The “how” is at least as important as the “what” and the “why” of good governance

9 Apr

I           The “What” and the “Why”

The advice streaming out of the Department for Education (DfE) to governors is all about ensuring that they have the knowledge and skills necessary to discharge their functions.  The government obsesses so much about these aspects that it is planning to legislate for schools and academies to do away with parental representation on their governing bodies. And where the governing body wishes to have parental representation, it will be required to ensure that the parents are knowledgeable and skilled in school governance.  (See 3.29 to 3.35 of the White Paper, Educational Excellence Everywhere.)

However, let us address a simple question first.  Will having knowledgeable and skilled governors on boards be enough for the governing body to operate effectively and make the right, positive impact on the quality of education, teaching and learning and pupil progress and achievement?  I don’t think so.

Of course, we have to be clear about the “what” of good governance, i.e. that for governors to be effective they have to

(i)         set the strategic direction of the school;

(ii)        secure good financial governance – by determining the budget, monitoring spending and promoting probity;

(iii)       establish and rigorously police the safety of the pupils and the larger school community;

(iv)       secure good education for the pupils by hiring and motivating excellent staff members;

(v)        implement the necessary educational and equal opportunities legislation; and

(vi)       hold the headteacher and staff to account by acting as critical friends to them.

Governors are asked to carry out these functions to create the right conditions for headteachers and the staff in academies and schools to provide our children with the best and most opportunities so that they may grow, develop and lead fulfilling lives.

II         The “How”

However, even if all these are in place, it does not necessarily flow that good governance will be the order of the day unless governors know “how” to work together.   Corporately, governors may have all the skills they require to work well.  But if some or all the members engage in one-upmanship, teamwork comes a cropper. The result? The whole becomes less than the sum of the parts.

Many talented and very expensive football teams don’t win matches as expected because individual players hold on to the ball when they should they pass it.   Switching from the football analogy to a musical one, it is impossible to envision members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra – no matter how talented they are – making beautiful music if they do not take instructions from the conductor and play the parts they are directed to rather than the ones they may crave for?

The effectiveness of governors is no different. In self-reviews of governance, what is forgotten is attention to some questions that are frequently conspicuous by their absence. Here are a few.

(i)         Do members share opinions without fear or do they feel they could be put down for expressing views that are antithetical to those of others?  Are questions construed as criticisms?

(ii)        How do governors express opposition and deal with conflict?  Can they disagree agreeably or is there a constant, sharp aggressive edge to their verbal contributions?

(iii)       Are they reflectively critical on issues and divorce them from personalities.

(iv)       In turn, how do governors receive criticism?   Do they take it badly or use it as an opposing wind to fly their kites?   Isn’t it the case that when a criticism is valid, one has no justification for becoming annoyed and angry?  If it is not valid, one does not need to be annoyed and angry.

(v)        Is there a shared understanding of the roles of the chair, the headteacher, the clerk and the other members of the governing body?

(vi)       Are governors able to delineate between governance and management – albeit, often, the lines between them are blurred in legislation.   How many times the government (and often auditors too) criticise governors for “mismanaging” the finances of the school!  Governors in England don’t “manage”; they “govern”.  Emma Knight, the Chief Executive of the National Governors’ Association (NGA) elegantly captured this function when she said that they should be “eyes on and hands off”.

(vii)      Is there clarity in the delegation of responsibilities from the governing body to the committees and to the members?

(viii)     Are tasks shared or is considerable work dumped on the chair?

(ix)       When governors take responsibility to act, are the tasks done or does the chair and/or clerk have to pursue the (said) governors with the same energy as a dentist expends when pulling  a resistant molar?

(x)        Are meetings well planned – in terms of both times/dates and the content of the agenda?  Do they start and finish at a sensible hour or the night (if held in the evenings)?   Are governors mindful of the fact that many of the members have busy working lives?  Accordingly, do the governors ensure that meetings don’t drag on because they are seduced by the sounds of their own voices?

(xi)       Are meetings meaningful?  Do they move the school forward with positive action that has a useful impact on children’s progress and achievement, or are they talking shops?

(xii)      Do governors take responsibility for their own development?   Members of the governing body, after all, are charged with fostering the learning of young people.  A powerful way to promote this learning is through modelling. One never stops learning until life stands still.   Learning, in turn, should lead to better governance.

(xiii)     How do the governors measure how well they have learnt what they have learnt? Or does learning and training become yet another opportunity to socialise?

III        Conclusion

Understanding the “what” and the “why” is vital and sets the course on the road to good governance.  Reflecting on and implementing the “how” of the operations sets gives governors the traction to make progress that is critical and ensures that the school benefits from the knowledge, expertise and skills they have.

School governors are in a prime position to shape children’s futures positively.  Regretfully we will be leaving them a legacy of huge financial debt.  The least we can do for them is make it that much easier for our young people to cope with this debt by securing fulfilled lives.

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