Category Archives: Monitoring

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.

Governance matters at Festival of Education

The 2021 Festival of Education took place online over two weeks. This year, like always, there was great diversity of topics and speakers. I’m very grateful to the organisers for featuring governance too. Katie Paxton and I had a “fireside” chat about “Governance during and after the pandemic”. You can watch our session using this link.

Virtual meetings matter: Lessons from the pandemic

I was delighted to be asked to present a session on governance as part of the Greenshaw Learning Trust’s National Inset Day. Thank you to Ben Parnell for featuring governance in your brilliant programme. My slides from the session and accompanying notes are below.

Slide 2: At the start of 2020 none of us would have imagined that we would be governing in a pandemic. The greatest danger we had to look out for is that governance stopped. Our way of working changed but we had to make sure that we did keep on governing.

Slide 3: Under normal circumstances, we have three core roles. First is ensuring clarity of vision, ethos

Slide 4: and strategic direction.

Slide 5: Secondly, we hold the heads and their teams to account for the performance of pupils, staff and the school

Slide 6: Thirdly to look after the financial health of the school. In order to carry out these roles, we hold governing body meetings with the head and their team, we ask for various reports and we carry out monitoring visits. Our purpose in asking for these reports, holding these meetings and carrying out monitoring visits is to carry out our role of a critical friend.

Slide 7: Although things are very different and difficult now, our core roles are still the same. The greatest danger we must look out for is that we let stop governing. Our way of working has changed but we must make sure that we keep on governing. Governors may feel, for example, that strategic thinking could be put on the back burner now, but we need to remember that our schools and communities have endured and lived through hardships which a year ago were unimaginable. Boards need to be ready to learn lessons from this experience and evaluate why we do what we do. We must ask ourselves if our strategic planning and vision are still fit for purpose and take the long view. We need to be ready to put the lessons learnt during this year into practice.

Slide 8: Let’s now talk about how we perform our core roles. In order to carry out these roles, we hold governing body meetings with the head and their team, we ask for various reports and we carry out monitoring visits. Our purpose in asking for these reports, holding these meetings and carrying out monitoring visits is to act as a critical friend. The way we work has changed in the pandemic. Where things have become difficult, we have also had opportunities to evaluate how we work. The pandemic has taught us some valuable lessons and I will be sharing some tips to improve the way governors and trustees work and carry out the business of governance in the future. The most striking change has been in the way we hold meetings. Meetings in person had to be abandoned as safety concerns are paramount. Some boards may have had the occasional online meeting before the pandemic. Most of the time this was to allow someone to dial in who could not attend in person.

Slide 9: Now, we have had to have everyone dial in. This meant that we had to quickly find suitable platforms and come to grips with technology. Some boards found this relatively easy, others took some time to get used to this new style of working. I think virtual meetings are here to stay. In time, I think boards will use a blended approach, meeting virtually as well as online and this will be a good thing. Holding meetings online has had some benefits too.

Slide 10: Governors have reported that time keeping and attendance at meetings has improved

Slide 11: As have the discussions which have become more focused. Really long meetings are very rare now as sitting in front of a screen for long periods of time is not the easiest of things to do. Hopefully, good time keeping, and focused discussions will carry on even after things return to normal.

Slide 12: So, my first tip would be look at your agendas in order to streamline your meetings. Can they be trimmed down, so you focus on the really important issues? Review the papers you send out before the meeting. If there is something which is being circulated for information only then mark it as that and don’t spend time on it at the meeting. Another good tip is to mark items on the agenda as For debate, For decision etc. This will help focus everyone’s attention to what needs to be done.

Slide 13: If we will continue having online meetings then there are some questions we should be asking ourselves if we are to get the maximum benefit out of online meetings. Questions such as

  • Is the online format getting in the way the board operates? Are board members able to ask challenging questions in the same way as before?
  • Is the online format off putting for some or is everyone able to contribute to the discussion and be heard?
  • Are all our governors able to access online meetings? Does everyone have the required technology? Does anyone need help in getting set up and navigating their way around the platform?
  • Are we happy with the online platform we have chosen and are we using all its functions effectively?

Slide 14: One of the ways we perform our role is by carrying out monitoring visits. Again, the pandemic has meant that we have not been able to go into schools for these monitoring visits. Some of the monitoring has been done remotely.

Slide 15: The safeguarding link governors, for example, have had online meetings with the DSL to assure themselves and the board that the school is doing all that in can to safeguard children. Governors have missed going into schools. It is, for most of us, the most enjoyable part of our role. We love seeing the children and the way the school works. Hopefully, once the pandemic is over, we will be able to resume these visits.

Slide 16: However, till that happens we must ask ourselves

  • During these visits are we focusing on strategic priorities and key policies such as safeguarding and wellbeing?
  • Are we reading papers etc beforehand and preparing for the meeting?
  • Virtual visits should follow the same protocols as the visits when governors go into schools. As in the past, we should arrange online visits these beforehand, This, in fact, is much more important now as school staff will have their hands full much more than normal.
  • It goes without saying that confidentiality must be observed
  • And report of the visit should be circulated like they were being done before

The pandemic has shown us that visits can be done online. This will be especially useful for those governors whose day jobs mean they can’t get into schools during school hours. Visits are an important way of developing relationships with staff and so being able to chat to staff online will be of great value and benefit to these governors.

