Does your governing body help your school remain accountable, and therefore more efficient? Stephen Adamson looks at how this should be done

When we look at how governing bodies organise their work we normally focus on efficiency, but we need also to turn the telescope round and look at it from the perspective of how it helps us meet the needs of accountability. There may well be a bonus as well.

Think corporately
It is one of the basic principles of governing bodies that they are corporate. It’s another one that they are the accountable body for a school. It’s an easy step from there to see that the accountability is corporate.

But for much of its work a governing body does not act as a whole. Substantial responsibilities are routinely allocated to different groups or individuals. Indeed most governing bodies would not be able to function if this were not the case. The DCSF’s Governing Body Decision Planner lists 85 different tasks that governing bodies have to perform, and many of these subdivide into further tasks which can themselves be onerous.

Governing bodies therefore delegate but delegation does not absolve them from corporate accountability. Nor would it be in anyone’s interest if it did because liability would then reside with the individual or individuals. We often, rightly, see this as a necessary protection for governors. But you can look at it another way: the governing body needs to know what powers it has delegated and how these are being exercised in its name, as it remains responsible for them. The conscientious governing body will therefore ensure that:

  • delegation is clearly spelled out;
  • it receives regular reports from those with delegated powers.

The legal reasons for doing this are in many ways the least important ones. In delegating decision-making a governing body is delegating thinking and it is determining information flows. Yet, if it is to perform its strategic role, the whole governing body should be sharing in those thoughts and should continue to receive the key information that informs its planning. The thinking may happen in groups but the full governing body is the place where this thinking and these bits of information have to be joined up. It is then in a position to do what it is there to do – act in the best interests of the school’s stakeholders.

Committees
However they are divided up, the main responsibilities of governing bodies are usually parcelled around committees: everything to do with staffing, what is taught in the school and financial and physical resources. Handling these will include making some pretty big decisions.

Terms of reference
Does the committee know exactly what it is supposed to do? If there is doubt there will be confusion so, without being unnecessarily detailed, terms of reference should be clear and specific.
There is very little that cannot currently be delegated so the nature of what is being delegated has to be evident. Can the finance committee approve the budget? Can it make changes to the budget during the year and, if so, up to what amounts? Does it approve a finance policy? Can the personnel committee approve the school pay policy? Can it alter the school’s Individual School Range (ISR)? Does it fill places on appointments panels?

The terms of reference should not specifically answer all such questions but they should describe the parameters of the committee’s powers in sufficient detail for the answers to be quickly deduced.

Even if these items, together with details of who will be on the committee and how often it will meet, are clearly stated the terms of reference may not be fully fit for purpose. Those governors not on the committee need to understand what its remit is almost as much as those who are. Therefore it is a good idea to have all the committees draw up terms of reference on a common template so that language, scope and order are the same.

Approval of terms of reference is one of those few tasks that cannot be delegated. They have to be agreed by the full governing body, and done so annually.

Just because a power has been delegated it does not always have to be, nor does a committee decision have to be set in stone; the governing body can itself decide to exercise any power it has delegated. Nor does a power have to be delegated just because it can be; those ‘big decisions’, such as setting the budget, agreeing academic targets or making major changes to the school’s staffing structure, will affect the whole governing body and it is sensible that all governors are involved in making them. Not to do so risks fracturing the sense of corporate accountability.

Items for terms of reference

1 Membership Minimum/maximum number Headteacher, chair or other governors allowed to attend if not member?

Any associate members? Can they vote?

2 Quorum
Number Whether it includes ex officio members

Headteacher or other senior manager to be present?

3 Clerking
Professional clerk?
If clerked by a member, system for who does it when

4 Objectives
Link with stated aims of governing body
Main purposes of committee

5 Activities
List of key tasks

6 Meetings
Minimum frequency

7 Reporting
How and when the committee will report to the governing body

Reporting
Committees are statutorily obliged to report on their work to the full governing body. But how often is this just a quick item on the agenda, taking minutes sent in advance without discussion or, worse, skimming through minutes that have been tabled?

