Steering the school ship – Reflections

2 Jan

One of the key functions of governors is developing the school strategy.  Taking account of the school’s strengths and weaknesses, the educational landscape and the likely developments for the future, many governors spend away-days with senior school staff to shape the future.

Where this exercise is productive, governors keep as their central focus the pupils, their welfare and development, and aim to answer four important questions.

(1)        What do we want for the future and where do we wish the school to be in x year’s time?

(2)        Why do we want what we want?

(3)        How are we going to get from where we are to where we want to be? In search of the answer, what do we need to do and what must we avoid doing?

(4)        How long should we be taking to get to where we want to, given that our children have only one chance in life?    

The exercise of an away-day gives governors and staff the opportunity of engaging in a modicum of navel-gazing and in so doing, shut out the siren voices of the Department for Education (DfE), the Office for Standards in Education and everyone else.  They set out their own agenda to shape what they consider will be the best provision they can make for the children they serve.

To answer the first question, governors and senior staff must agree on the objectives for the school based on what they consider as the purpose of a first class education.   Is the purpose wishing to have the school be where governors wish it to be in x years to ensure that it achieves an outstanding rating with Ofsted and rise to the top of the government league table of examination and test results? Or is the purpose providing a well-rounded education in a safe and happy environment?   Governors also need to consider whether wanting to be an Ofsted outstanding is complementary to providing a well-rounded education; or are the two objectives diametrically opposed to each other?  If complementary, which is to come first – being rated outstanding by Ofsted or providing a well-rounded education in a safe, happy environment?

Finding answers to these questions will become that much easier if governors and staff decide on the fundamental principles on which the school is based.  What do we value about education – everything that is measurable or those aspects of provision that are immeasurably invaluable?   If we value both, what weighting should we give each?

The problem with good education is that so much of its outcomes cannot be measured.  It is like calibrating the air we breathe.  Much of it is subjective. As a consequence, central and local government and the public at large interfere with the governance and management of schools.   It does not follow that because we have been to school we know how to run it and make it fit for purpose.

Securing agreement on what exactly are the purposes of education and determining therefore the objectives for the school are daunting.  Everyone responsible for the school’s success must sign up to the agenda for the future to secure a happy ending.

However, important as purposes and objectives are, the processes of getting from point A to point B are as critical.   The mountaineer who climbs Everest knows that she/he wishes to scale the 29,000 feet.  However, if the person does not have the right equipment and the expertise to know how well to climb, she/he is not going to get to the top and/or in the process could come a cropper.

Far be it for me to prescribe what makes for good leadership in this article. There are far too many better qualified people to do so.  However, what I can say is that governors and the school leadership team should be creating an atmosphere and ethos that raises morale and develops a climate where all in the school community want to learn and succeed.   To reach this Holy Grail, governors and staff must determine a shortlist of what not only should be done but also what they should avoid doing, bearing in mind that they are not omnipotent or omniscient.  The school they hold is in trust.  Being governors does not provide an excuse for “strutting their stuff” or throwing their weight around to make the rest of the school community miserable.  The true leader is the servant of all.  (Think Mandela.)

For starters, governors have the responsibility of providing the headteacher and senior staff with support and challenge, in equal measure.   This stratagem should filter down from head and senior staff to teaching, administrative and support staff, and from staff to pupils.

No one knows it all and just as, in the words of Wordsworth “the child is father of the man”, leaders can learn from followers.  Good leaders have the humility to admit mistakes, learn from those on the lower tiers and give them credit.   In so doing, they earn respect from the led and increase their credibility as good leaders.

We have, sadly, some examples of governors misgoverning and headteachers misleading and mismanaging: the chair of governors who is a control freak and tries to take over the management of the school from the headteacher; the headteacher, who makes the lives of her/his teachers miserable by observing their lessons to death.

Objectives are worthless unless governors know who will take charge of each and by when they are to be attained.    As the school embarks on the journey, the educational landscape could well change.  This may require an objective to be adjusted if not deleted from the list and replaced with another.   (In this country, education is the subject of constant change, so this is not new territory.)

During the journey, governors will wish to monitor the progress made.  At the end of the time-limited plan, governors will, no doubt, find the time to evaluate how well the school has done.  However, in a sense, the school is on a constant journey of improvement as there will never be everything that everyone will know and attain and never an “end”.   And that’s one of the beautiful features of education.  It is a sphere of life where the journey is much more exciting than the arriving.

For any plan to be translated into successful action that improves the life-chances of our children, the governors, head and school leadership (generally) may wish to borrow the technique used to train army leaders of the future at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst.

First (according to Alistair Harbison, Major in the Royal Irish Regiment, who wrote in The Times Educational Supplement on 6 December 2013), leaders must come across to followers as being competent – especially in basic skills.

Second, leaders should value the contributions of the staff, pupils and parents, to improve efficiency and gain commitment from the school community.

Third, leaders need to trust those following, and give them space to exercise their initiatives and develop and/or demonstrate expertise.

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