Slide 17: So, think about whether some of the monitoring visits could continue being virtual visits once the pandemic is behind us.

Slide 18: Governance is about balancing the support and challenge we provide to our school leaders

Slide 19: During the pandemic we have, rightly, tilted the balance and offered more support than challenge. We have reduced our demands on the school for data and papers etc. When the pandemic is over, we should go back to how things were with support and challenge being in balance, but we must evaluate what information we ask the head and school to provide us. We must look at how we work now and what we did pre-COVID.

Slide 20: Is there some information we asked for which created workload for the school but didn’t really help us perform our role? Right at the start, when we went into lockdown many boards were just asking for safeguarding information. I’m not saying that that is all we should ask for going forward. What I am saying is, that we must ask ourselves if the information we receive is worth the increased workload created. We must ask ourselves if the school is spending lots of time putting information together which is basically useless as it won’t help pupils move forward.

Slide 21: We must remind ourselves of what James Pembroke, who knows more about data and assessment than anyone else I know, said “Bad data is NOT better than no data at all”.

Slide 22: So, that’s next tip; before going back to how things were, think whether you need to ask for the same information you used to before COVID, did it create workload for school leaders and whether it was helped you perform your role.

Slide 23: The board is a corporate body and one of the soft skills needed by board members is the ability to be an effective team member. As I said earlier, due to the pandemic the board meetings have had to be held online. One of the problems faced by some boards with this is the fact that it has been difficult to maintain good board dynamics online, especially if you have members who have just joined. It’s hard to pick up body language clues and it’s difficult to build up relationships.

Slide 24: My next tip would be to think how you can help the board work well together.

Slide25: Hopefully, soon we will be able to meet in person again and that will help team members getting to know each other. One simple way to do this would be to gather 15-20 minutes before the meeting starts and use that time to socialise.

Slide 26: In the meantime, you may find it helpful to have an additional online meeting whose sole purpose is to get to know each other.

Slide 27: There are things which we have had to continue doing during the pandemic and recruitment is one such thing. I have sat on an SLT appointment panel and conducted interviews for vacant governor positions. Like everything else, these have had to be conducted online too. The interview process has been shorter, and I think candidates may have felt more at ease, sat at home in front of their computer rather than coming into school an facing a group of strangers across a table.

Slide 28: If you have conducted interviews online I would suggest you evaluate how thy went and are there things you may want to retains when there is no longer the need to hold online interviews.

Slide 29: One of the things my board has had to do online is appraisals. This has worked well too. This time around a trustee asked if they could observe the process. We asked the heads and the CEO who were happy to have the trustee observe. The trustee observing the process kept their camera and mic switched off during the meeting so they wouldn’t distract others. Next year we will have a trustee who has observed the process and knows how this works, who could be part of the appraisal committee. An online observation of the board’s work is something which can be continued even when we start meeting in person.

Slide 30: My next tip would be to think which of the practices you’ve started during online meetings you could continue doing even when meeting in person. In other words, think outside the box.

Slide 31: One other thing which has changed markedly during this year is the access to online CPD. School halls, lecture theatres etc where these events were normally held lie empty while we attend sessions in the comfort of our homes like you may have done. While this is a good thing and allows access to many more people, we must make sure that we are targeting things which will fill gaps in our knowledge and not attending sessions for the sake of attending them.

Slide 32: So, I would like us to allow time for ourselves to reflect upon what we have learnt and see if we can apply it to our practice to improve it.

Slide 33: No presentation on governance will be complete if clerking isn’t mentioned. If boards have worked effectively during the pandemic and have adapted to online working, then a lot of the credit must go the clerks. They have had to quickly switch to clerking online, they have had to support governors adapt to working online, they have kept on top of what the board has had to do, and they have kept the routine governance work going.

Slide 34: My next tip would be to employ good, independent professional clerks and value them and I would urge boards to ensure that they say a huge thank you to their clerks for the way to have risen to the challenge this year has brought.

Slide 35: Wellbeing has been a particular concern of governors during the pandemic. The pandemic has placed a huge amount of pressure on heads and their teams. Governors and especially chairs have been very mindful of this and have ensured they have supported heads and checked on them frequently. Although governors and chairs are generally very good at this, we need to ensure that we continue looking after our heads even after the pandemic is behind us. What is equally important is the wellbeing of governors. Chairs and other governors should remember to check in on their colleagues.

Slide 36: I would like to end my presentation with what is my top tip; look after the wellbeing of heads and your board members and remember to take time out for yourself too. Self-care is as important as caring for others.

37: This was a quick run through of what governance has been like during the pandemic and what lessons can be learnt. Before I end, I would like to say a huge thank you to heads and staff of our schools. You all are awesome. I would also like to thank trustees and governors for the way you all have supported your schools and communities.

