Governing boards and school leadership

Written by: Julie McCulloch | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

What should governing boards and school leaders expect from one another? Drawing on new guidance, Julie McCulloch looks at the tenets and boundaries of good working practice

The relationship between school leaders and their governing boards is crucial. A strong, respectful relationship between these two groups is essential for a school, or group of schools, to thrive.

Poor governor-leader relationships, conversely, can sap the energy of all those involved, lead to weak decision-making, and ultimately threaten the capacity of a school to provide the high-quality education that all young people deserve.

Too often, this relationship is not as good as it should be. The hotline team at the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), which provides phone support to school leaders, has so far this academic year fielded more than 60 calls from members looking for advice on governance-related issues.

These covered a whole range of topics, including what to do when governors try to get too “hands-on”, how to handle requests from governing boards for large amounts of paperwork at short notice, and what to do if a governor appears not to be abiding by the ethical standards expected of public office.

And I am sure this is not a one-way street – some governors will be experiencing similar challenges in their relationships with the leaders of their school or trust.

Several years ago, a group of organisations representing both governors and school leaders came together to produce some joint guidance, aimed at setting out clearly what each group should expect from one another – a charter for effective governor-leader relationships.

This guidance has just been updated to reflect the changing education landscape, with the latest version a collaboration between ASCL, the Institute of School Business Leaders (ISBL), the Local Government Association (LGA), the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), and the National Governance Association (NGA).

The updated guidance (2019) is designed to support not only the “traditional” relationship between a headteacher and their chair of governors, but also the different relationships in multi-academy trusts and other groups of schools, such as that between the chief executive and chair of trustees, or between the chief operating officer and the trust’s finance board.

So what makes for a strong governor-leader relationship, and how can schools help to build and nurture these?

Understand and respect each other’s different roles

Governance is strategic and management is operational. This distinction between governance and management needs to be clearly understood by all, so that governors and trustees are not asked to, and do not try to, involve themselves in day-to-day management.
Governors and trustees are there to govern, not to carry out other work within a school on a pro-bono basis. School leaders must not be micro-managed.

The governing board should concentrate on matters related to strategy and school improvement, delegating to school leaders those tasks which are operational (for example, drafting policies, making judgements about teaching quality, and recruiting and deploying staff below senior leadership level).

Develop and support the governing board

Governors, trustees and school leaders must fulfil their duties in accordance with the seven principles of public life (the Nolan Principles, 1995): to act selflessly and with integrity; to be objective and accountable; to be open, honest and to demonstrate leadership skills. They should also understand their responsibilities under equality legislation, recognising and encouraging diversity and inclusion.

Governing a school or group of schools is an increasingly complex undertaking. It is important that governors and trustees are able to develop the knowledge and skills they need to fulfil their role effectively, and that schools and trusts are prepared to invest in helping them to do this.

Ways that governors and school leaders can work together to ensure the board develops the skills it needs include:

  • Carrying out a skills audit of governors and trustees on a regular basis, to identify skills gaps and development needs, and consider how these can be filled through recruitment or training.
  • Recruiting new governors or trustees using a professional, transparent process.
  • Encouraging people from groups currently under-represented on governing boards, including people from a BAME background and younger people, to apply for vacancies.
  • Ensuring that all governors or trustees receive regular professional development, paid for by the school or trust.
  • Regularly reviewing the board’s impact.
  • Developing clear succession plans to replace board members over time.

Implement effective ways of working

The way in which governing boards go about their business has a major impact both on how effective they are and on their relationship with their school leaders. We suggest that boards undertake the following actions:

  • Ensure the board has an effective clerk. The clerk should have a clear job description and contract, which should provide sufficient time for them to manage the business of the board. They should also receive on-going CPD to ensure their skills and knowledge remain up-to-date.
  • Ensure the chair of the board and the school leader communicate on a regular basis, and that the chair seeks external support with their role (for example through joining one of the governance leadership programmes funded by the Department for Education).
  • Adopt a code of conduct, setting out the expectations on governors or trustees, to be agreed by everyone on the board.
  • Review the size and composition of the board, and whether these enable it to fulfil its duties as effectively as possible.
  • Liaise with school leaders to plan all board or committee meetings, ensuring that they are structured effectively and respect the work/life balance and other commitments of all involved.
  • Delegate effectively to committees or school leaders, through a clear governance structure and scheme of delegation.

Understand the organisation and engage with stakeholders

In order to govern effectively, governors and trustees need to understand the organisation for which they are responsible. While much of the information governors and trustees need will come from the school leader, the board should also seek external advice and verification where possible. Boards are also required to provide reports on the school or schools to interested parties and the wider community.
Information that boards should seek includes:

  • The school’s own information about its curriculum, outcomes for pupils, behaviour and safeguarding, teaching, staff performance, staff wellbeing and financial information.
  • Official Department for Education data on the school’s attainment and progress.
  • Feedback from Ofsted reports and, if applicable, monitoring visits.

Governors and trustees should also consider ways in which they can obtain additional information on areas of particular interest. They could, for example, bring together groups of parents or students, or conduct written surveys.

It can also be valuable for governors or trustees to visit the school or schools during the working day. Such visits should have a focus linked to the school or trust’s strategic priorities, and governors and trustees must be clear about their role: they are there to observe and learn, not to inspect.

Trustees of multi-academy trusts need to consider whether they will attempt, across the board, to visit all their schools in a particular timeframe, and if so how that responsibility will be divided among the board members.


School leaders and governing boards both have vital roles to play in ensuring our schools are effectively run and managed, and that our children and young people receive the highest quality education. This updated guidance will, we hope, help leaders and governors to work together effectively and efficiently to achieve that aim.

  • Julie McCulloch is director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders.

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