Gone are the days when being a governor was another status badge to collect, and all that it involved was attending a few meetings a year to hear what the headteacher had to say and turning up for the school fête.
Governance has undergone a transformation. It is now recognised that the role of governance is an integral part of leadership and management of a school and, consequently, judged as such. This is clearly reflected in recent Ofsted inspections, and any school where the quality of governance is categorised as “requires improvement” or worse, now risks a similar judgement for the school as a whole.
So what impact does this have on senior leadership within the school – and how can senior leaders actively engage with governors?
Key to an effective working relationship is transparency and clarity of purpose and thought. It is vital a school should have a five-year strategic plan. And, by strategic plan, I do not mean a fluffy form of words where “every child will fulfil his or her full potential”.
I mean a clear set of objectives that can be described and measured. This could include targets for academic achievement, sporting involvement, the formation of orchestras and choirs, high-quality drama productions, a range of advanced resources for ICT, art, science and so on. It should be achievable within the timeframe, ambitious and inspiring.
It is important that the development of this strategic plan involves the whole school community and that ownership is shared by senior leaders and governors.
Having agreed the strategic plan, it has to be delivered and monitored, largely through the School Development or Improvement Plan. While the division of responsibility will be operational delivery from senior leaders and monitoring and accountability from governors, it is also important that both parties agree the mechanism for reporting progress and the timescales.
This creates a process that is realistic and transparent while allowing governors to fulfil one of their core functions of holding the school to account without becoming embroiled in the issues of trust and personalities. It also provides a structure and focus to senior leadership team and governing body meetings.
Strategic plans should not be turgid, inaccessible documents, they should be inspirational ambitions for the future; they should be widely shared with the whole school community and successes celebrated.
Holding the school to account is an area where governors are coming under increased scrutiny and pressure, and where there is potential for friction with senior leaders. Many governors interpret this to mean results – hard and core attainment. But what senior leaders know, and what an increasing number of governors are beginning to understand, is that there is much more to it than that.
A true reflection of a school’s success is not just attainment but the extent of progress made, and the desire and capacity to improve even further. The key to enlightenment in this area is data – the ability to assimilate, understand, analyse and use data. Data should not be, as is unfortunately the case in some schools, a mechanism by which the head and senior leaders confuse and overwhelm governors with the aim of being left to run the school in peace without interference.
Data needs to be accessible and shared. Governors need to understand why targets are set and why they are considered realistic but stretching. They need to understand the range of targets, such as for pupils who have English as an additional language, Pupil Premium pupils or gifted and talented.
They need to understand how data is analysed, translated into strategies for improvement and linked to the key priorities in the School Development or Improvement Plan. And they need to be clear on monitoring, assessment and reporting. Senior leaders should not just seek to inform governors, but to involve them so that they increase their knowledge and understanding. This allows governors to ask relevant and searching questions. No senior leadership team worth its salt should resist being held to account in a creative and supportive way, for therein lies the path to improvement.
Among the many responsibilities of a governing body is “ensuring there is a broad and balanced curriculum” and “getting to know the school”; which can be quite a daunting task. It often involves governor visits, or “observations”, which can be a contentious issue and sometimes perceived by staff as “mini-inspections”. This can be avoided by developing a defined and agreed process that is transparent and gives governors the opportunity to work closely with staff, to be able to build relationships, to positively contribute where appropriate, and to take responsibility for sharing their knowledge with the rest of the governing body.
These are just some examples of where governors and senior leaders can work together. This approach is, above all, positive and involves teamwork. It clearly defines responsibility and is based on a shared vision for the future.
Governors will continue to have an increased role to play in the performance of schools (and will bring skills and experience that schools do not possess), but it should be as part of a wider team that works together for a common purpose.
- Harry James is a national leader of governance with Educate.