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Last updated on 5 July 2019
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An experienced governor gives you the 5 things he’s doing to move his board from good to great - see if they work for yours too.

Make everyone accountable via a written commitment

Establish and emphasise a shared commitment to the school and its outcomes whenever someone new joins your board.

Encourage everyone to see the board of governors and school leadership team as one team, all responsible for the success of the school - it’s just that some of you have executive and non-executive roles within the team.

Go further than a code of conduct and ask new governors to also sign a written statement to this effect. This sets clear expectations and makes everyone accountable for a minimum level of engagement.

This could be a separate document or part of the code of conduct itself. If there are any issues with governor engagement, you could use this as a basis for talking to any governors who aren't committing to the level you'd expect. 

Example wording

I understand that by taking on the role of governor, I am part of a team, which includes both governors and senior leaders, who take a shared responsibility for the success of the school. We all work hard to drive improvements in the school, create and deliver on a compelling vision and strategy, and ultimately make sure pupils achieve their potential. 

I know that I have an individual part to play, and will be fully committed and engaged throughout my time as a governor. 

I understand that I'm expected to attend a minimum of 3 full board meetings per year, at least 3 committee meetings per year, and to visit the school at least once per term to carry out monitoring duties [adjust this according to your school's expectations]. 

Share the workload evenly

Setting standards for participation will help your board move away from a ‘hero’ model of governance - where the chair shoulders all the work and others can coast along. Other tips for chairs on changing this sort of culture include: 

  • As chair, directly ask other governors if they’ll take on specific actions within meetings 
  • Delegate as standard - the default position shouldn’t be that the chair does the work outside of meetings 
  • Review the roles on your board and make sure each board member has an individual responsibility
  • Put dedicated agenda items throughout the year for link governors to report back to the board
  • Be comfortable with silence in meetings. Don’t jump in to take on an action or ask a question, leave space for others on the board to do this - read our guide to chairing meetings for more advice on encouraging all governors to contribute

Set up a ‘shadow structure’ 

To help with succession planning and mentoring governors in one go, set up a shadow structure where all roles on the board have a counterpart. This includes:

  • The chair, vice chair and committee chairs
  • Link governors and other roles with specific monitoring responsibilities

Pair a more experienced governor carrying out the role with a less experienced one as the shadow governor. They should do all work associated to the role in their pairs - such as visiting the school to meet staff members, writing reports, looking at relevant data. 

It helps your board do mentoring, or use a buddy system, in a less forced way. The mentoring work fits in to the existing work of the board and there's an expectation that everyone takes part. It's not another thing the chair has to arrange whenever there's a new governor or someone says they'd like some more support. It's easier to learn by doing. This system means a new governor gets first-hand experience of good governance.

It helps with succession planning because if the experienced governor leaves, it's expected that the 'shadow' governor will take over that role. The new governor will then take on the vacant shadow role. This means succession planning is continuous. You don't lose established and institutional knowledge when someone leaves - governance can involve a lot of turnover and it's easy to lose momentum when key people leave.

Loosely align board and staff CPD

If there's whole-school CPD related to your strategic priorities - try sending governors along too. Governors ask better questions when they fully understand the issue itself and how it works in the school.

This idea came from the governor's experience as an executive leader in the corporate sector. He realised that non-executive directors asked much more relevant questions when they spent more time getting to know the business. 

Example: mastery objective

The school has a strategic objective around mastery. It's a concept that's crucial to the school's success, but it can feel vague and hard to visualise for governors.

The governor pair responsible for mastery joined a whole-school training session. After, they wrote up a report for the rest of the board, which explained what happened on the training session, the key things they'd learnt, and the overall experience of the session. 

The whole board then discussed how it'll monitor the mastery objective, using the new contextual knowledge of the governors who had been on the training. It discussed questions like:

  • How will we know what great mastery learning looks like in practice?
  • What would we expect to see in the classroom? By when? 
  • How will we know what effect this strategy is having on pupil outcomes? 
  • What does this mean for the pace of learning for our pupils who are working at greater depth and don't take as long as others to pick up the topics - will they have to work slower? 