Guest Post: Governance, partnership and school improvement matters

This is a guest post by a governor and Chair at a small rural school. She is due to leave the governing body and is reflecting on how things were during her time there.

My journey into governance was at a time where my youngest child had just started school. I was beginning to feel the eagerness of wanting to learn, challenge myself and adapt. I worked part time at arts charity and had experience of working with disadvantaged children. With a little more time on my side it felt possible to delve into something new.

As a parent Governor at my first meeting I somehow became Vice-Chair. The first six months past in a bit of a blur – during this time myself and the Chair of Governors (CoG) at that time undertook the NCTL Chairs Development Course. It was during this time and alongside Governor meetings that it became apparent all was not what it seemed. Our external reported data was dipping year on year. Internally our data was showing progress and we were ‘on track’ to improve. The Governing body began to spilt – one side questioning and challenging, the other much less so. I found myself in a position where, following election I was Co-Chair with another Governor. I sought the advice of our local LA Governor support on more than one occasion.

When our Headteacher (HT) went on Maternity leave we temporarily entered a soft federation with a neighbouring primary school. During the first few weeks this HT highlighted all was not well. The data internally wasn’t accurate. The school wasn’t on track and Governors needed to act quickly. The Co-Chair resigned. The Local Authority reacted quickly. Following a application they released intervention funding to support urgent staff CPD, external moderation and crucially for us – a review of Governance. For me, as a new CoG the review was super. I had a lot of support, to enable us to set-up systems for effective monitoring, skills analysis and CPD for the Governing Body. Around this time Ofsted came in and graded the school RI. This was accurate; we needed to rapidly improve things. Governors monitoring timetables were developed by Governors – not the HT. The Vice-Chair took the lead in developing a template which correlated with the SDP priorities. Every Governor had a area of focus. Every Governor asked randomly selected safeguarding questions. Monitoring was triangulated with data, children’s views, parents and staff. The LA have since used our template as a model of good practice. Monitoring visits take no more than an hour. Governors monitored process, procedures and data trends. The timetable was bespoke every long term (populated by Governor meetings, or Governors themselves).

As a small school, we have maximised external resources, our NLG has continued to support us to ensure we are challenging effectively during meetings, he helps us interrogate data and continues to support even now. As a Church of England school we worked closely with the Diocese to access training for staff and Governors to help us improve and develop. The Local Authority supported with Governor Networks and online resources. We used it all, and moreover if we needed more help we asked for it.

During the time between the first HMI visit and second the school was subject to standards meetings with the Local Authority. During these meetings it was possible to access resources and expertise, for example; HR and Finance. We considered business models to sustain our school and the LA supported us in critiquing these models.

For a CoG this period of time was relentless, add into this another soft federation, an interim Headteacher and now permanent Headteacher it was tricky. However, both of the Vice Chairs I have been lucky to work alongside have been brilliant – without both of their expertise, challenge and practical help I would have failed. The recruitment day for our new Headteacher was a magnificent display of our unity, strength and community spirit.

At our recent inspection under the new framework Governors knew their role, could talk about the impact in their area of monitoring. Our safeguarding continued to be effective and progress was being made across all areas of the school. The process was robust and fair – the inspector took her time and was understanding of the work involved in our journey. Our judgement was fair and our improvement continues.

As I leave the Governing Body in the capable hands of the new CoG (previously excellent VCoG) I am exceptionally proud of the journey and the improvement in the school. Our Governors have worked hard – and we have secured some new members.

If you are contemplating a role in Governance, do it. You will not regret it, and learn far more about yourself than you thought possible.

Self evaluation matters

I have been reading a few posts on governance reviews. While I agree that an external review can be very useful, self reflection is also very important. While thinking about this I came up with few questions which I think trustees/governors should be able to answer. How many of these can you and you colleagues answer? Are there any you would add to the list?

Why should I be led by you?

  • If I were to ask a child in your school, what is it like being a pupil in your school what would they say?
  • Would the answer given to me by a pupil with special education needs, a pupil premium/EAL child be the same?
  • If I asked your head about you what would they say?
  • If I asked your clerk about you, what would their response be?
  • If I asked staff about their working conditions/well-being what would I find out?
  • Do you ask parents for their opinions? Do you know if they would give me the same answer they would give you?
  • Do you know what are the strengths and weaknesses of your school?
  • What does your website tell me about the board?

Your roles and responsibilities:

  • Are you crystal clear about your role and function?
  • Do you know what powers you hold and how best to use them?
  • Have you read your governance document?
    • For those of you who govern a school in a multi-academy trust (MAT), do you know what has been delegated to you in the scheme of delegation (SoD)?
    • Do you audit what you do, your agendas and meetings against the SoD?
    • When was the last time the SoD was reviewed?
  • If I were to ask you the object of your charity, what would you tell me?
  • What is your school’s vision statement?
    • Does the work you do go some way in delivering your vision?
    • Are all stakeholders aware of the vision and buy into it?
  • Do you do a 360 review of the board?
  • If I asked governors about your chair what would I hear? Will I get a consistent response or are governors working in groups/cliques?

