The Importance of Good School Governance

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Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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Do you work closely with the governors in your school? And if so, how well do you know them and how well-informed are they?

This is a blog about the importance of good governance, governors and their training and reliability. In this post I discuss the need for school governance to be more accountable to schools, and not vice versa.

In an article published in School Week, written by former TES editor, Gerard Kelly says;

 Education is simply too important to be left in the hands of volunteers as their commitment is sanctioned purely by the extent of their own goodwill.

Payment for Governors:

In the article, Kelly resurrects the idea that governors should be paid. He acknowledges that this will undermine the principle of volunteering and will annoy many. However, he does admit that the current system is not attracting the right sort. Kelly says “it is not merely desirable it’s essential … and help formulate a relationship that is far too fuzzy.”

Kelly goes on to say, well-meaning amateurs are not best placed at a time of rapid change to hold school leaders to account. I’d like to add to this, that some governors are not experts in our field either and that an outcome of their volunteering capacity, their leadership can lead to all sorts of horrific decisions.

Over the past decade, my role in middle and senior leadership has required me to be closely involved with school governors. My experiences have ranged from one extreme to another. Governors who are committed and passionate about the school, using their own professional expertise and skill-set to support the work of the school; and on the other hand governors who lack training, knowledge and more importantly, understanding of specific areas of school context, where schools and school leaders really need a critical friend.

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Image: Shutterstock

When Governance Works:

When governance works it is outstanding and can transform the culture of school; not just holding school leaders to account, but involving the entire body of staff, parents and where possible, the students. School governors become familiar faces, are non-threatening and supportive, who frequently reward and recognise the work of the staff in their school. Something as simple as a Christmas card, handwritten and hand delivered can make the smallest of difference between being recognised and valued, compared to radio silence and ‘who are you?’

Another personal example of mine, stems over a decade ago when I won The Guardian Award for Teacher of the Year in a Secondary School in London. The governors of the school were delighted with the recognition that I and the school received. Before I even received this accolade, there were a number of governors involved in recruiting good teachers to the school over a four or five-year period before this date. This required governors to be involved in all interviews and appointments; learning walks and the expected documents required for self-evaluation. As my middle leadership life evolved, my exposure to governors increased and the relationship between us and them developed to become a real partnership. For me personally, this recognition reached new heights when I became the poster boy for the school (I write in jest)! Naturally, my relationships with the governors grew exponentially.

At the time, the governors were fully involved and delighted to be part of the Teaching Awards process; taking part in the programme, observations and meetings with students and any visitors. Opportunity presented to me with increased exposure to a range of adults that I would not have been normally accustomed to. On other occasions, governors were involved with whole school events, such as the summer fair and the staff quiz; and thus, an important bridge between staff and governance flourished.

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Image: Shutterstock

Sometimes it can feel as though you are working in a cardboard box with no professional oversight.

Working with great governors and working in a good schools, a teacher’s personal exposure to the work of  governors as a teacher can be quite restricted. As a classroom teacher, if you believe governance works in your school, what is your relationship? How can your headteacher increase the work of governors in your school so that you understand the importance of their role? If you’re a school leader can you trust the expertise and the reliability of their judgements? And personally as school CPD leader, how can you monitor the quality of CPD that they receive and the impact that their training can have on your staff and your school? This is the hardest challenge I have yet to bridge …

When Governance Does’t Work:

On the other end of the spectrum in a school where I once worked, the school was converting to become an academy. The new incoming governors took very little interest in staff, the students and parents. They shunned the existing governors, eventually making staff redundancies and so forth. An initial lip-service consultation meeting was held to quell anger and disdain, but the inevitable was obvious. Over time the media supported our views, reporting on the governance of this academy chain and their irregularities. The initial scepticism was proven, yet a good governing body was pushed aside.

What they lack is detached, accountable, professional oversight. It really is time to retire us volunteers. (Kelly)


In my working life, there has also been many occasions where governors have stuck their noses into school business where they shouldn’t have. Governors should ask questions and of course, they are permitted to gain understanding of the mechanics of school life, but not the details. No governor needs to know the intricacies of our work. I know some readers will disagree, but they should be there to provide critical analysis, challenge and support at a strategic level (and not operational).

Of course when too much detail is asked for and provided, this leads to further and unnecessary questions. When this happens, it is the responsibility of the headteacher to take appropriate action. In my experience, these requests have been underhand conversations; judging teachers and grading teachers and their lessons. Something governors are not permitted (or qualified) to do; all unnecessary and avoidable. Worse still, individuals governors have named individual teachers in confidential meetings that I have attended; personnel and teaching and learning committees that have not required confidentiality to be breached.

I have always done my upmost to remain 99.9% confidential and have protected the staff I have worked with. I always keep a note to myself when presenting to governors, that all information is anonymous and that my role is to report to governors about projects and progress. I also pass on this advice to colleagues I take to any meeting for the first time.

Poor Judgement: 

It goes without saying, that on any appeal panel/meeting, anonymity is left aside as the individual will often be at the same meeting. This is not to say, they should not be treated with respect and confidentiality. After all, you are with one of your own colleagues, and not the governors. As a senior teacher, you may find yourself working to support your colleague, or on behalf of your school. The difference must be clear and the role of the governors must be explicit in any capacity, public, personal or private.

