It took an A-level student to focus one group of governors on the limitations of their communication skills. Geoff Hand shares the fruits of a talk-provoking liaison.
Never mind OFSTED, we've been under the scrutiny of an A-level business studies student.
Initially, it seemed a strange idea. Despite all our financial and employment responsibilities, schools are very different from other business organisations. So was our governing body the right choice for someone who was studying the processing of information? In fact, by categorising the types of information needed by governors and applying a set of criteria to each of these, he produced a report which concentrated our minds on how effectively we communicate. It raised some interesting issues: o Do governors get the information they need? Different governors need different information at different times. As part of induction, we need an understanding of the role and responsibilities of governing bodies, a knowledge of the school, and an understanding of how our own governing body works. It's the last of these where there is most danger of assumed knowledge (ask your newest governor) and to overcome this we are currently working on a code of practice. Compiling it is proving almost as valuable as the end product.
o Do governors get the day-to-day information that enables them to operate effectively? Heads have to operate a "need-to-know" filtering system but what would happen if the head's view of what governors need to know did not coincide with that of the governors? And however good the filtering, there is still far too much to read. We are looking at one-page summaries of main documents (with the full document available for those who wish to follow it up in more detail) and the use of training videos as part of the induction programme. Not all information comes "down". Some is "lateral" information that each committee needs to share with the other committees. There is some feeling that a report back to the termly meeting of the governing body is too little too late.
o How effective is communication during meetings? It's easy to assume that because a meeting has been held communication has taken place. It is estimated that two or three days after a meeting no more than 10 per cent of the information actually remains and even less if there have been barriers to communication during the meeting itself. These can range from the length ("It seemed to last forever") to the venue (comfortable chairs set out in a square really make a difference). Some of our agendas could be made more informative. The inclusion of a verb ("to discussapprovenote," etc.) helps governors to prepare their thoughts beforehand, especially if this is followed by a short explanatory paragraph. As for minutes, it's a tremendous help if these are circulated as soon as possible after the meeting and show who is to do what and by when.
o How effective are large groups? Communication is much more effective in the smaller committees. Four or five members is the optimum size for effective decision-making, allowing informalities and increasing governors' sense of involvement. We shall continue to delegate (within statutory limitations) more work to committees.
o What can we do about the jargon? There is no doubt that, for many governors, jargon is a major barrier. Our local authority governor support programme provides a useful glossary, but this is not always to hand when you need it. Where jargon is inescapable, we are looking at the possibility of including a tailored glossary.
o What can we do as receivers of information? Communication is a two-way process and requires skills on our part. Despite the high quality of many governor support courses, the take-up is very small. This is not surprising: governors are busy people. Maybe we should be urging the course providers to convert some of their courses to distance-learning materials so that we can take advantage of them at a time that is convenient to us.
We haven't come up with any startling new answers to the problem of communication but at least we're talking about it.
Geoff Hand is a governor of two West Sussex primary schools.