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'Effective governing bodies are not just made up of lawyers and accountants'

Liz Cross, governance expert at The Connectives and governor at St Mary’s Church of England Primary School, writes:

Unless you’ve worked on an effective school governing body, you might believe Sir Michael Wilshaw when he said during last week's select committee that “the role of governors must be re-examined” and that “there’s a need for professional governance to move beyond the current ‘amateurish’ approach to overseeing schools”.

But do we really think a slimmed down body made up of lawyers and accountants, etc, is going to be a guarantee of effectiveness in governing schools? I think not, and here’s why.

St Mary’s Church of England Primary School in Moss Side, Manchester, has gone from Ofsted "special measures" 15 years ago to "outstanding" in 2009, then last week won Primary School of the Year at the TES Awards. This was due largely to the inspirational leaders, staff, parents, pupils and community and in part to the diversity of its governing body.

Having been a governor at the school for long enough to really invest, feel accountable and ensure successes are sustainable, I know I have learned from the school and the community as much as I have imparted from my experience of wider businesses and organisations.

This school, that some might think is the most local, humble, small and unlikely of places, is a local beacon with a global mindset. In fact, I often showcase it as an example to others in big businesses of what is possible with the right leadership from the board and what an organisation can do with a well-managed, ambitious plan.

Our governing body didn’t need PhD students from Oxbridge to change its fortunes, or nominees from industries regarded to know how to run practices or businesses. It simply needed a diverse set of committed, bold and brave people who had the best interests of the school, its pupils and the community at heart, all working together to challenge stereotypes about Moss Side and holding unlimited ambitions for the children and families it serves.

Diversity is so much more than gender, culture, beliefs, sexuality, disability and age. It’s more than just diversity of professional backgrounds, qualifications or years served on other boards. It’s about the aspects of a person that are harder to see such as what made each of us the person we are, how we have come to be in this community, where our wisdom comes from and how we apply them to develop a united agenda.

In general, schools comprise a wide variety of people and backgrounds, so this should be reflected in its governing body.

St Mary’s governing body is deliberate in recruiting talent to help the school. We attract parents from a wide variety of countries, many who bring English as an additional language. We attract community and business people with skills and experiences from many walks of life. What we all have in common is an ambition for the children to be extraordinary – not just national average – and we pool all we have to deliver “excellence as the norm”.

And the evidence is there that our governing body has delivered, with our headteacher and staff the results. Notwithstanding that 80 per cent of our children are eligible for free school meals and the same proportion speaks English as an additional language, St Mary’s now ranks 18th in Manchester. It is in the top two per cent in the country for the levels of progress it achieves in reading. In maths, it is in the top seven per cent.

But it is St Mary’s work behind and beyond the impressive data that really stands out. One 19-year old teaching assistant and past pupil summed it up by saying: “We show how, by committing to our local community, meeting their challenges, and expecting and developing the best in everyone, you can achieve success in its fullest sense. We have more than a can-do ethos: we have a will-do attitude.”

Every strand of the school has diversity running through it and is all the better for it – our governing body plays its part without having a lawyer or an accountant – perhaps Sir Michael Wilshaw should pay us a visit and find out more.

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