Self-Review: Is it the panacea to good governance?

3 Jan

I           Why have self-reviews?

Governors are exhorted to be effective.  To assess how well they are doing, they, naturally engage in self-reviews, because self-reviews, which like motherhood and apple pie, are “good things”.  But are self-reviews what they are trumped up to be and do they pave the way to good governance?   This article explores the issue and while encouraging governors to engage in it, sounds three health warnings.

Governance literature is awash with tools to help school governors carry out self-reviews. The reasoning for doing this work goes like this.

The powers and responsibilities of governors have grown exponentially – proportionate to the diminution of the powers and responsibilities of local authorities.  Membership now, based on government diktat, must be drawn from people who have the necessary skills to make governing bodies effective.  Previously, members represented various stakeholders – i.e. parents, the local authorities, staff, faith bodies and, of course, the community.   There has been a sea-change since from stakeholders to a make-up of skilled and knowledgeable people.   This is despite the continuing requirement for every governing body of a school that is not a free school or academy to have one staff representative and at least two parents on the governing body.

The corporate governing body must have a range of abilities and know-how on, among other things, human resources, problem solving, legal, financial, property development, inter-personal, information and, of course, the curriculum.

There are three reasons why governors would do well to carry out individual and collective self-reviews.

First, governors have to demonstrate that they are effective if their schools are to grow and develop.  Why?  They owe it to the children who are being educated in these institutions, who have only one chance, and who deserve to live fulfilled and happy lives.

Second, Ofsted has lifted the bar on governance.   When inspectors from the watchdog visit a school to assess how well it is doing, they will put governors under the microscope and seek to establish how well they are discharging their functions in the following areas.

(i)         Carrying out statutory duties while operating within the boundaries of governance.

(ii)        Promoting tolerance and respect for all.

(iii)       Ensuring clarity of vision and establishing a learning, collaborative ethos and strategic direction.

(iv)       Contributing to the school’s self-evaluation on the basis of knowing its strengths and weaknesses, including the quality of teaching, and reviewing the impact of their own work.

(v)        Have an understanding and taking sufficient account of pupil data to assure themselves of the rigour of the assessment process.

(vi)       Developing awareness of the impact of teaching and learning and pupil progress in the different subjects and year groups.

(vii)      Providing challenge and holding the headteacher and other senior leaders to account for improvements at the school.

(viii)     Ensuring that the Pupil Premium and other resources are being used well to overcome barriers to learning.

(ix)       Securing solvency and probity and ensuring that financial resources are used effectively.

(x)        Monitoring performance management systems including appraisals and salary progression.

(xi)       Engaging with key stakeholders.

Third, governors are made aware, through the self-assessment process, what knowledge and skills they have and lack, which can then guide them into appropriate training and recruiting – when vacancies arise – suitable and willing people to serve on their governing body.

II          How to carry out a self-review

The School Governors’ One Stop Shop (SGOSS), a national governing body recruitment agency established by the Department for Education (DfE) and supported by various business organisations, requires prospective applicants to complete a form giving information on the skills the applicant has and is prepared to offer the school.  The National Governors’ Association (NGA) has established a tool for governors to carry out self-reviews.

Different authorities also have self-review templates on their websites.  One that is particularly good has been produced by Sheffield City Council.

The Key (formerly called Ten Governors), a support organisation for governors, has published a self-evaluation tool for the governing body which will help members to reflect.    The tool invites governors to consider how well it is doing in six discrete areas, i.e.

(i)         clarity of vision, ethos and strategic direction;

(ii)        contribution to the school’s self-evaluation and an understanding of its strengths and weaknesses;

(iii)       supporting and strengthening school leadership;

(iv)       providing challenge and holding the headteacher and other senior leaders to account for improving the quality of teaching, pupils’ achievement and pupils’ behaviour and safety;

(v)        use of the performance management system, including the performance management of the headteacher, to improve teaching, leadership and management; and

(vi)       ensuring solvency and probity and that the financial resources available to the school are managed effectively.

The governors are asked to flesh out how well they are doing in each area by addressing three sub-issues – current practice, actions to improve, and appoint members who will ultimately be responsible for meeting the objectives and the timeline for the action.

