Do we really need governors? Roger Smith considers the governing role of this seemingly random assortment of stakeholders

It’s ten o’clock on a cold winter’s evening and a governors’ meeting is in full swing. The agenda has been long and the debates have seemed even longer because some of the governors have been too busy to read the pre-meeting paperwork, which you, of course, weren’t too busy to prepare for them! You are tired and have a difficult parent to see in the morning. The final points are being made in agreement with your school improvement agenda item on developing better teaching and classroom management. Then one of the governors who hasn’t really been following the debate casually mentions the dreaded topic of homework.

The knee-jerk reactions
Suddenly, it is as if spotlights are pointing your way. The parent governors all have loud and different views about homework in general but now start making wild statements about individual teachers not giving enough, giving too much, not making it hard enough, not marking it often enough, not being consistent, etc. A skilful chair of governors will be able to draw the meeting to a relatively swift conclusion but, and you can take bets on this, one of the parent governors will make sure that homework will be on the agenda of subsequent meetings.

As you drive home, you begin to feel that you have been ambushed and all the productive and successful parts of the meeting pale into insignificance against the need to think carefully about what the parent governors said about homework.

Maybe you are being paranoid, but as they say: ‘Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that they aren’t out to get you!’ Perhaps homework (and it could have been all kinds of other issues) is something that you should be looking at now. Or perhaps it isn’t. Whether you stay focused and put it on the back burner, reminding governors that it isn’t part of the improvement plan, or recognise that changes need to be made, it is an example of a governors’ meeting creating a spasm of indecision and generating more work for you and your staff. At the very least it is sowing a seed of doubt in your head. We need to remain strong and focused and not be sidetracked. We need to be assertive in these kinds of situations and think carefully whether such a meeting actually helps to raise standards or benefits children in any way.

You might think that I am exaggerating or describing a fairly irrelevant anecdote. But it actually happened to a colleague of mine who drove home that evening and, rightly or wrongly, embarked on a lengthy consultation process about homework. The process eventually fizzled out because a consensus could not be reached and possibly lack of interest. What was significant about the incident was that time and effort was wasted on something that appeared important but was actually not at all.

What can governors contribute?
Whenever I talk to colleagues, they are often concerned about how much time they spend working. Governors meetings crop up over and over again in our talks as examples of how their time is hi-jacked. Meetings starting at 6.30 often finish at 10.00 at the end of a day that began at 8am. Key decisions are debated and taken when everyone is tired and less focused. I am amazed that most of those decisions are reasonable and the right ones. 

We all know that our schools face significant challenges. Driving up achievement, managing behaviour and attendance, dealing with crises in the lives of the children and making the teaching and learning as successful as possible are all important and our governors can make very useful contributions:

  • They can keep their eye on school performance and challenge us to do better.
  • They can act as sounding boards by making available their local knowledge.
  • They can act as a link between the school, parents and the local community.

I am sure that no one would have any fundamental disagreements with all three points, and in practice many governing bodies do work very effectively in each area.

Recruiting the right people
Some of the local governing bodies that I have known in the past always had members who were ‘time servers’. Many local authority governors were political appointments and, although they may have been councillors who lived close to the school, they often had very little to say that was of any interest. At one nearby school two of the local councillors were known affectionately as ‘Toilets’ and ‘Accidents’ because they had attached themselves to these two topics and always, at every full governors meeting, managed to ask questions about the state of the toilets and how many minor accidents there had been since the last meeting. It was if, and this may seem cruel, they had been ‘put out to grass’ and did not fully contribute within their roles.

Foundation governors, in schools affiliated with churches, are there to support and enhance the school’s links with local churches, and in my experience do this quietly, calmly and well and are always there to remind governors that many school issues have a religious dimension.

If there is one maxim that applies to the discussions and decisions that governors take, it should be ‘Keep It Simple’. Parent governors should not be able to push the interests of their child over and above everything else. Similarly, community governors should be able to reflect the whole community and not their specific interests and prejudices. It is not easy, but it is important that all governors need to be successful at asking the right questions and taking those relatively simple decisions which help the school to run as effectively as possible.

