Getting relationships right - and magic happens!

Listening to the latest podcast from the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) has given me the focus for this third and final blog.(1) (for the time being!)

One of the most detrimental situations I see when I meet with boards of governors is where the relationship between the board and the headteacher has broken down.  This can range from a situation where neither side fully understands their role, and cross or duplication of work happens, to the downright destructive where neither side will talk to the other!  Some Headteachers see the governors as meddling; and some governors I meet do spend too much time trying to get into the detail of the operational.  Some boards who, quite correctly, want to get clear strategic work done for the school come up against a controlling headteacher who sees that as usurping their role.

So what can be done to get everyone pulling in the same direction whilst respecting their different roles - surely we are on the same team?  I use the word team deliberately because we are all working to the same end - we all want the children in our care to achieve their full potential.  The idea of a team doesn't mean we can't challenge one another and have robust discussions on behalf of the children but, in order for that to happen, the team has to respect one another, understand the roles within it and function accordingly. One of the eight elements of effective governance promoted by ASCL, NGA and NAHT is 'a good relationship based on trust' (2)  When a board and the senior leadership work as a team - magic happens! 

The recent controversy stirred up by a previous ASCL podcast is interesting and illustrates some of the issues. In this the speaker seemed to suggest that governors were ill equipped to deal with the complexity of the role and advocated packing boards with education professionals so that they could be really effective.  A misunderstanding of governance if ever I heard one!   This week Emma Knights, of the National Governance Association (NGA), was given right of reply and, in his introduction, Geoff Barton spoke of 'governance [being] often misunderstood' and of just these 'tensions between the executive and the non-executive' (3) of which I write here.  I leave you to listen to the discussion but in it Emma, quite rightly, urges school leaders at all levels to become school governors or trustees but in a completely separate setting to their own.  As she points out it can be difficult to challenge the organisation that pays your wages! (4)  The benefit of experiencing governance can only work to broaden the understanding amongst the executive of the role and positive impact of governance. - (not always successful as I have experienced a board chock full of educationalists all trying to find solutions to the school's operational problems instead of challenging the Head to do this and report back)

In Improving School Governance by Nigel Gann he draws our attention to a study by Professor Ian Jameison where he identified that in the 1990s many boards could be best described as 'supporters clubs'. (5)  Not good governance!  Our role is to support but also to challenge and, in our strategic capacity, to lead!  It is the challenge and leadership bit that can cause the misunderstandings.  

So what more is to be done?  Both sides have a responsibility to take up training opportunities and develop that understanding of their separate yet connected roles. Getting leadership to experience governance is one thing but including an understanding of the role and impact of good governance at the training stage for school leaders is vital and, I think ,often overlooked.  Good (mandatory?) induction programmes for all new governors should also cover this important topic right at the start. We might find then that we are all on the same page!  

In our daily lives with our schools working on relationships at a human level is the other crucial part of the jigsaw.  What are your schools values, they are not just for the children - do you all live them?  Do they involve respect and valuing the individual?  Do you talk about them?  Maybe a robust board discussion of Ethical Leadership and then a real drive to model it would break down some barriers?  Perhaps you would then decide to take part in the project as a Pathfinder - that could be brilliant and promote the kind of  relationship healing that may be needed? (6)  Finally, the NGA has a really useful Delegation Planner for maintained schools and taking this into a meeting to talk through your separate but complimentary roles with the Head could be a useful opening.(7)  

Other options open to you include visiting another board in your area that you know works very effectively especially if you go together and can discuss and debrief afterwards.  If all else fails you may need the help of a National Leader of Governance or some other mediator to work with you to move things forward.

A really great relationship between the Chair of Governors and the Headteacher can have many benefits for the school and its children and for the two individuals involved as they grow and learn together. The Chair can be there for the Head as a sounding board, as a confidential ear, as someone who looks out for their wellbeing and their career progression and as an alternative perspective and challenge (in the best possible sense). 

A really great relationship between a board of governors and a leadership team/school staff can help the staff feel valued, can offer up supportive challenge and develop careers as working with the board, preparing information and presenting to the board can develop skills and confidence.  

In conclusion, a really great relationship between the board and the education professionals in the school can have real impact.  It can drive up standards, promote school improvement, enable great outcomes for all pupils and make the school a fabulous place to work - it can be magic!  

1. ASCL Podcast (Jan 2019)

2. From Nigel Gann, Improving School Governance, (2016) Second Ed, p232

3. Geoff Barton, ASCL Podcast (Jan 2019)

4. Emma Knights, ASCL Podcast (Jan 2019)

5. Nigel Gann, Improving School Governance, (2016) Second Ed, p89

6. Ethical Leadership Commission, Navigating the Educational Moral Maze, (2019)   
7. National Governance Association, LA maintained schools delegation planner.  


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