July 13, 2014

Lessons Learnt: Lesson 3 – Get your structure right

This is number 4 in a series of blogs about the common themes that have come  through from the external reviews of governance that I’ve undertaken under the current Ofsted framework. In the series so far: Lessons Learnt from Ofsted’s external reviews of governance – and how to avoid having oneLesson 1 – Don’t rely on your headteacher and Lesson 2 – Be proactive.

So why is structure important and what kinds of mistakes am I coming across? Ofsted themselves aren’t very interested in governing body structures. They’re looking at impact and rightly so. But I don’t believe we can make much impact if our structures are stopping us being effective.

The first question around this in maintained schools is: ‘have you reconstituted yet?’. I wrote an earlier blog about the benefits of structuring according to the new regulations, and this has now been made mandatory, with all maintained school having to have completed their reconstitution by 31/8/15.

The next question is about committee structure. There’s no right or wrong in terms of how many committees you should have, but there are some general principles:

The number of them shouldn’t impact adversely on the headteacher’s work/life balance.

The statutory quorum for committee meetings (in maintained schools) is three governors, but you can determine a higher quorum in your terms of reference if you choose, or specify that the quorum must include at least two non school employees for example.

The terms of reference must be reviewed every year and the outcomes of the meetings must be fed back to the governing body.

There aren’t any statutory committees! There are panels that you need to have in place for one-off situations like staff or pupil disciplinaries, for example, and in fact you can’t meet your statutory responsibilities without having a pay committee, but otherwise it’s down to you to organise how you see fit.

You aren’t obliged to adopt the recommended committee structure from the Local Authority.

Increasingly small governing bodies are choosing not to have committees at all and just meet more frequently as a full governing body.

So my point? How many committees you have and what they’re called isn’t that important (though I like the National Governors’ Association’s model of two: ‘resources’ and ‘standards’). The important thing is whether the structure that you’ve adopted is manageable and is allowing you to bring the scrutiny that you need to bring in relation to the school budget, and to the school’s internal and external performance data, and to fulfil your other statutory roles, in a strategic way.

One of the mistakes I’ve seen is a new group being set up immediately after an inspection to scrutinise data. Some Local Authorities and some HMIs even have strong preferences for what these groups should be called, like “Raising Attainment Group” or “Data and Standards”. And I suppose there’s no real problem with that in itself. But often they don’t have proper terms of reference, so it’s not really clear what their role is; often they meet very frequently (e.g. fortnightly, or even weekly) and this doesn’t give time for paperwork to be prepared properly, or for meaningful progress to be made between meetings; and usually they cut across the work of an existing committee so the pre-existing curriculum committee doesn’t know what it’s supposed to be doing in its meetings and its members become disenfranchised.

If you feel data isn’t properly being considered it’s much better to have a proper structural review and work through how the governing body is going to address this, rather than a knee-jerk reaction of creating a new group that’s just added on top of the existing structure.

The other thing I count under this heading is what individual or ‘link’ governor roles you have. Very often this is a dysfunctional area. You might have a geography governor, a maths governor, or a pupil premium governor, but do they actually come into school? What do they do when they’re there, and what feedback do they give to whom?

In fact the whole issue of governor visits to school is a difficult one and merits a blog to itself. So I’ll leave it for now, and just say, have a think about when and why you visit and how this informs the governance of the school.

The forthcoming autumn term is likely to be the time we review our terms of reference, committee membership and governor roles. Let’s take some time this year to reflect on whether what we have is meaningful, fit for purpose, and helping you keep school development priorities and our vision for the school at the centre of all we do.

If not, perhaps it’s time for a re-think?

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