Effective relationships between boards and executive leaders matter

On 1st July 2021 I spoke at the TSWW Summer Conference. This year, due to COVID, the event was a live online event. Below are my slides and notes to accompany them.

Slide 1:

Boards are responsible for governing the organisation and school leaders are responsible for the operational day to day running of the organisation. For the organisation to be able to deliver a good education to its pupils, the relationship between the board and the school leaders must be based on trust, integrity and, very importantly, on understanding of each other’s roles. During this session I will be talking about how boards and schools leaders can work effectively together and what expectations they have of each other.

Slide 2:

So, let’s start with governors and their role. There are about 250,000 governors in England. Legally people can’t be paid to be governors and hence we are all volunteers and this makes us one of the largest volunteer forces in the country.

Slide 3:

Before we talk about the role and functions of these 250, 000 volunteers, a word about school governance structures first. Maintained schools are governed by board of governors. Academies are governed by board of trustees. Multi-academy trusts have a trust board which is responsible for all the schools in the trust. Each individual school can also have a local governing body. The role and responsibilities of the local governing bodies is decided by the main trust board. The local governing bodies have no powers in themselves. Any responsibility they have is determined by the trust board. These delegated responsibilities are laid out in the scheme of delegation which is determined by the trust board.

Slide 4:

Coming to our role now: The purpose of governance is to provide confident strategic leadership. One of our core functions is to ensure the clarity of vision and ethos. Your vision tells people where you hope your school will be next year, in the next 3 years, in the next 5 years and so on and what sort of people will your students be when they leave you. The vision is set by the board with input from the executive leaders. The board also clarifies the ethos and the character of the school. The board should ensure there is a clear strategy or road map in place in order to achieve the vision. .

Slide 5:

Our second core function is to hold the executive leaders of the school to account for the performance of the pupils and the school and the performance management of staff.

Slide 6:

State schools are funded by public money. We are custodians of this public money. Our third core function relates to this. We have to look after the financial performance of the school and ensure that money is well spent.

Slide 7:

So, irrespective of what type of school, we are governing, whether a maintained school or an academy, we have three core functions:

  • Ensuring there is clarity of vision, ethos and strategic direction
  • Holding the school leaders to account for the performance of the school, performance of the pupils and the performance management of staff
  • Ensuring the money is well spent

Slide 8:

It’s very important for both governors and school leaders to understand their respective roles. The governors’ role is one of scrutiny and can be described as eyes on, hands off. The school leaders, on the other hand, are responsible for the day to day running of the school so their role is very much a hands-on role.

Slide 9:

The board leadership is the accountable leadership of the organisation. The current educational system is one of high stakes accountability. The board leadership faces accountability pressures itself from central government, from local authorities, from parents, from communities etc.

Slide 10:

Effective boards ensure that they hold the executive leadership to account in a way which doesn’t lead to fear in the organisation but instead is a way of determining what isn’t working and putting it right. Talking about accountability; a word about Ofsted. Ofsted findings shouldn’t come as a surprise to governors. They should know how their school, pupils and staff are performing. If findings do come as a surprise then they haven’t been performing their role well. They should also be able to explain to Ofsted what the school is doing to support pupils if results aren’t what were expected. During an inspection the board and the school should be seen to working together and this will only happen if they have been doing so before the inspectors walked in through the door.

Slide 11:

The work of governors is one of supporting and challenging school leaders. Governance is most effective when there is balance between the challenge and support we offer the school leaders.

Slide 12:

Moving on to the relationship between heads and boards.

Slide 13:

It is the board which appoints the head and this is perhaps one of the most important things that governors will do during their governance career.

Slide 14:

Heads are not, to borrow a popular phrase, just for Christmas. Therefore, boards take great care while appointing heads. They appoint someone who they is right for the school, who shares the same vision and values and who will be able to make the board’s vision a reality.

Slide 15:

The interview process is a chance for the board to find the best candidate for their school and for the candidate to gauge if the school is one where they can see themselves working. It is also a chance for both the board and the candidates to determine whether they have the same vision for the school and education of pupils.

Slide 16:

A word about when someone isn’t successful at interview. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t have what’s needed to be a head, it’s just that the school and they aren’t a good match. I like to explain it using the example of gloves and hands. This hand is perfect as is the pair of gloves but they aren’t a good match for each other. Governors should ensure that they give comprehensive feedback to the unsuccessful candidates. We have a responsibility to all candidates and not just to the candidate we appoint. Good feedback to unsuccessful candidates helps them develop and that is good for the sector.

Slide 17:

Once the head is appointed, the board should ensure they have a smooth start and that support is available to them. This is especially important if this is their first headship. The chair should set up meeting so that they can talk through what the head needs. This will also give them a chance to talk through the schedule of board meetings and ensure that the dates are convenient for the new head. The board and the chair should ensure that the head has all the documents they need or at least knows where to find them. The head would probably only have met the appointing panel It is a good idea to arrange an informal meeting with the rest of the board. The chair should discuss the format of the head’s report and what information the board requires the head to provide. The chair and the board should also ask if the head would like to have a coach or a mentor and if they would then the board should facilitate this. All of these steps will help ensure a good and effective relationship between the new head and the board.

Slide 18:

Coming now to the Chair and Head Relationship.

This is a really important relationship. John Tomsett says, “No-one explained to me the importance of the head teacher’s relationship with the chair of governors. It is the most important relationship for a head teacher because, if for no other reason, your chair of governors is your boss!” This point is sometimes not understood by some heads as well as some chairs which leads to a confusion over their roles and who does what.

