Face up to making the head better

Performance management of senior staff is really working, says David Sassoon, even if some governors are still not convinced.

This September nominated governors will appraise their headteachers in the third round of performance management When the Government first thrust this extra (and profound) responsibility on governors, many governors and heads expressed alarm. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that the system is working well.

Performance management aims to improve heads' effectiveness. Reviews are taken into account when making pay decisions.

Heads have set an example in embracing the performance improvement process that has had a salutary effect on the rest of the staff, in particular teachers. Not surprisingly, an increasing number of schools are achieving the Investor in People award as a direct consequence of this process.

Admittedly some governors and heads still resent having to carry out this annual exercise. Governors think they are ill-equipped as volunteers to make judgments about professionals.

A few heads also consider the exercise irrelevant to the school's primary responsibility for its pupils, particularly as it adds to the mountains of paperwork from the Department for Education and Skills.

But despite this the process seems largely to have been a success. The key factor in this has been the constructive attitude of governors and headteachers. The mindset is one where both parties welcome the opportunity of setting aside quality time to review the progress of the headteacher against developments at the school.

Where objectives are met, the headteacher has the opportunity of letting governors know more about that success and how it was achieved. Governors welcome the chance to express their appreciation for a job well done.

Where there is scope for improvement, governors and the headteachers can explore together how to do better.

In one particular school, the headteacher, who was anxious to take the school out of serious weaknesses, found it hard to manage her time well. With jocularity she recounted how she went to a seminar for heads on time management. She was the first to arrive - though she was 10 minutes late!

The review meeting explored how she could organise her time better, looking at working out the difference between what was urgent and what important, and the importance of delegation.

It is important to remember that, while governors must agree the objectives with the headteacher - in this case, managing time well - it is not their responsibility to outline how that objective should be met, though it of course is constructive to explore this.

Performance reviews provide a vital way for governors to carry out one of their key functions: acting as the school's (in particular, the headteacher's) critical friends. The headteacher associations have expressed reservations about the term, "critical friends". However, governors can be both, positively and negatively critical.

Besides, the word, "appraisal", comes from "praise", suggesting the process is meant to be essentially positive.

Headteachers will be the first to say that they are not perfect and welcome hearing their governors' different and valid perspectives on their performances.

An important point is that heads do not have to be bad to become better. If performance management is used well, even successful heads will become highly aware of what needs to be done to progress.

The litmus test for a successful performance management review is that it contributes to school improvement, sharpens the quality of teaching and learning and raises the standards of pupils at the school. Governors and headteachers who find the process useful delight in the positive impact it has on the children.

David Sassoon is an educational consultant, governing body clerk and an external adviser on performance management

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