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Excellent governance is a key factor for real school improvement, says Martin Matthews – so is it time you learnt a little more about how it works?
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I suspect that many of you view us governors like deep sea fish. You know we’re there – but you aren’t quite sure what we do. And like those underwater creatures, occasionally we appear from the depths into your world for a brief while, then disappear out of sight again.
I think it might help all of us to explain our role a bit more – when I talk about ‘governors’ here, by the way, I mean ‘governors of maintained schools’, or ‘MAT trustees’; and remember, whether staff, governor or trustee, we are all bound by the same standards in public life.
The phrase that has stuck to governors over the last few years is ‘critical friend’. I’m not sure you’ve been really comfortable with that, so it’s good to be able to let you know that it’s largely been dropped from official documents now, to be replaced with ‘support and challenge’. It’s about what we do, not who we are.
So what do we do? Well, a good governing board supports school to be the best it can be.
We bring skills and experience to enhance the organisation. We are as organised, streamlined and professional as possible. We don’t add workload to senior or middle leaders unless absolutely necessary.
Like educators, we keep up to date with the best practice, bring it back to our school and adapt it to our context.
This supports school to focus on children and staff, not paper over any governance shortcomings. No one wants school to drop an Ofsted grade due to poor governance (yes – that’s happened several times).
Challenge at a governance level is never personal, aggressive or destructive (not if it’s done properly, anyway). Governors need to constantly ask senior leaders about how they are delivering the very best for each and every student.
Children are the sole focus of what we do, and I promise you, this is never forgotten. Challenge may be “why are you spending that money on shiny new equipment rather than staff?” for example; it’s the educational impact which is most important.
We listen to senior leaders and constantly ask, “How do you know?”. This self-reflection on significant decisions sharpens focus back to value for money, to enable teachers to deliver the richest and most effective curriculum.
Trustees and many governors are the employers of staff and we must act as a responsible employer. Part of our role is to check with senior leaders that the workplace is safe, clean and resourced adequately. We must ensure staff have every opportunity to excel at their role and not be hindered by circumstances.
Just like you, we aim for a safe, warm, welcoming and well-resourced school. The concept of ‘if you walk past it you accept it’ forms a large part of why we visit your place of work so regularly.
It’s never to pass any judgement on teaching, and it’s certainly not to ‘keep tabs’ on you – it’s to look at the whole system, including the physical environment.
Finally, one aspect of governance which I think of as critical is to thank staff for their efforts and when appropriate, nominate them for recognition. It’s important we know staff feel valued – so, on behalf of governors and trustees everywhere, thank you for all your hard work and have a great year. We’re with you.
Martin Matthews has been a National Leader of Governance since 2012. He graduated with an MA (Ed) in governance in 2014 and is an FRSA. He tweets as @mm684.
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