Expert or Everyman: who leads the leaders?
The role of the Head in promoting good governance
Governors are, it seems, under attack with Michael Gove caricaturing them as “local worthies who see being a governor as a badge of status”. His model of ‘good governance’ looks at lot like a – rather idealised – company board. There are a clearly some problems of governance but it’s not at all clear that these are signs of systematic failure. Many problems in governance come down to problems of availability or effective use of information or to breakdowns in relationships. The NCSL National Leaders of Governance programme was devised to provide some expert support to chairs and other governors helping them to tackle these and similar problems.
The Head might or might not feel like a powerful participant – they are, after all accountable to governors. But in reality they determine how accessible information is to governors and tentativeness of confidence about strategy may be experienced as either fostering or inhibiting effective decision making and promoting or damaging professional relationships. It’s a choice and a skill shared between the head and Chair/ vice chair. The ‘amateur’ governors can, indeed, lead the leaders but only with their help
"Local worthies’ badge of status"
As I write, the education chatterati are reacting to Michael Gove’s sideswipe at school governors. They are, he said, “local worthies who see being a governor as a badge of status not a job of work.” To be fair, he did say these were the baddies. The goodies, by contrast, operate in smaller governing bodies, are experts not representatives, and they concentrate on leadership, standards, teaching and behaviour. They also have agenda papers which are “short, fact-packed and prepared in a timely way”. Before going on, I need to declare an interest: I am one of these ‘local worthies,’ as chairman of a school governing body (GB), and I am also a ‘National Leader of Governance’ (NLG) - which presumably makes me a ‘national worthy’. I think this gives me a knowledgeable perspective on the issue beyond the experience of a single school.
Like most of the press and other media commentators, I think Gove was right to identify some failings in governance but wrong in caricaturing governors in this way. In over 12 years of service as a governor and chair, I have encountered only one of Mr Gove’s stereotypes and his attendance was so poor that we threw him out. Most the governors I deal with are connected with the school through their own or somebody else’s children; or they are keen to ‘put something back in’ and see service on a school GB as a valuable and accessible way of doing this; or they’ve been press-ganged by the Head or other governors because they have particular expertise and/or a connection with a partner organisation. Even the so-called ‘local authority governors’ these days are rarely connected with the LA in any political way. But Gove is clearly right that sometimes the governors are part of the problem. The question is whether this is a systematic failing in the way we organise governance or occasional instances of the system being stressed to breaking point.
Complicity or conflict
Let’s focus on two failure scenarios when the role of the governors really matters. The first is where the governors are complicit with the head in allowing the school to fail. There are a host of circumstances with this outcome but a very common one is that the governors don’t question the Head’s story of the school. That story is represented only through the Head’s Report which offers a partial and/or inaccurate version of the facts of the school’s performance. Sometimes the Head is deliberately misleading the governors but, just as often, they are all bumbling along in a warm hazy fantasy about the school or, in the inner-urban variant of this, telling themselves that “we are doing the best we can in fundamentally hostile conditions”. Both are rudely interrupted by an Ofsted inspection. In this scenario, the GB has been co-opted as cheerleaders and has failed in its challenge role.
The second scenario is where the governors are at odds with the Head. Sometimes this is out-and-out warfare with a complete breakdown of trust. A common variant of this extreme scenario is where a substantial group of governors have formed a bloc around a common issue or interest (community cultural issues maybe, or concerns about uniform, aspects of the curriculum or academy status) which dominate the GB’s business. These are the cases which hit the press. More common and less dramatic is the ‘bicycle shed syndrome’ where governors insert themselves in practical but rarely significant details of school life, because they are easy to understand, while neglecting the bigger, harder strategic issues.
Both extremes, complicity and conflict, have multiple underpinning factors specific to a school’s context. But two aspects crop up time and again – accessing and using reliable information and establishing professional relationships. Over the last 10 years or so, basic information about the school’s performance has both grown in volume and complexity and become more standardised. For instance, the RAISE (Reporting and Analysis for Improvement through school Self-Evaluation) dataset covers pretty much everything important about the school that can be represented as numbers. But there’s lots of it, and some governors (and, it has to be said, some Heads) are not confident in interpreting numbers. In these circumstances, governors are often reliant on the Head’s interpretation of the data and that interpretation could be erroneous or even misleading.
