My first brush with school governors came fairly early in my teaching career. All new staff were asked to meet the governors in the library at the end of the day. As I trooped in with my colleagues, I was accosted by a diminutive, regal-looking lady.
“Ah, good evening. You must be the head boy,” she purred.
“No. I’m the [28-year-old] head of physics,” I replied.
That was it for me and governors for about six years.
I only really got to know the ins and outs of governance when I was a deputy headteacher at a large special school. Later, as a head, I began to grasp the delicate nuances of the relationship. Finally, after four years of headship, I realised the truth of the matter: you end up with the governing body you deserve.
What do I mean by this? Well, as a headteacher, you have the power to turn your governors into the strategic driving force they should be – or into an irritant to be avoided and reluctantly tolerated. Governors may start off in either camp (and anywhere in between), but where they end up during your headship is entirely down to you.
Here’s how to make sure you and your governors are at the positive end of the spectrum.
Work on your relationship with the chair
This trumps everything else. This relationship has equal importance, in my view, to the ones you have with your deputy and your school business manager. You’re not there to be best friends, but you do need to be professionally aligned.
I tell my chair of governors everything and really value their perspective on things. When other heads say “I just tell my chair what to do” or “I ignore my chair”, I know a big opportunity has gone begging and a brake has been applied to progress.
Respect your governors
Get reports and papers to them on time so they can read them. It’s the least you can do. I used to complain about meetings on a Tuesday evening, preferring them later in the week. It never occurred to me that it might be the only night my governors were free – juggling, as they were, the rest of their busy lives.
Help governors to feel less isolated
The role of school governor can be a lonely one. They rarely have the luxury we have of visiting other schools regularly and building a professional network (although Twitter has been brilliant for governors). I’ve been able to help that along a little by organising meetings with other governing bodies to discuss key issues, although I hope to do more.
Spread the love
If yours is the only voice the governors hear at meetings, something needs to change. As a matter of course, I do not attend all committee meetings – our exceptional deputy head does a superb job in my place. Were I to attend alongside her, I’d find it hard to shut up; she would have less room to develop and the governors wouldn’t get to hear from other leaders.
Make opportunities for other senior leaders and middle leaders to attend meetings, to discuss their areas of accountability and to be questioned by governors.
Make your headteacher reports count
These reports are for the governors’ use and the format and contents should be set by the board. The governors dictate what information they want to see – it’s your job to present this in as accessible a format as possible.
Take staff absence: consider how difficult it is for a governor to judge if absence is an issue in your school if they have no frame of reference. I provide them with benchmarks (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development annual reports, figures from other local special schools, last year’s in-house data) to enable them to make a reasoned judgement. The fact that our absence rate is down 39 per cent on last year is superficially good news, but we may still have a problem compared with other schools.
I have some trusted colleagues, locally and further afield, who share information to assist our governors.
Make challenge inevitable
New governors can be understandably reluctant to ask questions that are searching or challenging of a headteacher. It’s not about giving them permission to challenge – I find that patronising. It’s about making it inevitable that they will, and well-written reports make it a much easier thing to do.
If, in my next report, staff absence has increased by 15 per cent, then this would be an open goal for governors. I would expect questions from them, and I would be a fool if I didn’t have an explanation ready.
Communicate, communicate, communicate
I produce a weekly bulletin for staff containing important dates, key messages, news, feedback from visitors and other updates. Initially, this was not sent to governors. They have since asked for it and they now say it’s a key document for them. The bulletin allows them to understand the school better and it provides the context they need to be effective in their role.
Jarlath O’Brien is headteacher of Carwarden House Community School in Surrey