Recognition: who wants it? Some thoughts about the NGA Governance Awards and sharing good practice

You probably recognise this phrase:

“To date, governors have not received the recognition, support or attention that they deserve. We will put that right.”

It comes from the 2010 White Paper: The Importance of Teaching. I remember reading it with interest and wondering how this was going to be done. And I have to say that, while we seem to be receiving plenty of attention, I think the ‘recognition’ bit has proved a bit harder.

That’s one of the reasons I was so pleased to have the privilege of an invitation to the House of Commons recently to observe the presentations of the National Governors’ Association awards for Outstanding Clerk and Outstanding Governing Body.

And it was good to see Neil Carmichael MP (@neil_mp), the chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Governance, and Lord Nash, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Schools, supporting the event.

Lord Nash’s speech hasn’t been published, but Sean Whetstone (@schoolgoverning) recorded it and uploaded it to you tube if you’re interested. I think it’s well worth a watch.

I want to share and comment on a few selected highlights because I think Lord Nash will be very influential in the direction of travel around governance and it’s good to be prepared.

He opened by saying “Governance is one of my top priorities … All schools make two vital decisions. Who is the head and who sits on the governing body … Governors can effect significant change … Although governance is a voluntary role that does not mean it’s an amateur one. It’s a highly professional, highly responsible job, performing an absolutely critical role …Where schools are not good, governance is often an area that requires improvement .” It’s hard to disagree with any of that, and I’m delighted to hear some of these things being recognised.

Lord Nash also commented on two areas that were more controversial. One was governing body size and the other was governors in the classroom. Lord Nash believes that large governing bodies can be off-putting to potential governors and may not be the best environment for dealing with problems when they occur. The governing body he serves on at Pimlico Academy has seven members and he pointed out that in business this would still be considered a fairly large board.

He also said, and I will quote this verbatim, “The other thing I’d like to see governors do more is get into classrooms, because it does seem to me that we spend far too much time in our school system talking about the structure of schools, the ‘how’ and not enough on the ‘what’, ie what is actually being taught in classrooms, and the only way that governors can engage with that, and can see perhaps how schools need to up their game in terms of their curriculum offer at primary and key stage 3, which I think they’re going to have to do in order to engage with the tougher exams which are undoubtedly coming, is to get out there and see for themselves what is being taught.”

Now I have no strong view about governing body size. I’ve seen and worked with many governing bodies over the years and their size has never seemed to me to be the determining factor in their effectiveness. Professor Chris James of Bath University assured me recently that there is no evidence coming from research to suggest that size is particularly important in this.

I also have no strong view about governors in the classroom, though I know many people do (as long as everyone knows exactly why we’re there and what we’re doing and not doing!). I come back to what was said in Ofsted’s ‘School Governance: Learning From the Best‘ “In 8 of the 14 schools visited, governors routinely attend lessons to gather information about the school at work. All the governors who were interviewed visit their schools regularly and talk with staff, pupils and parents. Clear protocols for visits ensure that the purpose is understood by school staff and governors alike. Alongside the information they are given about the school, these protocols help them to make informed decisions, ask searching questions and provide meaningful support.”. The other six governing bodies were outstanding too, but their governors weren’t regularly in classrooms, they monitored in other effective ways.

So, my point? Governance as we know it is being challenged in a number of ways at the moment. Let’s not get defensive as if the way we do things is the only way, or as if just because we’ve always done something in a particular way that’s a good enough reason to carry on. Let’s make sure we can never be accused of being the kind of governing body Lord Nash describes when he says: “all too often we see that schools that are performing badly have large governing bodies of, frankly, insufficiently interested, talented or trained people making decisions which appear to be in the best interest of the adults rather than the children and young people”.

How good are we at self-evaluation of governance? Do we examine how effective we are? Do we reflect, regularly, on what impact we have on the outcomes for our children and young people and adapt our practices accordingly? A final quote from Lord Nash: “I would urge all chairs of governing bodies and all governing bodies to examine whether they couldn’t operate in a more dynamic way … there obviously needs to be a real sense that the governing body is a force for change and not a talking shop or a force for the status quo”.

Are we a dynamic force for change in our schools? If we genuinely are, the whole debate about size and structure and whether we’re in classrooms or not is going to recede into the background.

I started this blog talking about ‘recognition’ and I’ll finally come back to that point. Over the years I’ve met very few governors who were in the role to get recognition, those “local worthies who see being a governor as a badge of status” haven’t crossed my path. Most governors turn up week after week giving freely and generously of their time in the hope that they will make a difference for the children. But unless we can look at models of good practice and benchmark ourselves how can we know if we’re as good as we could be? How can we get fresh ideas to keep ourselves dynamic?

And that’s why I welcome the outstanding governance awards, and the role the NGA and other organisations play in the sharing of good practice, and that’s why you’ll find me on #UkGovChat on a Sunday evening, interacting with other governors, and that’s why I’m a National Leader and promote the school to school support agenda. And yet, on my own governing body there’s still a lot of work to be done!

So let’s not get defensive or pedantic but focus on what we can do better and how we can share what we do well. So that when interested parties, including Ofsted, ask us how well we’re doing, we can confidently say we have done all we can to make sure governance is effective in our school and that we really make a difference for the children! And if that all sounded a bit preachy I apologise. Here endeth today’s lesson…

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