The 5 Key Responsibilities of Every School Governor

This blog comes from ex-Secondary Headteacher, former Governor and Integrity Coaching associate, Tim Small.

As volunteers, usually with busy professional and personal lives of their own, Governors are asked to carry a heavy responsibility.  How can they sort out the vital from the not-so-vital and focus on what matters most?  At the heart of that question lies the relationship between governance and leadership.
In three different roles, I’ve witnessed this relationship close to: as a Head, as a Governor myself and as an External Adviser for Heads’ Performance Management.  From all three perspectives, the relationship was ‘make-or-break’; it had the power either to drive or destroy momentum for improvement.
I believe it all depends how Governors understand and apply themselves to these five key responsibilities…
1) Setting ethos and values
2) Holding leadership to account
3) Balancing support and challenge
4) Distinguishing between help and interference
5) Taking responsibility for the Head’s wellbeing.
1) The school’s ethos and values are the Governors’ responsibility, but how they’re arrived at will decide both their credibility and their impact.  When the process is genuinely inclusive, it harnesses all the energy of the community to a common sense of purpose.
In the Governor team that I belonged to, we initiated a simple but thorough consultation of every stakeholder group: pupils, staff, Governors, parents and families and the local community, asking them (i) what they liked (about school), (ii) what mattered most to them and (iii) what they would change if they could, we gathered rich feedback for sifting, discussing and distilling on a training day.
The values statement that the Head then finalised became the rock on which the school’s future was founded.  Everything was ‘governed’ by it.  Years later, it was recognised by OFSTED as a cornerstone of the school’s significant improvement.
2) Holding leaders to account can be the hardest part of governing.  I’ve visited and worked in schools where the Head has had too much power and too little accountability.  At worst, they have been fraudulent, massaging pupil progress data, budget figures and even Form 7 (on roll) returns to create a falsely favourable impression.
The train crash usually comes when they leave, having to be ‘cleared up’ by a new leader with an embarrassed Governing Body.  Trust is critical.  Governors must be prepared to ask hard questions, see the workings and insist on transparency.  Good leaders don’t feel threatened by this; they feel safer working with strong Governors whose trust they’ve earned.
3) Balancing support and challenge is an extension of the same principle.  Governors sometimes need to challenge a School Leader and then support their response. A personal experience of this was when, as Governors, we became concerned by the rising proportion of the budget spent on staffing: well above the upper benchmark of 80%.  We challenged the Head to design an alternative ‘shadow’ structure that would deliver higher quality at a lower cost.
The solution was elegant, moving away from single teachers in separate classrooms and creating ‘hubs’ of teachers and LSAs to cater flexibly for larger and smaller pupil groups, tailoring interventions to individual needs.  Originally it was meant as a theoretical exercise. However, the following budget made it a necessity to adopt this structure, which had to be introduced through sensitive explanation and consultation, led by the leadership team and Governors together.
Once this new structure was bedded in, it became a huge success, reducing the staffing budget to 67% which, in turn, gave the school more scope to support learning with discretionary spending.
4) Distinguishing between help and interference can only be done through open dialogue.  If a Head finds a governor’s interventions unhelpful, trust can be eroded and authority undermined.
Decades ago, I worked at a school desperately in need of a culture transplant, away from bullying and compliance towards empowerment and responsibility.  Long after new leadership had initiated this change, a few long-standing, more authoritarian staff would still complain about being unsupported.  They would direct their complaints to Governors if they thought they’d be listened to.
The Governors had to make a decision whether to accept and act on what they were told, which could undermine the whole project, or insist on staff using correct procedures for grievance and support, involving rather than by-passing the Head.  It was a critical choice and some of the Governors got it wrong.  As a result, the Head moved on, far sooner than they expected.
5) Supporting the Head’s wellbeing is actually the foremost responsibility of every governing body, not a luxury or afterthought.  The Head looks after the staff.  Who looks after the Head?  Research shows how much depends on quality of leadership and we all know how hard it is and how much it costs to recruit and retain Heads.  It costs even more to lose one. There are also massive hidden costs to a school when their Head isn’t fully supported to be the best they can be.
I’ve seen too many instances of this.  However, the case of one primary Head always springs to mind.  After years of nurturing, giving her heart and soul to the school and taking responsibility for everyone and everything, she was beginning to burn out.
Previously, in trying to put her staff and the children first, she put herself last.  A moment of near crisis, narrowly averted, led her to acknowledge the dark place she was approaching and the destructive impact this was having on her, as a person and as a leader.  After a brief period of soul searching she asked her Governors to support a change of leadership style with a focus on wellbeing for all, including herself.  Having a very clear sense of priorities, the Chair of Governors did not hesitate.  The Head was promised whatever she needed by way of support.
With the assistance of a skilled coach, she began to challenge her previous ways of leading and thinking.  She learned to take the time she needed to be strategic and stay fresh of mind and, in doing so, modelled the self-care with which we all need to treat ourselves, if we hope to maintain high levels of personal performance and inspire others to do the same.
Everyone responded to her new, bright-eyed enthusiasm, energy, encouragement and clear boundary-setting, accepting their own responsibility to stay sane and be ‘present’ and positive for the children – and the school benefitted considerably, moving from ‘requires improvement’ to ‘outstanding’ in just four years.  Much more than that, it quickly became a joyful and creative place of work and learning, giving Governors the clear and welcome assurance that the improvement would be sustained.


Supporting your School Leaders

We believe that just as our School Leaders have a duty of care to their pupils, and their staff; governing bodies have a duty of care to our Headteachers and School Leaders.
They have an important responsibility to act as a “critical friend”, providing both challenge and support to those that lead our schools.
Part of this involves ensuring there are robust accountability and support systems to help Headteachers remain at the top of their game.
It also involves safeguarding their well-being and ensuring provision is made to help them overcome emotional, psychological and practical challenges of the role, both in the long-term and the short-term.
To help you do this and enable you to best support your School Leader, we are offering a free, Headteacher Well-being Strategy Call…
This call will give you a chance to:
– Discuss your school’s situation and identify solutions that will support your school’s development
– Explore what a well-being strategy might look like and how it could help your school to retain your School Leaders
– Talk through the range of ways that governing bodies can effectively support their Headteachers
– Learn how coaching helps leaders to perform at their best and deliver positive outcomes for your pupils.

Learn More


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