Conversation with John Brown - October 2020
Strategies for improving the Governing Body
John Brown, LA Governor, Rainbow Federation, Cardiff
There are, no doubt, many strategies that can be employed with varying levels of success in the field of governing body improvement. Using our experience over the last few years of being part of Bryn Hafod Primary governing body (now part of the Rainbow Federation in Llanrumney, Cardiff), we have been able to see which strategies worked for us. Bryn Hafod governing body progressed from being largely ineffective, to be a central force within the school.
Having heard from a chair of governors who had undertaken a similar journey with a primary school in Rhondda Cynon Taff, we set about a regeneration program of our own. Whilst circumstances and our mix of experience will be different from other schools, recording our significant changes may inspire other governing bodies along their own improvement path.
Community (A body of governors):
The governing body must be able to communicate, to meet and to act in unity. A key point here is that the whole governing body should be engaged in the journey, this is not just an exercise for the leadership, but a responsibility that is shared by the group.
i. Governor Attendance – Our governing body attendance is high, all governors regularly attended meetings, this became an expectation and part of the culture of the governing body. Hardly any governors would miss two meetings in a row. As well as the general governing body business, our meetings were often an opportunity to learn from our Headteacher, the staff, other governors and even the pupils themselves. It is important to recruit members who are willing and able to give their time.
ii. Communication Tools – Communication is key, there are many different options, but we found WhatsApp group messaging to be invaluable. It is used by the Head to keep us informed about school activities, for us to arrange extra-ordinary meetings and for general communication concerning the business of the school. Nothing confidential is shared on this group and having this tool means that the governors can continue to be an active group in the ‘down-time’ between formal meetings. It is important that the communication method chosen is secure, and that a protocol for communication is established at the outset. In our group the Head, the Chair and the Vice-chair all have Admin rights within the app.
iii. Professional Relationships – Governors naturally form bonds with friends and colleagues within the governing body, but it is important to foster cross-group friendships and working relationships. We have not needed a specific strategy for this, but there are a few things we do which encourage interaction. Our Chair often starts meetings with an ‘ice-breaker’ question – this has a two-fold effect. On one hand everyone has already had a chance to speak right at the start of the meeting easing us into the meeting gently. On the other hand, we get to learn something new about each other. Any group of people working towards a common goal should naturally be keen to discuss and share ideas. We sometimes carry out school visits in pairs or as a whole governing body (see notes on Governors Open day in the last section), this too helps to build relationships.
Induction, Mentoring and Training:
There is an assumption that all governing bodies have in place a process of Induction and Mentoring, but the reality is somewhat different. It tends to be something we are aware of, but often, nobody has taken the steps to set out a process. It can take years for a new governing body member to learn their role, Induction and Mentoring should speed this process up considerably.
i. Induction – A formal process of induction and skills audit should be carried out for new governing body members; this should provide a valuable introduction for a new governor to supplement mandatory training requirements. It also provides an opportunity to highlight, right at the outset, policies regarding acceptable behaviour, use of social media, how to handle complaints etc. A mentor may help the new governor through meetings by answering questions, explaining procedure, or asking for clarification on the behalf of the new governor when acronyms etc. are used. The mentor could also deliver the induction (including the skills audit) if this is appropriate. It’s a good idea to have an ‘induction pack’ which can include an introduction to the school and the governing body, it could include the most recent Headteachers’ report, some key policies, School improvement plan, a list of training available and whatever else you think would help a new governor to settle in.
ii. Skills Audit – a crucial part of the induction process, providing data to be able to properly allocate governors to various roles within the governing body. All too often roles are randomly allocated. A skills audit can tell you what skills are at the disposal of the governing body and what areas need strengthening. If there is not a skills audit readily available, Governors Cymru Services and your local authority will be able to supply templates. Note that LA governors usually complete a questionnaire as part of their governor application process, you could ask them to bring their completed questionnaire if it is in line with your own process. If this is the first skills audit your governing body has done, have all your current governors complete one. It is important to stress that this process is not about qualifying to be a governor, but simply to highlight where training might be needed and to aid allocation of governing body roles. The skills audit may be carried out face to face (with a mentor?) or sent for the governor to fill in in their own time.
