How can a new team of governors work together to make sure that their efforts produce the most effective results possible? Joan Sallis believes a good team of governors needs to be managed from the start

A new school year, a common purpose, a mixture of opinions and talents – what could be better ground for some really effective team building?

Unless it is a brand new school, the members of the governing body will be a mixture of new and old, so they will have to re-create the character of the team and develop its strength and effectiveness as a working unit. This is an ideal opportunity to become more effective as a team, not only to build on existing strengths but to reinforce and refresh the sense of common purpose and the principles of good governance.

The first task is to appoint a chair. Although most people would, I hope, see the chair as an agent of democracy rather than a seat of power, an expression of common purpose rather than a licence to control, it is important to have this democratic image strongly entrenched among members so that they will choose someone who is not only strong and wise but profoundly democratic in outlook and temperament.

The old style of  leadership is particularly unsuitable to a body with many legitimate points of view and distinct ‘constituencies’ to take into account, and this is the vital thing to remember. Although, other things being equal, we are looking for strength and talent, an ability to respect different viewpoints and to articulate and develop common purposes is paramount.

The constituencies
The very first thing to remember as a group of people set their style, not perhaps in concrete but in firm and durable foundations which will enable them to work in harmony and with purpose, is the representative nature of the membership.

It is not just a group of individuals with talent and experience needing to have a common purpose and to be strong in its pursuit (though it is that too) but a union of  people each representing a particular constituency of the school whose interests the law-makers decided to recognise formally. Thus almost every member is a spokesperson for a particular interest group: parents, staff, providers (local authority or church), community and perhaps, occasionally, pupils. The whole team has to recognise that this feature of its structure as ‘common purpose’ is not just an abstraction but the foundation of a real forum expressing the school’s basic partnerships.

The chair
With the objectives described the chair plays a particularly important role. If also representing a ‘constituency’, he or she must be able to ride skilfully this particular role while also working for the common purposes and ensuring that all the interest groups contribute to the debate.

The chair must indeed be a particularly clear-headed person, fair in listening to the different points of view but also strong in keeping the healthy direction of the school in its primary purpose both strong and democratic. Choose well!

The role of the head
We will hope that the head will opt to be a voting governor (the law offers the choice) as I would be very uneasy about what lay behind the thinking of a head who decided otherwise.

Every member of the team must be very sensitive to the viewpoint of the head whose reputation is professionally on the line always and who has an obligation beyond that of other governing body team members to keep the show on the road day by day and throughout the year.

Teams within the teams
Once more it is important to emphasise that a governing body is a group of teams as well as a central one. Nothing could be more important than recognising the accountability of every group within the governing body – parents, staff and community, as well as the LA or church, the last two of which also have wider responsibilities as providers. All these groups face the difficulty of operating with these responsibilities while still respecting the unity of the whole governing body.

Good communication is certainly a foundation of good governance in any democratic system, and we would hope that our school sets an example of democracy at work, responsible as it is for the quality of life of future generations.

Characteristics of a good team

  • common purpose
  • clarity on roles
  • respect for other points of view and democratic working practices
  • good leadership
  • good communication

The team at work
So far I have written mainly about the origins of the contributing elements in a governing body team – the head, staff, LA, church, parents, community – and about their relationships with ‘constituents’ which to some extent determine their approach to issues.

The weaving together of these different viewpoints into workable school policies must be deeply embedded into every decision. But this is only half an analysis of a team at work, dealing as it does mainly with accountabilities and the possible reconciliation of viewpoints to form a policy. I now come to what most people think of as teamwork, namely the more mundane but vital day-by-day allocation of tasks, the bringing together of views and, where necessary, the resolution of conflicts in the hope of creating a strong alliance on behalf of the children – an objective never to be forgotten.

That may sound obvious but you might be surprised how often it gets buried in other demands. In the end, of course, any differences must be resolved by majority vote, but proper use of the various elements in the team can both work better towards harmony and produce sounder decisions.

Pitfalls The dangers to the unity and effectiveness of the team include:

(a) committees dominated by important interests who use their specialist knowledge and contacts with their constituency, such as accountants on the finance committee, or staff representatives and other education experts on curriculum matters.

