Looking up from the boardroom table

Looking up from the boardroom table

Now I am a naturally curious person - Ok maybe nosey! So I am always interested in the way other people do things -  they might have better ideas or resources that I can use or they might have contacts who would be helpful to me mightn't they?

Curiosity is really important for us as governors because the world moves on a a very fast pace and the world of education is no exception.  We should be curious about our schools, about how do they do things and, importantly, why and to what impact? We should also be curious about governance and the way others carry out this important role in the education sector but also beyond. There are boards of governors out there where very few governors have attended training courses and networking events; where no one has been to a conference, no one has read a book or article on governance or leadership, no one has a social media account to engage in the array of interesting discussions that are available to us and certainly no one has been to see another board at work.  So does this matter? - Well, in my opinion, yes it does!

The Governance Handbook talks of 'processes for regular self-evaluation' and gaining 'an independent expert assessment of strengths and areas for development;' (1) I would love it if it were to add a requirement to be outward looking and demonstrate engagement beyond the confines of its own school environment. In order to evaluate our work we must surely have an idea of what good governance looks like; what the latest thinking and research tells us about excellent and effective practice and how the practice of governance has developed in other schools and organisations. So we must raise our eyes from the board room table and take a look at the world beyond our school gates.

In his book, Improving School Governance, Nigel Gann gives us some characteristics of the best governing boards - one of these, he asserts, is 'openness ... opening itself to scrutiny' (2)  A way of gaining a different perspective and up to date view on governance might be by inviting someone else in to have a look.  The National Governance Association (NGA) and the nationwide network of National Leaders of Governance (NLGs) offer a way to engage an external perspective on our work. Local Authority or peer review might be another option and I talk a bit about this later in the blog. 

I think before we do this however we might make sure that we have had a good go at evaluating our own practice. So, some questions to ask ourselves when considering these things for our board might be:
  • Have we done an annual self review and what did it tell us?(3)
  • When did the board last discuss its impact and effectiveness?
  • Do we evidence this impact - how does our school community know what we do? (4) - Note you might try writing and publishing an annual board impact statement. 
  • Have we asked each governor to think about the way they have engaged with, and had impact on, the work of the board?
  • Where are we on the pathway of improvement? (5)
  • What do we need to do to improve further? - Note you might come up with an annual board action plan 

For over 8 years I have facilitated a local network of Chairs of Governance.  It is such a supportive group; what times we have been through!  Troubles shared over tea and biscuits, ideas and solutions to problems thrashed out and explored around the dining room table or by phone calls and emails between meetings. The very act of meeting helps us look up and, importantly, look out - one of our colleagues comes from a neighbouring Local Authority and two are from Academies - so a good mix of perspectives.  

A couple of these colleagues are experimenting with a new initiative to gain an external perspective without costing any money (sadly a very important consideration for many of us at the moment) - a peer review of governance.  This is still work in progress and we will be having an update when we meet as a group in March.  This must have impact on improving practice for the benefit of the children and it must not be a way of recycling 'not so marvelous practice' as was said in recent Twitter discussion on the subject. 

Sarah McClean argues that 'Great schools are not islands, they see themselves as having a role that extends beyond the walls of their own institutions' (6) The governing board is a leading part of that 'great' school and will be constantly reviewing, learning and looking outward.  A whole school community learning and contributing to the learning of others - how fabulous is that? At the school I chair we have made this explicit in our vision - 'to be a learning organisation' and that means all of us, the children engaged in learning through a stimulating curriculum, the staff engaged in networking, reflection and research groups and the governors thinking about individual and board development needs,  networking and learning from the best practice that we can identify.  

Still working on it but I strongly believe .... 'Great schools' look up from the boardroom table!    

(1) DfE, Governance Handbook (March 2019) p13
(2) Nigel Gann, Improving School Governance, (2016) Second Ed. pp168-172
(3) The NGA, 20 Key Questions for the Governing Board to ask itself, is a great starting point [online at www.nga.org.uk]
(4) Op. Cit. DfE, p13 also talks about 'documentation which accurately captures evidence of the board’s discussions and decisions as well as the evaluation of its impact...'  
(5) Tom Rees, Wholesome Leadership, (2018) p108 This talks of David Carter's model of 4 phases of improving a school in action and I find it useful to apply this to boards - Stabilise, Repair, Improve and Sustain - where is your board?
(6) Sarah McLean in Andy Buck, Leadership Matters 3.0, (2018) p164

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