As part of Primary Leadership Focus, Jane Golightly considers the important role that governors play in a primary school, and affirms the importance of a good school-governor partnership

Over the past couple of weeks headteachers could be forgiven if they found it difficult to stay focused on their school’s priorities. Attention-grabbing headlines – such as ‘SATS are too crude an assessment’; ‘Conservatives shun the Rose review’; High anxiety over building programme’; Tests blamed for blighting children’s lives’ – could easily divert us from the work in hand to ensure that all children in our care have the best possible experiences every day. So, what can headteachers do to support their school in staying on track?

One of the most important things is to ensure that leaders at all levels in the school are strong and that they are fulfilling their leadership and management responsibilities. But there is another group with a major role to play in supporting continuous improvement: governors. With time, energy and willingness to make the school-governing body partnership work, governors can have a considerable impact on the success of the school. In this issue we will consider what good schools do as a minimum to make the most of the partnership with governors.

The school-governor partnership
School governing bodies are made up of many kinds of people, from many types of professional, personal and cultural backgrounds. What all governing bodies have in common is that the most effective governors are those who are well-informed, who understand their role and who fulfil their responsibilities. The majority are genuinely committed to their role and to the school, and we can make the relationship even more productive if we ensure that structures and processes are in place and systematically implemented before and during the time a governor is in post.

Good schools carry out a range of activities that begin even before a governor is appointed. Use this list to audit what you do currently to support the school-governor partnership, and to identify opportunities for improvement.

Good practice checklist

  • There are opportunities for those interested in being a governor to observe the governing body in action, perhaps by attending a full governors’ or committee meeting.
  • There is an informal meeting of the chair of governors and/or headteacher with prospective governors prior to appointment, to talk through the role in more detail and to answer any questions.
  • Literature is provided – such as ‘frequently asked questions’ or ‘what will be expected of me as a governor?’ – to help prepare people for the role.
  • There are opportunities to talk to the local authority governors’ services about what being a governor means.
  • Each governor receives a handbook, which may contain some of the same information found in the staff handbook, but must provide names and roles of staff, school policies, information about the school and more specifically about the role of governors at the school such as governors’ participation in parents’ evening.
  • Every new governor participates in an induction programme, which as a minimum includes:
    • allocation of a mentor who should be an experienced governor
    • explanation by the headteacher of the school improvement plan, SEF, budget, school policies, most recent Ofsted report
    • participation in local authority training for new governors
    • a tour of the school to meet staff and children and to observe the school at work.
  • There is regular sharing of school performance and progress data presented in a format which is concise, informative and not over-complicated (best practice is to involve governors in agreeing the data information package that fits their needs).
  • Governors are allocated to subjects/key stages/year groups/aspects of school life and take a particular interest in these areas, so when required they are able to offer an informed opinion to the governing body on related matters.
  • A governor or small group of governors is allocated to the school council so that governors understand what is important to the children in the school.
  • Governors take part in learning walks as part of their monitoring responsibilities.
  • Each meeting of governors is held in a different classroom so that governors can observe what children are learning.
  • Staff with TLRs, or subject leaders, make short presentations to governors about the standards, progress, strengths and areas for improvement in different subjects.
  • Governors regularly audit their own practice and have improvement and succession plans in place.
  • There are good communication systems, oral and written, between chair, school and governors which make every effort to avoid jargon and use of acronyms.
  • There are regular opportunities for governors to communicate with parents, perhaps through a standing governors’ feature in newsletters, attendance at parents’ evenings to talk to parents, being present at celebration assemblies, school performances and social events.

Responsibility, relationships and reward
The governing body has a significant role which it is required to carry out. Where this does not happen the law allows local authorities the power to remove delegated powers or issue a warning notice. These are situations that schools should wish to avoid. Good schools ensure that staff, parents and children understand the role of the governors. It takes mutual respect and co-operation to establish and sustain a healthy working partnership but this must be seen as a responsibility for you and the governors. There is no doubt that where the partnership works well, other relationships in the school are strengthened. These schools are healthy schools; they understand why challenge and accountability is necessary and interpret being a ‘critical friend’ in its widest sense. Their reward is a school where true partnership working takes place every day, and where the contribution made by all groups is recognised and celebrated.

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This e-bulletin issue was first published in February 2009

About the author: Jane Golightly has written extensively on school improvement and has more than 30 years experience in primary education