Governors – critical friends?

As I visit schools, as an education professional as well as a parent, it’s notable how heads vary in their approach to their jobs. This is often reflected in the overall atmosphere and ethos in the school, and not least in the way in which the governing body operates within a school. Speak to individual teachers and it’s clear that perceptions on the role and involvement of governors in schools varies at just about every level of a school’s hierarchy. So what, exactly, are governors to schools? Allies, critics or critical friends?

While there are factual answers to this question, in reality, the picture is varied. Governing bodies have a strategic role in setting aims and objectives for the school. They set policies and targets and monitor the progress of the school as well as supporting and challenging the school. But the relationship between the school and governing body is crucial. Essentially, roles must be clearly defined and widely understood in order to maximise benefit from the arrangement. As Deputy Chief Executive of the National Governors’ Association (NGA) Gillian Allcroft explains, “The governing board has three core functions, the first of which is ensuring clarity of vision, ethos and strategic direction. While pay is an important consideration for any employee, knowing that your organisation values you and your well-being is for many at least as important. For governing boards, ensuring their school is considered a good place to work is very much about the ethos and culture of the organisation. Culture often develops over time and probably isn’t written down anywhere and sometimes what you think is the case isn’t actually happening in practice.”

It’s important for governors to work closely with schools. While this can have practical implications – many governors work full time and have family commitments too – there are ways of achieving this. Chair of Governors, Julie, has extensive experience of getting this relationship right. “I believe the role of a governor is to be a critical friend to the school,” she explains. “You should, obviously, have the school’s best interests at heart and that means supporting and challenging wherever necessary.

“I think governors need to bring their critical faculties to bear,” Julie continues. “Not everything needs to be questioned but questions are necessary not to suggest doubt or to be difficult but to do what I call strength testing. Does this do what it says, achieve what it says? Are there any flaws, potential pitfalls that the school may have overlooked? How will it be evaluated? It is especially important in the current climate to question very vigorously the impact of any new initiative on teacher workload and wellbeing. So, ensuring what is asked for is necessary and is not duplication, for example.”

So what seems to work best in maximising the teacher/school/governor relationship?

These ideas seem to be tried and trusted:

– Visible faces: Make sure governors are known around the school. Their faces should be familiar and their current roles shared with staff. As a staff member, make a point of introducing yourself to governors when you see them in school.
– Specific links: Link governors can work well (where individual governors are linked with a department or role within the school) but only when the governor has the time and inclination to attend school during working hours. If this is the case, it’s worth building such relationships as they can really help governors to understand more about the role of the teacher, and what hinders and helps.
– Communication: While staff governors can be conduits of information from staff to governors, it’s helpful if there are wide channels of communication generally between governors and staff. This will also help governors to keep tabs on tough times and stressful periods so that staff wellbeing remains a core focus.
– Kindness and care: Critical friends are so much more powerful when their message is given from a place of support. The closer a governing body can work with staff (rather than just each other) the more likely their messages will be received in the spirit intended.
– Practical support: School improvement takes investment and that means, in part, supporting the individual in developing skills and knowledge for the job. The NGA suggests that governors recognise that continuous professional development is both vital for the school’s ongoing success, and also for the individual’s progression. As NGA’s Gillian Allcroft explains, “Governing boards should be ensuring that at budget setting time a pot is put aside for CPD. The governing board should ask questions about how staff development needs are assessed and they should follow up by asking questions about what type of CPD staff are attending and how the impact is assessed.” Involve governors in this process. Talk about your development needs and about opportunities for development that you have already taken.

As an experienced governor Julie has found that so much of a governing body’s success is dependent on how it operates. Having a visible governor presence at school events is crucial and this can be achieved on a rotational basis. Being visible, helps to facilitate relationships and without these functioning soundly, little can be achieved for our pupils.

Find out more:

The National Governors’ Association
Department for Education information on school governance 

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Author: Elizabeth Holmes

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After graduating with a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, Elizabeth Holmes completed her PGCE at the Institute of Education, University of London. She then taught humanities and social sciences in schools in London, Oxfordshire and West Sussex, where she ran the history department in a challenging comprehensive. Elizabeth specialises in education but also writes on many other issues and themes. As well as her regular blogs for Eteach and FEjobs, her books have been published by a variety of publishers and translated around the world.

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