Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Sharing the seat of power

Leather chair

A recent ASCL survey showed that the majority of members have a supportive chair of governors. But when relations turn sour with the governing body - or among governors - watch out. ASCL consultant John Caperon shares his experience of keeping governors on side.

For much of my teaching career, the governing body was something of a mystical concept. They were never seen or heard about in the school, rarely attending formal functions; were occasionally referred to in reverent tones by the head. Governors had a dim, marginal existence rather than a real presence.

As a deputy in the 1980s, I only attended a single governing body meeting, and that certainly didn't dispel the fundamental mystery: What are governors for? What exactly do they do?

In my first governing body meeting as a head, I found myself presenting my report and responding to seemingly endless interrogation, in what felt like an only slightly tamed version of the bear pit of Prime Minister's Questions.

Over the subsequent years of headship, I learned to anticipate the queries and understand their motivation, to become more openly explanatory and less defensive, and to see the meetings of the governing body as the context in which I gave an account of the school and its progress.

I learned eventually (and it took some considerable time) to appreciate my governing body and its individual members, in all their sometimes odd variety and quirkiness.

In short, I recognised the governing body as my locus of public accountability. It is, of course, this fundamental democratic accountability which governing bodies exist to provide.

However unusual the English system of school governance may be by international standards, it at least provides a public forum for debate about the identity and mission of the school, and about its degree of success in meeting its educational objectives.

I suspect it is precisely because of this function of democratic accountability, that school leaders sometimes wish themselves free of governors - and vice-versa.

Checks and balances

It is no secret that heads can at times become frustrated or even incapacitated by their governing bodies. Perceived unreasonable demands and timescales, unprofessional attitudes, political squabbling and backstabbing - all these have been reported, and take their toll.

Equally, governors may perceive a head to be arrogant and unco-operative. Perhaps the head sees him or herself as a pioneering and visionary figure whose enterprising drive should be given free rein, whatever more cautious voices may say.

But this surely adds another key function of the governing body: to be part of a system of checks and balances which prevents personal agendas or profile-building on the part of senior leaders.

It isn't just heads, though, who may on occasion be called to task for self-aggrandisement. If heads should be cautioned against thinking in terms of 'my school', so certainly should governors.

In schools unfortunate enough to find themselves in this situation, both the head and governors face the huge challenge of recognising the public and political nature of their roles, of finding ways to avoid the most obvious errors of governance, and of making the system work.

Luckily, in the vast majority of secondary schools, the picture is not that bleak. In a recent ASCL survey, 92 per cent of members said that their chair of governors was supportive of the school's leadership.

Fundamental to making the relationship work is a shared understanding - what WI Thomas called the 'definition of the situation'.

Only if heads and governors possess a common agreement of what the governing body is for and how it should operate can it do so successfully.

But even a shared understanding doesn't guarantee smooth operation. The variety of governors' backgrounds and capacities, not to mention their varied personalities and preoccupations, poses a challenge to the managerial skill of heads and leadership teams.

The personal touch

Heads will need to have the personal and political acumen to lead and manage subtly the governing body, in collaboration with the chair and other key governors.

This is about taking time to get to know governors as people, to learn about their own educational experience and aspirations, to find out how and why they react to situations the way they do.

Time spent socially with governors - in the informal drinks reception before the main governing body meeting, in occasional parties and events which have nothing to do with the business of governance - is always time well spent.

It is about forging a professional relationship which is based on personal understanding and respect. From this will come the positive attitudes and responses that make the joint work of the head and governing body effective.

First among these is a commitment to genuinely shared thinking about the school and its future.

Contrary to what a head claimed at a recent seminar on governance, it is the governing body, not the head, which safeguards and owns the long-term identity and interests of the school.

A certain modesty therefore befits heads: a head is merely temporary, a person who came and who will go. A governing body is a continuing corporation whose task is to rise above the temporary and personal and both chart and ensure the future path of the school.

This is not something a governing body is likely to be able to do, of course, without its head and leadership team. It would be ill-advised to attempt solo navigation.

The head and chair therefore need to develop an ethos of partnership in which there is an ongoing assumption of interactive work. For instance, governing body committees are serviced or advised by school leaders and all parties accept that there is a shared responsibility for educational leadership.

Such an ethos won't necessarily be achieved easily, since it may involve considerable cultural shifting on the part of some governors and some schools.

Those from a business background may well take some time to recognise even the most obvious facts of educational life, like the former oil company executive who confessed (in one of those late-night, wine-fuelled sessions in the head's office which help build teamwork) that it was some time before he grasped that schools couldn't just sack and pay off unwanted staff.

Again, governors from a non-business context may, at least initially, be fazed by the tasks of budget construction or strategic or succession planning - although they may have valuable insights to offer in relation to practical issues of pastoral management.

No experts needed

The era of 'expert' governors seems to be passing, thankfully. Early in the grant-maintained period, it seemed governing bodies were almost desperately trying to recruit members with specific expertise in finance or business.

That may have been wise at a time when some heads were relatively innocent of these skills themselves. But it should surely now be the case that expertise in all areas of educational leadership and management, including financial and business and personnel areas, should sit within the school leadership team.

The leadership team should provide this specific, professional expertise to a governing body, whose role is essentially to be a lay collective.

And collective it must genuinely be. There is no room in a governing body for individual enterprise.

One of the great mistakes of recent years has been to create or allow the impression that governors elected or appointed by specific stakeholder groups - and, yes, parents come to mind - are there to 'represent' specific interests.

How many heads have experience of parent governors (a mischievous term) wanting to influence specific areas of school life, or even to bring their gubernatorial role to bear in the supposed interests of their own child?

Governor training

A fundamental failure to grasp the corporate nature of the governing body lies at the root of this, and heads - as leaders and managers of the governing body - need to work hard at governor education, not least in the early, induction stage of a governor's service.

Governor training is far too important to be left solely in the hands (sometimes inexpert and misguided) of local authority officers. It is a task for school leaders.

So who needs governors? The answer must be that school leaders do, and schools, and the wider community too.

Much as individual governors may fuss or want to interfere, much as the time spent in preparing reports for the governing body could be spent in working directly with colleagues or students, much as leaders might want to dispense with governors altogether in their more frustrated moments, the governing body remains the key democratic ingredient in the school system.

Recent - it almost seems perennial - government tinkering with the size and structure of governing bodies has been irksome. But taking governance seriously is a fundamental responsibility for school leaders.

Perhaps our most important priority is to recognise the partnership which must be forged between leaders and governors in pursuit of the long-term benefit of the school or college and the students it exists to serve.

John Caperon is an ASCL consultant who conducts training and induction for governing bodies. He was formerly a head in Tumbridge Wells.

Governor training

ASCL's consultancy service can provide bespoke induction for governors or training on specific issues. Our consultants all have professional experience of senior leadership in schools and colleges and have done extensive work with governors.

The cost of the consultancy varies depending on individual requirements and amount of time involved. To find out more about consultancy services, contact the ASCL Management and Professional Services Office on 0116 299 1122 or maps@ascl.org.uk

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