Can governors work as a team and capitalise on their talents?

24 Apr

I           The What and the How

Most people are now familiar about what the role of the school governing body is – i.e. to devise a strategy for the school and keep it on track, promote accountability and act as the school’s critical friend.   These three functions must have a direct impact on educational quality and be reflected in the progress and achievements of the pupils.  However, what proves to be much more challenging is how to bring a disparate group of members together and make them work as a team to ensure that the “what” of governance can be achieved in the best interests of the pupils of the school. 

The membership of a governing body is now predicated on a skills-based model rather than a stakeholder one – previously the norm.   This is because of the present complexity of a governor’s functions, which encompasses the curriculum, data analysis, human resources, finance, property management, public relations and the legalities surrounding all of them.   Any governing body worth its salt will ensure that it carries out a skills audit. Where there is a shortage of talent in any one area, it will take steps to plug it with recruiting members, who have the necessary capabilities, as and when vacancies arise.  And if the vacancies are unlikely to be created, the governing body will be seeking to co-opt associate members to draw in the necessary talent.

II          Principles of Public Life

Ensuring that a diverse group of people coming from various walks of life, all of whom have their own philosophies of the school’s purposes and various ways in which to promote children’s best interests, are working with a commonality that brings synergy into play is altogether more taxing.   The chair of governors – with the active support of the clerk – has responsibility for orchestrating the work of the governing body.  However, there is an onus on all the members to contribute and operate in accordance with the principles of public life set out by the Nolan Committee in 1996.

The seven principles are as follows.

(i)         Selflessness

Holders of public office take decisions solely in terms of the public (for school governors, read “pupils’”) interest.  They do not make decisions in order to gain financial or to benefit materially for themselves, their families or their friends.

(ii)        Integrity

Holders of public office do not place themselves under any financial or other obligation to outside individuals or organisations that might influence them in the performance of their official duties.

(iii)       Objectivity

In carrying out public business, including making public appointments, awarding contracts, or recommending individuals for rewards and benefits, holders of public office make choices on merit.

(iv)       Accountability

Holders of public office are accountable for their decisions and actions to the public (for school governors, read “parents, local authority, Ofsted and the Department for Education”) and submit themselves to whatever scrutiny is appropriate to their office.

(v)        Openness

Holders of public office are as open as possible about all the decisions and actions that they take.  They give reasons for their decisions and restrict information only when the wider public interest clearly demands this.

(vi)       Honesty

Holders of public office have a duty to declare any public interest relating to their public duties and take steps to resolve any conflicts arising in a way that protects the public interest.

(vii)      Leadership

Holders of public office promote and support these principles by leadership and example.

II          Conflicts

The greatest threat to team-working is conflict.   Conflict can be destructive, detrimental to cooperation and interfere with performance.   The causes of conflicts are many.

Conflicts may stem from different members having different goals.   For instance, the musically oriented governor may wish to use in more of the school’s resources to purchase instruments; the governor who is scientifically inclined may prefer to direct the school’s surpluses into creating a second laboratory.   In recent times, there has been much debate and discussion at governors’ meetings about whether or not a school should open a bulge class. Some want it because they care deeply about those children in a local area being without education. Others are opposed for equally honourable reasons: i.e. the current pupils could be disadvantaged educationally by the sharing of limited space or disrupted by the influx of other children.

A conflict could arise because members have varying norms and standards about the quality of work being done.  What constituted a standard of performance, which was excellent a decade ago, for example, no longer provides a measure of what is acceptable in today’s environment.   For instance, up to three years ago, satisfactory was just that – satisfactory.  In Ofsted’s lexicon, satisfactory now is no more satisfactory but rather “requires improvement”.

Occasionally, the performance of a governing body suffers because members engage in “put downs”.   The non-assertive governor creeps into a shell because the aggressive one has “had a go” and insulted her/him in front of the rest to win a point.  This has gone unnoticed by the others – including the chair.  Sometimes the chair is the subject of an insult.  The morale and cohesion of the governing body becomes a casualty because the members move into a lose-lose situation.

All members should operate assertively (as opposed to aggressively) – to deal with the issues and divorce them from the personalities, to hate the action but love the person, to disagree agreeably.   Where governors are at the end of their tether with others who twist the truth, they should remember Winston Churchill approach.  Instead of calling a person a “liar”, he told the said person that he was guilty of a “terminological inexactitude”.

Most often, debilitating conflicts arise because of the misuse of power.   Power/authority is exercised in the context of interpersonal relationships.  Where better to see this at work than in a governing body where two forces interplay – a concern for objectives and a concern for people.

