Free article: How proactive governors support school improvement

Published: Sunday, 07 April 2019

A proactive governing body can help schools make the most of scant resources and play a crucial role in supporting school improvement, says governance expert Ruth Agnew.

Summary

  • Prioritising how to use the money available must be governed by clearly agreed priorities to make sure that these resources are used as effectively as they can be.
  • Learning resources are of course important, but the learning environment is equally important. 
  • Risk management has become more of a focus for governors since it was included in the governor competency framework.
  • Governors should work with the headteacher to ensure that the performance management of teaching staff is closely linked to school development aims and staff professional development.

Governors and school leaders do have a degree of freedom to deploy resources effectively and efficiently to meet their priorities, provided they do so within a clearly agreed framework and appreciate that there are other pressures on budgets which they have less control over.

Getting this right is closely related to having a clear vision for the school and a clear, costed strategic plan around agreed priorities, although we all know that once you take staffing costs into account there isn’t much money left.

Prioritising how to use that money must be governed by clearly agreed priorities to make sure that these resources are used as effectively as they can be. The clearer and more costed the framework, the clearer it is where those resources should be deployed and where there might be possibilities of failures and inefficiencies. Getting those priorities right is the most important first step.

How governors decide on those priorities depends to an extent on their school and its context. The age of the school building is a big factor. Learning resources are of course important, but the learning environment is equally important. Buildings are very expensive to manage. The primary school where I am chair of governors has a Victorian building that needs a lot of looking after. That immediately sets one of the priorities of where we direct resources. By contrast, the buildings at the secondary school where I sit on the governing body are just seven years old.

How well a school monitors the use of its resources depends very much on the skills of the staff and their experience, as well as the knowledge of governors. School business managers bring business management knowledge, while governors can bring their own specialist knowledge and experiences into the governing body. Training for governors doesn’t tend to focus on strategic monitoring of resources, and few governors seem to be accessing the government’s benchmarking website.

The accountability challenge

Risk management has become more of a focus for governors since the area was included in the governor competency framework. Areas that need to be looked at include funding, future pupil numbers, NQT quality, teacher retention and business continuity.

This increase in accountability potentially leads to greater workload for governors. The accountability to Ofsted has contributed to the workload of governors, leaders and teachers. The fear of the inspecting body has created another risk which governors should be aware of – the impact on staff well-being. Governors have not always been very good at the oversight of staff well-being. I do see governors doing more staff well-being surveys and stress risk assessments, but I don’t believe this is widespread at the moment. One school I’m working with is holding exercise classes after school for staff, helping them relax and keep healthy.

Governing bodies still rely too much on guidance from the headteacher on their responsibilities. This can create unnecessary accountability pressures which could be addressed by governors paying closer attention to current education developments. There is evidence that some heads continue to measure teacher marking against Ofsted requirements even though Ofsted says that they don’t need this. If governors read more widely (Sean Harford’s education inspection blog helps to bust some myths and is a good starter) then they will have a better understanding, rather than listening to anecdotes about what Ofsted wants.

Staff retention

A major challenge for governors is the retention of effective staff. Good-quality professional development has a key role to play here. It is crucial for governors to work with the headteacher to ensure that the performance management process is closely linked to school development aims and staff professional development needs.

However, governors must also hear what the staff think about performance management if they are to support school leaders to develop an effective system that ticks those boxes. It’s a challenging area for governors to get a clear picture of what’s going on and what they ought to be doing, but anonymous staff questionnaires can help.

Academies are, in theory, able to take advantage of greater freedoms around staffing contracts to make the most of resources, but I see little evidence that this is happening. Academies are in a market and have budget restraints, and I do not see a lot of innovation around staffing contracts. Maintained schools have more freedoms now, but they do not seem to be using them either. We will see the nature of schools continue to develop, so this may change in the future, but their appetite for risk is fairly low, in my experience. There is a fear that new approaches to staffing contracts will impact adversely on recruitment.

One of the temptations as a governor is to think that if the headteacher has reached the top of their grade, they should change that pay range, so they don’t lose them. Of course, that never happens for other staff and there can be a real disparity between leadership and other pay increases. Governors ought to think about the implications for other pay and differentials, exercise proper accountability and accept that heads sometimes move on. It is an area that governors do not always treat with the attention it deserves.

It is clear that groups of schools such as multi-academy trusts (MATs) and federations can make the most of resources through more efficient procurement and the rationalisation of systems, but the greatest benefit is staffing. Partnering with other schools gives primary schools in particular a chance to build up areas of specialism which might not otherwise be possible. It might also give them a chance for greater income generation through selling this expertise, such as safeguarding, into other schools.

Becoming part of a MAT or federation might also be a good retention measure. A formal partnership like a federation or a MAT may give schools more scope to offer their staff professional development and career advancement, which might mean that while they are still likely to lose staff, there will be a good chance that they will lose them to a school within that partnership.

Further information

About the author

Ruth Agnew is a consultant working with school governors. She has been a governor for the past 15 years. Her insights into the role of governance in school improvement form part of the National Professional Qualification for Senior Leadership (NPQSL), one of a suite of four National Professional Qualifications developed and delivered by Outstanding Leaders Partnership, in partnership with Best Practice Network. More information is available at www.outstandingleaders.org/qualifications.

Most frequently read