School Governors: confused, untrained, and unloved. What to do?
Being a secondary school governor was one of the most discouraging experiences of my life. I felt uncomfortable, thrown in at the deep-end, resented by the teachers, sometimes condescended to, under attack from some parents and often confused. After a lifetime of being on boards, running a company, being a non-exec on various tech companies (where believe me the problems can be extreme) and on various public sector boards and large charities, I can honestly say that being a school governor was the pits. I’m not blaming anyone but the culture, process and understanding (including my own) within the governor context was woeful. Yet school governance has never been more important, as the system is worryingly decentralised and schools become more autonomous. What’s so shocking is that the system of governance has always been, and continues to be - shambolic.
Problem 1: Little learning – dangerous thing
Amateurism stalks Governor bodies. Issues hit the table and everyone pretends they know the detail but often don’t. This leads to huge amounts of wasted time as everyone is in catch-up mode and, worse, mistakes are made. There are often Governors who are strong on opinion but low on knowledge. In fact, such people are often drawn to the Governor role. What’s needed are informed, capable Governors who can truly understand the context, required responsibilities, decisions and actions. This cannot be left to accumulated experience, it must be informed by some decent training.
Problem 2: Poor or absent induction training
Most Governor training is erratic and poorly delivered. Far too much training is done badly (flipcharts, talked at), NOT done or left to chance. Governors are drawn from the community (rightly) and often have little in the way of board or governance experience (which is fine). What they need is some structured guidance before they start. Then they can hot the school playground running, even in their first meeting. Induction is vital.
Problem 3: On-going training
Governors ALL need relevant training.
Governor responsibilities and roles
Everyone needs practical training on the role of the governing body, your role, the purpose of the meetings and how they should be run and organised, as well as the roles of different roles, groups, responsibilities and accountabilities. This is complex and confusing for even experienced people. Then there’s lots of specific issues you need to know about – Ofsted, SEN. At the next level there’s a lot of detailed topics that you need to get to grips with – SEN, career’s advice, pupil premium, freedom of information, handling complaints, admissions, finance (not trivial), community relations, discipline and recruitment. This is a daunting list.
Inspection, safeguarding and safety
Then there’s a whole raft of Ofsted, safeguarding, health & safety, safeguarding, child protection and social media topics. This is important stuff and you will find yourself, suddenly, deep in the middle of a crisis, that may be as serious as sex abuse (There is barely a secondary school in my city that has not had an incident leading to arrests.) but often just a never-ending series of incidents that have to be dealt with, fairly and sensitively.
Governing specific schools
This has got a whole lot more complex as there’s legal structures and accountability frameworks around Academies and Academy Trusts that may affect your role. Then there’s Church Schools; voluntary aided, voluntary controlled, foundation schools and academies. All very complex.
Problem 4: Chair
School governor chairs are sometimes great, but often in the need of some training. Above all, they must be able to manage the Head, manage the process and manage the meetings. Too often I witnessed showboating and long speeches by the chair and not enough ‘chairing’. The relationship with the Head is vital – as well as proper reporting from the Head and objectivity. Not too cosy, not too adversarial. I’d also add that a chair needs some solid ‘management’ and ‘recruitment’ expertise, as managing the relationship with the Head, sometimes questioning their performance and finding a new Head if necessary, may be the most important thing you do as a chair.
Problem 5: Paperwork
I’m going to throw this is, even if it is ‘off piste’, as it drove me crazy. The crushing weight of (largely irrelevant) paperwork wasted huge amounts of time before and during the meetings. Overwritten policy documents flooded forth and inordinate amounts of time were spent on phrasing, adding sentences and ‘worthy’ discussion around documents that were doomed to remain unloved and unread. They were usually lists of platitudes about fair attitudes and behaviour that no one would disagree with. The litmus test would have been to ask ‘What’s the opposite of this statement?’ If the opposite was an unthinkably stupid idea – then assume that the positive doesn’t need to be said. In any case, the solution to compliance and reasonable cultural issues around equal opportunities and other issues is never documents. The solution to this is surely short, standard statements that can be reused by schools across the country and management. This is not diktat – it’s common sense. More importantly, it means managing the meetings so that they are not a series of agenda items where papers are read and edited in the meeting. Be clear about what items are for noting, what for discussion, what for decisions.
I’ll throw in the Governor Mark scheme here, as it can act as a goal for good governance and pulls you towards getting things done on the training front. This is a quality mark approved by the National Governors Association. It is NOT a training scheme but does help you identify any gaps you have in governance and push you towards getting sustainable solutions in place. It lasts for three years.
My own view is that training should be; 1) compulsory and 2) largely (not exclusively) online.
1. Compulsory. Governors need induction and follow-on training. Schools are full of professionals with years of experience in education, Governors often rock up with zero experience in education and often little in governance. This is why I think the training should be compulsory.
2. Largely online. Given the fact that many Governors have day jobs and don’t want to spend even more time attending chalk and talk training sessions in schools in the evenings, I’d bring this into the 21st C and deliver most it online. There are excellent suppliers out there (try some of these free demos) and the cost is nothing in relation to the benefits in terms of time and the efficacy of the Governors meeting, governance and actions. This avoids then becoming awful INSET type days, where external instructors come in and talk to you, accompanied by some awful and patronising, collaborative exercises. There is, of course, room for training as a group and face-to-face but in a measured fashion.