Towards good governance: mind the pitfalls

28 Aug

I           Preamble

Ministers and civil servants of the Department for Education (DfE) exhort schools to populate our governing bodies with governors who are knowledgeable and have discrete skills in areas such as human resources, estate management, finance and the law, among other things.  Where governors have gaps in knowledge, they are encouraged to read and train to discharge their responsibilities well.   The National Governors’ Association (NGA) has produced an excellent skills audit for governing bodies to identify and plug the gaps in knowledge and skills.

However, like a football team comprising talented players, a governing body may well have members who are both, knowledgeable and skilled, in all the identified areas, yet fail to function like a well-oil machine.  Why?

When I was a teacher and planned residential trips for groups of pupils, I organised games for them at the end of an arduous day’s work.  One game I played was to ask children to walk from point A to point B blindfolded.   Between the two points, I would place obstacles and invited each child to remember where these were placed by taking a good look before putting on the blindfold.  The children took it in turns to do so.  The one that succeeded did not touch any obstacle.

Often, when the “chosen one” began the journey, her/his peers shouted out instructions about the direction in which the child should move and the obstacles s/he was to avoid.      It was a great challenge which the youngsters enjoyed enormously. Sometimes, before the blindfolded child began the journey, I would mischievously take away all the obstacles. It was great fun to hear peers shouting “Left!”, “Right!” and “Straight”, “Avoid this!” and “Beware of that!” when there were no obstacles on the way and to see the surprised face of the “chosen one” at the end of the journey when the blindfold was removed.

The lesson that I learnt (and hoped the children did too) was that when embarking on a journey it is as important to know what to do as what not to do, to get from point A to point B.   For governors to be classed as “Outstanding” by Ofsted and others, it is no different.

So, what can governors do and avoid doing to succeed by minding the pitfalls and gaps?   There are (in broad terms) two groups and one individual comprising the (governing) body, per se.   The first group comprises the patricians – i.e. the Chair and Headteacher; the second group is made up of the plebeians – the rest of the members; and finally, we have the clerk, the servant of the governing body.  Each category has issues which can act as hazards.  

II          The Patricians

(a)        The Chair

The chair is the leader of the governing body.  A good leader is like an adept sheepdog, able to pen the sheep by leading them into the target area in such a manner that the sheep think that they are doing the leading when they are being led.   While governors may resent being compared to sheep, the fact of the matter is that they do look up to the chair to provide the right leadership.

Some chairs, sadly, fail to do so, because of what they do not do. For instance, they do not turn up to meetings at least five to 10 minutes before they are due to start.   When they eventually appear on the dot, they are flustered and fumble for their papers.

Other chairs don’t control the flow of discussion and debate.  They allow governors to fill air space with meaningless contributions.  Only when exchanges on a topic have been flogged to death do they move on.   The upshot is that meetings drag on into the late hours of the night. Such chairs don’t need watches to keep a check on the passage of time. Rather, they need calendars.  Governors lose interest in the business and begin fiddling with their I-Phones.

Sometimes chairs are accused of not taking sufficient interest in the functions of the school/academy between meetings.  Others, at the other extreme, are in danger of taking over the management of the institution and are even known to have offices in their schools.    Such behaviours cause confusion-worse-confounded in the schools/academies, and the headteachers are left distraught.

(b)        The Headteacher

In my experience, the most egregious “sin” that many a headteacher is guilty of committing is failing to send her/his report to governors in good time before a meeting.  The prime excuse is that there isn’t time to send it earlier because of the compelling issues that have to be addressed at the school/academy. However, “compelling issues” are always prevalent at institutions – even a day before a governors’ meeting.  The solution is to block in time to write the report at least a fortnight before the governors’ meeting so that it can be dispatched by the clerk to the governors with the rest of the agenda bundle to reach the governors at least seven days before the meeting.  The headteacher’s report is the key document of the meeting.   Governors deserve to have it in good time so that the meeting is meaningful.

The second pitfall is that the headteacher provides too little, too much and/or irrelevant information in her/his reports to governors.   Giving governors too little information is tantamount to engaging in “mushroom management”, i.e. keep people in the dark and throw rubbish on them.   It’s a form of control because knowledge is power.   Other headteachers pelt governors with too much information, so much, in fact, that they cannot see the wood for the trees.   Governors become dysfunctional because they are unaware of what is important and what isn’t. The irrelevant information inevitably wastes governors’ time and is a tap for turning off their interest in the school/academy.