Your working practices:

  • Are you aware of all the laws that apply to you? (Ignorance is not a defence)
  • How do you deal with conflicts of interest?
  • What are the three major risks in your risk register and how do you plan to mitigate these?
  • How do you ensure that finances and other resources are used effectively?
  • Do you have someone on the board who can scrutinise and understand financial reports?
  • Do you use any benchmarking data?
  • How do you ensure your decisions are well informed and evidence based?
  • If later events/new information shows that your decision was wrong, how do you go about rectifying your error?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of your board?
  • Would your minutes show me that you challenge the school leadership?
  • Do you have access to and understand pupil performance data?
    • Do you triangulate information you get from the head and their teams? How do you do that?
  • If the board has concerns, then how do governors address them?
  • What drives your agendas?
  • Are they aligned with your school development plan (SDP)?
  • How do you monitor the SDP?
  • Do all governors come well prepared to the meetings?
  • Do your meetings generally run to time and do you use the time effectively?
  • How do you ensure that the appraisal process is fair, transparent and feeds into school improvement?
  • How may governors access training on a regular basis?
  • How do governors keep up to date with legislative changes, new policies and initiatives?

Future proofing:

  • What are you doing to ensure your school is sustainable in the long run?
  • Do you have a plan to deal with any vacancies on the board which any arise in the future?
  • Is there a succession plan in place for the chair and vice chair of the board?
  • Are you aware of any plans your head may have of moving on/retiring?
  • Have you made any plans to deal with the above?
  • Do you have plans to revisit your vision and see if it remains ft for purpose?
  • When did you last do a skills audit?
  • Do you regularly review of your governance/committee structure?
  • Do you have any plans to collaborate with other boards?

Governance matters in Festival of Education Part 2

This year’s Festival of Education had sessions which would have been of interest to governors. I have previously written about my session with National Schools Commissioner, Dominic Herrington. Below is a short account of some other sessions I was able to attend.

Ruth Agnew’s session was on “Effective Governor Challenge”. Ruth started by making the point that welcoming and enabling effective challenge is an aspiration and asked how if people welcome challenge. Good, professional relationships are important in schools. Too much trust and friendly relationship can hinder challenge. Ruth then talked about why and how schools start to decline. She said that problems start when processes to ensure accountability start to falter (lack of skills and training, too trusting a relationship, misplaced loyalty, too reliant on head for information, governors not acting strategically, etc). Ruth said that she had not found a better resource of what effective governors do than the “Learning from the Best” Ofsted report. Ruth said none of the things mentioned in the report are rocket science! Ruth mentioned that sometimes heads model the questions governors should be asking. She thought this isn’t necessarily a problem but it must not become the default. Ruth also encouraged us to think how we frame our questions. “How did we do in SATs this year” is better if it’s framed as “What do these results tell us about us meeting our objectives for this cohort”. Ruth said challenge isn’t lobbing questions like tennis balls at the school leaders. We shouldn’t be using checklists. Instead, we need to look at things with fresh eyes and then if we find an issue Ruth wants us to be like a dog with a bone!

Dr Kate Chhatwal spoke about accountability and peer reviews. According to Kate, the advantages of a peer review system are:

  • We don’t need permission to take part in peer reviews
  • It works with top performing schools as well as those needing support
  • It allows identification and sharing of excellence

Kate talked about how Challenge Partners conduct peer review. The important point is that this is “doing with and not doing to”. Challenge Partners are also doing MAT reviews but they don’t have a strict framework for this as MATs are still in their infancy. They start with a simple question, “What is the MAT doing to ensure the children it serves achieve better than they might otherwise, and is it working?”. This was a very interesting session and I think as time passes peer reviews may become more important. I completely agreed with Kate when she said that you are a system leader only if you care for the children beyond your own institution.

The session by Katie Paxton-Dogget and Tara Paxton-Dogget was titled “Matchmaking for academies”. Katie started by saying that more and more schools are joining or forming multi-academy trusts (MATs). As Labour hasn’t said they will return schools to local authority control, even if there is an election and we have new inhabitants in Sanctuary Building, finding a good MAT will be important for many schools. Katie explained the difference between academies and maintained schools. She said when people say autonomy is lost upon joining a MAT, they should be asked about the level of autonomy maintained schools have. Katie went on to the discussions governors should have when they are considering joining a MAT.

  • Revisit your vision and ethos. You should be looking at MATs which share your ethos
  • Consider what type of MAT you want to join
  • Think about geographical location of your school and other schools in the MAT

Tara made the point that as in human relationships, even if partners have differences as long as they share values the relationship can thrive. Tara’s school had recently become part of a MAT. She said that as far as students were concerned they hadn’t noticed any striking changes. There was more contact between students now which she thought was a good thing to have come out of being part of the MAT. It was good to hear from a student too, especially one as articulate as Tara.