In general I would avoid too heavy concentrations of governors representing such interests on relevant committees. I’m not suggesting extremes of avoidance – ignorance serves nobody. But balance is crucial and excessive delegation of decisions to ‘expert’ committees can become divisive or worse. We gladly give any special knowledge or experience we have to our schools, but decisions should always be made on the broadest possible base and preferably, in my view, by the whole governing body. Let us be one team not two or three.

(b) taking an exaggerated view of the complexity of school decisions, which may exclude or undervalue members of the team and (in the long run more seriously) bring about a devaluation of the original concept of the school governing body as a place where the community in all its diversity was influential and perhaps even damage recruitment.

We may need a good deal of expert information but most of the issues are, I insist after many years of experience, not beyond a simple caring person. We should be careful not to get so tied up in our own complexities that we drive those simple caring people away and always bear this in mind when building our systems. Teamwork can exclude as well as include and the right people are as important as the right processes.

(c) over-complication of the task. Sometimes people make the job they are doing sound more difficult than it is because this increases its apparent importance. This is natural but works against sound recruitment.

Allocation of tasks and involvement in the school
These two subjects are, of course, closely related. Most schools rightly like to see their governors becoming familiar with the school at work and most governors want to be involved as much as their lives outside school permit.

Teamwork in its broadest sense includes the bringing together and sensible use of knowledge and experience closely related to decisions the whole governing body has to make. This sometimes gets mixed up with the process I have somewhat warned against above, namely giving members tasks related to their quite independently acquired expertise, eg making governors who are accountants chairs of finance committees for that reason alone.

I think it is very important to be clear about the purpose of encouraging direct involvement. While wholeheartedly welcoming it, I would warn against linking individual governors to subjects where they have special qualifications, which could antagonise or alarm teachers in those subject areas to no good purpose.

But as long as any particular special interest is seen as a valuable way of providing a warm and stimulating experience for governors by letting them get close to the school in its daily work and encouraging teachers and pupils, then it’s brilliant. For these reasons, rather than linking a governor to a curriculum area I very much prefer the link to be to a class or year group, with the wide range of experience and the close contact with one group of children and a number of staff which this affords.

Ways schools can link governors to their work

  • invitations to concerts, drama productions, open days, special assemblies, sports days etc.
  • encouraging them to help with outings etc.
  • establishing links with a class or year group
  • inviting them to give short talks in assemblies, record comments on work experience, help with clubs etc.
  • linking governors to subjects or activities (but see above)

Every member has to balance the representative role – parent, teacher, LA or parent church, community – with the sound management of the school’s policies and processes in the interests of its pupils. This is the distinctive character of the kind of team which a school governing body represents, its subtlety and its challenge. Every single team member must contribute to the maintenance of this delicate balance, which is at the heart of its teamwork.  The balance includes:

  • bearing in mind the specially weighty responsibility of the head for the stability and reputation of the school in the community;
  • maintaining standards of performance and behaviour;
  • helping parent members of the team in the execution of their representative role;
  • not forgetting the responsibility of the school as employer for the well-being of staff and the fairness of decisions affecting them;
  • respecting the role of LA or church in their responsibility for the school.

Summing up
It can even be dangerous to say that the governing body must work as a team unless you also bear in mind always its status as a non-expert representative community institution whose very nature is voluntary and democratic.

This is the basis of the warnings I have given to be extremely careful about interpretations of teamwork which involve too much linking of power to knowledge in ways which disenfranchise the ordinary citizens whom the law intended to form the heart of the team. With this qualification it is vital to keep working at the detail of power-sharing among the various partners in ways which promote high quality decision-making in a democratic framework but which in no way disenfranchise the ordinary citizens for whom it was intended.

There are certain dangers in seeking too many experts for various committees and in channelling too many decisions through members with too much expert baggage in the name of teamwork. At the extremes this could make the governing body something very different from what the legislators intended. In other words, efficiency can be the enemy of democracy, especially if ‘teamwork’ is organised on the basis of special knowledge or status.

Juries are not composed of lawyers and governing bodies should beware any tendency to let more power slip to experts or to strong professional interests in the name of teamwork. That is, of course, if they value the principles behind our present system. There are other models of organisation which are based exclusively on the power of the expert, but we chose to enfranchise ordinary parents, staff and community. There are many ways of moving away from that in the name of efficiency and even teamwork without realising what is happening. I only wanted to warn against these.