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Governing bodies: setting a culture for success

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A year on from Michael Gove’s infamous comments that school governance shouldn’t be a “sherry-pouring, cake-slicing exercise in hugging each other and singing Kumbayah,” it feels like as good a time as any to think about the culture of governing bodies.

There’s no doubt the Department for Education remains keen for governing bodies to be lean, mean, school-improving machines. In his foreword to the latest Governors’ Handbook, Lord Nash says he wants all governing bodies to focus “ruthlessly” on their strategic functions, and avoid getting distracted by “more peripheral” matters.

To see for myself what effect this impetus is having, I headed to a governing body meeting at Strathmore School, a day special school for learners with complex learning difficulties in Richmond-upon-Thames.

Walking along a sunny river Thames towards the school, I could be forgiven for thinking I had accidentally walked onto the set of Richard Curtis’ latest feature. An accordion player serenading smartly dressed diners, young couples in row boats meandering down the river, dog walkers letting their prized pooches off the leash for an afternoon dip: if I was going to find sherry-sipping governors anywhere, I was sure this was the place.

Upon meeting the school’s governors I realised the extent of my naivety. Passionate, well-informed and inquisitive, the governors at Strathmore School are working hard to better the school and the educational experiences of its pupils. The meeting was every bit as strategically ruthless as Lord Nash could wish, and there wasn’t a sherry bottle in sight (there might have been cake, but we’re all allowed our vices …).

[caption id="attachment_4227" align="alignleft" width="216"] Harry James, National Leader of Governance.[/caption]

Suitably impressed, I pinned down chair of governors Harry James to pick his brain on shaping a governing body's culture. A National Leader of Governance since the role’s inception, Harry previously worked as head of communications at the Post Office where he was charged with revitalising the organisation’s culture from the bottom up.

According to Harry you need to understand an organisation's past before you can change its culture, and school governing bodies are no different.

He tells me: “Up until recently, a large number of school governors looked upon their role as nothing more than turning up to meetings, school fetes and Christmas plays. By and large the school, including the governing body, was run by the headteacher.”

However, governing bodies have been forced to change. With the introduction of a more rigorous approach to school achievement - but with Ofsted only visiting schools every few years and local authorities being squeezed financially - another method of holding schools to account was needed. “School governors seemed like the obvious candidates.”

One of the foundations for this move was the availability of data, and it wasn’t long before governors were inundated with the stuff. In Harry’s experience, this has led to either conflict between headteachers and governors, or to headteachers controlling schools without interference from an overwhelmed governing body.

So there are lots of potential pitfalls- but what should school governance look like? For Harry, governing bodies still languishing in the cultures above need to embrace one “based on transparency and collaboration between the senior leadership team and the governing body.”

The basis for this culture is a shared, and agreed, five-year strategic plan. As Harry puts it, this document should not be “a fluffy-worded vision, but a specific plan,” with detailed targets spanning its five-year duration. What's more, its development should: “ involve the whole school community and, where possible, the local community. It should be ambitious, exciting and inspiring. It should drive everything the school does for the next five years. It should be displayed, its successes celebrated.”

By agreeing processes for monitoring and reporting the plan from the start, a school can move forward safe in the knowledge that “the opportunity for personalities, egos, and conflict to impact on school performance is minimised”. Everyone, old or new, is singing from the same hymn sheet- though preferably not Kumbayah.

Creating a positive culture in governance is about setting out a concrete plan, agreeing how it will be delivered, and then sticking by it. Only then can a governing body see the bigger picture and know it’s on the right track. Only then can it be the ruthlessly strategic body Lord Nash wants.

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