There is considerable merit in governors engaging in an away-day with school staff once annually or biennially spending time in a modicum of corporate navel gazing.   Doing a SWOT analysis at an event like this can help move matters forward.  Governors and staff members – focusing on governance – could review strengths and weakness within themselves individually and collectively.

They could then determine the opportunities within the educational and school environment to exploit them in building on the strengths and tackling weaknesses.  Finally, identifying threats (also in the environment), they could strengthen themselves to deal with them as and when they become tangible dangers to the school’s well-being.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), uses the PESTLE analysis to audit an organisation’s environmental influences, the acronym standing for the political, economic, social, technological and legal environment.  Governors could do the same.

III        Health Warnings

And now for three health warnings.

A small-scale study carried out by researchers, which is due to be published in the Educational, Management, Administration and Leadership (EMAL) – a magazine produced by the British Educational, Management and Administration Society (BELMAS) – cautions the reader about “the complexities and limitations of self-assessment by governing bodies”.

The researchers explore the literature on self-assessment and then focus on the experiences of nine long-serving governors.  On the basis of their findings, they warn that human beings are adept at bluffing themselves about how good they are in what they do.   They cite the infamous comment of Professor Blackburn of Princeton University, i.e.: “We are good at deceiving ourselves about our own merits and only need to believe that we have done better than others to become satisfied that this is what we are like.  It is as if, when it comes to failures, we coat ourselves in Teflon and they do not stick, whereas our supposed successes sit firmly in our memory banks.  We also give different kinds of attention to successes and to failures.  The former are due to ourselves; the latter to bad luck.”

It is easy to slip into a delusional mode, though this does not have to be the case.   Provided that governors are mindful of this hazard and resist “group think”, self-assessment can be a useful exercise.

Secondly, the benefits of self-assessment will prove as daunting as Ulysses discovered when searching for the Golden Fleece if the culture within a governing body is not one that promotes collaborative, supportive and positive working.  Consequently, prior to carrying out a self-review on the knowledge and skills contained among members of the governing body, it would be, perhaps, useful to establish what kind of culture pervades the workings of the members, ‘culture’ being defined as “the way we do things here”.

Here are a few questions – by no means exhaustive – that merit reflection.

  1. Is the culture one where members undermine or support one another?
  2. Do governors engage in one-upmanship using every opportunity to show themselves superior to other members, or do governors celebrate other members’ contributions and achievements?
  • Do members disagree agreeably or are they pre-occupied in engaging in win-lose situations with a view to winning?
  1. Are governors assertive, dealing with the issues, divorcing them from the personalities and confronting one another with their concerns, or do they become personal and/or talk behind one another’s backs?
  2. Do members volunteer to lead on governance issues or do the chair, headteacher and clerk operate like dentists pulling teeth in getting governors to take on responsibilities?
  3. Do governors promise to take action on discrete matters and fail to deliver, or are they reliable and do what they promise to do?
  • Is the climate that pervades the workings of the governing body one where members are eager to ascend the heights on a learning curve, or is there an atmosphere where they think they know it all and don’t need to improve?

Third, a self-review can be only a starting point to good governance.   Dr Andrew Wilkins of the University of Roehampton’s School of Education, found that strategic planning (which presumably starts with a self-review) was often controlled by a “big four” or “senior clique” who tended to exercise “hard and fast influence” over decision-making.  “Amateur governors” who were interviewed for the study which was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) said decisions were presented to the wider governing body as fait accompli rather than enabling them to consider the issues and making decisions based on democratic tools.  He concluded that if such practice was not prevalent worst case scenarios like the Trojan Horse issues in Birmingham schools could have been avoided.

The government has been keen to promote the appointment of skills-based governors.   Dr Wilkins was of the view that while such people were needed in schools, especially in academies, non-experts willing to ask “stupid questions” were as, if not more, important.    “The redistribution of power from Whitehall to local communities, as envisioned through David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’, can only be truly realised if civic empowerment and participation is at the heart of governance,” he concluded.

My belief is that until governors can be brave and honest about what they know and the skills and abilities they have, until they clear the Augean Stables of negativism in the way in which they work and ensure that all members on a governing body engage in the work of school improvement, self-reviews will not be of the value it is trumped up to be.

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