The key turning point in the long and winding road of my story was when I became a parent governor at our children’s local primary school in 1999. Since then, good governance has been a key theme of the distinctive way in which we have sought to build things here in Schoolsworks Academy Trust. We have three key tiers of governance in our MAT, but the principles of what looks good should apply to them all.
There are lots of summaries of what good governance looks like out there, but here are 5 key questions I would like to pose to help directors, governors, members, councillors or those involved with schools to consider:
1. Do I understand my purpose?
The group must understand what it is in existence to do. Those in governance are there to be good custodians and not micro-managers. This includes the performance of some key functions (which in Schoolsworks are undertaken at different layers in our structure) including:
- Responsibility to recruit key employees of the Trust and its schools and to establish their remuneration
- Responsibility to establish the overall direction and ethos of the Trust or school while overseeing the progress of its main policies
- Responsibility to act as custodians of the school’s finances, including oversight of the school’s annual budgets and ensuring that the school operates on a sound financial footing.
2. Can I give enough time to support the Trust and its school leaders?
So many of the failures that have been widely reported in MATs relate to poor governance. It is a condemning fact that there have already been over 170 ‘rebrokerages’ and I’m sure there are more to follow. In a recent conversation with our local Regional School Commissioner, he reported to me that their observation of MAT Boards showed that most actually were stronger on financial accountability than on school performance. And yet the headline failures are with financial oversight.
Therefore, we need directors and SCC members who have time both to read the papers for their meetings and build the relationships with school leaders. As a MAT based on healthy professional and positive relationships, I believe that this is vital.
3. Am I involved but not interfering?
It is a fine line for those in governance to exercise their clearly prescribed roles without interference. Once key staff are appointed they must be allowed to fulfil their roles operationally. Offers of practical help are really welcome but the final call ‘on the ground’ must be left with school and trust leaders. Directors will of course be appraising key staff to make sure they have got things right!
Those individuals who best operate in school governance get actively involved in the school and attend school events, without interfering. This helps them to know how the school operates and assess if things are going well. There are many prescribed things that our directors and SCC members do but here are some other examples of appropriate involvement by those in governance:
- Establishing a Board/SCC committee to find new Board/SCC members
- Being introduced to the school at school assemblies
- Meeting teaching and support staff at appropriate occasions
- Meeting new teachers at a social event at the start of the school year
- Regular attendance at school functions e.g. school sports days, performances and other celebration events
- Conducting exit interviews with teachers leaving the school
- Reading to pupils in class
4. Can I rise above detail and personal interests?
As a past governor I recall once hearing someone in a board meeting raising the issue of their own child’s progress: not good! Good governance means involvement only in the strategic vision of the trust and school, taking a “big picture” view of operations rather than a concern with the minutiae of school life. Having said that, the SCC tier allows portfolio holders to dig into specific areas with a member of staff to offer really effective monitoring on the ground.
The DfE are very exercised about ‘related party transactions’ at the moment. I think that we must of course be clear and clean on these, but there is definitely an obsession about it. The principle is that no-one in governance should profit from the Trust’s work, excepting staff involvement on boards as per terms of reference.
5. Can I help to keep things moving?
Meetings should not last longer than two hours and directors and councillors need to be kept on task. The Chair must take the lead in ensuring that agendas, minutes and reports are issued well in advance of meetings, and that discussion is restricted to agenda items. The role of school governance is to offer impetus to the development of the trust and the school and directors and councillors can offer key challenges in this regard.
In conclusion, volunteering in school governance can be a most enjoyable, stimulating and rewarding experience. It can also be time-consuming, exhausting and demoralising! Whatever your governance role, you volunteer your time and energy and it is very much appreciated. If you focus on the five questions above, I think you have every chance of enjoying your period in office and of feeling that you have made a positive contribution to the success of the trust and the school.