Three years ago I inadvertently began a tradition of writing a Christmas blog; the first in 2016 was in response to Ofsted publishing a rather dubiously researched report on school governance which appreciated neither the complexity of governance nor the contribution being made by the large numbers of people governing state schools across England. I had to summon up the seasonal sentiments of good cheer and generosity from Dickens’ Christmas Carol.
And this year when I began mulling over Christmas messages, I again very soon found myself returning to the purpose of education and the central role that values play in that common purpose of all of us involved in preparing the country’s young people for the rest of their life. However this time I didn’t only have Victorian fiction to rely on along with the learning from the Commission on Religious Education. Now there is the education sector’s very own Framework for Ethical Leadership which was published in January by a different Commission set up by the Association of School and College Leaders. On its first anniversary, the second Annual Ethical Leadership Summit will be held 30 January 2020: everyone with an interest is welcome: see here for more information.
The seven Nolan principles and the seven accompanying virtues are not just for Christmas. However, kindness which we defined as leaders demonstrating respect, generosity of spirit, understanding and good temper seems particularly relevant right now. There are infinite examples of acts of kindness within our school communities, and much understanding of each other’s diverse needs. Headteacher Jeremy Hannay sent a message to parents explaining that his staff were not expecting gifts, that traditional expression of appreciation and kindness: “we are paid to work here, love our jobs and your children”.
Life in 2019 can be complicated. Christmas Jumper day set up out of kindness by charity Save the Children to raise funds has now been shown to be a date when there are high levels of absence from participating schools by poorer children with no Christmas jumper to wear. In the last month there have been several articles in the press about the work schools are taking on to compensate for the effects of poverty on their pupils. The Christmas holidays can be particularly difficult for children without much when the rest of the country is feasting and receiving presents. Some schools are providing food for families, a few even opening for meals and seasonal festivities.
Last month I was moved by Stephen Tierney, chair of the Headteachers’ Roundtable, describing the family situations faced in Blackpool, the town he has worked in from many years, and one of the Government’s Opportunity Areas. Stephen, now prematurely retiring, was providing evidence to National Association of Headteacher’s Commission on School Improvement and is also involved in national fundraising to provide for families in disadvantaged communities. He also commented “At some point, we will need to stop pulling people out of the river and go upstream to find out why they are falling in.” That chimes hugely with me from as long as thirty years ago when I moved roles after undertaking advice and community work on poor estates in Oxfordshire. Yes, Oxfordshire – every area of this country has challenges of inequality – but some such as Blackpool face a challenge of a different order of deprivation.
We know from the annual governance survey that increasing numbers of schools are involved in what has been historically been the role of charities, such as the provision of food. With the reduction of local authority grants for school uniforms, more schools are involved in helping families with those costs and as we have done for many years, NGA encourages governing boards to review their school uniform policy to ensure its cost is not prohibitive to some families. The survey also exposes the amount of additional work being undertaken by schools with troubled families because of the reduction of other public services after years of austerity.
So far, so gloomy. The deep divisions across our country so evident in 2016 have not yet healed, but schools play a hugely important and often overlooked role in extending understanding in diverse and different local communities. So let’s celebrate that, and all that kindness and compassion exhibited in schools every day by staff and indeed by pupils. So very many thanks from us in the governance community to all school staff, living by the values of ethical leadership, making a difference to pupils in their care.
In 2020, NGA’s Spotlight on Disadvantage will continue, and our emphasis on the governing board’s role to ensure staff wellbeing will increase. Governors and trustees admire and salute the work staff are doing, going the extra mile for pupils all year round, but as the employers need to be convinced that the workload is sustainable. NGA is collecting examples of how this can happen: please do share yours at any point.
And yet of course those volunteering to govern are a shining example of generosity – donating time, one of our most important commodities. You aren’t paid to undertake the role you do; we know you want to make a difference to the lives of children and give back to your community. I can’t tell you how much everyone at GovernorHQ, our staff and our trustees, thoroughly appreciates the work you do, the commitment and thoughtfulness this takes. Just as you are considerate of your staff’s well-being, NGA has not lost sight of the strains governing can put on your own well-being.
As you visited your schools for Christmas performances or other celebration events this month, we hope that the joy and good cheer of the children was a reminder of why you do what you do. Despite all the challenges, we must be optimistic for 2020; optimism is another of the ethical leadership framework’s seven virtues! At our Annual Conference last month I announced a campaign for the new year to make governance more visible, not because you want to be feted, but because it will help with recruiting more volunteers, and promote greater understanding of the importance and effective practice of the role.
It is a good and important thing you do: your schools need you. Thank you so very very much, and have a relaxing holiday.