Rather than see governors as a nuisance to be endured, schools instead should be working with them as an invaluable source of help and advice, argues Colleen Arnold of the National Governors Association

Perhaps one of the first things to consider when working with governors is not what they want from you, but what support they can offer to you and ultimately the learners. Governors bring a wealth of expertise from their life experiences and working environments, many of which are transferrable skills that you can utilise. When working with governors on curriculum issues, it is important that you inform them of issues that affect your school at present, relative to the school improvement plan and in relation to national/government initiatives. These include:

  • Priority subject areas for development
  • Suitably resourced subject areas
  • Staff training issues
  • Quality of teaching
  • Quality of learning
  • Standards of attainment
  • Value added — is this set at an appropriate level?

Governors’ roles and responsibilities

Governors have a strategic role and are legally responsible, with the headteacher, for ensuring that the curriculum is delivered, monitored and that results and levels of attainment are published as required.

What is the role of the curriculum committee? Who should be involved in it? This is a matter for the governing body as a whole to decide. Decisions of this type are usually dealt with at the end of the summer term in preparation for the new academic year or at the first meeting of the new school year. The governing body will decide on the appropriate number of members for the committee, its make up, number of governors of each category and the level of delegated decision-making powers it should have. The governing body will also decide whether the committee is to have associate members, who are not full governors but who can bring expertise to the group, and it will determine whether they have voting powers or not. The Guide to the law for school governors (DfES, 2006; see: www.governornet.co.uk) specifies the level of involvement of associate members and which issues they can vote on, if given such powers.

Governor responsibilities for the curriculum are defined in Chapter 6 of the Guide to the law for school governors (DfES, 2006). A key part of the governors’ role is that of critical friend. They are there to ask probing questions, not because they want to trip up the professionals, rather because they are interested in understanding how their and your school works. They want to learn more about the school, if and how they can help to support staff and learners to achieve the best that they can. For some governors, this will be attending meetings and asking questions; for others, it may mean visiting the school to see how it works; for a few governors who may have links to specific curriculum areas, it may mean meeting with the subject leader(s) to discuss the subject area and particular priorities. All of these approaches have their advantages and disadvantages.


Observing lessons

The advantages of engaging with governors, for teachers and curriculum leaders, at curriculum meetings is arguably less challenging than having them in the classroom as observers. If the governing body has decided that part of their monitoring is to attend school and observe lessons, it is important that clear guidance for such visits be agreed in advance. Governors should be clear that they are there to learn, and teachers should be clear that governors are not there to judge the quality of teaching. The governors’ role is to learn about curriculum content and learners’ responses to it. It is useful to have a few minutes to chat with the governor before and after the teaching session to explain what is going to happen and then to discuss what did happen. The governor involved should then provide a written report of their findings to the teacher visited and to the governing body at its next meeting.

Contact out of classroom

For some schools, it is impractical to have governors in attendance when the school is open due to their professional commitments or timetabling issues within the school itself. In this instance, one way of informing governors of what is happening in subject areas is to invite the subject leaders in turn to make a presentation to the governing body. This is a very effective way of informing governors of the strengths of the curriculum and the vision for its development over the next one to two or three years. As part of the presentation, it is always useful to include current local and national issues that affect the subjects’ progress positively or negatively. Subsequent to this, the curriculum leader or a member of the team could provide a report to the curriculum committee on a periodic basis, to be agreed between the governing body and the leadership team, bearing in mind the work-life balance of all involved. Decisions regarding what should be on the agenda are usually made in consultation between the committee chair and the headteacher or deputy. Any member of the committee can suggest items for the agenda. Teaching staff who are not governors or associate members can also ask for items to be included.

Meeting targets

The governing body has a responsibility for ensuring that a broad and balanced curriculum is provided, in accordance with the DfES guidelines: 4. Responsibility for the curriculum is shared between the headteacher, the governing body, Local Authorities (LAs) and the Secretary of State for Education and Skills. (Guide to the law, DfES, 2006, Chapter 6, page 1) The governing body is required to set targets for student achievement approximately 18 months in advance of standard assessment tests (SATs) or other exams taking place. Once targets have been set, they cannot be changed. To make those targets realistic and achievable but appropriately challenging, governors are largely reliant on the advice of the headteacher and curriculum leaders. Given the nature of target-setting, it is imperative that governors and staff have good working relationships built on mutual trust and knowledge. Governors need first-hand experience of the school at work if they are to be effectively involved in target-setting. They need to understand the issues faced by learners and staff; they need to have a working knowledge of the curriculum as it is delivered to be able to make informed decisions about it. The level of involvement to achieve this will inevitably be dependant on the individual school and its governors. The greater understanding governors have of the school enables better quality decision-making that reflects the particular needs of the school.


Input on reshaping curriculum

When it comes to reshaping the curriculum, it is advisable to include governors on working parties set up to implement changes. Having governors involved in this way ensures that they are informed. They can also raise questions about changes that professionals do not always think of. Governors bring a different perspective, which can prove invaluable. In setting up working parties, it is preferable, from a governor’s point of view, to be invited to participate based on interest or specific expertise relevant to the subject area. Ideally, governors with each of these qualities should be included to provide balance and a varied perspective on developments.

Tackling T&L problems

If, as a subject leader, you have concerns about the quality of teaching and its impact on learners, involving governors can prove invaluable. Actively engaging governors in lessons can provide valuable information: they are not there to judge the quality of teaching but they can comment on learners’ levels of involvement with the subject matter and provide some insight into possible reasons for underachievement. Having a different perspective on what takes place in the classroom through governor discussions with learners combined with their own observations may provide information that supports issues for staff development. Using governors in this way could be part of the process of ongoing monitoring of the curriculum. If there are issues around quality of teaching, it is advisable to bring this to the attention of governors without identifying the staff member/s concerned. Governors need to know in general terms about the quality of teaching and learning.