Difficult though the ‘information problem’ can be, it is at least easy to spot. Problems with the relationships can be hard to diagnose let alone solve. They can be factional (a group of like-minded governors acting in concert for a shared purpose), cliquey (people acting out of personal loyalty or dislike) or simply neglectful (governors not really interested in the wellbeing of the school). Addressing those issues requires a book - or a series of coaching sessions - not the space of this short piece so for now I will pick up a single, I think important, aspect of the relationships agenda – the contribution of the Head and the Chair. It is important for these two key players to have a good working understanding of the fit between their roles (and by extension, the role of the GB) and to live this out through their day-to-day dealings with each other and with the governors and staff. The boundary between strategy (governors) and management (Head) is weakly defined so finding the balance point is essential. Heads who don’t really acknowledge the authority of the GB may struggle to provide them with timely, strategic information. Not giving the GB real strategic things to do will encourage them to meddle in detail. Chairs who take on an (unpaid) managerial role - investigating complaints for instance – are committing a similar sin even where the Head seems to condone or even encourage this. The solution is, of course, in the old-fashioned method of talking and listening to each other and thrashing it out openly and honestly. It’s because this can be hard that some kind of expert external help can be useful at this point.
The elephant in the room
It is to respond to these kinds of issues that the National College for School Leadership (NCSL) has set up the National Leaders of Governance (NLGs) programme. NLGs are selected to provide that support usually working with chairs of governors and mostly working in a coaching mode. There is also a training programme currently being piloted and expected to be offered via licensed providers.
These are valuable initiatives and I have volunteered some of my time to support them as one of the NLGs. They do, however, bump into the elephant in the room as do most other attempts to beef up the governance of the system – governors are unpaid volunteers. The ideal of professionalism which underpins the focus on training, the NLG scheme and Mr Gove’s vision for governance is transposed from an environment in which the professionals are paid for their efforts. Governors would be entitled to ask why they are being asked to perform their duties so expertly and to be accountable for them so directly when everywhere they look in public service and private industry board members are paid (sometimes very well) for their efforts – and still seem to be failing to hold to account executives who are accidentally or wilfully missing the plot. It’s hard to believe that in times of austerity it makes sense to jeopardise the bits of the system that are working. So we need targeted interventions and less sweeping, un-evidenced rhetoric.
Who needs the support?
The longer term future for our system of school governance is a long standing conundrum and Mr Gove won’t be the first to attempt to ‘rationalise’ it. The National Leaders of Governance and the national training programmes are worthwhile attempts to offer support directly to governors (NLG support for Chairs of Governors is free if set up via NCSL sanctioned routes). But both the supporter and the supported that process are volunteers with the limits to accountability which that implies. There is, however, a key contributor to good governance who is definitely being paid for it and who actually has most chance of affecting it for better or worse – the headteacher. The Head is the senior paid professional and as such is the only executive member of the GB (other staff might be on the board but not in an executive capacity). The Head can ensure that the GB is well informed and is presented with real strategic decisions. He/she can support constructive, professional relationships on the GB. Or s/he can neglect these things but with the risk of a sizeable negative impact on the school (not to mention its OfSTED leadership grade). It’s a choice you make and a set of skills you exercise – but if you need some support, CUREE is here to help.
So – who does lead the leaders? There is, inevitably, no pat answer to this and the famous English messy compromise will probably continue to be the way we work. What we really need, of course, is a group of people on the GB who can represent the interests of the non-professional stakeholders whilst being pretty expert at it. And I think the politicians would say "can it please cost nothing?"
Managing Director CUREE and National Leader of Governance.
Support from an NLG for the governors is free if negotiated via the established channels at NCSL. Click here for more information.
Support for Heads and other senior leaders from CUREE is normally chargeable. Examples of the kinds of things you might find useful include:
- consultancy and training on working with your Chair and/or governors;
- coaching for you, other SLT members and or the governors on working together;
- help with presenting school performance data to a lay audience;
- visual presentations of school data or school plans (e.g. route maps)