May 2, 2015

The Proponents of Courage: Inspiration from the Birmingham Governors’ Conference

Last Saturday I had the privilege of contributing to the Birmingham Governors’ Conference: Stronger Governance – Stronger Schools. It was a very enjoyable event with around 160 governors (and headteachers) in attendance. There were inevitably a few mentions of Trojan Horse, but they were few and far between – Birmingham governors are understandably sick of the term, and still feel aggrieved about the unbalanced press coverage they received.

But the day was about looking forward, and I wanted to share a few thoughts about the input from the City Council Chief Executive Mark Rogers (@MKMRogers), some things that really resonated with me.

For a man who opened by confessing that he ‘doesn’t get out of bed in the morning for governance’, he argued with passion that effective governance makes a difference for children and young people. He’s blogged his full speech if you want to have a look. But there were a few particular headlines for me. For Mark the three essential pre-requisites for governance are:

  1. A clear mission and purpose that’s complementary to the wider context (the Birmingham City Council vision in this case).
  2. A clear definition and adherence to the values that drive us and define us in the eyes of our communities.
  3. A clear focus on the outcomes we want to achieve (including of course, preparing our pupils for life in modern Britain).

I love the fact that he didn’t mention holding senior leaders to account. I’m increasingly of the view that Ofsted promote this compliance aspect of our role too much. Organisations need a compliance framework, of course they do, but it’s not what inspires me about being a governor. It’s the genuine difference we can make to what our schools are like that matters to me. If Trojan Horse showed us anything, it’s that governors can wield enormous influence. That’s powerful. We have a huge responsibility to our headteachers, our staff, our pupils and our communities to wield it well.

And one of the ways we truly bring challenge is by questioning “constructively, insightfully, empathetically and doggedly”. A phrase I’ll be stealing, Mark, thanks for that. ‘Doggedly’ goes so much beyond making sure we get some ‘challenging’ questions into the minutes for Ofsted. It’s about really following things through and making sure we make the difference that we set out to achieve.

THBut the phrase that will stay with me is this. Governors are the ‘guardians, advocates and proponents of courage’. @NGAMedia‘s Emma Knights followed Mark and included some lessons learnt from Trojan Horse. She told of other governing bodies in Birmingham that didn’t hit the headlines, because where individual governors tried to wield inappropriate influence the remaining governors had the courage to bring challenge and to say that it wasn’t acceptable. In the governing bodies we heard of, that didn’t happen and children’s life chances may have been damaged as a result.

Mark is chief executive of the largest local authority in the country, and I guess he has a lot to do, and I accept it’s not school governance that gets him out of bed in the morning. But listening to him reminded me of why it is for me. And why I believe that if we have a clear mission and purpose, an absolute adherence to the values that drive us, a clear focus on outcomes and are the proponents of courage in our schools, we can genuinely make a difference.

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