The other session I attended was by Andy Guest on, “Is our model of school governance broken?” Andy started by asking posing the question, “If you started with a blank page, would you design what we currently have?” Andy also made the case for simplifying things by

  • Committing to either academisation or reverting to LA as having both isn’t working
  • Creating a simpler quality/compliance/value for money framework
  • Committing to a capability model across the system and be honest about the role of stakeholder engagement

Andy was of the opinion that governance has to change if we want an equitable and sustainable school system

There was a lot to think about in this session and I’m sure these conversations will continue.

Links to Wakelets (collated tweets) from some of the sessions I attended are given below;

What if we were accountable to each other? Unlocking the power of school and MAT peer review (Dr Kate Chhatwal)

How can we balance trust, autonomy and accountability in the system? Panel discussion at Festival of Education 2019 (Becky Allen, Ben Newmark, Carolyn Roberts, Sean Harford, Naureen Khalid)

Lord Agnew’s Keynote at Festival of Education 2019

Keynote by Amanda Spielman HMCI at Festival of Education 2019

Ofsted’s new Education Inspection Framework (Sean Harford, Matthew Purves and Paul Joyce)

Doug Lemov at Festival of Education 2019

Driver Youth Trust at Festival of Education 2019

I would recommend governors attend the Festival in 2020. I am sure the organisers will have sessions around governance again. Other sessions are useful too as they are on various other aspects of education which governors may want to know more about. Dates for 2020 have been announced (18th -10th June 2020). The organisers are offering a 40% launch discount and there is a special rate for governors (£45 for a day ticket, £59 for both days).

 

Governance matters at Festival of Education. Part 1

Picture credit: Steve Penny

One of the most awaited educational events, The Festival of Education, took place on 20th and 21st June 2019. This year was the 10th anniversary of the Festival. We were treated to two days of inspirational speakers who presented on a whole range of topics. I’m delighted that governance was represented too, for which the organisers deserve our thanks.

I was very happy that my application to hold a governance session was successful. I’m also very grateful to Dominic Herrington, National Schools Commissioner (NSC), who accepted my invitation and joined me for a chat on the first day of the festival. Below is a short account of what we discussed in the 40 minutes available to us. Where I have added post-event comments, I have done so in pink.

Dominic started by thanking governors for their time and commitment to governance of our schools. He talked a bit about his role. As NSC, Dominic, working with Regional School Commissioners (RSC) and other educational leaders and

  • Helps develops multi-academy trust (MAT) improvement strategies
  • Supports MATs so that they are sustainable and strong, via constructive assistance and challenge
  • Encourages regional teams to share best practice and learn from one another to encourage closer

I started our discussion by asking Dominic what, in his opinion, is good governance and why is it important. Dominic replied that governance has vital role in our schools, particularly due to the degree of autonomy in English education system as compared to the rest of world. We need good governance because governance performance three important functions:

  • It act as a stimulus for improvement
  • It provides an ‘Insurance’ policy for school leaders
  • It is responsible for ensuring clarity of vision and strategic direction

We discussed features of effective governance. Dominic referred to the three core functions which, when performed well, lead to effective governance. These are:

  • Overseeing the financial performance of the school and making sure its money is well spent
  • Holding the headteacher to account for the educational performance of the school and its pupils
  • Ensuring clarity of vision, ethos and strategic direction

We went on to talk about the relationship between the executive leaders and governors. Dominic said that if there is strong executive leadership then we can usually assume that governance is strong too. There is a strong correlation between effective governance and strong executive leadership. This is why Ofsted consider governance under Leadership and Management (L&M). Ineffective governance invariably leads to ineffective leadership and this is not just education sector specific. [There is discussion in governance circles if governance should be considered under L&M. I personally think that it should. We are part of the Leadership and it’s only right that when Ofsted judge L&M, they comment on the effectiveness of governance.]

As we were discussing ineffective governance, I asked Dominic about the role played by NSC and RSC when ineffective governance is identified. Dominic started by emphasising that occurrences of inadequate governance are rare and that the vast majority of schools are not failing [This was good to hear]. We do, however, have to deal swiftly and proportionally where this has been identified. Inadequate governance doesn’t take long to be identified (via Education and Skills Funding agency, RSCs, LAs or parental complaints). Dominic said that prevention is always better than cure so it is important that we identify cases where governance isn’t as good as it could be and offer support before it becomes ineffective. He said he was interested in how we can best enable system leadership. The multi-academy trust model gives school leaders the flexibility to share resources across a number of schools. Dominic said we have seen best outcomes for children being delivered where there are school leaders working across several schools to support weaker schools. We have some excellent examples of where academy sponsorship has had a transformative impact on schools. We do need to ensure that schools are matched with a sponsor who fits the school and has the capacity to raise standards.

