One of my favourite sayings is, ‘If life gives you lemons, then make lemonade’.
This has certainly been the case at Carlton Bolling, where I came in to a school that was notorious in some quarters for poor governance, but took advantage of the adversity to create the type of high-quality governing body that is essential to any school aspiring to be the very best.
Before becoming headteacher in 2013, I heard rumours about governor interference, and that this had reputedly been a major reason why two previous headteachers had left the school. Mid-way through my first year, the profile of the governing body moved up a notch or three when some members were linked to the ‘Trojan Horse’ schools in Birmingham. Lurid headline after lurid headline appeared in the national press relating to governors and governance at the school, with TV news crews being a far-too-regular feature outside school.
The inevitable Ofsted inspection followed in June 2014, with the notoriety of the school earning the dubious honour of an unannounced visit from five senior inspectors. As I expected, the school was then placed in special measures, with governance a major factor in the decision. Shortly afterwards, the local authority removed the governing body to be replaced with what was, in effect, a temporary governing body known as an interim executive board (IEB).
Clearly these events were not an enjoyable experience for me or the school. However, I recognised that the situation had presented me with an opportunity that not many headteachers are afforded – to design and build a governing body from scratch.
Designing the new governing body
I believe in doing important jobs to the very best of my ability, so I looked for a national leader of governance (NLG) who could provide me with the support and guidance to help design the best governing body for the school’s needs. After speaking with Brian Sheldrake, Director of Governance at the Leeds-based Rodillian multi-academy trust, I was certain I had the ideal person for the task. With Brian’s advice we drew up the following constitution of a governing body of nine people.
Optimal size and constitution
Nine is an optimal number, from which you are able to draw on a broad range of opinions from people with differing skills and experience; but it is also a manageable size, so you don’t become bogged down by contributions from too many people. This was a far cry from the previous governing body, where a membership of 19 saw several late-night finishes. This size also mirrors the number of members you find on the board of major companies – and, like it or not, headteachers today are in effect the CEO of a medium-sized company.
The nine governors comprise:
- one headteacher
- four co-opted governors
- one local authority governor
- two parent governors
- one staff governor.
The four co-opted governors were hand picked for their skills and how these matched the specific requirements of the school. This is extremely important in the context of the new Ofsted inspection framework, which places increased emphasis and importance on the role of governors. Indeed, without strong governance it is unlikely that a school will be rated as outstanding.
So, with this in mind, two of the recruited co-opted governors are school improvement consultants, one from the local authority and the other operating their own consultancy. Both have the required high-level knowledge and experience to stretch and develop both the school and me as a leader. I imagine many headteachers would be thrilled to have compliant, unchallenging governors, but I believe this is a trap. It is essential to learn to welcome people challenging and disagreeing with decisions. Without this, there isn’t the impetus to make the continuous small changes that ratchet up improvement.
The remaining co-opted roles went to a police sergeant who works in the community, and the new Chair of Governors who works in a senior role within the city’s Chief Executive’s office. Both bring unique benefits. The police link helps improve the school’s understanding of its wider community, which every school should pay close attention to. While the link with the Chief Executive’s office brings education and business acumen, along with networking opportunities and possible access to people which any headteacher would be foolish to overlook.
Local authority governor
Being a local authority (LA) school, having an LA governor is a mandatory requirement. However, this was in effect another co-opted governor, with the person recruited being someone with a long involvement in education and previous commitment to the school. The person is also well connected with the political party retaining a controlling interest in the council.
Staff and parent governors
Ensuring quality in these roles is difficult for many schools. Headteachers can often be burdened by someone who is more determined to be part of the ‘awkward squad’ than to promote school improvement. This is because schools have a voting system to make appointments, which I have seen return people who are anti-management or who bear grudges, or spoof candidates who stand purely as a joke.
Governance is too important to be left to chance, so we invited staff and parent-governor candidates to apply for roles as you would for a job, ensuring that the best candidates were appointed. Application letters, made against a job description of national governor competencies, were followed by interviews with the Chair of Governors and the NLG (Brian Sheldrake).
There are no sub-committees. Primarily, this is to prevent a small group of people on one committee working to their own agenda. Equally, involving all governors in all school decisions helps them fully appreciate the whole-school picture, which is what their role requires. An extra benefit for me has been that it cuts down on meetings and planning for meetings, freeing me up to actually do things around school as opposed to talking about what I want to do at meetings.
People might, and have, argued that there isn’t enough time to discuss everything in one two-hour half-termly meeting. But, from experience, I can tell you that it is more than possible if you are diligent in ensuring that the agenda contains only the appropriate strategic items that should be discussed by governors, rather than some of the trivia people often are allowed to talk about in meetings.
Every governing body I have been on has had at least one person who likes the idea of being a governor, but doesn’t want to trouble themselves with going to meetings. Annual performance management is the tool the new governing body will use to address this. The Chair of Governors will manage this, and anyone not attending or deemed to be working against the best interests of the school will be released. It sounds harsh, and it is, but good governance justifies it.
Attracting highly skilled people to become governors isn’t easy. They invariably lead busy lives and, understandably, may want payment for any extra responsibilities that are added to their schedule. Although paying governors isn’t yet legal, this may change soon, with some high-profile advocates including Michael Wilshaw (Ofsted Chief Inspector) supporting this route.
However, it is possible to pay governors on an indirect proxy basis. For example, we have agreed that our two education consultant co-opted governors will conduct some separately contracted school improvement work in school. This is a win–win for all, as they gain some remuneration and we gain high-quality consultancy which further enhances the governing body’s knowledge of the school.
Governance isn’t something many headteachers like dealing with. However, if you take time to create a governing body that promotes excellence and accountability, made up of the best people for your school, you will have an executive body that will more than make the effort worthwhile.
Use the following items in the Toolkit to help you put the ideas in this article into practice:
About the author
Adrian Kneeshaw was appointed as headteacher of Carlton Bolling in September 2013, which was the beginning of a very challenging, interesting and immensely rewarding experience. He has a passion for education, particularly in the enablement of disadvantaged young people, ensuring that they are able to achieve their very best. Adrian is very creative in his outlook and believes in taking education forward in innovative ways.