Where there is a high concern for objectives to the neglect of fellow human beings, we have a mechanistic outcome which will affect the morale and so the efficiency of the governing body.  Where there is an overemphasis on focusing on the members of the governing body – making them feel comfortable and promoting splendid relationships – to the neglect of the objectives, the governing body creates a country club ethos.

Where there is an absence of both, concern for people and objectives, we have a recipe for impoverishment and the collapse of good governance.

When work accomplishment stems from the members who care about one another and all of them share a common understanding of the goals of the school and are keen to achieve them, team-working is created and sustained.

Power – like money, water and fire – can be used for good and improve situations.   However, if misused (think Stalin and Hitler) it causes misery.   Power can be exercised by all members of the governing body in different situations – not just the Chair and the headteacher/principal – and must be used judiciously for governors to be effective and the school to benefit.

III        Size

By September 2015, every school will be required to reconstitute its governing body in the light of the September 2012 governance regulations.  (See here, i.e. page 6 of Constitution of governing bodies of maintained schools – proposed changes to regulations).  The government is keen for the membership of the governing body to be as small as possible.  The minimum number of members prescribed is seven.  However, there is no maximum.

Governing bodies are faced with a dilemma.  The number and complexity of tasks are so great that if a governing body is too small, it becomes daunting for seven or eight or nine members to cover all the responsibilities that they have to discharge.   Also, where there is a staff disciplinary issue, there may not be sufficient, disinterested members to sit on the First and Second Committees.   However, this problem can be resolved if the governing body instructs the clerk to invite the governors of neighbouring schools to serve on such committees as and when required.

If the size of the governing body is too large, it could well become dysfunctional.  The larger the number, the greater is the scope for disagreements.  Discussions could become not just exhaustive but also exhausting.    Equally, a few governors may feel so intimidated with the large number that they demur about making contributions to debates.  They withdraw even though they have much to offer.   Some governors may welcome this as they will leave most of the work to be done by a small cadre of diligent members.

Consequently, the governing body should decide on an optimum number (between 13 and 17) to comprise the membership.   Research has found that anything over 24 in a group and the group ceases to operate cohesively.

IV        Cliques

Elsewhere I have written about how important it is for the chair and headteacher/principal to work closely together without blocking out the contributions of other members.   Where the chair offers too much challenge to the headteacher/principal, the conflict causes progress to grind to a halt.  Where the relationship is too cosy, corruption flourishes.

All members can endeavour to function with integrity and probity so that the alliances they may form do not exclude other members from working with them too.   Staff representatives have a natural affinity for one another, given that they work in the same school, unless of course they have fallen out professionally.  Equally, parents could form alliances so that they may be tempted to hatch plots against others.  Let me hasten to add that staff (or parents) working together, have often been very effective.  However, members of the governing body have to guard against unhealthy associations or exclusive cliques.

V         Roles

I mentioned that the duties of the governing body are myriad.   These include responsibilities and duties to cover the budget, staffing, the curriculum, performance management, target-setting, discipline – both, for pupils and staffing – admissions, religious worship, religious education, premises, health and safety, school organisation and information for parents – to name just a few.   Carving up the workload is no easy matter and requires intelligence and commitment.  Dealing with all matters at meetings of the governing body is a definite “no, no”.   The governors, under the leadership of the Chair, must aim to share the workload as equitably as possible and in accordance with the abilities and talents of the members.   Responsibilities may be delegated to committees, working groups, governors and, indeed, the headteacher.  They then report back to the governing body to demonstrate accountability.

Marie McKendall, a professor at Grand Valley State University in Michigan said: “The best team member is one who can fulfil whichever role is necessary in a given situation, so practice in all roles is optimal.”

Connie Gibney, global leader of talent operations and technology in LinkedIn, swears by the “four Cs” of teamwork.  They are “Clarity”, which ensures that all members know what the main aims of the activities are so that they are all working towards the same objectives. “Consideration” both, of the ideas and other people’s viewpoints, is the second. “Curiosity” to best ideas to the limit and not be afraid to ask questions, is the third and “compromise” – always being open to allowing one’s ideas to be the basis of building by the other members, the last.

Let me add a fifth factor which is not a “c” – i.e. action.   Where a governor has undertaken to take action on behalf of the governing body, she/he must deliver – unless there are compelling reasons where the governor can’t.

How well governors work as a team will determine the extent to which they put the What of governance – i.e. strategy, accountability and challenge and support – into effect.   This, in turn is predicated on how well governors coalesce – which is dependent on sharing values, beliefs, followed by having common aims/objectives and norms.

At least as important as governors having knowledge and the right skills is the group dynamics of the governing body. The governing body is not unlike a football team, where the members may be individual stars in their own right and yet fail to win matches when they don’t work well together.

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