Peter Kent, headteacher of Lawrence Sheriff School, Rugby, and his deputy Annabel Kay, describe how a new model of ‘professional friendship’ has reaped dividends at their school.

Are we the only leadership team who have had enough of critical friends? Governors, school improvement partners, LEA advisers, Ofsted inspectors – all are exhorted to take on the mantle of ‘critical friendship’. The problem is that in real life such beings do not actually exist. What do we do with friends who constantly assess us against a range of performance indicators? Those who suggest how we might improve our taste in clothes, our choice of football team or the TV programmes that we watch? Well, the answer is simple: we make them ex-friends. The fundamental principles of friendship – loyalty, support, encouragement and a shared sense of fun – cease to function when the word ‘critical’ is placed in front of them. How did the profession ever allow itself to be sold a model of support that is manifestly a contradiction in terms?

Hence we want to put forward a radical idea. Let’s ditch our critical friendships in education and instead create a new breed of professional friendships. We can already hear the cries of horror at the merest suggestion that the word ‘critical’ should be less prominent in our vocabulary. However, such a response betrays a misunderstanding of what a genuine professional friendship actually entails.

When Ofsted visited our school a few months ago we were particularly encouraged by their comments about the relationship that we had established with the chair and vice-chair of our governing body. Ofsted described their work as ‘excellent’ precisely because they displayed the characteristics of what we would describe as a genuine professional friendship.

An informed interest Ofsted described our two senior governors as being ‘closely involved’ in the life of the school, and they were right. Our vice-chair regularly attends meetings of sixth form tutors, as well as the bi-weekly meetings of the student council. Our chair assists with a range of

staff interviews and regularly consults with senior staff on a range of school development plan (SDP) related issues. Both spend a considerable amount of time talking to staff and gaining a sense of the particular issues that may be concerning colleagues. For all of these reasons, when we need to raise an issue with them they are normally aware of it before we say anything. They are accepted as members of the school community who play an active part in the life of the school.

A vision for the school As chair and vice-chair, they understand the strategic role that governors have to play. Ofsted described their monitoring of the school as ‘rigorous’ precisely because they insist that the school maintains a relentless strategic focus upon the key principles of our development plan. In their hands the SDP has become the ‘map’ that dictates every aspect of the governors’ and the school’s work. Increasingly governor committees have been reshaped around the monitoring of the aims identified within the SDP. Hence governors do not link in to departments or faculties but rather to priorities identified by the strategic plan. Whilst no governor shadows the English or science department, a major part of one governor’s role is to track the school’s progress towards its aim of closing the gap between the results achieved by the English and science departments.

Their professional friendship with the school does not consist merely of helping us deliver our vision for the school. They also have their own vision for the development of the institution, which meshes in with and creatively develops our own priorities. At the heart of their vision is the placing of the community at the centre of the school, described by Ofsted as ‘an inclusive ethos’. Through this priority the school is constantly made to look outwards, not merely contemplating its educational navel, but also considering how it can benefit others. Street parties for Age Concern, local history projects, ICT lessons for older members of the community, language classes for ethnic minorities and Saturday masterclasses for gifted and talented pupils have all developed from their vision for an outward looking school.

Monitoring and accountability Ofsted commented that both chair and vice-chair ‘rigorously analyse the school’s performance’. How can this be done within a culture of professional friendship? Primarily by seeing monitoring as an ongoing debate between school leaders and governors. When a department’s performance falls below our expectations, causes for the problem are thoughtfully discussed and possible solutions put forward. Their suggestions have credibility precisely because they carefully balance any necessary criticism with praise. Every year, after public examination results are published, they write to selected staff and students congratulating them on one area of achievement that they have chosen to highlight.

The problem with our national culture of ‘critical friendship’ is that the word critical comes first and too often there is criticism before support is offered. It has been suggested that in order to build constructive relationships the balance between praise and criticism should be approximately 10:1 in favour of praise. Our chair and vice-chair have demonstrated through their approach the power of the lost art of offering praise. We are very quick to do this for students, but often far too slow to offer praise to ourselves and to our colleagues.

‘The problem with our national culture of “critical friendship” is that the word critical comes first and too often there is criticism before support is offered’

Does criticism have a role in their work with the school? Yes, it does. However, it is used as we would expect a friend to use it: judiciously and with sensitivity. Often it takes the form of a suggestion. Had we thought of carrying out another parental survey – the last one had been so useful? How is the department doing who were criticised by Ofsted? Could their head of department come to the next curriculum committee meeting so that we could discuss the progress that they had made? Very often such suggestions are accompanied by an offer of ways in which they could help. Could they offer to spend some time speaking to Year 7 students and then give some feedback that could be included in the self-evaluation form?

We have found that other governors have responded to the lead provided by our chair and vice-chair. Their scrutiny of the work of the school has been rigorous but also constructive and supportive. Hence, when the school faced the terrible nightmare of the sudden death of a student, we were very moved to find that a governor with extensive experience in counselling immediately offered us large amounts of his own time in order to support students, staff and parents.

When we undertook a major building project, a governor who was a retired project manager gave up large amounts of his time in order to ensure that the project was completed on time and to a high standard. The same group of governors were still willing, quite properly, to ask searching questions about the strategic direction of the school. However, we have been more than happy to accept this scrutiny because we know that we are working together for a common set of goals.

During our careers we cannot remember being deluged by articles written by heads and deputies that sing the praises of their chair and vice-chair of governors. However, we genuinely believe there is much to learn from the style of leadership developed by our chair and vice-chair. They have achieved the rare accolade of an Ofsted ‘excellent’ for governance, based upon rigour, close analysis and strategic vision. Yet they have done this not through a process of grinding criticism. Instead they have inspired the school through close engagement, a clear vision and a willingness to balance intelligent accountability with praise and encouragement. Rather than monitoring us into the ground, they have inspired us to look over the next horizon. As such they are not just a model for governance, they are also a model for all school leaders. In our view the entire educational system could benefit from their enlightened model of professional friendship.

Contact: headmaster@lawrencesheriffschool.com

How to achieve strong governance

1. Balance an emphasis upon being positive and constructive by careful monitoring and a willingness to question. 2. Develop a clear strategic focus. 3. Refuse to get bogged down in operational issues. 4. Ensure governors’ committees focus upon the priorities of the school development plan. 5. Chose a chair and vice-chair who will provide strong leadership and a vision for the school which will be endorsed by the senior leadership team.

6. Harness the skills and talents of governors to help the school.

Lawrence Sheriff School, Ofsted 2005

1. ‘Governors have played key roles in shaping both the vision of the school and its physical development.’ 2. Governor committees are ‘well structured’. 3. Governors ‘rigorously analyse the school’s performance and are able to hold the school to account’. 4. ‘Governors are well aware of the school’s strengths and, through ongoing monitoring and professional dialogue, maintain a focus on the areas for improvement.’ 5. ‘They regularly revisit the school development plan to ensure that it is meeting its targets.’

6. ‘Governors bring considerable expertise to their roles and this is highly appreciated by senior management.’