The last question in particular is one that wouldn't have been asked without a governor having this more in-depth knowledge of the subject.

Make sure this doesn't get too operational

This has the potential to make governors spill over into operational territory. You don't want governors to start commenting on how well an individual staff member is applying the teaching methods from the training session, for example. To avoid this: 

  • Make sure your governors fully understand their roles, and the divide between strategic and operational duties
  • Make it crystal clear that they're attending the training for context and to further their understanding of the school
  • As chair, be ready to intervene in meetings if a governor makes a comment on the operational side of things. For example "I see what you're saying, but I think that's something for the headteacher to manage"

Get expert eyes on your data

Get a headteacher from another school to sit on the committee that looks at your pupil performance data. Ideally, this would be someone with no personal connection to the headteacher.

They can give you expert advice and potentially challenge the headteacher in a more granular and nuanced way than governors could.

  • In a maintained school or single academy: you could look for a headteacher through any regional governor collaboration events you attend, cluster groups you're part of, other governors you know, or ask a school improvement partner to recommend someone. Invite them along as an observer, or appoint them to your board as an associate member
  • In a multi-academy trust: get a headteacher from another school within the trust 

Ask them to:

  • Read the data reports your board gets
  • Attend committee meetings and give the governors a better sense of the context for the data 
  • Ask informed, challenging questions of the headteacher, using their own expertise
  • Expertly interrogate the headteacher's narrative and explanation for the data 
  • Give their objective, unbiased view on where governors should be concerned and focus their attention

This should not replace governors' own knowledge

An experienced headteacher's presence should enhance governors' understanding of data - not replace it. The relevant committee should still:

  • Look at the full reports and establish their own impression of the school's strengths, weaknesses and trends
  • Ask the headteacher for the important information to be elevated in reports, with key figures traffic-lighted to aid understanding 
  • Ask for data to be presented with a clear view from the SLT on what the key takeaways are 

Read our list of good questions to ask about pupil progress.   

Set fewer objectives to ensure tangible progress 

Focused objectives with robust expectations for progress can give your school improvement monitoring a boost. 

Strategy must be biased, it can't involve trying to do 'everything better'. Be ruthless when it comes to choosing your strategic priorities and focus solely on the things you bet will most improve the education of pupils. Resist the temptation to set a wide range of strategic objectives - this will just dilute senior leaders' attention. 

It's hard to say something like "reading is less important than writing", but that's what you might have to do. You need to choose what you're NOT going to prioritise right now in your school.

Choose 4 objectives to focus on at the exclusion of all else, based on:

  • A solid understanding of the school and where provision could be better
  • Your vision and values
  • The areas that you think will make the most impact 
  • Advice from a school improvement partner 

It’s easier to properly monitor the objectives when there are fewer, well-planned ones. Assign 2 governors to each strategic objective. Make sure all your objectives are the focus of monitoring visits (rather than asking governors to monitor subjects or departments).

Be clear what success looks like

Each objective needs: 

  • Clear, specific success criteria
  • Deadlines for when you think they can be achieved
  • Defined points at which you'll review progress

Set some of your review points early on and consider what the early indicators of success will be. This will build in regular conversation and reflection.

Stick to your outcomes, not your tactics

Your priorities and what you want to achieve shouldn't change, but be ready to change tactics in response to what's working. You should be able to have candid conversations about whether the tactics are right if you:

  • Have regular review points 
  • Clarify what good will look like at various stages of the journey
  • Are ready to be wrong, and draw a line in the sand once you've realised something isn't working

For example, your objective might be to close the achievement gap for Key Stage 2 pupils. However, if some of the ideas are clearly not working at your first review point, then staff should have the confidence to reflect and try other methods, and know they're working in a structure where this is encouraged and enabled by governors.

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