On being a School Governor

I’ve been a School Governor now for about 5-6 years and continue to enjoy the experience. I am currently a Chair of Governors at a Primary school local to me as that is where both my children attended. My oldest son has already moved on to secondary school and my youngest is in his last year and will be making his transition to secondary in September.

So I wanted to take this opportunity to share what I have learnt, what I’m thinking and some of the questions I have.  Over the last few months I’ve started to reflect on my time as a governor in the following areas and have unpacked these further in this post, they are: the purpose of primary schools, the role and effectiveness of governors locally and nationally and the opportunity for professional and personal learning within schools as a governor.

Are we clear on the purpose of a Primary School or is this being compromised?

In my time as a school governor I’ve seen first hand that schools are challenged to meet multiple demands and multiple expectations and on the whole, the staff do amazing work in trying to balance all the pressures of daily school life which are on top of actually providing education for children.

In the School where I am a Governor, we define our purpose as “help and support every child to be the best they can be”  This has helped us to define our priorities and our approach including, thinking about how we use and deploy staff, how and  where we invest money for impact and intervention and importantly how we know we are doing the right things.

Schools are doing so much more than just providing education (in a traditional sense)  – they are active in providing social work, health intervention, family support, community development and now in increasing financial austerity fundraisers and business managers.  I’ve witnessed that all these things are absolutely critical to get right especially as all children’s lives (indeed everyone’s lives) are complex and to ensure that children are ready and able to learn you need to invest time and energy in the other areas to help and ensure children can be the best they can be.

For a number of years now there has been an even greater focus on austerity which has led to some instances of decisions being driven by money as opposed to being driven by what is the best outcome for the children. This by default makes the purpose “manage the money” as opposed to providing education…the significant drive and focus on money is so strong in the current climate that it makes it extremely difficult to stay focused on the true purpose.

It is clearly fundamental to ensure you stay financially stable but a trend in forcing schools to operate more like businesses is creating additional pressures and work which schools are not necessarily resourced for and this simply puts direct pressure on Head Teachers, teachers and support staff which in turn increases the pressures and stresses in the system.  So I ask myself how much activity and work is actually focused on meeting the primary purpose as opposed to meeting false purposes such as managing money?

In addition a wider question I ask myself is – if you have these multiple pressures and demands then does this affect the purpose of a primary school or its ability to meet its purpose?  My experience and observations tell me this is the case.

Adler suggests that there are three objectives of children’s schooling: (Adler, 1982)

  • the development of citizenship,
  • personal growth or self-improvement, and
  • occupational preparation.

The interesting thing to me is that the main external high-level measure of success is focused on the Key Stage 2 SATS results (Maths, English – reading and writing etc). This is often directly related to whether a school is rated highly within the inspection framework.  So I ask myself how do attainment results tell me that a school is meeting its purpose and how does the inspection framework tell me a school is meeting purpose?  Unless the purpose is ‘make the attainment results come true’ or ‘meet the numbers’

The importance of measuring success and being clear about what good looks like is critical if we want to see primary schools developing the foundations of learning, the disciplines of personal growth, self-improvement and personal mastery. If we want to see schools creating environments where tolerance, respect and equality are promoted as the basis of being good citizens and if we want to support and invest in the future by stimulating the minds of children so they are curious, courageous and compassionate to face the challenges of the future in relation to our society and economy.

I guess what I am saying is I’m not seeing any evidence that the current external measures of success in schools tell anyone whether we are creating those things stated instead I see measures that focus attention on money and test results?  Before I become a governor my only really measure of a school was an inspection report and grade, but now after being a governor, I have developed a deeper knowledge and understanding of what really happens and understood the purpose in a different way. There is a big disconnect here which is driving the wrong behaviours!

