April 9, 2014

How Can Headteachers Support Good Governance, and Why Should They?

Well the starting point of this post has to be that I think not only do headteachers have a professional responsibility to support effective governance in their schools, but I also think it’s in their best interests to do so. I once heard John Dunford say, and John is a former secondary headteacher and was general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders from 1998 to 2010, that too many headteachers are happy with their governing bodies being mediocre. And I do understand this. On a personal level, who really enjoys being held to account? I don’t, just ask my boss…

But that’s the governing body’s job. “Ensuring that the headteacher performs his or her responsibilities for the educational performance of the school”, has now been enshrined in law (for maintained schools) as one of the core functions of a governing body, and Ofsted judges governing bodies in schools and academies on how well they “provide challenge and hold the headteacher and other senior leaders to account”. For maintained schools it’s spelt out in regulation that: “The headteacher is accountable to the governing body for the performance of all his or her responsibilities. The head teacher must comply with any reasonable direction of the governing body” (The School Governance Roles, Procedures and Allowances (England) Regulations 2013, regulation 6(1)(b) and regulation 6(6)).

The governing body is either going to do this well or do it badly. Over the years I’ve seen relationships break down in two different types of situations – one where the governing body has got this wrong, is aggressive, untrusting or interfering in their relationship with the headteacher, and the other where the governing body has got it right and is trying to bring legitimate challenge but the headteacher isn’t comfortable with it. These situations can be enormously upsetting for governors but, if the situation is not resolvable, as volunteers ultimately they can just walk away. But it can be career-ending for heads.

In any case I genuinely don’t believe a school will be as good as it could be without effective governance. We all basically accept that in the public sector we are held accountable, for the way we spend money, for the way we deal with people, for the quality of the service that we provide. And the vehicle for headteacher accountability is the governing body. Heads move on, individual governors move on, but if the body is strong the school remains strong. As the National Governors’ Association would say: “organisations with strong governance don’t fail”.

Ofsted’s good practice guide ‘School Governance: Learning from the Best’ says this: “Effective governing bodies are driven by a core of key governors such as the chair and chairs of committees. They see themselves as part of a team and build strong relationships with the headteacher, senior leaders and other governors. School leaders and governors behave with integrity and are mutually supportive. School leaders recognise that governors provide them with a different perspective which contributes to strengthening leadership. The questions they ask challenge assumptions and support effective decision-making.”.

So if a headteacher wants to build up their governing body and make them more effective what can they do?

1. Provide high quality, succinct, accessible information.

Heads and governors ought to be regularly discussing this. There’s more about it in my post on headteachers’ reports: ‘Whose report is it anyway?‘. Since I wrote that post the government has helpfully updated the Governors’ Handbook so that it now specifies: “Governing bodies, not headteachers, should determine the scope and format of headteachers’ termly reports. This will mean that they receive the information they need in a format that enables them to stay focused on their core strategic functions and not get distracted or overwhelmed by information of secondary importance.”

Heads are also well placed to make sure that governors have access to information they can use to cross reference what they’re being told by the school, such as external adviser visit reports, RAISE online and the Fischer Family Trust governor dashboard. Heads should be making sure these documents don’t just go to the chair but they appear on meeting agendas and discussion of them becomes embedded into the governing body’s work. Too often I see quotes in Ofsted reports that are along the lines of: “the governing body is too reliant on information from the headteacher which means they are not well-placed to hold him/her to account”.

2. Provide information in advance

I still too often come across headteacher’s reports and other information being tabled at meetings or sent out shortly before meetings, not giving governors time to properly read and internalise what’s being said. Sometimes this includes complex data sets. In my view this gives a clear message that the headteacher doesn’t consider it’s that important. There is a statutory requirement (in maintained schools – in academies it will be required by the articles of association) that agendas and all associated papers are circulated at least seven clear days in advance of the meeting, and there is a good reason for this. How can governors fulfil their duties and properly scrutinise if they haven’t had the opportunity to read and assimilate the information they’ve being given?

3. Ensure the governing body is well clerked

This is the governing body’s own responsibility of course, but the headteacher is well placed to encourage the appointment of an appropriately skilled and well-informed individual (independent of the school also, would be my advice) and to encourage governors to believe this is a good investment. Governors are notoriously reluctant to spend money on themselves, because that ‘takes money away from the children’.

4. Ensure there is a governor training budget

Lord Nash often reminds us that governors may be volunteers but we are not amateurs. Volunteers can’t be expected to act in the professional manner that is increasingly expected of them without proper investment in their training and development. And yet, again, we are not comfortable with, or used to the idea, that we should invest the children’s money in our own development. But of course, if we then provide more effective scrutiny and leadership, this is an investment in the children also, and headteachers can help governors to see this.

As an additional lever on this one, Ofsted has recently introduced into the inspection of the governing body a requirement for inspectors to judge how well governors “support and strengthen school leadership, including by developing their own skills“.

5. Encourage governors to take a proactive approach

Too often headteachers organise all the work of the governing body, plan the meetings and set the agendas, and then say ‘but if I didn’t do it it wouldn’t get done’. Headteachers need to be encouraging independence in their governors, who will probably continue to allow them to do all the work if that’s an available option.

6. Encourage self-evaluation

We self-evaluate everything in schools these days except, often, in any meaningful way, the work of the governing body. And yet Ofsted now inspects how well the governing body “contribute to the school’s self-evaluation and understand its strengths and weaknesses, including the impact of their own work“, and common sense tells us that unless we reflect on how well we are working we may never improve. There are lots of tools available for free download, such as the All Party-Parliamentary Group on Governance’s Twenty Questions for A School Governing Body to Ask Itself, the National College’s external review tool or Governor Mark. Or why not consider a small investment and have an external review of governance? (*declares interest*).

I came across the headteacher that inspired this post in a recent review of governance. He had done all of this, and his governing body had grown into something that was no longer dependent on him. He’s moving away from having to model questioning to them (“what governors might want to ask me is…”), and starting to find that governing body meetings can be a bit uncomfortable when his governors are knowledgeable and well-informed and know how to bring challenge. But he celebrates that, because strong and robust governance will help to secure the long-term improvement of the school, whether he stays there or moves on.

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