After four and a half years at NGA, I will leave next month for a new role in local authority governance. It’s a change in more ways than one because I won’t be working in a school management or governance-facing role for the first time in my professional life. Just writing that sentence leaves me disorientated!
It is always hard to leave behind something you care about and have put so much into, but my connection with the brilliant people who lead, govern, work in and support the schools system will, hopefully, remain for a long time to come. I’ll continue to serve both as a governor and as a trustee and stay in touch with the many friends and acquaintances I have been fortunate to make over the years. Not least my colleagues at NGA, who mean a great deal to me, and I will miss.
The school and the trust I govern at are members, so I’ll be relying on my former colleagues, through their brilliant content and services, to keep me informed and help develop my governing skills and knowledge as a lifelong learner. I could not be in better hands – when it comes to governance in schools and trusts, we are, said with a modicum of humility, the best in the business.
I must be fond of my fellow director Sam Henson because it is he who persuaded me to write this blog against my better judgement as I didn’t want to be self-indulgent. And wishing to be discreet, I can’t include some of my favourite anecdotes from my time at NGA in this blog - but suffice to say they back up the theory that laughter is the best medicine!
I’ll start by saying that, in essence, governing a school is a relatively straightforward business that hasn’t changed much since I first got involved in it over three decades ago. I am not referring to the geeky stuff - the intricacies of the academy trust and governance handbooks. Sure, we’ve had to adapt to governing and supporting governance in an emerging academy sector, with a more complicated legal structure and greater risks.
I have also experienced first-hand the huge workload of compliance it has created. But it’s those things that every board, school or federation, SAT or MAT, need to have in place, without which the geeky stuff makes no odds, that remain the same. The eight elements of effective governance we first identified more than a decade ago and I frequently quoted in my local authority support role, are as relevant now as ever.
They are also proof that evidence-based, expert leadership, the type for which NGA is renowned for, both stands the test of time and stands up to changes in policy. If you don’t know what the eight elements are, then I recommend you look them up.
If I was going to argue for a ninth element, then it would be effective boards are guided by their vision and values. Yes, I know that this is more standard rhetoric than it is deep insight. But if you’ve governed for more than five minutes, then you will appreciate something else that was ever thus – being strategic ain’t easy.
The issues come thick and fast at governing boards: budget, staffing, pupil performance, policies, complaints – the list goes on. So unsurprisingly, in this climate, the bigger picture can become lost and fragmented, or the board becomes detached from it. Check out the recent analysis of external reviews of governance we oversaw as part of the reformed national leaders of governance programme, where it is a recurring theme.
"Whatever the demands and requests of you, have clarity of thought and make yourselves (and your stakeholders) part of the leadership narrative for your schools and trusts"
So, my plea to you is don’t let this happen to your board. Whatever the demands and requests of you, have clarity of thought and make yourselves (and your stakeholders) part of the leadership narrative for your schools and trusts. Force your way into the conversation if you have to. Then remain steadfast and focused on the direction you are taking. School leaders and governing boards can’t do everything, but with a good team and a great strategy, they can withstand a lot, transform outcomes and change lives forever.
To say it is tough for schools right now is a massive understatement. Funding is too low, well-being is low, and recruitment and retention are in crisis. As each year passes, more concerns are raised about the negative impact of our accountability system, including Ofsted. Life for most families has got tougher too. It’s far from the best time to encourage more people and a diverse range of people to govern in schools and trusts. I don’t know the answer, but I am pleased that NGA will continue to look closely at how governance can be made more sustainable if it is to be sustained. I know that the best advert for governance is those who govern themselves.
You are remarkable and, to quote my inspirational boss Emma Knights “formidable force for good; an important part of the civil fabric of our country”. I never tire of telling people how great it is to be part of a team that works to give children and young people the best start in life, whatever their background and in good times and bad. So be proud of what you do, keep doing it and strive to do it better. Oh, and shout about it as well!
Before I go I wish to say huge thank you to everyone I have met and worked with during my time at NGA. It’s been an honour and I hope our paths will cross again.