Future Leaders Trust guest blog: Governors and leaders – a question of balance

20/05/2015 11:54:36 | with 1 comments

Guest blogger: Kate Chhatwal of the Future Leaders Trust

The recently published What governing boards should expect from school leaders and what school leaders should expect from governing boards from ASCL, LGA, NAHT and NGA is a useful contribution to how governors and school leaders should work together. As someone who is both a governor and involved in the development of school leaders and headteachers, I read it with great interest.

What it provides is a really useful – if daunting – summary of the things leaders and governors should consider around the mechanics of what they each do and how they work together. In the use of the term governing board and in the expectations for how they operate, the document really underlines the stepping up of expectations that school governance should be more professional and business-like.

What I would add is greater emphasis on how the way leaders and governors work together should be defined by what they are working together for, in a way that balances a medium- to long-term strategy with high expectations for the here and now. Leaders and governors should not just “determine and articulate a clear vision as to where they want the school or schools to be in three to five years’ time”, but have a clear vision for what they want for their pupils and community now. A determination to achieve those things should be at the heart of everything they do.

The document rightly talks about the need for governors and leaders to live by the Nolan principles of public life (NGA has published a free code of conduct for governing boards). The problem with these principles is that they prescribe how public servants should behave, not what they should actually do. So governors and leaders also need to describe, live and breathe the principles that define the character of their school, using them consistently to inform their decisions and action.

The governing board I’m on does this by ensuring we don’t just talk about a belief and expectation that every child in our community should be given opportunities to flourish, but by accepting with open arms the pupils who arrive (frequently) in our community looking for a school place, regardless of when they arrive, the challenges they bring, or the impact they might have on that year’s results.  Similarly, we rarely exclude pupils and feel a sense of deep disappointment if we get to this option of very last resort.

Something else I would emphasise is the extent to which the balance of responsibility for good governance lies with the head/executive head/CEO. The paper lists eight things a governing board must have – from the right people, to the right knowledge, to “the confidence to have courageous conversations in the interests of children and young people”. All crucially important, and also things that don’t come about by chance; the head must guide the chair to put and keep them in place.

Having them in place should make the head’s role easier. But the aim should not be to make it too comfortable. Effective heads equip their governors with the information and skills to provide effective challenge – by asking the right questions on budget, results and the wider outcomes described in the vision and knowing whether they have been given a “right” answer. This should make the head feel uncomfortable at times but should ultimately lead to faster improvement and better outcomes.

Working with the more than 100 heads in the Future Leaders Headship Institute, I have seen close up the difference governors can make– for good and for ill. Where it’s good, governors and leaders own a powerful, shared vision and respect what each brings to the task of realising it. The governing board is empowered by the head to act as a true “critical friend”, one who balances holding them to a high standard and encouraging them to reflect, with also having their back. Where it goes badly, the beleaguered head can find themselves on the receiving end of constant criticism and undermined by governors who stray too often across the sometimes unclear line between strategic governance and operational management. This seems to be particularly common in free schools where founders can find it difficult to make the transition from the operational role they often play in the set-up phase to the strategic role needed as governors.

The final balance is between work and life. The document highlights the duty of care governors have to ensure this for the head. It also notes the need for school leaders to “have regard to governors’ and trustees’ work and other commitments”.  Looking at all they have to do together to secure effective governance, I do wonder where either will find the time. But it is important that they do – because leading and governing a school (or schools) to secure the best outcomes for pupils takes energy as well as vision, skill, commitment and good governance.

Kate Chhatwal is Chief Programme Officer at The Future Leaders Trust.The Future Leaders Trust develops exceptional leaders for challenging schools across England through programmes suitable for senior leaders, headteachers, executive heads and CEOs. www.future-leaders.org.uk/

Read more:

Emma Knights, Chief Executive of the National Governors’ Association, talks about the advantages of middle leaders becoming governors here.

James Toop, Chief Executive Officer of Teaching Leaders writes about getting the most from middle leaders here as featured in Governing Matters magazine March/April 2015.