Productive Governance and Leadership in Schools

Sara Spinks 9 May 2023 7 min read
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In this article, former headteacher Sara Rawnsley looks at the key elements which contribute to the formation of a productive and effective relationship between school leaders and governors, most notably between a headteacher and the Chair of Governors.

Reflecting on my experience, in this article I aim to explore how governing boards and headteachers can get governance right by working together, being mutually supportive whilst respecting each other's roles and responsibilities.

Effective governance is right at the centre of ensuring there is a significant impact on the quality of educational provision and the opportunity and life chances of children. The beating heart of this is the crucial working relationship between a headteacher and the chair of governors.

Throughout this article, the term 'governing board' means governing bodies in local authority (LA) maintained schools and federations, trust boards in a single academy trust and regional or academy level committees, sometimes called the local governing body. Whereas the term 'headteacher' means those responsible for the overall daily management of a school, a federation of schools or an academy. This includes the headteacher of a single school or an executive leader of a federation.

School governors make up one of the biggest volunteer forces in the UK. According to the National Governors Association (NGA), more than 300,000 give their time freely to schools in England.

“The relationship between the chair and the headteacher is one of the most important working relationships in the school. An effective working relationship with the headteacher allows the chair to act as a critical friend, offering challenge, support, advice and encouragement as required. A strong partnership will enable the school to achieve the highest standards of teaching and learning for the benefit of all pupils and staff.” - NGA The Chair's Handbook

The working relationship between the governing board and the headteacher is critical. The best relationship is one where the governing board and headteacher work alongside each other as genuine partners. When this happens in a climate of mutual respect and trust it allows for a more equitable contribution towards the governance of the school. The team dynamic, scrutiny and decision-making processes are weakened if the governing board take a 'hands-off' approach or is too trusting of the word of a headteacher.

In essence such an approach allows the school leader to have a disproportionate influence in meetings, thereby effectively managing the governing board. Equally damaging is when the board assumes the role of the 'hostile witness' placing school leaders under undue pressure and undermining their confidence. Openly discussing the working relationship and how it is perceived by those involved can only help to strengthen it and the team dynamic of the governing board.

So, what are the key elements of creating a productive relationship with the board of governors at your school?

  1. Having respect for each other's roles

    There is a distinct difference between strategic governance and operational management, so a key element in developing an effective and productive relationship is for school leaders and governors to understand and respect each other's roles within this frame. The governing board should concentrate on delivering its core strategic functions, whereas the headteacher is expected to implement the strategic priorities of the governing board through their day-to-day management of the school. It isn't a governance responsibility to involve themselves in day-to-day management nor carry out staff roles on an unpaid basis. This distinction ensures there is a culture of respect and clarity of expectations. Having respect for each other's roles will create a healthy team dynamic, one where individuals are both supported and challenged to contribute to the best of their ability and are organised and motivated to do so because they feel part of something bigger than themselves. Also, they should feel that they are valued, respected and listened to by their colleagues even when they disagree with them.

    The most direct and effective way of building a clear, collective understanding of roles and responsibilities is through ensuring that a quality induction for any new governor takes place both to the board and to school or trust governance. Indeed, this should be a key element of training for governance, a statutory requirement included in the guidance Keeping children safe in education (KCSIE)

  2. Setting a strategy by working together

    There must be a shared responsibility for setting a future strategy between school leaders and the governing board. This should reflect the values, vision and aims of the school by setting a clear vision of where they want the school to be in three to five years' time which reflects their shared values and ethos, ensuring all get behind it.

    Priorities should be identified by using honest self-evaluation that reflects the current context and challenges and formulated towards achieving the vision. Having agreed on the strategic plan, it must be delivered and monitored, largely through the School Development or Improvement Plan. While the division of responsibility will be operational delivery from senior leaders and monitoring and accountability from governors, it is also important that both parties agree on the mechanism for reporting progress and the timescales. This creates a realistic and transparent process while allowing governors to fulfil one of their core functions; holding the school to account without becoming embroiled in the issues of trust and personality. It also provides a structure and focus to the senior leadership team and for governing body meetings.

  3. Effective and regular communication
  4. Regular contact is a foundation for creating a good relationship between the headteacher and the chair of governors. By committing to honest, regular and speedy communication and understanding each other's clear roles and responsibilities, a positive, yet challenging relationship can flourish which is founded on a mutual desire for improvement. A strong and visible working relationship between the headteacher and chair creates a culture that encourages openness, support and challenge throughout the school. This should then lead to a cohesive, productive governing board with an effective team dynamic.

  5. Working together to make school a great place to work

    A school's staff are their most valuable resource as well as the most significant expenditure of a school budget. Governing boards have legal responsibilities as the employers of staff, which vary depending on the type of school. Boards in all LA-maintained schools must comply with employment and health and safety legislation. It is a shared responsibility of the governing board and headteacher to create the culture and climate necessary for the school to be recognised as a great place to work. All too often there is a disconnect between school staff and governors, seen as two distinct unconnected entities.