Helping with new initiatives

The role of governors in implementing new curriculum and national initiatives should be that of critical friend. To fulfil this role, they need to know how far the school has progressed in implementing them. The school leadership team must make governors aware of any decision taken regarding whether to implement DfES guidance or not. They must be able to justify any decision of this sort to the governors. Governors need to be informed so that they are able to question the appropriateness of decisions for the school from a position of knowledge.

Contact between governors and school staff

Levels of contact between teaching and non-teaching staff and governors will be as varied as there are schools. There is no set model for contact – each school and governing body needs to come to a consensus on what will work for them. From a governor’s point of view, it is useful to be able to see the school in action, but not always possible. So they need to have information provided by curriculum leaders or department managers as to what is happening within the school. Flexibility is a key factor in enabling governors to engage with the whole-school community. It is easy to say when you will be available to meet with governors, sometimes forgetting that governors are professionals in different fields, who cannot always fit in with a school day – as a teacher myself I have made this mistake on more than one occasion, so include it as a word of caution. Governors should also have a measure of flexibility about visits to school.

Handling difficulties with governors

The greatest problem when involving governors in any area of school life is lack of knowledge about the education system or the ‘I was at school once, so I know what should happen inside them’ syndrome, which is possibly the more worrying. It is imperative that governors are clear about their role when they do visit the school. To this end it is useful to have a knowledgeable governor and senior member of staff who could work together to produce a guidance booklet with proforma feedback sheets and information that will help governors and staff to have a positive experience. The time commitment is demanding but well worth the effort, as the dividends are enormous. Teachers and governors should both be clear on why the visit is taking place and what the outcomes will be. Most local authorities provide governor training sessions, which are worth encouraging governors to attend, as they help in the learning process and develop understanding of education today. Local authority training can address difficult issues around the sensitivity of staff, making them better equipped to give feedback on teaching and learning that they observe in the classroom. If governors are provided with this information prior to visiting classrooms, it prevents many of the difficulties arising. How each school and governing body deals with these visits is a matter for the individual school. Uses of questionnaires to focus attention on important issues for discussion during visits are valuable and can avoid unnecessary confusion or misunderstandings between those involved.

Overcoming misunderstandings

The greatest barrier to achieving good working relationships with governors is lack of understanding on both sides. Governors do not always understand the ‘shorthand’ speak used by teachers; they need to learn the language to be able to join the club. For some, this could be a long process. Teaching staff still to some extent can feel threatened by the presence of governors in school and in particular in their classrooms. Here again it is misunderstanding that is the problem. Not every governor you meet will be the ‘ideal’ model. That does not mean that they are all the same. The vast majority become governors because they care about education of young people and want to make a positive contribution, which is incidentally one of the five outcomes from Every Child Matters (ECM) – although governors have been making a positive contribution for a very long time, many years prior to ECM. Just like young people, some governors need to be led and taught how to engage with schools today – which are very different from the schools that many of them attended. Many are quite nervous about being in a school environment so will need a little encouragement. Others seem to come to school looking for faults, so they need guidance before coming in to observe. If the are given clear guidance throughout, this will help to avoid any misunderstandings.

Informing staff

The information below is taken from a presentation that I gave as a governor, to teaching staff. The presentation was a success in that it gave staff a clearer understanding of the governors’ role. It was an excellent opportunity for discussion about staff concerns around governor visits. The outcome of this was the commencement of governor visits where, initially, staff were asked to volunteer to invite governors into their classrooms. The keys to successful relationships between staff and governors are honesty, mutual respect and understanding, wanting the best for all learners, holding and communicating a shared vision for the school.

Increasing understanding of governors’ role — presentation for staff

Introduction

  • Role of governors
  • Purpose of governor monitoring
  • Policy for governor visits to the school
  • Arrangements for monitoring
  • Questionnaire for subject coordinators

Role and purpose of governor monitoring

  • Governors have a legal responsibility to maintain a strategic overview of the school
  • Governors need to understand the work of the school, to ensure that any decisions that they make that affect the whole school are appropriate ones
  • Governors need to be advocates for the school who can speak from personal experience
  • Governors are required to carry  out responsibilities for monitoring the quality of the education that is being provided for the students

Policy for governor visits

The purpose of visits is so governors:

  • see school at work
  • learn about school and its members
  • observe, enquire, participate, discover, learn and most importantly understand
  • provide feedback

Provide them with a code of practice for visits — to avoid any misunderstandings

Arrangements for monitoring

  • Initially, a presentation to the full governing body made by the subject coordinator
  • Process will include: review, action plan, feedback, policy review and update
  • Review evidence: meet with coordinator, document evidence, meet students, participate in lessons
  • Devise a questionnaire for subject coordinators
  • Lead and support governors in this role

Questionnaire for subject coordinators

  • Refer to National Standards for Subject Leaders in devising a questionnaire for subject coordinators
  • Cover such topics as:
    • planning and delivery
    • demonstrating progress
    • standards of achievement
    • leading and managing staff
    • staff development

Conclusion

  • Provide governors with an overview of the work of the school
  • Ensure governors have knowledge of staff, curriculum, resources and school premises
  • Governors need to understand the needs of the school community
  • Governors need to be able to work with staff and to support your efforts to provide the best experiences for pupils
  • Governors need to be able to speak, on behalf of the school, from personal experience


Colleen Arnold, Vice-Chair of Governors, and Director on the Executive Board of the National Governors Association (NGA)

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