I recall not so long ago a particular governor was keen for me to report on an overall grade of quality of teaching and learning. I refused to provide that person with a figure. Over time, this decision which I stuck with, became a personal source of entertainment as each time, the frustration grew deeper on the face of the governor. On closer inspection, it transpired that this person will the former member of the DfE, and that the life they had once known, became reliant on figures and percentages. A sure way to measure progress (or not), even if the data was unreliable. I even stated that our monitoring lacked validity and we could no-longer place teachers on a graded scale …

Over time, I won the battle; not that it was a battle to be won, but it was at a time when this particular issue began to raise many questions for schools across the country. Perhaps I was too ahead of my governors? My expertise fell on deaf ears.

In February 2014, The Famous Five visited OfSTED HQ to meet with Mike Cladingbowl. Six months later OfSTED conducted a pilot project in the Midlands to remove lesson gradings and in September 2014, OfSTED announced that they would no longer report on one-off lesson gradings.

50-50 Still Grading Lessons:

Today, Twitter now offer users the function to carry out their own surveys.

Take a look at these results that I conducted at the start of this half term:

Lesson Gradings One Off Observations Poll Twitter

881 votes / 50% split.

It appears to be as a nation, and almost two years later since the dialogue began, we are still divided in our approach to judging the quality of teaching and learning. It appears that some schools still believe that they can judge a teacher in 20-30 minutes of teaching. Now, I am not one to criticise the methods of other schools and school leaders, but I am willing to challenge those who think it is possible to grade teacher after 20 or 30 minutes of teaching.

Over the past year, in our school we have removed lesson gradings and have placed formative observations and a culture of trust back into teaching and the teachers who teach. We know that our teachers teach over 700 hours per year and that there are more reliable sources of information to determine quality. We also know we must keep rigour and accountability in mind when reporting to governors.

Over Time Approach:

This year, we have published our MER cycle to determine workflow and workload. Within this document, we determine what sources of information we will be using to take a closer look at throughout this academic year. This document has proved very popular with readers and it was only yesterday that I emailed out 20 to 30 copies of the documents to various teachers across the country. This is not a perfect solution but it is a mechanism that we are using to allow middle leaders and senior teachers to take a closer look at teaching, students work, students acting on feedback and the types of routines in conversations taking place in class typically. It is for this reason that I believe this will provide a more reliable and valid judgement of teaching across the school (over time).

It is this kind of information that should be shared with our governors. Sadly, the one governor that I used to work with failed to recognise this methodology as a more reliable way of doing things, and it also appears from the survey results above that they are not alone.

Governors should be paid not because they necessarily deserve it. They should be paid because it allows schools and the taxpayer to hold them properly to account. (Kelly)

If we can appoint governors who are trained, held to account and have the best interests of our schools at heart, then maybe we will live to see a better education system.


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5 thoughts on “The Importance of Good School Governance

  1. It’s an interesting read. The only thing missing is a paragraph about how ignorant many teachers are about the function and purpose of the governors. That includes headteachers. I think once all sides have really tackled this, set the vision together and are clear, only good things can happen. There are many assumptions and I find the best way to start every year is to get the basics in place and agree on vision, purpose, protocol and modus operandi.
    I would also add that having been a parent governor for many years, there are two things I take away:
    1) The whole system of governance of schools by unqualified laypeople is bonkers although some kind of QA review, sense check and strategic scrutiny is essential;
    2) Parent governors are the most difficult breed trying to do the impossible feat of being parents and governors. Something always has to give. Sadly, I found that my commitment to the whole school meant I was less able to look out for my own children’s needs for fear of making anyone uncomfortable.

  2. I’ve read this blog with interest and in the same 48 hours that I also read Neil Carmichael’s latest publication, “Building Better Boards.” I am left with a sense of frustration that too many people, including many schools leaders, continue to missunderstand the role of the governing body.
    I guess my basic premise is that governors don’t “do;”instead they “ensure” that things are done.As governors, or now =ptrustees/directors too in academies (the three are intrerchangeable terms) governors are of course friends and supporters of their school. This is a vital part of the balanced “critical friend” role, but support and friendship have to be tempered with a senset of constructive citicism. This is where we bring challenge to ou role and deliver accountability. Challenge is not about being destructive, criticising or trying to catch school leaders oiut; it should be asking questions which, when we get the response, deepen our understanding of our schools and build our strategic overview.

  3. Thanks for the thoughts, Ross. I have always thought a good school can be good in spite of its (poor) governors, but that a really good set of governors adds immense value to the school, I’ve been in and out of a great many schools, coached headteachers who were struggling with their governors, and governors who were struggling with their headteacher, so your experience resonates with mine. I’ve also asked the question of trainee headteachers ‘why do we have governors’ and a surprising number can’t answer that. In my experience, the role of governors is not sufficiently valued, therefore people of the right calibre don’t step forward, therefore the wrong people become governors, therefore the role isn’t taken seriously … etc.

    One thing you haven’t picked up on is the role of the chair. I would say it’s the chair’s responsibility to hold governors to account and develop their understanding of their role. Part of the role of the chair is actively to develop trust between the school and governors and among governors. It’s not easy, but it’s crucial.

    The ‘stakeholder’ model of governance is on its way out and Penny, I have also struggled in the past to balance my role as governor with the needs of my own children. I do think there is a place for lay people to be involved, however. When Ofsted inspections started they included a ‘lay inspector’ on their teams, reasoning that it was important to have a ‘commonsense view’ (which I always thought rather insulting to the teaching profession). What I discovered in undertaking that role, was that the best-meaning professionals can sometimes over-identify with colleagues, to the detriment of pupils’ experience. With so much change in education and the consequential challenge of spinning so many plates, a well-trained, outward-looking board of governors can help to head to stick to his or her principles and prioritise the important over the immediate, confident in the support of the governors.

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