This is really an illustration of the fact that it not simply a matter of finding people willing to be governors, but about finding the right people. Many parents will know the school and know many of the teachers, but they won’t necessarily understand how the school actually works. However, like many other governors, they can bring all kinds of different skills that may or may not be helpful. All governors need to be able to tackle a complex and demanding role. Unfortunately they can lack the time, confidence and the necessary expertise for this.

Who makes the best governors?
Governors need to represent the wider school community and bring all kinds of different perspectives from ‘ordinary’ life. Whether they be LEA, foundation, community, staff or parent governors, they will be most effective if they:

  • care about children
  • want children to enjoy school and to achieve the best they can
  • are keen to put something back into the community
  • are eager to be part of a team with a common purpose and understand the importance of valuing different viewpoints and perspectives
  • understand the value of being effective and show this by taking relevant training and development opportunities
  • are willing to accept responsibility
  • are willing to be supportive when it is appropriate
  • are willing to ask challenging questions when necessary.

It is the last point that many governors find difficult because they will be asking questions about complex educational issues that they don’t necessarily know much about.

A critical friend
If you have new governors with an old-established chair of governors, they may be so overwhelmed by the whole range of issues that are on the agenda that they stay in the background and leave most of the debate and many of the decisions to the longer established and perhaps more clique governors. If this happens it will be a pity because the more perspectives offered on a problem or a difficult decision the better.

I know that this is sometimes fraught with all kinds of social and educational issues but our governors do need to feel confident to challenge us. They need to make sure that we are on our toes, dealing with key issues successfully and raising standards in all kinds of ways for our children. We hope that much of this is about working alongside us and acting in the best interests of the school, its staff and the children.

Conflict is never easy, and in many well-led and well-governed schools it is never about ‘conflict’ but really about being a critical friend and setting new targets and challenges. I don’t see how being suspicious of governors who do ask difficult questions is helpful.

Do we really need governors?
To many of us, governors are at best a mixed blessing. If they are well-informed and really care for the school, for us and for our teachers and children, then being a ‘critical friend’ is an excellent way of helping the school move forward in its vision. But, as a colleague recently suggested to me (probably after a difficult meeting), ‘My governors are so far off the pace that I spend most of my time trying to inform them about crucial issues rather than being challenged or held to account.’

Another friend, this time relaxing in a pub garden on a July afternoon, made his views quite clear: ‘I’m not convinced my governors influence what we do at all. I’m more influenced by the government and the LEA demands and how we can realistically meet them. Whatever my governors think locally about the school and how to move forward is far outweighed by national issues.’

Since the 1980s schools have become increasingly independent of LEAs but increasingly accountable to central government. As a result, governing bodies have had responsibilities heaped on them. But, it needn’t overwhelm them. As headteachers we need to help our governors help us to manage our schools in their local contexts. We need to work together to twist national priorities and shape them to meet our local ones. This is really about governors setting strategic targets so that we can do all the planning and daily tasks that help us meet the crucial long-term strategies.

Governors should be (and of course need to be) good at offering strategic leadership as well as challenging our performance. But the problem involved in resolving issues is that they need to be able to make the necessary time commitment to fully understand complex educational issues and be able to plan effectively. It is no good having excellent strategies without having the necessary plans to make them work. Commitment is a key factor to this.

Here is another colleague’s opinion about the role and impact of governors in education. ‘If you took my secretary away, or the caretaker, or my reception teacher or the SEN coordinator, it would have a huge impact on what happens to the children and how the school meets its targets for raising achievement, but if you took my governors away! Well, what would happen? Would we notice?’

I am sure that governors do their best to contribute constructively, and their involvement can help us move efficiently into the future; but let me ask some final questions. Does the time spent talking to governors, meeting with governors, attending governors’ meetings, providing piles of paperwork to governors help as much as it should? If we had fewer meetings, or even no meetings entirely; if we had no governors at all, would it really make any difference?

Perhaps we should follow the reasoning of David Brailsford, British Cycling’s Performance director, who led his team towards the attainment of so many Olympic medals in China, when he said of his leadership: ‘I don’t do documents. I write very little.’ Aren’t we all capable, on our own, of asking ourselves critical questions and constantly challenging what we do and setting our goals a little higher each time? I don’t know a headteacher who is complacent and who doesn’t want to make every child’s’ life better. Do you?

Roger Smith is a former primary headteacher