iii. Mentors – New governors can be allocated an experienced governor as a mentor. Ideally the mentor and mentee will meet up in their own time before the mentees’ first governors meeting. This may be a good time to present the induction pack, talk about the role, discuss what is currently happening in the school and talk through the skills questionnaire. At the first governing body meeting, the mentor should sit near the new governor to answer questions and explain procedure. If possible and informal debrief at some point after the first meeting could be beneficial. Different governors will have different requirements, a good mentor will be able to work out what ‘level’ and for how the mentoring should continue.
iv. Training – It is incumbent upon the governing body to develop the role of critical friend. Governors will not be able to support and challenge if they do not add to their knowledge base and undertake appropriate training. Training not only provides information and demonstrates how to develop skills; it helps to instil confidence and group training provides a forum where governors can discuss their role with other governors with a wide variety of experiences. We have found that establishing a training culture encourages newer governors to take part in the excellent training offered by the Consortium and the Local Authority. We have training on our governing body agenda, providing a chance to highlight the training courses that have been completed by governors since the last meeting and giving the trainees a chance to talk about the training that they received. Committee members are also encouraged to complete training appropriate to their committee responsibilities.
The over-riding aim is for the governing body to be self-improving and learning independently from all stakeholders and available resources in order that they might better both support and challenge the Head. There should be equilibrium of power between the Head and the governing body. This ideally comes out of a mutual respect and a focus on improving or maintaining standards of the school for the ultimate betterment of the pupils. The following points are offered as possible strategies to be introduced (with sensitivity to the wishes of the Headteacher). The relationship between Head and governing body is a crucial one – these are not offered as ways for the governing body to distance itself from the Head, but to grow in the role of critical friend.
i. Link Visits – getting to know the school for yourself. A few years ago, our governing body had barely any perceptible impact on the school. Link governor roles are a good way for governors to get involved. Each (non-staff) governor is linked to a class/year group. We had governors linked to each Improvement / Action Plan recommendation as well as others for any other important areas such as ICT, Numeracy, Literacy and Attendance etc. (Many governors having several link roles). Governors are expected to arrange to meet staff regarding their link subjects. There is a protocol for this and a report template for the governors to bring back to the governing body (normally sent around with other governing body documentation). All visits are agreed with the Head in line with accepted protocol, governors do not arrive at school without the knowledge and agreement of the Head.
ii. Open Day – Additionally, to ensure that involvement in the school is maximised, we have a Governors Open Day each year. The Open Day is attended by most of the governors, they sit in with their classes, meet the staff, have lunch, and spend time on the yard with the students and parents. During the day, the governors will be visible and able to interact with all stakeholders. Nowadays at our school, I imagine all the staff would probably be able to name a couple of the (non-staff) governors at least – a small step, but in a school that was struggling, I am convinced that for staff to know that they have active governance is inspiring and encouraging.
iii. Developing Strategic Priorities – Additionally, our Chair has encouraged the governing body to consider some aspects of school life as our priorities in the sense of ‘what do we want our school to be known for?’. One example of this is our Inclusive School strategy. The school now has two Special Resource Base (SRB) classes and a Nurture class. We have an open door approach to students who have been excluded from other schools. The Chair identified this trait within the school, and we use this characteristic of the school when we make decisions for example when the opportunity arose for us to open the second SRB class. Your school may excel at something academic, or artistic. Whatever it is, it is important that enthusiasm for this characteristic is shared by the staff and the governing body. We found it helpful to recognise and adopt this as one of our strategic priorities
So – how do you put this into place?
It’s a valid question and we didn’t necessarily have an overall master plan, but my advice is to pick and choose the things that you think you can do easily and gradually change the culture of the governing body. That is the key thing – to be able to identify where you want the culture to change and introduce the measures to achieve it.
If you have questions or would like to see some example documentation of any of the above, please don’t hesitate to email me: [email protected].
Click here for John’s first article on Supporting a Struggling Governing Body
© Governors Cymru Services