of two education companies before taking up his current post in 2007. He is a governor of a voluntary-aided school and an academy – both secondary.