    Governors should support their schools in more ways than simply turning up to meetings, assemblies and the odd fête, important though those are. How much do your staff and governors know about each other and what their respective roles are? Using informal team building and getting to know one another can contribute towards building an understanding of each other's roles as well as developing a cohesive team approach culture. Having the right people around the table, who have a range of skills, enables better contributions in asking good questions and making sound decisions. Deploying skills and experience in the right way and playing to individual strengths improves the effectiveness of the board, whilst embracing a diverse group of governors with a range of backgrounds, experiences and perspectives will further strengthen it.

    The governing board can be an important shield for the school, reducing community issues and enabling educators to concentrate on education. Staff have a hard enough job as it is; if they can trust governors to have their back, they'll have more time to ensure that the children have their undivided attention. Happier staff will usually result in a better quality of education. Governors should be regularly monitoring and evaluating staff well-being through the use of surveys and formulating action plans for improvement alongside the headteacher.

  6. Supporting the headteacher's health, well-being and development

    The governing board is expected to exercise its duty of care towards the headteacher and support their work-life balance by monitoring the impact of strategies and initiatives that promote a positive and sustainable workplace and ensure a safe and secure working environment. Additionally, they are expected to grant the headteacher dedicated time for strategic leadership activity, including, where appropriate, time away from their school. In turn, the headteacher then has the same responsibility with the rest of the staff.

    Likewise, the governing board share the responsibility for ensuring a headteacher has an appraisal process that serves not only as a mechanism for accountability but also as an opportunity to provide support and encourage development. This means ensuring the selection of a panel of appraisers who are suitably trained and the appointment of an independent external advisor who is appropriately experienced and trained. The objectives set should be linked to strategic priorities and performance is monitored consistently over a twelve-month period with an annual appraisal meeting and a mid-year review, therefore making sure that any arising issues or changes needed are dealt with on an ongoing basis. It is also the responsibility of the governors to ensure the training and development needs of a headteacher are met through the encouragement of effective and appropriate CPD opportunities.

  7. Adopting an agreed Code of Conduct

    The most direct way for a governing board to clarify expectations of those governing is through a code of conduct. The governing board is expected to adopt a code of conduct, which sets out general standards of behaviour and how governors deal with each other and employees. Both the board and headteacher are expected to model the standards of behaviour set out in the code and demonstrate their commitment to their school's values, ethical governance and leadership. The governing board should discuss their code of conduct prior to its adoption and, therefore, encourage collective ownership of it. An effective code of conduct can explain the main governor responsibilities: the ethos, vision and strategic direction of the school, holding the headteacher to account and financial oversight. It can also clarify frequent areas of confusion such as the difference between the strategic role of governors and the day-to-day, operational role of the headteacher.

  8. Encouraging courageous conversations and challenging questioning in the interests of children and young people

    Providing support and challenge to headteachers and a school's leadership team is one of a governor's key roles. For some people, finding the balance between the two can be the hardest part of the job. To 'provide challenge' can conjure up visions of confrontation and discomfort. In a governance sense, challenging the headteacher simply means asking questions to make sure a decision has been well thought-through and holding them to account. It doesn't mean challenging them on a personal level - it's always about what they're doing in the role.

    Headteachers, therefore, need governors to challenge them by asking those hard questions, as much as they need their support. It helps them to know that their decisions are the right ones.

    Providing challenge as a governor means asking probing questions. It doesn't mean giving unnecessary or unhelpful criticism - it's about getting to the root of the problem and working together to find a solution. Having the courage to ask a challenging question may reveal other board members who are in the same situation as you and an alternative angle that has not been considered. Asking challenging questions helps governors and trustees to gain clarity and test assumptions.

    In a similar vein, supporting the headteacher doesn't mean blindly supporting anything and everything that they suggest. Instead, governors should support them to succeed by listening to the answers to questions rather than seeing it as 'job done' once the question has been asked.

    Headteachers are the experts in their field, but they won't always be the experts on things outside of their remit, like finance and law. Governors can support the headteacher in areas such as these, using their professional knowledge to benefit the school. However, supporting the headteacher effectively includes respecting their expertise and trusting their judgement, when backed up with evidence.

    Headteachers rely on their governing board to make sure strategic decisions are robust, considered and have potential for positive impact.

Ultimately, a strong relationship between school leaders and the governing board means that strategic decisions can be properly considered, leading to improve outcomes both financially and for children's education.

An effective governing board is a wonder to behold; when you see one, you'll recognise its worth and the positive difference it can make. Governance should be professional, but not cold; supportive, but not cosy. There should be challenge, but never aggression. Without a doubt, a productive relationship lies at the heart of its success.

Sara Spinks

SSS Author & Former Headteacher

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