Beyond repair

A good relationship between head and governors is key to a happy, high-performing school. But what happens when it all goes wrong? Hannah Frankel reports
28th May 2010, 1:00am
Hannah Frankel


Beyond repair

Joan Watson* is an experienced headteacher, but one thing mars her enjoyment of the job: her chair of governors. "I have a regrettably poor relationship with him," says Ms Watson, who runs a secondary school in the Midlands.

"It saddens me greatly because I am very committed to the school and the pupils but I feel that the relationship hampers effective leadership and management."

Relations began to deteriorate from the start, with a dispute over her pay later resolved in her favour. Since then, the chair of governors has stopped asking Ms Watson for her opinion during meetings, made sexist comments and divulged personal information about her to another teacher. He also goes out of his way to praise other members of staff, while constantly criticising her performance.

"In what is already a very challenging job, this is my single greatest source of stress," says Ms Watson.

School governors are among the unsung heroes of our education system. Unpaid and often unrecognised, this army of 300,000 volunteers plays a crucial role in making sure schools run smoothly. The relationship between headteacher and governors is pivotal to a school's success. But when it goes wrong, the consequences can be devastating, for school and headteachers alike.

At the extreme end of the spectrum is Erica Connor, whose fate shows what can happen when the relationship with governors breaks down entirely. As head of New Monument Primary in Woking, Surrey, she had taken on a school where standards were low. She provided "effective leadership" that helped ensure the school was making "good improvements," according to an Ofsted report.

But the report also contained a hint of what, in hindsight, would turn into a career-destroying chink in her armour. "The school makes considerable efforts to work closely with parents," the report ran, "which is not always reciprocated by many of them."

This lack of appreciation exploded in Mrs Connor's face when two members of her governing body claimed the school was not sufficiently sensitive to the needs of the predominantly Muslim parents. The situation rapidly deteriorated: Mrs Connor came under verbal attack at a governors' meeting and was accused of Islamophobia, an allegation subsequently dismissed by a local authority investigation.

But by this time the relationship was breaking down. A petition circulated claiming Mrs Connor believed Pakistanis were less intelligent than other children and that Muslim pupils could not speak properly. Following another investigation which found the school had not been sufficiently responsive to the needs of the local community, Mrs Connor took early retirement.

In March she was awarded pound;400,000 in damages after the Court of Appeal ruled that Surrey County Council had failed in its duty to protect her and failed to intervene when governors caused problems. The county council has now appealed to the Supreme Court. In the meantime, Mrs Connor is working as a care assistant in a hospital.

This type of spectacular breakdown in the relationship between head and governors is mercifully rare, but any source of conflict can soon prove disruptive.

Ms Watson's situation is not as grim as Mrs Connor's, but is bad enough to keep her awake at night. She says she is on the sharp end of endless derogatory comments, belittling the role of women in the workplace. "It is said in jest, but it feels offensive," Ms Watson says. "He (the chair) has an open disregard for women in senior positions."

And the problems extend far beyond one-off comments. When parents have challenged Ms Watson's policies, such as those on school uniform, the chair of governors has made a point of failing to back her. "It is disempowering and makes me feel incredibly vulnerable," she says.

Undermining behaviour of this type can have a negative impact on headteacher recruitment and retention.

Headteacher Steven Corbett* has excellent governors at his current primary school, but remembers a very different scenario in his previous job, where he was a member of the senior management team.

"The governing body was dominated by former parents who never missed an opportunity to put the boot in," he recalls. "They were more interested in scapegoating individual members of staff for the sheer pleasure of watching them squirm than in actually supporting school improvement."

Governors' meetings were always hostile and would, on occasion, descend into shouting matches. "The head was put on trial at every meeting," Mr Corbett adds. "The governors constantly raised complaints and issues that were driven by staffroom bullies. We lost two heads in two years."

Emma Knights, chief executive of the National Governors' Association, is keen to stress that the majority of governors are not like this. "Most governing bodies are extremely dedicated and do an amazingly good job," she says.

In most schools, governing bodies are composed of staff representatives, parent governors and governors nominated by the local authority. But their membership will inevitably be skewed. A 2007 study found that governing bodies did not reflect the community they served or a school's parents, and there was an over-representation of women, professionals and white people.

At their best, governors act as "critical friends" to the headteacher, challenging and supporting them. But it is a fine line they have to tread: the friend who becomes overly critical can be annoying and distracting at best, or downright demoralising and destructive at worst.

