Governors’ effectiveness: skills and knowledge not enough

18 Aug

The Department for Education (DfE) exhorts governing bodies to recruit governors in accordance with the skills.  This is best achieved if the governing board carries out a skills audit prior to the recruitment process to see what skills gaps exist.  The National Governors’ Association (NGA) has an excellent template for governors to engage in such a skills audit.  However, it is not possible to use the template unless the governors are members.

Tap into the Google search machine – Governors’ Skills Audit – and you will access 620 links.  Once the governing body knows what it wants, it begins the trawling process and, if savvy, seeks the help of the Schools Governors’ One-Stop Shop (SGOSS) and/or Inspiring Governors to help it get what it wants.  Both organisations carry out with great efficiency the task of finding governing bodies suitable persons – with legal expertise, financial nous, human resources know-how, curriculum proficiency and many other skills.

Over 300,000 school governors are required in England alone.   Our schools depend on their largesse to serve and contribute without the expectation of being remunerated or even given a stipend.   Several schools carry governor vacancies.  Inner city ones have several vacancies and are hard-pressed to find people willing to contribute their time and talent to their local schools.

At a time when the country’s economy is not exactly in good shape, many in society are scratching around for a living, providing for their families and making ends meet.   Altruism is in short supply and hard to come by.   The upshot is that a governing board is often keen to appoint anyone who breathes as a member.    However, it does so at its peril.

Skills are vital – more so than experience, albeit how many years someone has served as a governor could be advantageous.   The question is what is the quality of that experience.   Experience of engaging in bad practice is worse than having no experience of being a governor.  There is no fool like an old one.

So, what can be done to ensure that one’s governing board has members who are not just functional but also flourishing.  Having the right skills and experience are important but there are other requirements if governors are to be effective.

(1)        Members of the governing board must be prepared to give their time to the school/academy – gratis.  There are some governors who operate like Ofsted inspectors – pop in once every so often to establish that the school/academy is working well, and then off they go.   They ensure that their absences do not result in disqualification because they send their apologies in good time and have them accepted.

(2)        Others provide minimal commitment because they resent giving time that is unpaid.   One extremely talented governor I knew reached a tipping point when it came to determining a policy on governor expenses.  She was keen to bring in a system of appropriate payments – in the way of stipends – to compensate for “loss of earnings”.  Her fellow governors (thank heavens) could not countenance having to take “learning bread” out of the children’s mouths to give way to her – and she resigned.

However, it is open to the governing board to develop a policy on governor expenses – if it wishes to help recruit and retain members who are talented but need to cover travel expenses and child care, for instance.

(3)        The time commitment is not just for attending meetings of the governing body but also serving on at least one of the committees, reading and digesting the paperwork in advance of the meetings, visiting the school/academy during normal working hours to see pupils and staff in action and attending training.   If the school/academy is to inculcate a culture of continual learning in its pupils, adults such as staff and governors must model that culture by attending training and keeping abreast of the latest educational developments and other related developments.

Education is a fascinating world where learning never ceases, especially if one is curious.   There are intrinsic rewards in absorbing new knowledge. The rewards are multiplied when this knowledge is applied to good effect in promoting effective governance.

Finding the time with all those professional and domestic commitments sapping up the minutes, hours and days can be daunting.   The irony is that those governors who are the busiest, somehow find the time.  Many with the most time on their hands oddly find it difficult to commit.

(4)        It is impossible for governors to know everything there is to know about education.   However, if one is curious and keen to learn, good questioning will flow.   Knowing what questions to ask, absorbing the answers, testing them and learning in the process is more important than being familiar with the theory of everything.   Governors of schools/academies are leading learning organisations.  A key way to make learning meaningful is to model what you expect of the pupils and staff.   Make learning (and training) a continual process.

(5)        And, finally, most important of all, are good relationships among the governors and between the governors and the headteacher and her/his senior management team.   Good relationships are not predicated on members of the governing body constantly agreeing with one another.   Rather, these relationships are best developed when they learn to disagree – when necessary – agreeably.  Such types of disagreement often lead to enlightenment in the manner in which a pearl develops in an oyster when an irritating germ lodges in it.

But a health warning.  Constant disagreements can be debilitating and enervating in the way in which constant agreement creates Tennyson’s land of Lotus Eaters, where folk laze around doing nothing of note in particular.   However, if governors have good relationships and respect one another, they will find it easier to reconcile their differences and move the school/academy forward.

So, do continue to carry out the skills audit. However, while that is highly essential it is not enough.   Education is promoted through humans who come in a variety of features, sizes, types of knowledge, different skills and myriad characteristics.   The variety can create great dissonance, in the way in which the instruments of an orchestra do when the members are tuning up prior to the start of a concert.  However, when governors bring varying knowledge, a range of skills, different perspectives and work together at and between meetings, the governing board can create amazing educational music for the benefit of the pupils.

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