Dominic also stressed the importance of recruiting good people and mentioned Academy Ambassadors and Inspiring Governors who can help boards find suitable people. This led us to talk about governor CPD and I asked if training should be made mandatory. Dominic agreed that his was always a hot topic. Personally, he was not very keen on making it mandatory. He said he would be worried about the quality of CPD and would rather that we work from bottom up and offer support. He mentioned that there is training available, including Department for Education funded training. [My personal thoughts on this are that GBs/trusts should make it mandatory for their members to keep up to date and commit to CPD. They should also make induction training available to all new appointees and the expectation should be that this would be done within a reasonable time after appointment.]

I was interested in getting Dominic’s opinion on whether MAT governance was complex. Dominic’s view was that it is not; rather it can be an opportunity as Local Governing Bodies and Trust Boards give us the option of different forms of governance. Dominic emphasised that most MATs are local MATs formed of six or less schools. He did stress the importance of Schemes of Delegation (SoD). Dominic said that SoD need to be clear and these must be explained to everyone. The lines of accountability need to be clearly defined too. We need to ensure that people understand their respective roles. [This is an important point. Good, clearly defined SoD, which are understood by all, are crucial. National Governance Association (NGA) has done some work on this which should help trustees who are reviewing their SoD.]

I was also interested in hearing Dominic’s opinions on how to increase governance literacy across the sector. Dominic started by saying that being a governor is a noble contribution to our communities. He said that governance has a higher profile now than it did five years ago when it was hardly talked about. We need to continue raising the profile of governance and encourage teachers, headteachers, retired teachers, and people from other sectors to join governing bodies. We should talk up governance which is why he was happy to come to the Festival and discuss governance with us. [I think that it is important that we talk up governance and do what we can to raise awareness of what governance is and its importance. Attending and presenting governance sessions at various events in one of the ways we can raise awareness. Taking part in twitter chats and blogging is another. Julia Skinner has been trying to get more of us blogging. If you are a blogger and write about governance, please do let Julia know and she may review your blog for Schools Week.]

Dominic is a governor too and my next question was related to this. I asked him if he was a governor on a governing body (GB) where governance wasn’t as effective as it could be, then what options were open to him. In other words, how could individual governors challenge an ineffective GB? Dominic said that the best course would be to try and find an ally in the GB, perhaps the chair and discuss concerns with them. If that doesn’t work then get in touch with the LA, RSC, etc. Dominic hoped that if ever a governor was faced with this situation, they wouldn’t give up and leave but try and change the GB practice so it does become effective.

The session also included questions from twitter and the floor.

  • In reply to a question about parent governors, Dominic said he was very keen on GBs having parent governors. He is one! At the same time he also emphasised the need to have a diverse board.
  • Asked why the Headteachers Boards are called that and why are there no places for governors on it, Dominic replied that the system allowed for co-option of someone with governance experience and he had co-opted members in the South East. The system is evolving and may change in the future.
  • The next question was about the options open to an academy committee (local governance) if they are unhappy with the MAT. Dominic said that he hoped that it could be solved at the local level but if the situation can’t be resolved then they should contact their RSC. He also made the point that this is not very usual and he had had dealt with only a few cases in his time as RSC.
  • The CEO of a MAT referenced research from NGA and asked if the time being put into governance by chairs was sustainable. Dominic said that some people put in a lot of time because they enjoy the role. The system is still young and developing and further down the line chairs may not need to put in as much time as they do now (MATs are growing slowly now. MATs are joining other MATs which is less demanding than setting up a new MAT).
  • A governor made the point that she worries that she can’t get into school and spend as much time there as she would like. Dominic replied that spending time in school isn’t the only way a governor adds value to their GB. Dominic said he cannot spend time in his school either. He adds value via other contributions. [This is an important point. A good board works as a team. Not everyone has to do everything and every contribution is valuable irrespective of the nature of the contribution.]
  • There was a question about mixed MATs/church schools. Dominic said that Church of England has been running schools for years and have a significant place in the educational landscape. Dominic reported that he had not come across any real issues with mixed MATs as yet.
  • In response to another question Dominic said that there are no plans at the present time to inspect MAT boards.

I am grateful to Dominic for taking time out of his busy schedule to come and talk to governors. I’m also grateful to everyone who attended the session. Dates for the 2020 Festival of Education have been announced (18th -10th June 2020). The organisers are offering a 40% launch discount and there is a special rate for governors (£45 for a day ticket, £59 for both days). I will be attending the Festival and hopefully will see many of you there.

Understanding what is meant by critical friend matters

Critical friend is a term which you may often see being used to describe governors. If you are new to governance you may wonder what the term actually means. I’ve been asked questions about being a critical friend and have tried to explain this many times but I’m never sure if I’ve managed to get my point across and explain the term well. The other day I read a blog by Michael Salter which I thought was helpful. Michael is an Australian teacher whose blog Pocket Quintilian I absolutely adore! Michael’s interests are in the field of linguistics and classics and in many of his blogs he examines the etymology of words which makes his blog unique. In his latest post he looked at the etymology of “critic, critical and criticism”. Michael writes,

Critic, critical and criticism (as well as crisis) come from the Greek krínein, to judge. This in turn comes from a Proto-Indo-European root meaning sieve – an instrument for sifting, or separating, different things. This same archaic root was the origin of the Latin crimen, which gives us discriminate…a word which, sadly, is hardly ever used now in its positive sense. And this is not unconnected with what I have to say next.

