June 21, 2014

Lessons Learnt: Lesson 2 – Be Proactive

This is the third in a series that started with Lessons Learnt from Ofsted’s external reviews of governance – and how to avoid having one. I want to elaborate on a theme I mentioned in Lesson 1, that governing bodies are very often not proactive in the way they approach their work. And this isn’t just the case in GBs that are judged to be struggling.

What I mean by not being proactive is that often the whole way they organise themselves and everything that appears on their agendas has been determined by someone else. It’s summed up by a response I received in a school recently when I asked how they set their agendas: ‘the Local Authority sets the full governing body agenda and the headteacher sets the committee agendas’.

Now, I’m a Local Authority Officer and I manage a clerking service, and we set a model agenda for our schools. It’s one of the things they pay us for. But I’m increasingly coming to the view that the biggest favour we could do our schools is to say – “there’s no agenda this term, it’s over to you”.

When I first became chair I met with the head to plan our full governing body agenda. I said ‘I think we need to take this item [that the LA has put on the standard agenda] off’. My headteacher said ‘I didn’t know we were allowed to do that’. How I chuckled! Next day I had a phone call from the head of governor services telling me it was inappropriate to take an LA paper off the agenda! (To be fair to my LA this is a few years ago, and things have changed now).

I fairly regularly come across governing bodies who have additional meetings in the year, so that they can have meetings where they don’t ‘have’ to use the LA agenda and can talk freely about things that are important to the school.

My point? There are two. They’re both obvious, but challenge embedded cultures in the way governing bodies operate.

1. Even for maintained schools there are very few statutory requirements around the way we organise ourselves and manage our work. There are no statutory link governor roles (even safeguarding, SEN, pupil premium etc), and statutory committees are only around prescribed functions (headteachers’ performance management, exclusion reviews, appeals etc). Other than that it’s up to us how we organise our monitoring activities. But we rarely reconsider our committee structures or our link roles, and often we’re tied to LA models that go back years.

2. One of our fundamental roles is to hold the headteacher to account, and yet so often they plan and manage our work. How can we hold them to account when they are setting our agendas? This is not a criticism of heads – they often say: ‘if I didn’t do it it wouldn’t get done’. I was reviewing the maintained school legislation around different roles and responsibilities recently. It would be so helpful if somewhere in legislation or guidance it specified that it’s the chair’s responsibility to set the agenda for the meeting on behalf of the governing body. Such an obvious fundamental – so often overlooked.

And I must just mention there is a key role for the clerk in all of this – supporting the governing body in getting its organisation and agenda setting right. But so many of us still employ the headteacher’s PA in that role, and that doesn’t necessarily provide us with the objectivity or the professional expertise that we need to truly underpin effective governance.

I don’t mean all this to be negative – there’s a huge silver lining. And that is that we are actually able to take our destinies into our own hands. Maintained school governing bodies aren’t actually under the ‘control’ of the LA and haven’t been for a long time. There are many opportunities to innovate, to be creative, to make our governing bodies the dynamic and exciting places that we want them to be, so that we can genuinely make a difference for our children.

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