External Advisers – The solution or the problem?

27/10/2014 09:05:23 | with 0 comments

As the Advice Manager at NGA I am responsible for GOLDline, so if you’re a gold member of NGA and you ring or email for advice, you’ll get me or one of my team.

NGA gets many calls on various aspects of headteacher performance management in the autumn term, but they tend to be focused on pay rises and whether it’s possible, in their circumstances, to give one.

What we don’t often get is many questions on the actual objectives and targets that are being set for the head. This got me thinking, because you’d think that it would be an area we’d get lots of questions on, given that objective setting is probably one of the greatest levers the board has in bringing about focus and direction for the headteacher. So does this mean that objective setting is done perfectly well by governing boards? The answer is a resounding no. Through NGA’s extensive experience - advising governing boards day-to-day, attending events and talking to governors, as well as providing training and consultancy - it’s become clear that there is a lot of misinformation about objectives and about how the process works, and therefore poor practice.

So why is this? Almost always external advisers, who are paid advisers appointed to assist in the headteacher’s performance management, are cited as an invaluable assets for governing boards.  But here at NGA we beg to differ. The present state of affairs could be said to be despite external advisers, which are still required in LA maintained schools under the Appraisal Regulations. I’m going to take one step further and say sometimes it’s actually because of external advisers.

Often external advisers seem to be recruited by the headteacher to ‘aid’ the governing board in their thinking, with governors not really knowing what their role is and not wanting to disagree with the advice that they’re being given by an ‘expert’, even when it doesn’t chime with their own experience of appraisals in their own workplace. Alternatively, where the board wants to find someone competent, there is no single place that a board can go to get someone who definitely knows what he/she’s doing, so it’s a case of asking around and finding an adviser who comes recommended.

Why do we need external advisers?  Most governors are professional people (See the NGA/University of Bath report - The State of School Governing in England 2014with their own work experience, and many are or will have been managers, and don’t need external advice. Do we not know how a performance management and appraisal process should work? The objectives for the headteacher should be easy to set (assuming that the school has a decent school strategy in place). The objectives will flow out of this. We employ headteachers to deliver the school strategy.

Third sector boards of trustees, which function in much the same way as school governing boards in this regard, don’t need external advisers to conduct the performance management of the chief executive. In schools we have complex performance data to grapple with and these advisers stem from the time when governors needed help understanding it. But nowadays we have a much better understanding of the sources available to us and tools such as the FFT governor data dashboard and Raise Online. We mustn't wait until doing the headteacher appraisal to get to grips with the performance of the school; that should have happened earlier.

Of course I’m not against a peer adviser or mentor, another education professional, to aid development of the headteacher and provide challenge on their decisions and methods of school improvement – this is a very different role.  

In January this year the National College published research on headteacher performance management conducted by Prof Peter Early, Dr Megan Crawford, Dr David Eddy Spicer, Dr Sara Bubb, Rhoda Furniss, Dr Jeff Jones, Rebecca Nelson and Elizabeth Wood. Their research supports the use of external advisers based mainly on a survey of governors and headteachers who said they were a good thing, even though they found examples of where governors believed that the external adviser was supporting the headteacher more than advising the governing body in an objective way. This report doesn’t provide any evidence, qualitative or quantitative, of whether external advisers actually improved the performance management of the headteacher. It’s therefore difficult – if not impossible - to draw conclusions from this research piece as to the impact of external advisers. Just because governors and headteachers rather like external advice doesn’t mean that it improves the process.  Furthermore the same survey shows that governors, having had experience themselves of performance management, made a big difference. I think that if external advisers were all that this survey cracked them up to be then headteacher performance management would be more effective and robust than it appears to be in many schools.

When a board is given advice from an individual or an organisation that it’s paid for, it’s still got to think carefully about whether to agree with it or not. Yet so often governors, whom in their personal life are very experienced with how performance management operates in their own sector, don’t want to question an adviser who is telling them that it’s 'very different in education'. Well actually it shouldn’t be. So here’s the thing - if you believe that the process in your own employment/business wouldn’t be done the way you’re being advised it should be done at school, then simply ask why it differs. Governors, you should never be afraid to ask a question. The answer might be revealing…

Gold members of NGA can ask for advice on this or anything else by emailing: gold@nga.org.uk.