These past few months have been a time of such enormous change and disruption. Although things remain difficult, and the schools we govern find themselves too often in reactive mode, the first core function of the governing board remains: to ensure clarity of vision, ethos and strategic direction. New research on school and trust governance published this week suggests that those governing would benefit generally from having more training available to them on this aspect of their role,
The vision right now may not extend beyond keeping everyone safe and providing continuity of education, but we should still take a longer term perspective on the things that matter -our values, ethos or culture (how things are done and how they feel) and what we are trying to achieve for our pupils. Even in the best times these things are too easily squeezed to the margins by results, league tables and what Ofsted expects. Now we have an opportunity to use the power and influence we have as school leaders, governors to do things differently, to think strategically about what is important for our pupils and how we influence the culture in our schools and trusts.
The annual review of the vision and setting strategic priorities for the school or trust will be a different experience in this academic year like no other. Most of us recognise that now is not the right time to be making wholescale changes to the board’s strategy document, or to be creating an industry for under pressure school leaders and staff by asking them to develop sub-strategies for filling gaps and catching up. In all likelihood boards and school leaders will bring their perspective to how the vision and strategic priorities meets the wider needs of pupils and staff (based on a gradual assessment of their welfare, wellbeing and lost learning) and what adjustments need to be made.
Our updated guide to being strategic aims to influence the thinking and conversation between governing boards and leadership teams that create the vision and strategy. It has been developed jointly with the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) and the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), thereby modelling the collaborative approach that should go into designing a vision and strategy at school and trust level.
Being strategic remains consistent with what the governance handbook says and describes a strategic cycle that all boards can relate to regardless of their type or structure. However, the guide has evolved how the values the and the culture of an organisation are integral to its strategy.
The values that governing boards discuss, adopt and reaffirm every year when discussing their strategy are not simply words for the website or posters on the wall: they guide the thinking and behaviour in the school or trust. The policies and procedures adopted by the board help ensure the value is lived on a daily basis through, for example, through the curriculum, stakeholder engagement, the way resources are procured and managed.
If as governors and trustees we believe that strategic goals are achieved largely by the effort and contribution of individuals and them striving to improve, then we must also believe that a positive culture is needed to make this happen. That is why it is so important for the board to be aware of the culture and climate – the way things feel in the school/trust. To understand this the governing board must make sure they hear from the school’s staff and stakeholders This has often been overlooked by governing boards not wanting to confuse the lines of management.
There are a multitude of factors that positively influence culture and COVID has reminded us that they are rooted in deep humanity: the compassion we have for ourselves, for others and how we support each other to be the best that we can be in all situations. It is up to us as governing boards along with our school leaders to set the example for those in our schools to follow. I sincerely hope that using Being Strategic will support school leaders and governing boards to design a future vision and set strategic goals that measure the things we value, such as diversity, inclusion, wellbeing, teacher engagement, independent learning and promoting professional growth, as much as they measure progress against narrow data measures. If we do this our results will improve, pupils and staff regardless of their backgrounds will flourish and our leadership will reach reassuringly to the communities that we serve.