Side 19:

Headship is a lonely place. Chairs should be supporting the head. Heads should feel they can use their chairs as a sounding board. It is the board’s responsibility to look after the well-being of the head and chairs play a crucial role in this.

In order for the head and chair to work effectively together, they should be meeting regularly. These needn’t be very long meetings but it is good to have them in the diary for the coming term or even the year. The head should also be able to contact the chair when they feel they need to outside of these meetings.

Slide 20:

Heads should tell chair anything of importance so there are no surprises for the chair or the board. The relationship needs to be a professional one and not a cosy one.

Slide 21:

In order to work effectively, there are certain things boards expect from heads.

  • Heads should be sharing the SDP with the board so that the board can have an input into setting the strategic priorities as well as knowing about KPIs and the people responsible for delivering them. This also helps in schools visits as governors monitoring a certain area will know who to go and talk to.
  • Governors should be involved in the school’s self evaluation also.
  • The head should ensure that the information requested by the board is sent out in a timely manner. Heads should discuss with the chair and the board about what they need reported in the head’s report. Sometimes, schools give so much data to governors that they can’t see the wood for the trees. At other times there is paucity of data given to the board. Both of these are wrong and a barrier to effective governance. The correct info, in the right format and amount should be sent out on time. Governors are volunteers but many have day jobs too so they need to receive reports in time for them to be able to read and digest them before the meeting.
  • Heads and the school should facilitate school visits by governors as that provides them with valuable information to carry out their job

Slide 22:

  • When new governors join a board they should have an induction session which should include a tour of the school and a meeting with the head. This will ensure that they are clear about their role and that they start to understand their school and its context.
  • Schools should fund training and CPD for governors as that’s really important for them to be effective. Governors sometimes ask me if they can afford to spend money on their own CPD and my reply to them is can they afford not to?!
  • The school should pay for a professional clerk for the governing body and heads should be clear that the clerk works for the chair and board and not the head or the school. It is best practice not to employ a staff member as a clerk because the clerk should be able to tell the head what is expected of them and that is difficult to do if the head is your boss too.
  • The school budget should include governor expenses. Governors can’t be paid to govern schools but they are legally allowed to claim out of pocket expenses such as child care costs incurred when they attend meetings. The board should have a governor expense policy in place and the budget should have an allowance for this built in.

Slide 23:

Coming now to what heads should be getting from boards if the two are to work effectively together.

  • We talked about leaving operational matters to head earlier. For the executive and the non-executive to work effectively together, they should avoid stepping on each others’ toes. The day to day running of the school and other operational matters should be left to the head and their teams. Governors appoint heads. They spend a large portion of the budget on staff salaries. So, let the professionals you’ve appointed do the jobs you pay them to do.
  • Confidentiality is very important. Things will be discussed in the boardroom by the head which are confidential in nature. Similarly, things discussed by the head with the chair may be confidential too. Heads should be able to trust chair the board not to breach confidentiality.
  • Good heads relish and welcome challenge. They aren’t threatened by it. It in fact provides them with an opportunity to show what is working well in school or what plans have been put in place to remedy what isn’t working well.
  • At the same time, the head and staff should be able to rely on support from the board.
  • Boards asking for data, information, reports etc should always bear in mind the workload pressures heads and their teams work under. Don’t add to it
  • The well being of the head and staff as well as pupils should be something the board actively looks after and promotes. Heads and staff who feel supported and who feel their wellbeing is important will perform better. The board should ensure that well-being isn’t a tick box exercise or an empty gesture or something like a yoga session which may not be everyone’s cup of tea.
  • We talked about why it’s important for governors to visit schools. Governors also need to remember that schools are working environments and it may not always be convenient to have visitors. Governors should have a visit protocol they follow and they should always arrange these visits beforehand. Governors who do a monitoring visit should report back to the board. It is a good idea to send the draft report to the staff member they met during the visit so that the staff member can correct any factual mistakes in the report before the report is circulated to the full board.

Slide 24:

We’ve talked about heads and the board. But what about other staff? Boards should invite SLT to attend board meetings. It’s important that the SBM attends meetings too, especially those dealing with finance. School visits and attending school events will mean governors get to meet other staff too. The board should also know what staff think of various issues and staff surveys are a good tool to determine what staff think and feel. The board should also ensure that the culture in the school is one which makes all staff feel valued and that their voices are heard.

Slide 25:

A word about appraisal now. The second core role of governors includes holding the executive leaders to account for performance management of staff. Governors should not be apprising individual teachers. That’s for their line managers to do. What governors should do is ensure that the appraisal system

  • Is a fair and transparent one
  • That any targets which are set are ambitious but achievable and are linked to the school’s strategic priorities
  • The same is true for the appraisal of the head too. That should be a fair and transparent process too. The head’s targets should also be ambitious, achievable and linked to the school’s strategic priorities. Many boards like to include a personal target too. This can be something about the head’s career development or well-being etc. Boards benefit from having an external advisor present during the head’s appraisal. Vast majority of board use external advisors but this isn’t a requirement for academies.

Slide 26:

This was a quick run through of the things executive leaders and boards can do to develop an effective working relationship. If the board, head, SLT and all other staff members work effectively together then it’s the children who benefit. After all, ensuring our children are happy and are getting a good education in a safe environment is why we are in education in the first place.

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