A very special relationship

Can the school's headmistress be a governor? Surely not! What if someone has a complaint against ...

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An effective working relationship between the headteacher and the chair of governors is vital to a school's success. Nick Bannister speaks to two such partnerships to get an insight and some best practice advice.

Schools have never been as accountable for the performance of their pupils as they are today. So it is no surprise that in recent years the role of the governing body has become an increasingly important element in the leadership of our schools. 

School governors make up one of the biggest volunteer forces in the UK. According to the National Governors Association (NGA), more than 300,000 give their time freely to schools in England.

School governance is important – but a non-professional volunteer force can only do so much. They need training and support as well. And since the publication of the 2010 education White Paper, which praised governors as “the unsung heroes of our education system”, that support has been steadily building.

Earlier this year the National College for School Leadership and the NGA published a new guide for chairs of governors. The aim of the publication was to help them think about their development and how to make their role as effective as possible.

It makes a strong point about the growing importance of the role of governors in the running of schools. It states: “The relationship between the chair and the headteacher is one of the most important working relationships in the school. An effective working relationship with the headteacher allows the chair to act as a critical friend, offering challenge, support, advice and encouragement as required. “A strong partnership will enable the school to achieve the highest standards of teaching and learning for the benefit of all pupils and staff.”

The organisations have also been working together to create professional development for chairs of governors. This includes a new designation of National Leader of Governance (NLG) and a training programme that promises to develop the leadership skills of chairs and those aspiring to the role.

The NLG role is modelled on the National Leader of Education role awarded to exceptional headteachers who work with their schools to rapidly improve struggling schools NLGs do the same with the governing bodies of other schools. Caroline Singleton, chair of governors at Sale Grammar School in Cheshire, is one.

Although her deployment to support governing bodies in other schools has yet to start, Ms Singleton thinks the role will be beneficial on a range of levels. She said: “By working with other schools and also getting access to other governors, resources and seminars it’s going to be good for our school as well.”

Ms Singleton started her governing career by becoming a parent-governor in 2002 and then chair in 2005. She has helped steer the school through a number of status changes: from community to foundation school, then a trust and then, in March 2011, an academy.

She is in no doubt of the value a good governing body can have for a school – and leadership development is a central responsibility: “For us the most important job a governing body has is to develop the headteacher,” she said. “When it came to appointing the head there was no shortage of governors who were happy to take two days out of their working life to help with the appointment.”

Regular contact is vital to a good relationship with the head, she added: “For several years as a parent-governor, I was in the fortunate position of not having to work so I could have much more face-to-face contact. Recently I’ve moved away from the catchment area but contact is still vital.”

The school has developed an intranet which gives all governors access to a diary, agenda papers and minutes. This is supplemented by constant email and phone contact and a monthly meeting which Ms Singleton holds with headteacher Mark Smallwood. 

Regular contact is a foundation for creating a good relationship between headteacher and governor – and the more structured and focused that contact is the better, according to headteacher Dave Baker. 

Mr Baker is executive head at Bradley Stoke Community School, a Gloucestershire academy which is part of the Olympus Academy Trust. Claire Emery is chair of directors at the trust and a National Leader of Governance.

Mr Baker explained: “We have regular fortnightly meetings on Friday mornings which are structured and have an agenda. Then there is the email and phone contact, and informal catch-ups when Claire is in the school.

“I’ve worked with Claire since 2006 and it’s fair to say that she brings a professionalism that is not necessarily typical of all chairs of governors. “This is partly down to her professional background in learning and organisational development, and her expectations of how things should work.

“She is challenging but in a very positive way. We have a very good working relationship which is based on pushing boundaries and wanting to see things improve.”

For Mr Baker it is important that there is a clear separation of responsibilities. Head and the chair of governors should trust each other as leaders in their respective areas.

“I found it interesting talking to other heads about how many want to control the relationship,” he said. “Whereas for me the relationship is about the governance being directed by Claire and everything that is to do with teaching and learning is directed by me. We have a clear delineation of responsibilities and we share the strategic planning stuff.”

As well as running Bradley Stoke, Mr Baker has also started work leading the nearby Abbeywood Community School out of special measures. Abbeywood is to become part of the trust later this year. 

It is a time of great change. So what approach do Mr Baker and Ms Emery take to tackle challenges like this? He explained: “Claire is pushing me about staffing structures and financial planning to make sure we are robust in terms of financial planning in a way that does not create risk.

“My tendency might be to over-staff in order to see rapid improvement. We have been talking about how we might do that with existing staff structures, refining roles, getting more clarity of focus around particular aspects and saying no to other things.

“I think that’s where the challenge comes in. I am in a leadership role and she provides the accountability with the governors. It’s very interesting how she can narrow my focus in how I spend time and what I might achieve without these checks and balances. She forces me to delegate and drop things and she is right.”

Mr Baker said that one of the ongoing issues was whether he should teach or not. He continued: “I teach a year 7 class for an hour twice a week. She has mentioned to me that it will get to a point where I won’t be able to do that and will have to let go of that. She has also been very good at monitoring my work/life balance which I am not always good at. It’s now part of my performance management review objectives.”

Mr Baker warns heads that they need to make sure their relationship with their chair of governors is on a solid footing – especially if a period of major transformation, such as a conversion to academy status, is coming up. “If relationships are not right with your chair of governors you need to look at that because they will have additional responsibilities and accountability,” he added. 

“This can put too much weight on you if the governance is not right. If you look at governance at Bradley Stoke, there is a structure in place which lays out a clear responsibility on who does what. That’s quite atypical of many of the schools I go into – but it is really supportive in terms of challenge.”

That view is echoed by Ms Emery: “For me an effective working relationship with the head has to come down to a shared vision for the school,” she said. “The partnership has got to be quite strong to be able to handle the very major challenges that academy conversion presents.”

Relationships with governors

How can heads and governors work more effectively together? Agreement in some fundamental areas is the basis for a good working relationship, according to Claire Emery, chair of directors at the Olympus Academy Trust in Gloucestershire. She advises:

  1. Commit to a common purpose and shared values.

  2. Show each other mutual respect.

  3. Agree an aspirational and motivational vision for your school and get behind it.

  4. Commit to honest, regular and speedy communication. Get regular meetings in your calendars and be available in between via phone and email if urgent business needs to be dealt with.

  5. Strike the right balance between challenging and supporting each other 6. Be focused – stay strategic and relevant in all your dealings.

  • Nick Bannister is an education writer and communications consultant. 

Further information
For more about training and support for governors is available from theNational College for School Leadership.

Can the school's headmistress be a governor? Surely not! What if someone has a complaint against the headmistress and wants a verdict or opinion from the governors? If the headmistress is part of the governing team, that will surely prejudice any comment or indeed decision.

I would really appreciate your honesty on this matter.


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