A critical friend for heads
A key piece of advice I give to aspiring headteachers is: don’t be afraid of your governors. While it may seem natural to fear the people that keep you in the job, adopting such an attitude is counterproductive. Only through mutual trust and respect, and a close working relationship between governors and headteacher, can schools thrive.
As an aspiring leader, you need to get yourself acquainted with the governor-head dynamic and utilise these experts in your current role. You should take the opportunity to work closely with your school’s governors, mining their skills and insights to create innovative solutions for long-standing challenges. If you don’t have this opportunity already as a member of a senior leadership team (SLT), or even a middle leader, I recommend that you speak to your head about how you could contribute to future meetings.
Working with your governors also offers a unique opportunity to develop skills, such as resilience and holding others to account; you should be ready for direct questions and some difficult conversations, but these are at the heart of a valuable governor-SLT relationship.
No matter what their background or agenda, the role of the governor is to be a critical friend to the headteacher and leadership team: they ensure that the SLT dig deep into areas of concern and they work closely with the head to push through important changes.
For example, I am a governor and together with my fellow governors I recently analysed the reading ages of key stage 3 pupils, so that we could be sure that they were ready to access the curriculum for their crucial GCSE years. The governors requested this project, but the success of the review was only possible with the support of the head, as he will be responsible with the SLT for driving improvements.
Rather than fearing the governors, then, a strong governing body should make the post far more attractive to prospective candidates, as the skills, experience and insights these volunteers bring to the table give a headteacher the chance to share the burden, access valuable advice and bounce ideas off a knowledgeable and invested sounding board. We have recruited a range of technical skill sets on our board, including a lawyer, a banker and a marketing expert – all of whom have positively influenced decision-making.
It is not just professional skills that add value to a governing body. Parent governors with their roots in the local community and close connection to the everyday needs of the schools’ children can make a significant contribution and are an important voice to have in the room.
To foster a positive dialogue with your governors – and lay the foundations for a positive working relationship as headteacher – I would counsel regular attendance at board meetings for senior leaders and complete transparency about the challenges the school is facing.
Remember, we’re all there for the same reason: to improve outcomes for the children. Let that be the driver of good school governance and your relationships with governors.
Jacqueline Russell is the acting chief executive of the Future Leaders Trust