Free article: The governing body as a critical friend

Published: Tuesday, 20 September 2016

In his second article on the headteacher and governor relationship, Tony Powell defines what is meant by a ‘critical friend’.


  • Governors and headteachers should be working towards the same goal and be mutually supportive.
  • Governors should act as a sounding board and offer a critique that encourages and enables the headteacher to improve educational provision and raise standards. 
  • The mission statement should identify the distinctive characteristics and purposes of the school and define the long-term aims for all stakeholders. 
  • The NGA recommends that governing bodies should adopt a code of conduct that sets out the expectations placed on governors.

Our education system is undergoing rapid and fundamental change. This is particularly so in the expectations of governing bodies and their role in different leadership and management structures, such as academies and free schools, and the proliferation of groupings of schools, such as academies and multi-academy trusts (MATs). At the time of writing, the Secretary of State has withdrawn the policy of coercing all schools to become academies, while retaining it as a government priority. 

Little wonder that governors are confused as to the proper working relationship between themselves and headteachers/senior leaders. Should they be trusting (and gullible) or constantly suspicious? There is lots of external guidance; probably the best is provided by The National Governors’ Association (NGA) in two of their publications:

  • A Framework for Governance: A flexible guide to strategic planning 
  • What governing boards should expect from school leaders and what school leaders should expect from governing boards.

If a headteacher is abusing his or her authority or is incompetent, the governing body has a duty to act decisively to protect staff and pupils. However, this is rare and the relationship frequently advocated, but not often defined, is that of ‘critical friend’. This article attempts to set out a commonsense way of retaining the ‘friend’ as well as the ‘critical’ so that governors and headteachers can work together towards their shared aims of improving educational provision for the children in their school community. 

Defining ‘critical friend’

There are many connotations to the word ‘friend’, but there is a common understanding that the term means to be on the same side, to be well disposed towards each other and not hostile. So, governors and the headteacher as ‘friends’ are working towards the same ends and are mutually supportive. It should follow that the critical aspect is about acting as a sounding board and offering a critique that encourages and enables the headteacher to improve educational provision and raise standards, rather than simply offering negative comments. 

Headteachers and governing bodies should spend time defining the context for their relationship and their mutual aims so that they have the confidence to act as mutual ‘critical friends’. Outlined below is one way they could do this.

Mission statement

If the school’s mission statement identifies the distinctive characteristics and purposes of the school, it defines the long-term aims for all stakeholders. It is worth spending time creating a shared mission statement and reviewing it regularly so that it serves as the strategic direction of the school for senior leaders and governors. For example, if the mission statement is: ‘Excellence in the heart of the community’, what sort of questions should governors ask when discussing policies?  To be meaningful, the mission statement should impact on the life of the school, and it is worth asking for examples of this. 

Code of conduct

The NGA recommends that each governing board should adopt a code of conduct. The code would set out the expectations placed on governors and include a commitment to the seven principles of public life as set out by Lord Nolan. Such a code would make it clear to all governors and senior leaders what their responsibilities are and give a moral context for carrying them out.

The NGA model code defines the core functions of the governing body as follows.

Establishing the strategic direction, by:

  • setting the vision, values and objectives for the school
  • agreeing the school improvement strategy with priorities and targets
  • meeting statutory duties.

Ensuring accountability, by:

  • appointing the headteacher
  • monitoring progress towards targets
  • performance managing the headteacher 
  • engaging with stakeholders
  • contributing to school self-evaluation.

Ensuring financial probity, by:

  • setting the budget
  • monitoring spending against the budget
  • ensuring that value for money is obtained
  • ensuring that risks to the organisation are managed.


The mission statement defines the strategic direction and the code of conduct provides the moral context. A policy is a set course of action. No governor can be in the school every minute of the day, so policies are expectations of what will happen in a given circumstance. Any school will have a wide range of policies covering all aspects of its work and it will be impossible for any governor to be familiar with them all. Being a critical friend means making it clear that governors expect policies to be followed.

Self-evaluation and school improvement cycle

The self-evaluation and school improvement cycle should be matched to the constitution and procedures of the governing body and the yearly timetable for meetings. The aim should be to ensure that governors receive all the information they need to carry out their responsibilities as set out in the code of conduct. The Clerk to the Governors should use the cycle to map out the various agendas across the year.

For example, if a headteacher wished to hide poor results he or she could do so by failing to present data to the governing body. The self-evaluation cycle should list the dates for all internal and external data sets and transfer them to meeting agendas so they cannot be ‘overlooked’. Governors should also have a plan for how data will be presented. See the checklist in the toolkit for and example based on the Ofsted handbook. 

School Improvement Plan (SIP)

The priorities in the SIP should be agreed between the governing body and the headteacher. It is at this level that governors act as a critical friend. Ask simple questions, such as: ‘Why is this a priority?’, ‘How will it raise standards?’, ‘How will it improve pupils’ learning?’

Self-evaluation statement (SES)

All governors should know and understand the school’s analysis of its strengths and weaknesses in the SES. Presentations of the various sections should be built into the self-evaluation and school improvement cycle and grades formally agreed. 


The ‘appointed’ governors carry out the headteacher’s performance management and, while the focus is on setting and reviewing progress against objectives, governors also take an overall view of the headteacher’s leadership. The best way to act as a critical friend is to integrate appraisal into self-evaluation and school improvement so that the headteacher has an incentive to ensure that governors are kept fully informed.

Further information


Use the following item in the Toolkit to put the ideas in the article into practice:

About the author

Tony Powell is an experienced Additional Inspector and LA adviser. He writes extensively on education management, but his main work is in supporting schools to develop systems for self-evaluation, school improvement and continuing professional development. Tony can be contacted at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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