Great Governance - Growing the Informed Critical Friend

On arriving back at school after visiting a colleague's school with my SENCo and Pastoral Support to look at their wonderful provision for autistic pupils, my telephone nudged me with a message from my deputy: 

The message brought with it the usual rational response of blind panic, inner turmoil, mild palpitations and an intense desire for chocolate.  I entered the school and walked very quickly to my deputy's office.  My deputy was in a meeting so I gave her my best "please come out and tell me this text message was a joke, hard-di-har-har" stare. I was then informed that the call was genuine but rather than a Section 5 visit prompted by a string of spurious complaints, the Ofsted inspector was visiting to undertake an Ofsted survey visit on governance.  

The survey visit had been commissioned by Ofsted as a small-scale research project into the qualities of successful governance.  Our school had been chosen to be part of this study as we are a school in a coastal region that has demonstrated a rise of two inspection grades, moving from RI to Outstanding between 2013 and 2015.  The survey visit has given our school an invaluable opportunity to reflect on what great governance looks like in a primary academy.

So, the six million dollar question is, "what are the factors to a highly effective governing body?"  I don't profess to have the answer, but here is a menu of our top five elements that work for us at Warden House (health warning, these are not an exhaustive nor prioritised list).

1. Be confident about your model of governance 

We use the circle model of governance but many models of governance are strong, provided the model is fit for purpose and helps drive standards while holding the school leadership to account. Having clear structures, coupled with clear roles and responsibilities for governors allows the governing body to discharge their duties effectively.  Our model encourages individual governors to play an active role in the life of the school, attending SLT meetings, monitoring visits, staff meetings, behaviour review meetings and much more. The governing body is also outward facing and recognise that our school plays an important role in supporting other schools and governing bodies through our role as a National Support School.

2. Be visible in driving school improvement

Governors have a responsibility to ensure they talk about school improvement and standards, a lot.  It is so easy for a governing body to become consumed by discussions about buildings and finances.  Although important, these discussions should not be at the cost of standards. 

Maintain a strong engagement in monitoring visits and keep them focussed on key objectives in the school plan.  Be active in appraisal and ensure there is rigour in the process and success is celebrated in more ways than simply pay awards. Be active and ask searching questions about the data, ensuring you understand the trends implied by the assessment information and the school leadership are confident in answering questions about what they are doing to improve any areas of vulnerability.

3. Audit your skills and use them wisely

Our chair of governors undertakes an audit of skills for our governors. This demonstrates the balance of skills across the governing body.  This also allows the appointment of new governors to be targeted on and skills deficient in the governing body. 

As an example, our governing body was short of experience in health and safety so we approached a potential governor who was a first aid at work trainer with a wealth of experience in health and safety legislation to join our board.  

In this sense, the governing body as a whole have a complete skill set and are deployed to roles that play to their skills and knowledge, ensuring they have the capacity to ask questions that intelligently challenge the school leadership.

A great site for advice on effective governance is the NGA site. Here is a link to twenty key questions a governing body should ask itself.

4. Be outward facing 

Collaboration is not just beneficial, in our current educational climate, it is essential.  Collaboration helps grow leaders, challenge standards and align high expectations across schools.  Our governors share skills audits across eleven primary schools and this forms a cross-collaboration training plan.  

As a result, training is targeted on need, best practice is shared and high quality presenters commissioned to deliver the training. Our chairs of governors and headteachers also meet and we have commissioned a National Leader of Governance to work alongside our group.  The group meets three times a year in a rotation of schools so governors deepen their understanding of effective governance. As a result of this outward facing attitude, agreements to share governors for appeals panels has been built into our policies and procedures.

5. A relentless focus on improvement priorities

It is so easy to be distracted with the myriad of issues facing school.  Effective governance is dependent on ensuring the school's key priorities are effecting a positive change.  Governors need to have a tenacity in challenging the impact of the school leadership on addressing the school's key priorities. 

This links firmly to point 2 above; being visible at SLT meetings, attending assessment review meetings, undertaking monitoring visits that focus on the key priorities, review appraisal targets that help move the key priorities forward and ensuring the headteacher is also being tenacious in the pursuit of improvement.  

Our school currently has five key priorities outlined in our school improvement plan and these are reviewed formally six times across the year with governor monitoring visits reviewing one key priority termly.  In the recent Ofsted survey visit, the HMI commented on the structure of our monitoring visits as 'very special practice' (watch out for a blog on governor monitoring visits to come).

Ensuring your school is great takes real determination and careful orchestration.  Within this well choreographed dance, the interplay between governance and leadership is an essential ingredient.  If you get this right, through a relationship of trust coupled with intelligent challenge, the resultant direction of travel for your school is strong. I welcome your thoughts on your essential elements of effective governance.  

Further reading:

NFER research into governance 2011

Sir Michael Wilshaw's speech about governance 

This blog article was orinigally posted here.

Read Graham's recent article, Aspire for Headship.

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