Art, music and literary critics are tasked with making judgements based on their knowledge of the art form in question. And why are they entrusted with this task? Presumably, one would hope, because they possess a rich store of knowledge in their chosen turf.

When I read the above passage, I paused and thought that I should use what Micheal has written to explain the concept of being a critical friend. The “friend” bit of the phrase is easy but some people may misinterpret “critical” bit of the phrase and think that our role is to be one who is “inclined to find fault”. Our role is not to find fault; our role is to sieve information, separate different things which are provided to us and then make a judgement on how well the school is fulfilling its duty to our pupils. To do this well we need to arm ourselves with knowledge first. This is where CPD comes in. We need to equip ourselves with knowledge relating to the curriculum, assessment systems, progress data, finances, cohort characteristics, how various groups of pupils are performing etc. Once the board, as a whole, has this body of knowledge we can ask informed question and make judgements. In other words be the critical friend it is our job to be.

Governors and curriculum matters

On 11th June 2019 governors (Jo Penn, Jane Owens,  Fee Stagg and I) attended “Curriculum Thinking: Three Masterclasses which had presentations from Mary Myatt, Tom Sherrington and John Tomsett. I would like to thank Mary, Tom and John for inviting us. As we self-fund most of our CPD, this generous invitation was greatly appreciated. I am going to write about those parts of the day which I think will be of interest to governors.

The first presentation was by the wonderful Mary. She started by saying that wrong priorities and focusing on SATs had resulted in a narrow curriculum. I would urge governors to ask questions around the curriculum offer. Are you sure your school is offering broad and balanced curriculum? All children deserve to be taught a rich, broad and balanced curriculum and governors can ensure this by asking questions of our school leaders. As governors are you certain that the school has high expectations for all the students? How do you know this?

Mary went on to talk about high challenge and low threat. She said that we don’t mind being challenged or put under pressure as long as there are no threats and we aren’t made to look stupid. We are a challenge seeking species. She also stressed the need to separate the person from their work and making a judgement on the work and not on the person. This was in relation to students and their teachers but I think this relates to our work too. Our role as governors is to hold the school leaders to account. Do ask challenging questions but frame them in such a way that the senior leaders don’t feel threatened. If they do feel threatened then the chances are you may not get the information you want and need as they may be scared to give it to you. Don’t forget that we are supposed to challenge and support and act as critical friends where being a friend is very important too. Mary also talked about data collection and the uselessness of populating endless spreadsheets. As governors, we need to be very aware of this too. Are we asking for too much data and hence adding to teacher workload? Is the data we’ve asked for/are getting actually useful?

Mary was followed by Tom Sherrington. He started by saying that the curriculum defines your school. This is very important from governance point of view. Our first core function is to ensure clarity of vision and ethos. Do we know if our curriculum matches the vision we have of our school? Does our curriculum ties in with the ethos of our school? Some of the other questions Tom wants school leaders to ask while looking at the curriculum are the questions we should be asking in our governing body meetings too. Questions such as:

  • Do we understand the context of our school?
  • Is the curriculum a good fit for our context? Tom gave examples of teaching about Islam in Spain, Benjamin Zephaniah which would show that thought has been put into what to teach and why
  • What do we want our school to do that we can be proud of?
  • This is especially for primary school governors. How do our school leaders/we support our teachers who may not be subject specialists to get the support they need to design and develop the curriculum?
  • Does the curriculum allow excellence to develop?
  • What does a broad and balanced curriculum mean in practice?
  • Do you as governors understand why the number of options a student is allowed take is what it is? (More options mean there is greater breadth, fewer means there is greater depth)
  • Are the Ebaac and Progress 8 choices for the benefit of the school or the student?

The last speaker of the day was John Tomsett. He too made the point that our core purpose, our vision and our values should shape our curriculum. John quoted Christine Counsell.

As governors are we sure our curriculum helps our disadvantaged pupils to “gain the powers of the powerful”? Some more questions posed by John which governors can adapt.

John then showed us an extract from his school’s Ofsted report.

The curriculum reflects leaders’ integrity, because it is designed to match pupils’ needs and aspirations regardless of performance table measures

Do we as governors, have the confidence that this is true of our school also? This links back to what Tom had said about asking ourselves if the Ebaac/Progress 8 choices for the school or the pupils.

The day ended with a panel session with Mary, Tom and John taking questions from the audience. Someone wanted to know how to manage the curriculum in a school where there is a high degree of pupil movement. Mary mentioned MOD schools and that it may be an idea to have links with them. This is a question governors (who should know if their school falls into this category) can ask of their leaders. Jo asked who owns the curriculum and what is the role of governors in this? Tom said that it should belong to the stakeholders. John talked about the importance of governors hearing directly from subject leads and being prepared to ask critical questions. Governors absolutely have a role to play here. This is why I am grateful to Mary, Tom and John for inviting us. It was a great opportunity to hear from three people who have done so much work on curriculum design and development and hopefully this blog would have given you a flavor of the day and given you some questions to ponder on and to ask of your school leaders.

