The challenge of governance

18 Apr

In the report of the inspectorate, Ofsted, Improving governance: Governance arrangements in complex and challenging circumstances, published in December 2016, a key recommendation was that governors secure clarity of roles, responsibilities and lines of accountability.  This is a bit of a tall order, given that the boundaries between governance and management are blurred.

There are a few things, however, that are clear.

First, no governor – apart from the Chair who can act in an emergency – has powers s/he can exercise and certainly not in school on a normal working day.  These powers are reposed in the Headteacher.  The powers of governors lie with the corporate governing body, which some governors find irksome given individuals’ penchant for control over others.    However, most governors welcome acting in concert and, certainly, no governor would want to be held personally liable if anything goes pear-shaped – especially in finance.

Second, governors are responsible for developing the strategy of a school, i.e. setting out the overarching objectives in the School Development Plan (SDP), determining the overall expenditure for the year in the light of the budget received but giving the Headteacher space to meet the objectives and spend the budget in line with the levels of expenditure agreed with the governors for the different areas of school life.

Thirdly, governors hold the headteacher and her/his senior management team to account – checking out how well the objectives are met and ensuring that the expenditure is in line with the plans made and that senior school staff members operate in an ethical manner.

The third area – the accountability – is daunting because of the requirement for governors to offer “challenge”.  This word has become hackneyed.  As clerk to several governing bodies, I am constantly pressed by governors to ensure that in the minutes I include the word, “challenge” repeatedly to please Ofsted inspectors, whenever they do pay a visit.  At such times, I wince.  Often, the casualty of “challenge” is “support”, i.e. working in collaboration with the headteacher and her/his senior colleagues.   Challenge and support are not exclusive but rather complementary – two sides of the same coin marked “school improvement”.

Professor Colin Richards, former HMI, wrote, what I would term, “a fun” piece on understanding the challenge of “challenge” in the March/April 2017 issue of the National Governors’ Association journal, Governing Matters. In it, he explained that there are different interpretations of “challenge”.

“Challenge” has the makings of “conflict”.   Humans tend to shy away from conflict, given the fight or flight nature of homo sapiens when confronting unpleasant situations.   In fact, wrote Professor Richards, one of the five definitions offered by Chambers Dictionary for challenge is “to summon someone to settle a matter by fighting or any form of contest”.    If this definition is employed, we conjure up visions of duels and fisticuffs.

“Challenge” can also be interpreted as “accusations”.  Implicit in this is that the headteacher may be engaged in telling governors a tissue of lies, absconding with a part of the school’s budget and must be stopped from doing so or just being plain inefficient.

On the positive side, challenge can involve upping the ante.   In other words, questioning how well the school is doing in meeting the objectives in the SDP, asking about the progress and achievement of the pupils, the quality of teaching and learning and the destination of pupils leaving the schools with a view to securing the best provision for the learners.   Where governors are of the view that there is room for improvement, they do not simply berate the school leaders for falling short, but offer advice and support bringing their own skills to bear on growing their schools.   The analogy that springs to mind is the challenge the wind gives a kite to fly high.  Harnessing that wind correctly creates the necessary tension to help the kite fly higher.

Professor Richards points out that challenge is also synonymous with stimulation.   Many of the governors with whom I am associated and whom I continue to serve are immensely knowledgeable and talented.  They bring their knowledge and skills to bear on the work of the school. Further, working in a professional environment outside of the education world, they offer new perspectives, causing school leaders to think in different ways and engage in continuous growth and development.

Challenge must not have negative connotations and give people whom I would describe as “anti-pro”: i.e. whatever you are for they will be against – leverage.   Rather, I join Professor Richards in his plea to governors (and headteachers) to see challenge positively.   In his words: challenge must be a part of governors’ scrutiny and their request to the school leaders to justify their practice. This is central to their role.  They use the data they derive and information they glean through the challenge process to review past plans and help their schools press ahead with future developments.

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