The Goldilocks formula for the information a headteacher needs to provide is apposite – not too much and not too little, but just right.   But what is “just right”?    There is no formula for this and much depends on the headteacher’s judgement which could be shaped by asking the governors what they would like in the report.   The headteacher should bring to the governors’ attention germane information on which the governors can develop strategy, carry out their legal responsibilities, discharge their fiduciary responsibilities and hold the school leaders to account.

The third error that a headteacher is in danger of making is going through her/his report at a governors’ meeting, line by line.  This is not necessary if the report has been sent in good time. Rather, the headteacher should simply highlight the salient matters and draw governors’ attention to the decisions that they must make.   This will enable the chair to conclude the meeting at a reasonable time of the night to allow governors to go home to their near and dear ones, especially after a long working day at the place of employment – if they are in employment.

III        The Plebeians

The rank and file of governors take their responsibilities seriously.  They become governors to add value and discharge their responsibilities to society.  They get their buzz from seeing the school/academy do well.

However, a few are motivated to the role to embellish their curriculum vitae. Others join for social reasons – the tea-and-sympathy lot.   A number, sadly, have axes to grind. They want to get their own back on the headteacher or chair of governors or the school/academy.

Accordingly, the first pitfall for governors (and potential governors) to avoid is join the governing body for the wrong reasons.  For a governing body to flourish, members need to ensure that they are in the business of promoting pupils’ best interests.

However, having the right reasons for becoming governors is only the start of the journey to good governance.   Whatever governors’ other commitments, time must be set aside to

(a)        read the paperwork in advance of meetings;

(b)        arrive at meetings in good time and attend them;

(c)        visit the school during the normal working day at least twice annually to see how the school/academy functions, meeting the pupils and the staff and following it up with writing reports on the visits to be presented to future meetings of the governing body;

(d)        attend training courses or train on-line; and

(e)        take the action promised at meetings of the governing and the committees.

There are some governors who attend just enough meetings to ensure that they are not disqualified.    Julius Caesar loudly trumpeted his victories in Asia Minor (now Turkey) with “Veni! Vidi! Vici!” (“I came! I saw! I conquered!”). However, these governors it’s a case of: “Ego veni! Et venit! Videns!”, i.e. “I came! I saw! I went!”

IV        The Clerk

Last, but by far, not the least, is the clerk.   The clerk is there to serve the governors.   There are several snares which a clerk would do well to avoid.

The first is that the clerk is not meant to operate only as a “note-taker”.   The role goes well beyond getting the paperwork for an agenda together, sending it to the governors at least seven days before a meeting, taking the minutes, having them vetted by the chair and the headteacher and sending the minutes on to the governors as soon after they have been approved by them (i.e. the chair and the headteacher).

The clerk must be conversant with educational legislation – especially as it impacts on school governance.   Governors are busy people.   They do their governance work voluntarily and most have day jobs.  Therefore, the clerk must give them maximum support to discharge their functions efficiently and effectively by alerting them to the crocodiles with jaws open creeping along just below the educational swamps.   The clerk needs to do this as briefly but as clearly as possible.

During meetings, the clerk is there to apprise governors of what is possible and what not for legal reasons.  To do this well, it is vital for the clerk to be familiar with the DfE’s governors’ handbook, to read widely, attend training and network through being a member, for instance, of the National Governors’ Association.

A danger for the knowledgeable clerk is wishing to make or dictate the decisions for the governors.   That is not her/his function. Rather, the clerk is there to challenge and support the governors.  Where difficult issues are being discussed, the effective clerk provides options for moving forward and assessments on the possible directions to be taken. It is then necessary to pull back and leave the governors to run their debates, decide what best to do and take action.

Finally, the clerk fails to be as effective as possible when s/he does not set aside time immediately after a meeting to produce the minutes for vetting by the chair and headteacher i.e. no later than 48 hours after it.   It’s crucial for the issues discussed to be fresh in the minds of these two so that the minutes may be checked properly.  Better still, the clerk could produce an action sheet for the rest of the governors which could be emailed to them 24 hours after the meeting to remind them of the actions they have to take based on the governing body’s decisions.

V         Conclusion

So effective governors are not those who only have knowledge and skills.  “Knowledge and skills” is the starting point.  Knowing what not to do and avoiding the slings and arrow of outrageous fortune comprise the next step.  However, there is more to good governance than just this and it may have to do with how governors (including the headteacher) treat one another, but discussion on that will have to wait for another time and place.

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