Many heads may enjoy a good relationship with their governing body, but others find their governors more of a hindrance than a help. Approximately one in five heads describe their governing body as "very effective", but a similar proportion says they are "ineffective", according to a 2007 survey of headteachers by PricewaterhouseCoopers.

"Some governors misunderstand the role," says Richard Bird, a former head and now a legal specialist for the Association of School and College Leaders. "They are not helped by terms such as `challenge' and `support'. Many feel more comfortable in the `challenging' role, which can become enormously wearing.

"Heads often work by mobilising their professional judgment, intuition and years of experience - there is a lot of `feeling' their way, which sometimes transcends logic. Constantly explaining their actions to a lay person can be almost impossible."

Yet governors have been accumulating new powers and duties over the past 25 years, as schools have gained greater independence from local authorities. The governing body is in charge of the strategic direction of the school; appoints, dismisses or suspends the headteacher; shoulders legal responsibilities; delegates funds, and is generally accountable for the school's performance (see box, page 13).

It is a daunting set of responsibilities. Governors' work is complex, difficult and demanding, according to research published by the University of Bath in 2008. But the study also highlights the limitations of governors, some of whom are unsuited for their role. Unpaid, often unnoticed and untrained, some are out of their depth.

"I love being a primary school governor, but after several years I still don't feel as though I am equipped to do the job," says a governor of a school in Wales, who asked to remain anonymous.

"Increasingly, I feel the role is becoming too big for someone who works full-time."

As well as building a relationship with the staff based on mutual trust and respect, she has to keep up with initiatives from the Assembly government and local authority and also be up to speed on changes to education policy.

Governors need time and expertise to do their job effectively, according to a 2007 report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Many volunteers have neither, it adds.

The situation is particularly acute in disadvantaged areas. "This leads to the schools most desperately in need of good governance being least likely to benefit from it," the report states.

Ofsted confirms a huge variation in the quality of governance across the country. It reports that about two-thirds of governing bodies were doing a good job in 200809. The remainder, however, were just "satisfactory" or worse.

Training is the key, argues Ms Knights. A long-anticipated government report on school governance, published last month, agreed that there should be mandatory training for the chair of governors, plus the option of mentoring from other experienced chairs. But it stopped short of suggesting training for the entire board.

"We wanted the report to go further," says Ms Knights. "Given the importance of the job, we think it would be responsible to make free training compulsory for all."

The downside to obligatory training, however, is that it could deter potential governors. Up to 11 per cent of governor posts are unfilled, according to The 21st Century School: Implications and Challenges for Governing Bodies, the government report published last month, with vacancies particularly pronounced in inner cities. An additional training commitment could hit recruitment figures further still.

But without training, some governors will lack the necessary skills, such as negotiation and conflict resolution. The report found that 14 per cent of heads think their governing body is ineffective because they lack the required skills and knowledge. That equates to about one in seven schools that have governors who are perceived to be inadequate.

Training is available (see box, right) but uptake is poor. Only 58 per cent of schools said their governors had some training over the previous year, and 40 per cent do not require newcomers to undergo induction, according to the University of Bath research.

This lack of training manifests itself in a number of ways, according to Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers. He has heard stories of governors who - in violation of equal opportunity laws - set out to recruit middle-aged male headteachers because they think they will be better disciplinarians.

Governors can suffer from a lack of experience on everything from setting meaningful targets for headteachers to knowing how to chair meetings. "Governors' meetings can be interminably long," says Mr Brookes.

"They can start at 7pm and drag on until 11pm. Female heads in particular report feeling vulnerable locking up the school on their own at that time of night. Then they have got to be up early for assembly the next morning."

As well as driving headteachers forward, governors have a duty of care towards heads that can get overlooked, Mr Brookes adds. Part of that is ensuring leaders have a good work-life balance, including manageable working days.

Simon Butterworth*, who has 12 years' experience as a secondary school governor, says that a good governor never accepts the status quo - they are always looking for ways in which the school can improve. But he admits that this can only happen if the headteacher is supported.

"Being a headteacher is a lonely job," says Mr Butterworth. "Sometimes the head has no one else to talk to about issues in school. The chair of governors is an excellent sounding board for them."

But this is only possible if the chair of governors and the head have a healthy relationship. While insisting that most governors do an admirable job, Mr Brookes has heard of some who bully or harass their headteacher.

One set off a fire alarm in assembly to test the fire drill, without consulting the school. Another interrupted staff meetings, insisting that the head attend to her.

Other problems can arise when governors move beyond their remit. The first chair of governors Mr Brookes encountered, as a primary school head in 1978, was a farmer.