This is not to advocate picking over minutes of every committee in detail or challenging decisions just for the sake of it. This would undermine the committees and take up unnecessary time. But unthinking acceptance is no more helpful. Governors not on a committee should feel free to ask sensible questions of the committee’s chair. If you are worried about unnecessary questions, these should be ruled out by good quality minutes, because these:

  • state what decision has been made;
  • include the main reasons for that decision;
  • link the decision to governing body strategy;
  • refer to the information on which the decision was based;
  • give the desired outcome of the decision;
  • explain what the procedures are for monitoring implementation.

Of course, to be minuted, these things need to be addressed in the committee when the decision is made, so success is up to the chair as much as the clerk.

Treat the governing body with respect. If a policy drawn up by a committee is to be approved by the governing body, circulate it with the other papers at least a week before the meeting and outline the main features when this item comes up. Don’t drop it on the rest of the governors during the meeting or, even worse, not produce it at all and still ask the governing body to approve it.

Individual delegation

There are more restrictions on what can be delegated to individuals than to committees but the range is still wide. Individual delegation is normally to the headteacher but does not have to be.
There are many examples of good guidance as to what should be in the headteacher’s report and how governors should respond to it. But the same principles for reporting apply to any individual with delegated powers. If it is an ongoing responsibility they should be required to report to the governing body in writing regularly, though this might only be annually, and the report should be as explicit as that expected from a committee.

More often delegation to an individual, or to a couple of people, will be for a specific task and the body will be a working party with no decision-making powers. Delegating these powers should always be done with caution as it is difficult to monitor individuals and it begs the question of whether this is the best way for a body with corporate accountability to behave.

Information

Schools are bombarded with information and most governors feel that they have quite enough crossing their desks as it is. But there is some information that is so crucial to a school that it really must be shared – notably SATs and public exam results.

But it’s quite possible that these will only go to the committee that has been charged with looking at teaching and learning and setting academic targets. If so the committee chair should ensure that the results are shared with the full governing body, either through the committee’s own minutes or in a separate report. Standards are the one thing a governing body will know it will be held accountable for.

You can be held to account for things you do not know about – witness government ministers being taken to task for actions or failures to act at maybe quite a low level in their department. Sometimes the person, or in this case the governing body, simply should have known. Hence the governing body is responsible for having proper procedures for receiving reports.

Some things, though, you cannot be expected to have known about, but are still justly accountable for. For these – the majority of things that happen in schools – the governing body’s duty is to ensure that procedures are in place and that everyone knows that they are. For example, you would not be expected to know that every fire extinguisher is in working order, but you are responsible for having a health and safety policy which states that they will be regularly maintained and who is responsible.

The hidden payback of all this is that acting accountably makes you more, not less, efficient. Knowing that you are going to report back and be held accountable is a sure way of instilling good practice.

Information all governing bodies should be given

The school development/improvement plan
To ensure that key strategies for the school are agreed and to monitor how the school is working towards them.

SATs/public exam results
For setting targets and to enable governors to assess success or otherwise of strategies and identify priorities.

School Self Evaluation Form (SEF)
Governors should have been involved in drawing it up, but in any event all governors need to know the school’s assessment of its own strengths and weaknesses.

RAISE online report for school with contextual value added information
To enable governors to drill down from headline results to see where to target human and financial resources.

School budget
For all governors to be aware of the constraints in which the school works and to aim for best value.

Reports on school visits
School visits by governors are on behalf of the whole governing body so observations should be shared. Could be given verbally.

Report from School Improvement Partner (SIP)/local authority
This can be contentious and should be agreed with the headteacher before going to whole governing body.

Items arising from governing body business
Reports from all committees, terms of reference of committees, headteacher’s reports, School Profile, School Prospectus.

Stephen Adamson is the author of Accountability: A practical guide for school governors, Adamson Publishing, 2007

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