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Get on with your Governors

Updated: Jul 12, 2021

Richard Hover looks at how to strengthen the bonds between governors and their school

Section 21 (2) of the Education Act (2002), says that ‘The conduct of a maintained school shall be under the direction of the school’s governing body’. This would indicate that the governor role carries a vitally important responsibility, yet it is in the hands of unpaid volunteers. In this blog, I hope to clarify some aspects of a governor’s role and what might impact on that.

I have been a Governor since September 2014 and when I started, my school was going through a difficult journey, having been rated ‘Requires Improvement’ with Leadership and Management a particular area for improvement. I soon realised that one of the key challenges of my role was learning how to work effectively with a group of people – all with their own competing personal priorities and commitments – to improve the quality of education and make the changes that were needed. I also realised that governors had differing perspectives of what is expected of the governor role. Some still adhered to the ‘old-school’, fairly laid back approach: talking to staff, attending Christmas performances etc. Some governors came with their own personal agendas, which meant addressing key issues around school performance or improvement strategy was at times challenging.

My background is not in the education sector but within the Civil Service, where I have a proven track record of realising change through building continuous improvement. Although initially I found it difficult to persuade long standing governors to make radical changes, the introduction of smarter working and collaboration concepts began to have an impact. These included a toolkit to administer the governors’ School Improvement Plan (SIP), monitoring progress and impact, and introducing Governor Days in order to focus on bigger strategic issues and make meetings more purposeful with positive outcomes.

When I became Chair of Governors, a little over 15 months ago, I set myself a goal to nurture my Governing Body and develop a committed group of governors who were all working towards the same common goal - to provide excellent education for our children. I felt that there were several elements to achieving this:

· Building an effective team and developing strong relationships

· Having clear boundaries between the professional role and personal lives

· Identifying a common purpose

Building an effective team and developing strong relationships

It has to be remembered that these unpaid volunteers are responsible for the performance management and salary of senior leaders and therefore it is vital that they work together as an effective team with strong relationships which allow for robust discussion and difficult decisions to be made. These individuals have been picked because they possess a wide range of skills and expertise from their professional lives and this needs to be used to everyone’s advantage. Understanding the reasons why people become governors helps appreciate what motivates them and it is important to tap into this in order to build positive attitudes and to develop everyone’s knowledge and understanding of key issues. Building strong relationships is vital to this, and within these relationships, a balance is needed between ‘friend’ and ‘critical friend’, with the Chair maintaining a clear leadership role, which includes a commitment to consistent and regular communication. There is still likely to be some negativity at times, but this is inevitable when introducing changes or suggesting improvements, and, with strong relationships and good lines of communication, these challenges can be addressed.

Having clear boundaries between the professional role and personal lives

Everyone on the governing body needs to understand where professional boundaries lie and how to operate respectfully and effectively within them. I learnt that some governors develop strong allegiances with other governors due to friendships outside of school/governor commitments or from being a long-standing member of the Governing Body. Through the development of a strong relationship between the Headteacher and the Chair of Governors, it is possible to set clear boundaries between the professional and the personal, ensuring that all members are clear about their role and what they have signed up to. The relationship between the Headteacher and the Chair and between these two and all the other members, must be based on mutual trust, respect, openness and a shared understanding that governors are responsible for governance and what that entails.

Identifying a common purpose

A clear vision is needed for your school: one that everyone is signed up to – not just the governing body and senior leadership team. The vision should be reflected in the school’s daily school routine and everyone knows that whatever they are doing it is for the same common goal. In our school, the vision is linked to our Appraisals and Continuing Professional Development (CPD), to our School Improvement Plan (SIP) and our Governor monitoring plan. The vision was devised with input from across our school community, but it is ultimately owned by the Governing Body. At Governing Body meetings and when I visit the school I gauge the impact the vision is having and discuss areas for improvement with Senior Leaders. I encourage governors to focus their energy and attention on being strategic and having the maximum impact using the precious time that they give up. Our school benefits from this because governors know what they need to know about the school, are respected and are therefore determined to be productive and ultimately successful.

And finally….

Combining these elements together, the governing body can support the school with working towards a common purpose, where all stakeholders understand their role and what is trying to be achieved. As part of this, governors need to continually work on their own development so that they can confidently share responsibility, be accountable, and never be afraid to challenge, challenge, challenge!

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