Governors play a vital strategic role in the management of a school, so it is worth investing some time and resource in making sure that they are performing as effectively as possible

Governors play an increasingly significant role within the current educational climate, however this is an aspect of schooling that we can often overlook or pay scant attention to. Each governing body operates in its own idiosyncratic way with the reasons for this usually lost in the mists of time. Rarely do new headteachers tackle this, preferring to go along with what has been regular practice for a long time. Is this good common sense or a missed opportunity?

In my experience effective governing bodies are crucial to the development of schools. In order for this to become a reality, governors need to know what their role entails, what schools expect from them and structures need to be developed to enable them to make a telling contribution. This is unlikely to take place within the normal meetings schedule, therefore time must be set aside to address these issues. What follows are some thoughts on these issues based on my experience of supporting and managing governors.

Be open and transparent
As with any relationship, trust is crucial. It is important that governors are treated with openness and honesty. Only then can, and will, they fully commit to the school.

Avoid allowing ‘power’ governors to take control
In some schools a small number of governors wield disproportionate power. This can be destabilising and can prevent new governors from feeling part of the group. Addressing this can be done in subtle ways by ensuring that, as headteacher, you don’t spend too much time with familiar faces but you share your time equally amongst all governors. In order to help induct new governors at this school, I invite them into school for an afternoon to meet key members of staff, meet students and spend time with me. This affords me an opportunity to articulate what I am looking for from governors and makes it easier for them to engage fully in meetings.

Quality time for training and review
Each year the full governing body meets for a day (Saturday) early in the autumn term at a local hotel. It creates an opportunity to discuss key issues such as exam performance in detail, allowing sufficient time to train governors in their understanding of the material. It also offers the chance for governors to get to know each other socially and gel as a team.

I expect all of my senior leadership team to be there for at least part of the day and ideally for lunch as governors always appreciate talking to them. Each year two or three of the team will lead some training for governors linked to their areas of responsibility, with the idea that in a three-year cycle we will cover each aspect of school improvement. This in turn develops the senior team as well as ensuring that governors are well briefed on the life of the school.

An aide memoire for governors
This year we have introduced a planning folder for governors. They have been fully consulted on the type of information they would appreciate. This now has sections for data, Ofsted, finance, school development plan, school structure and safeguarding, amongst others. Governors bring their files to meetings as it also holds their minutes and agendas. The initial feedback has been very positive as they value having all of their information in one place.

Agreeing roles and responsibilities
Some governing bodies are dysfunctional because they fail to do what they are required to, therefore it is essential that ground rules are established with roles and responsibilities clearly identified. It is important to reinforce that governors are not there to micro-manage the school but hold it to account ensuring that effective monitoring and evaluation is taking place regularly.

Creating an effective structure
We were keen to move away from the traditional model of governor monitoring as it felt outdated and ineffective. In addition we were keen to make use of the strengths of our governors, therefore a key aspect of our planning day this year was to propose and discuss a new structure built around Every Child Matters (ECM). The initial task was to place a range of school areas such as behaviour and data under one of the five ECM outcomes. From there we identified a team of governors for each specific ECM outcome.

The next stage involved convening the ECM team, along with members of the senior leadership team, to plan their monitoring for the year. By doing this the team have been able to do two things:

  1. Spread their monitoring responsibilities throughout the year making the task more manageable for the team
  2. Identify a range of methods for monitoring, for example, receiving a written report, interviewing staff or students, school visit or excerpt in the headteacher report

By utilising a range of monitoring strategies it reduces the demand on governors’ time and increases the likelihood of them managing their role more effectively. So far governors have responded positively to the new format and the plan is to have a full day review in the summer term led by governors in order to inform the school development plan for the next academic year.

Governors can play a vital role in school if they are encouraged and trained to do so. The new Ofsted framework puts more onus on governing bodies to really know their school, therefore it is imperative that schools review their processes to ensure that these volunteers can speak knowledgeably and confidently about their involvement and impact.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in February 2010

About the author: Kieran McGrane and the leadership team at Federation of West Sleekburn Middle School and Bedlingtonshire Community High School, Northumberland