Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers
There was some interest in governor circles over a motion at the recent NAHT conference in Telford.
The motion asked for Ofsted to put less pressure on governors during inspection. I joined the governor Twitter chat recently to give it some context and discovered some common ground. I thought it would be worth summarising some of these points with our colleagues at the NGA.
Firstly some principles. Good governance is vital. The professional leadership of the school should be accountable to a well informed, engaged, supportive and constructively challenging governing body. Inspection should of course take some account of governance. The question is how much; prominence in inspection cannot be the sole criteria of importance in education. And finally, there are many fantastic governing bodies who give so much to the education system.
There were two motives behind the suggestion that governance could be de-emphasised in inspection from its current status; one looking out for the interest of governors and one, frankly, in the interests of heads. On the first: we currently place massive expectation on this volunteer force. It can make it difficult to recruit and retain governors for pressures they do not feel always feel equipped to face.
On the second point, because governance is part of the overall judgement of leadership and management of a school, if governance is weak, it drags the overall judgement down. Although the detail of the report often distinguishes the full picture, to the outside world focused on the raw judgement, it can look like the head's leadership is weak too.
This then gives rise to the inappropriate situation where heads are forced to manage upwards. I know of heads, for example, who give their boards appropriately challenging questions to ask them and minute. This isn't good governance or good accountability. And these actions obscure weaknesses in governance, preventing us from addressing them properly.
And for the avoidance of doubt, poor governance is not widespread, nor are head teachers always blameless in these relationships.
How could we address these challenges? One suggestion, which is not without controversy, is to have a separate judgement for governance and for the professional leadership and management of the school. This might reduce upwards management but it could perversely increase pressure on governors. It would depend on how the criteria and expectations underpinning the judgement were defined.
Another suggestion which I hope we can all agree on is that governors deserve proper training. This should be funded and I believe it should be mandatory - at least for chairs if not for the whole board. I know the NGA campaign for this too. If governance is so important - and it is - we should ensure it is properly supported.
I hope these reflections add suitable context to the motion from conference and send a strong message to governance that a great school is a partnership between its executive and non-executive leaders.
Emma Knights, Chief executive of National Governance Association
Thank you Russell for taking the time to engage with the school governance community and thanks to your members for acknowledging the workload of governors and trustees.
Morale has taken a bit of battering recently and some say having a go at those governing our schools has become business as usual. Most of our members are used to being called amateur by all and sundry, and it is not usually in the spirit of commending voluntary effort, but at best patronising them, or worst dismissive with suggestions of incompetence. We know from our 2016’s survey with TES that the majority of those governing are not happy with the situation facing our schools; we will be taking the temperature again with the 2017 survey after the General Election, but I do not expect the feeling of beleaguerment to have lifted. Governing can be tough at the best of times but, as we both know, the job of balancing budgets makes it particularly tough right now.
As you say, we know there are many fabulous governing boards out there, and we will be celebrating the very best at our biennial Outstanding Governance Awards 2017 later this month on the terrace at the Houses of Parliament. Without the separate Ofsted judgement for governance suggested by your conference, none of us know exactly the quality of school governance across English state schools.
Governance is an intrinsic part of leadership as the literature across sectors and countries makes clear: for us that is non-negotiable. It was notable and pleasing when the National College of School Leadership, as was, accepted governance within its remit, and The Foundation for Leadership in Education accepts this premise.
In 2011 when Ofsted first proposed reducing its number of judgments to four, NGA argued for a separate governance score to be identified within the leadership and management (L&M) grade. This would be the best of both worlds as it allows us to keep a tally of how governance is doing across the country, but at the same time acknowledge that governing boards are part and parcel of the school’s leadership. Your members could also then see whether it had actually brought the L&M score down, which we don’t think happens very often. Some NGA members who have had to remove an underperforming headteacher have had the opposite experience: a low L&M score when governance has been impressive but no pupil results to show since the new headteacher’s arrival.
Andy Buck’s excellent book Leadership Matters includes a section on how to manage upwards! There is also much written about how a lead executive can ensure the board develops and functions well; it is part of that professional leadership role. Plus there is a vested interest; the lead executive gains from working with a fantastic board, as do others in the organisation and its beneficiaries.
Funded mandatory training, one of our election asks, is indeed important for those governing, but also for paid senior leaders, some of whom do not fully understand the purpose of governance nor what good governance looks like. Trust and respectful relationships are absolutely at the heart of getting governance right. Let’s keep working together at national and local level to ensure our schools are well led and their pupils thrive.
More on this:
The debate will continue at NGA’s Summer Conference, with a panel considering this important partnership and with the publication of a new edition of What We Expect.
Thank you to #ukgovchat for hosting a discussion about NAHT’s motion on Twitter. Join #ukgovchat Sundays 20:45 – 21:15.
Follow Emma on Twitter @NGAMedia tweeting with EK.