The role and effectiveness of Governors and how do we know we measure success effectively

Sometimes in my time as a governor, I have felt like a proxy inspector as opposed to an effective and active part of the school leadership. This behaviour is not explicitly encouraged but becomes implied when you understand the inspection framework but this is counter productive as inspecting the school as a governor does not promote or create a culture of continued and mutual learning.  I see the role of a School Governor as the following:

  1. Being clear on Our Purpose – This is a clear, simple statement(s) of what we are here to do as a school.
  2. Being clear on Our Measures and understanding what good measures look like. These are the mechanisms by which we judge our effectiveness in meeting our Purpose. This will inevitably include understanding how the external measures contribute or not to helping us understand our effectiveness.
  3. Agreeing and having clarity on Our Principles. These guide how we carry out our work and help to make real the shared leadership and the shared vision.
  4. Setting a framework for Our Policies. These set out what we will do in carrying out aspects of our work and must contribute to helping those in the work meet the purpose.
  5. Being accountable to and being clear on Our Key Tasks. These are actions that we have to perform on a regular or ad-hoc basis (as detailed in the Annual Cycle).  This is where we ensure we can be held accountable to our legal responsibilities which include staying financially stable and secure.  This is also how we triangulate our understanding and knowledge of whether we are meeting purpose and measuring the right things.

The inherent pressures of inspections and the inevitable price that is paid by people (mostly Head Teachers) when the inspection reports are not as good as the inspectors would want to see is unfair and simply promotes a culture of fear and drives activity to “cover your back”. This is made even worse in the context of the academies agenda as the pressure to be seen to be meeting the targets is creating perverse behaviours and the consequences of which are directly affecting children we should be focusing on. In the current landscape if your school is seen by the inspection framework as failing then the likelihood of that school being forced to become an academy is increased significantly and in most cases, this is the only action to be taken.  The assumption underpinning this action is that Academies are better at delivering good or outstanding schools. I’m yet to see the evidence that supports this.

In reality, the evidence I see and can validate is that school leaders, teachers, support staff and everyone working in and around schools is lots and lots of hard work to try to create new and different experiences for children on top of all the activity which is expected by the current system drivers of “meet the numbers and targets for testing.”  But what I can’t say with confidence is whether all of the work they are all doing is meeting purpose and is contributing effectively…What I need to understand is what really gets in the way of a Primary School meeting its purpose and what can I do as a governor to remove the barriers and blockages.

This dilemma and conflict can only really be resolved by leaders and this is something I find fascinating.  The question I find myself asking here is, ‘does the system know who the leaders are, what are current leaders doing to understand and build their knowledge of why the current system is the way it is and are those leaders connecting with each other?’

Personal and Professional Learning and the opportunity to develop insights into organisational change and culture.

In my day job, I work in Organisational Change and my role is to support leaders to see and think differently so that services are designed around understanding what matters to citizens and clarity of purpose.

The opportunity I have as a school governor to develop my practice and learning is incredibly rich and diverse and this as a side benefit of wanting to help and support my local school keep me motivated and determined to be the best I can be.

The learning, however, is not simply one way. I had originally held an assumption that I would be offering my time and energy and wouldn’t really learn anything other than “school governance”. However the more I understand the thinking and approaches being used within primary schools the more those models become more visible to me in an organisational change context.

An example of this is the way in which primary schools have mainstreamed reflective practice and focusing on mastery of self. In my previous role as Digital Lead, I used to think that the most significant impact on organisations in the future would be technology and the disruption of that technology. Clearly, those disruptions will be present a fundamental challenge, but for me, the behaviours and values being promoted and recognised which underpin the approaches in Education will have a deeper and more profound impact unless organisations recognise the deeper cultural shift that is symbolised by the age of the internet.

Another example is promoting a growth mindset for children, the shift in the school now is that it understands that unless adults model and understand the growth mindset aswell children will not believe it as they will mirror and model the behaviours of the adults…this is exactly the same dilemma in organisations where leaders are not living the values and behaviours they promote.

On the whole, being a school governor has helped me develop and practice skills and learn new and different ones too. Schools and in particular primary schools are a fascinating place to be and I would highly recommend connecting with your local school and asking whether you can help in some way. if you are passionate about the future of our society, primary schools are a great place to learn about and experience what the future looks and feels like.