Effective governors walk the learning talk

24 Apr

I           Why learn or train?

If an organisation is to survive if not flourish – whatever the work it does – it has to be a learning one.  This is more the case in a school, academy, college and university where the primary function is to promote learning.  The key recipients of this provision are, of course, the pupils and students.  However, young people in the charges of the governors, headteachers and staff must see the latter model what they expect of them, to spur the learning for the pupils and students. In such a milieu, governors – like the staff which they oversee – have to take their own learning and training seriously and invest time to improve their knowledge and practice of good and outstanding governance.

Continuing professional development (CPD) is not a staff monopoly at a school or an academy.   It has to encompass all the adults associated with the institution – including governors.  Modelling apart, training is necessary to improve the quality of governance so that governors become better critical friends and make decisions which aid in their effectively developing strategy and promoting accountability. 

There was a time when governors merely attended the one termly meeting of the governing body.  More often than not the occasion created time tea and sympathy.   Then, in 1980, when an Education Act came onto the statute books, they discovered that the one meeting was not sufficient; so they set up committees to deal with the increased workload.  However, with the Education (No 2) 1986 Act, matters became more complex and committees weren’t enough to cover all the functions.  Accordingly, individual governors were given discrete responsibilities.

With the Education Reform Act (ERA) 1988, there was an explosion of activity.  The Act spawned the national curriculum and delegated financial control of the school to the governing body.  Governors’ workload grew.  The skills required of them were several and complicated. Training previously was desirable; from 1988 it became a necessity.

Over the last 26 years there has been at least one new education act annually receiving the Royal Assent.  Governors constantly are expected to update their knowledge and skills and apply them wisely.

In my experience, the overwhelming majority of governors take their responsibilities seriously because they wish to give back something to the community.   They intrinsically derive immense satisfaction and fulfilment when they see the fruits of the work – i.e. the successes of the pupils and students at the schools they serve.

However, a small minority become governors to add weight to their curriculum vitae or because becoming governors is what you do when you retire.  Some councillors, who are local authority representatives on governing bodies, augment their incomes, because they are paid expenses for attending governors’ meetings.   Such governors hardly contribute and  fail to enhance their governing bodies’ effectiveness.

Both, Ofsted and the government, are not happy bunnies when they learn about this.   The former marks the quality of governance down and the latter compels the governing body to restructure with a smaller number of active governors.  (Seven is now the new minimum.)  Thankfully, such governors are more the exception than the rule.

But commitment is not enough even though there is a temptation to assume that because education is something all of us have experienced, we think we are expert in the subject.  Governors of that orientation should be reminded of Albert Einstein famous warning: “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” albeit, he added: “So is a lot!”

II          Problems related to training

Learning is a continual process and no one at any one time knows everything that is to be known to operate with wisdom.   A key obstacle in the path of governors in relation to training is to find the time to do so.  Governors tend to be very busy people.  Most have day jobs.  They also have domestic and other commitments that they neglect at their peril.

The legislation states that employers are obliged to give their employees reasonable time off to serve as school governors.  However, it is silent about whether it ought to be paid time off.   A number of employers such as the HSBC Bank and Pearson, the Publishers, do give paid time off. The vast majority, however, don’t.  Smaller employers find it financially crippling to do so.

The law also allows a governing body to pay its members reasonable expenses if out of pocket while discharging their functions.  However, the payment is limited to cover for travel and child care and not for loss of earnings.   Consequently, before anyone decides to volunteer to become a school governor, she/he should count the cost.

When precious time is found, it’s critical for governors to use it well.  Consequently, they need to research the market and discover training opportunities from which they will derive benefit and courses that make them better governors after attending them.   I have known governors who have despaired when reporting back on seminars they have attended, where the facilitator has droned on or apprised them of information that was old hat.

The news, however, is not all bad.   Local authorities across the country are making strenuous efforts to support their school governors with excellent training.  After a hard day’s work, a governor may find it daunting to attend a seminar beginning at 7.00 p.m. and ending three hours later.  In such a situation, there are useful on-line courses provided, for instance by The National College for Teaching and Leadership (NCTL) and Ten Governors.

In a minority of cases, employers – such as HSBC – provide an infrastructure of support for employees who are school governors.   The bank, for instance, deploys an educational consultant who, with the support of a key HSBC staff member, facilitates seminars for bank staff at Canary Wharf, Southampton and other outposts in England, dependent on demand.   There is also training via web-ex sessions for all bank staff at least five times annually.

III        Creating a learning and growing ethos

Several folk are deterred from signing up as members because of the experiences of governors they know who were not made welcome on being appointed or elected and deprived of the wherewithal to learn swiftly on the job.   It’s not uncommon for governors to aver that it took them at least two years to know what governance was about and make a contribution to discussions at meetings.      Accordingly, there is an onus on the chair of governors and/or the clerk to ensure that every new governor is given a mentor, sent an induction pack of useful materials and signposted to effective induction training.

Training for governance covers the governing body’s roles and responsibilities and information about the school’s staff, pupils, parents, the community and the data – especially in relation to the progress and achievements of the children.  The insights governors garner enable them to ask challenging questions of their headteacher, senior and middle managers.   Governors are able to have courageous conversations with them to promote the children’s and young people’s best interests.

Training to meet Ofsted’s expectations of governors which are as follows is vital.

(i)         The provision of support for the effective headteacher.

(ii)        The ability to tackle key concerns.

(iii)       Understanding how the school makes decisions about teachers’ salary progression.

(iv)       Managing the performance of the headteacher rigorously.

(v)        Ensuring that the school’s finances are properly managed.

(vi)       Having a role in deciding how the school is using the Pupil Premium.

IV        Training on the job

A very effective method of training is learning on the job.  This should not take the place of off-site and on-line learning but rather complement it.   There are various methods of doing so.

(i)         The first is observing the contributions of others – the good, bad and ugly.   Governors can also learn from others: what pitfalls to avoid and the good practice to emulate.

(ii)        We encourage our pupils and students to be bold and not worry about but rather learn from failure.  Governors must walk this talk too.   Erring is human as long as one does not make the same error again and again and again.   Equally, the governor who has taken the plunge to do something and stumbled has a right to expect his/her fellow governors to be forgiving and supportive rather than gloat and denigrate.

(iii)       Where governors have been on training, the governing body should create opportunities for them to give feedback to the rest of the members so that the learning can spread.

(iv)       Last, but by no means the least, governors can learn through reflection on past practice.    Every time governors have tackled an issue or attempted to solve a problem, either collectively or singly, they should reflect on how well they “performed”, assessed the outcome and consider what they could have done differently and better to enable them to improve the next time they are confronted with the same issue or problem.

V         Why bother?

Operating in the above manner may well seem a tall order. “Why bother?” The answer lies in the original motivation for so many people wishing to become governors in the first place, i.e. to give something back to society and make it a better place for generations to come.   Where governors have made a positive difference, the fruits of their labour give them immense satisfaction and happiness.  The plaudits of others are always welcome and enhance such feelings.  However, even without public acclaim, they enjoy the experience of seeing a job well done.   It has led many governors to considering their voluntary work more rewarding than their paid jobs.

The spin-off from learning to be good governors is that the skills and knowledge gained from the experiences very often help them in their day jobs.   They live fuller and more fulfilled lives.

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