Tweets from the day have been collated here.

Staff wellbeing surveys matter: Guest Post

Bruce Greig is an entrepreneur and school governor. He served as Chair of Governors through two Ofsted inspections and worked with four headteachers. He set up School Staff Surveys after discovering how enlightening an anonymous staff survey can be and decided to make it easy for every school to run them. Below is a guest post written by Bruce on the topic of staff surveys.

I’ve been a school governor since 2011. A long while ago we asked our headteacher to run a staff wellbeing survey. We had heard mutterings of discontent from some staff, but others seemed very happy. Sometimes governors’ work is like the blind men appraising an elephant: you only see little glimpses of what’s really going on.

That survey we ran turned out to be transformational. It started a gradual, but dramatic, improvement in our the school staff culture.

Culture is very hard for governors to assess. Staff are often on their “best behaviour” during a learning walk or other governor visit. You don’t necessarily get a sense of how staff interact, and how they feel, when governors are not around.

We now do the same survey every year, and I think that every school should do this. In fact, I became so taken with the idea I set up a little side business just doing staff wellbeing surveys for schools: School Staff Surveys.

Here are some of my favourite questions (there are 69 questions in all, adapted from the world-renowed UK Civil Service People Survey).

Simple questions, but telling. And you can’t really ask a staff member this face-to-face (or, if you did, you can’t be sure of getting an honest answer). Of course, this survey question won’t tell you for sure whether or not your head is doing a good job, but it will help inform you. Staff might answer “Agree” because they just love the fact that the head lets them hide away in their classroom untroubled by observation or feedback. Or they might “Disagree” because they dislike a head who is actually doing a great job.

So the survey digs a little deeper into this, with questions like:

You can see that these more probing questions would help governors understand in more detail how the school is being led and managed.

Developing staff

As governors, we are well aware that recruiting staff is difficult: distracting, time-consuming and hard work. So it is much better if schools can do everything they can to develop and grow their existing staff. How’s that going? This question gives you an steer:

Staff might agree to this because they think to themselves “yes, I could go on those courses if I got round to asking”. Does your school actually have the processes in place to ensure that that development actually happens, and is it worthwhile? This more specific question gets to the crux of that:

And if you are able to develop and grow your staff, you should then get a resounding Strongly Agree to this question:

Feedback and appraisal

Since the introduction of performance related pay for teachers in 2014, it has been absolutely crucial that schools get their appraisal process right. Back in 2013, the last TALIS survey showed that around half of all teachers in England felt that feedback and appraisal was just a box-ticking exercise. If that shows up in the next TALIS survey, a lot of schools will be sitting on a tinderbox of potential grievances.

You are unlikely to hear from a teacher face-to-face that they think their appraisal is a waste of time. But if they do quietly think that, you could have a big problem on your hands – if their pay has been determined each year by a process they think is inadequate.

A regular wellbeing survey can look at this issue with questions like:

It isn’t just about how teachers view their own appraisal. It is just as important that staff feel others are managed well too, especially if they think other staff are not doing a good job. A question like this addresses that:

Teamwork

There are few things more toxic for a school staff culture than a staff member who doesn’t muck in. Won’t share resources, makes no effort to help out colleagues. I have heard of a school where a teacher appeared super professional and dedicated in her interactions with governors, but completely wrecked the school’s team culture in her interactions with staff. Literally leaving other teachers in tears. Had it not been for other staff speaking up, governors would have had no idea of the effect this teacher was having on the rest of the small team.

Being fair and respectful

Now we are getting into more sensitive territory. You’d hope that, if staff were not being treated fairly, or were suffering harassment, they would speak up. But I’ve learned that teachers are very reluctant to speak out about anything which might rock the boat (compared to my experience of other modern workplaces). If they keep their heads down, they have a very secure job. If they rock the boat, they fear that they might attract the dreaded career-ending “capability procedure”.

Your survey should include a couple of basic questions on this, like:

But also explicitly ask about discrimination:

And harassment:

Now then if you get a “yes” to either of these questions, the school can’t necessarily take any action. The survey is anonymous. The respondent might wish to remain anonymous. But your head, or CoG, could at least say to staff that the survey has shown that someone feels they have not been treated right and make sure everyone knows how to address their grievance safely if they want to.

There are another 40 questions in the survey that I run. There are plenty of ways that schools can run a survey like this. The UK Civil Service People Survey questions are in the public domain – you can put them into a Google Form or into Survey Monkey for free. One step up from that is a simple paid-for version like mine (School Staff Surveys), which takes the time and effort out of doing it all yourself. Or there are other providers like the Education Support Partnership who will administer a survey for you and follow it up with consulting and advice to help you address the issues it raises.