Strategic Leadership Interview: A leader’s view

Geoff Barton

NGA speaks to Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), about his views on governance, NGA’s Visible Governance campaign and his thoughts on a number of key issues impacting the sector as a whole

NGA: What has your experience been like through the years interacting and working with governing boards?

GB: As a deputy head, I attended governing board meetings, committees and working groups, and I saw from the outside how a very effective headteacher worked with governors. Once I became head, I realised just how important it was to establish the relationship with the chair of governors, to have a clear sense of protocols on strategic versus day-to-day issues, and how to ensure, through formal and informal communication, that neither of us got any surprises. Nothing had fully prepared me for this, and I became better at it as my headship progressed. I tried to help members of my leadership team to have more direct involvement with governors and to learn some of the insights I had gained.

NGA: Our Visible Governance campaign wants to champion the role of school governance across the schools sector and beyond – how important is governance to the success of our schools in your view? How will ASCL support this campaign?

GB: Good governance plays a vital role in the success of schools. When it works well it means that you, as a school leader, have a trusted group of people who scrutinise the decisions you make over everything from your results to the school’s finances, and who challenge and test your thinking. It is also a valued source of support. It is great to have governors and trustees who understand what you are trying to do, and share your school’s values and ethos. The Visible Governance campaign is a really good idea, and it’s something that we’ll promote through our networks to our 19,000-plus members.

NGA: What are your thoughts on the relationship between executive leaders and the governing board and how those governing are perceived? Do you have any advice or tips for boards on how to develop this successfully?

GB: The step from headship to executive leadership is often a challenging one, both in day-to-day responsibilities and in working with governors and trustees across a number of schools. The risk is that trustees can feel remote from the schools in the trust. It is important to establish mechanisms that help trustees find out more about their schools – to ensure they’re not just relying on information they receive from trust leaders but can triangulate this with other sources of information. These mechanisms rightly vary between trusts depending on trust, size, geographical location, the scheme of delegation and so on. They could include trustees being ‘paired up’ with particular schools, trustees being invited to visit schools during the working day, and school leaders being invited to talk to the trust board.

NGA: We talk a lot about the workload of teaching staff and leaders, but we know workload is also an issue for those governing. Do you have any thoughts
on what can be done to help keep this more manageable? And how can governing boards help to reduce the workload and improve the wellbeing of staff, in particular senior leaders and headteachers?

GB: It’s important that governors and trustees think clearly and strategically about what data and information they want and need to receive from school leaders. What’s important for them to know about the schools in their trust and what information will help them to assess how well their schools are performing against these criteria? It is also important to balance this against other demands on school leaders in terms of the information and data they have to provide to local authorities, regional schools commissioners, the Education and Skills Funding Agency, and so on. It is just a case of being conscious of the workload that requesting additional information might generate. This doesn’t mean they shouldn’t ask; it means ensuring the information requested is strategically important.

NGA: As you know, the Ofsted framework has led to some significant changes for all involved in the inspection process; what is your view of where governance fits with the new framework?

GB: We know that some governors are concerned they’re not getting enough information about their school’s strengths and weaknesses from the newly formatted Ofsted reports, which have been simplified to ensure they’re accessible to all parents. While we agree it’s essential that all parents can read and understand Ofsted reports, it’s a missed opportunity if reports are simplified to the extent that useful and nuanced feedback to school leaders and governors is lost. We’ve made this point to Ofsted, and will continue to do so.

We know that some schools are finding it challenging to adapt to the requirements of the new framework. ASCL’s view is that the new framework is an improvement on the old one and is heading in the right direction. However, we’re very mindful of the fact that this change is putting additional pressures, at least in the short term, on some teachers and school leaders. We would encourage governors to ensure that all staff are fully supported, both in making any changes to their curriculum that they feel are necessary, and in engaging with inspectors during an inspection.

NGA: In terms of the curriculum, what do you see as the governing board’s role in ensuring schools are getting their curriculum right?

GB: It’s important that the development of the curriculum is long-term, sustainable and based on evidence, and governors can play an important role in encouraging and supporting that approach. What must be avoided, however, are any panicked, knee-jerk reactions to an impending inspection.

NGA: Being a headteacher can be a lonely role. How can governors, and especially chairs, support and develop their headteacher?

GB: Build strong relationships; get the balance right between support and challenge; ensure governors undertake training so that they understand their role and don’t overstep boundaries; encourage and support heads to build networks with other leaders; encourage heads to consider their own wellbeing as well as that of staff and pupils; and support them in dealing with difficult issues. 

Find out more: Association of School and College Leaders 

Read our cover story:

Visible governance: Kirstie Ebbs outlines NGA’s bold new campaign to celebrate the power of governance

Read our feature stories:

Clerking matters: Sam Tranter explains NGA’s research and recommendations on establishing appropriate pay for clerks

A board’s eye view: Nina Sharma provides a snapshot of key findings from our report into governors’ views and experiences of Ofsted’s new inspection framework

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