"He said: `If you don't tell me how to grow carrots, I won't tell you how to run schools,' which was a wonderful vote of confidence for me. Many governors don't sign up to make judgments on headteachers, but that is what they end up doing."

Conflicts of interest can be another stumbling block. Parent governors can be torn between wanting the best for their child and what is best for the school as a whole. Staff governors can struggle to hold the senior leadership team to account when the same people are their line managers. Schools can suffer when governors approach the role as a way of promoting a specific agenda.

Failure to distinguish between strategic and operational roles can also cause problems. Governors are expected to oversee the work of the school, but must not stray into day-to-day issues.

There needs to be some clarification here, says Mr Bird. To him, "strategic" is a military term that simply serves to confuse governors. "It is very easy for strategic decisions to bleed into operational decisions," he says.

"A governor can see a lesson in progress, but they cannot take notes or pass any judgments. It can be very hard for them to know where to draw the line."

Ms Knights agrees that both sides need to be clear about their respective roles. "If they (governors) ever step into the classroom, they need a very explicit purpose in mind," she says. "They can't overstep the mark by looking at pedagogy."

But concerns persist about where management ends and over-bearing scrutiny begins. At one large primary school, the governors have decided to sit in on every senior leadership team meeting.

"Our governors are great - they are very supportive and visible - but I am already feeling stifled about what I will and won't be able to say," says one of the teachers. "I'm nervous about having to explain every little thing to non-teaching professionals."

Chris Harrison, headteacher of Oulton Broad Primary in Suffolk, says that a lot of these anxieties can be overcome if the head and the governors have confidence in each other from the start. Problems can occur if a school struggles to attract a headteacher and eventually appoints a candidate who appears to be second best.

"You will see very different levels of confidence between the head who has gone through a very competitive process and one who has been appointed from a limited field," Mr Harrison says.

"Ideally, governors won't make an appointment if they have any doubts, but they can't wait forever. Eventually, a head may be appointed who the chair doesn't have full confidence in."

After this shaky beginning, heads and governors can then move on to clash over the school agenda. Chairs who feel they have executive powers of decision-making can also disrupt the harmony of both the board and the wider school, says Mr Bird.

"We get problems where the chair of governors feels they are the boss and starts to act on their own," he adds. "Alternatively, a small clique of governors can join together and wield a disproportionate amount of power. In fact, the governors' only power comes from collaborating with each other and the school staff."

Mr Bird has seen instances where the chair has pursued a vendetta against the head, at the expense of the school. He has also heard of governors becoming obsessed with one aspect of the job, to the exclusion of everything else.

If a governing body's performance leads to a failure in school standards, the local authority can intervene and replace the entire board with an interim governing body made up of local education authority officials. The authority also has the power to dismiss the chair. In reality, however, local authorities hardly ever interfere.

"There is a tendency to leave the head and the governors to fight it out between themselves," says Mr Bird. "The local authority is much more likely to step in if it wants to get rid of the head than if it wants to remove the chair of governors."

Mr Harrison agrees. When serious conflict does arise, he says heads typically resign while governors stay on. "Most governors come from the locality, whereas heads are much more flexible about their careers and tend to move around the country more," he says. "Heads generally try to put it behind them and move on."

That means dysfunctional or destructive governors can remain in post, unchecked. They will be free to torment every head they subsequently appoint. But Mr Bird believes that the Erica Connor case could set a precedent.

Although the appeal court ruling is now subject to appeal, it made clear that the local authority does have a duty of care to intervene if a head is being victimised.

But the situation remains unclear because different types of schools assign responsibility to different stakeholders. In community or voluntary controlled schools, the duty of care rests with the local authority. In foundation or voluntary aided schools, it is with the governors. And in academies, governors' powers are typically circumscribed, with duty of care resting with the sponsor or academy chain.

"A time is coming when one or more of the unions will turn to the Secretary of State to intervene with a dysfunctional governing body," warns Mr Bird.

"The Connor case should mark a sea-change in the way local authorities view conflict between the head and the governors. If they don't intervene, the Secretary of State could instruct them to do so."

All of this could be avoided if governors received the training they need to perform competently and effectively. But with so many schools struggling to attract governors, both they and the government are unwilling to impose it.

A good governing body can make an enormous positive difference to a school and to its staff. But when that relationship does go wrong, then upheaval, disruption and stress are the likely result.

At best, an uneasy peace can prevail as both sides keep their differences under wraps for the sake of the school. At worst, it can lead to open warfare, where no one will emerge unscathed

* Names have been changed

An effective governing body.

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