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Challenge and support: finding the balance
Get clarity on how to hold school leaders to account while supporting them to reach their targets, and see how this works in practice.
Our associate expert Keith Clover, a national leader of governance, helped us write this article.
Challenge and support: what it means
Challenge and support are intertwined. It’s about pushing for improvement and setting aspirational targets, and then supporting leaders to achieve them.
A key part of your role is challenging your headteacher and school leaders. They’ll expect you to ask hard questions and hold them to account.
But you should be challenging what they’re doing in their role, rather than them as individuals – don’t make it personal.
Ask what the problems are and what they need to succeed, then really listen to them and do all you can to get that support in place.
Challenge: in practice
Challenge involves asking questions, but it shouldn't feel like an interrogation. Think carefully about:
- What you want to know
- Why you need to know it
- What you want to do with the information
For example, if your school appears to be doing exceptionally well in one area, challenge by asking if the targets were realistic or perhaps too low, and whether your school could do even better.
If it's struggling in another area, challenge by asking why targets aren’t being met and then digging in further. Be clear that you’re trying to get to a point where you can find solutions together – you’re not trying to place blame.
Ask open-ended questions, such as:
- Where are we on…?
- How do you know…?
- How are you tracking progress in…?
- Why haven’t we hit our targets in…?
- What's your strategy for…?
- What do you think we can do to…?
- What other factors might be involved…?
Support: in practice
You’re supporting your school leaders when you:
- Really listen to the answers they give you
- Respect their expertise
- Demonstrate your willingness to champion their cause
There are 2 questions you can always ask, whatever you're discussing:
- What do you need to deliver on your objectives?
- How can I help you get that?
Remember, you're also responsible for monitoring staff welfare, so don’t lose the human touch. One headteacher told us that she really appreciated her chair of governors asking about her wellbeing and if she had time to eat regular meals and get enough sleep.
Challenge and support are 2 sides of the same coin, and there may be times when you need to probe more to get to the heart of a problem, before you can provide effective support. You can see how you can find this balance in the examples below.
One of the objectives in your school improvement plan is to increase the percentage of pupils reaching greater depth in reading by the end of Key Stage 2, from 29% to 39%. At the end of the second term, the percentage of pupils in year 6 reaching greater depth is still 29%.
At a meeting with the literacy lead to discuss progress against targets, you ask them to present the progress data to date and identify their areas of concern. In addition to the data, they tell you:
- They only get an extra 30 minutes of no-contact time each week to fulfil the role of literacy lead
- There's a high proportion of pupils with special educational needs (SEN) in year 6
- There's also a high percentage of boys at 68%
- What did you do to prepare to meet this target?
You want to know what steps the teacher took to address the specific challenges of this cohort. Did they meet with the SEN co-ordinator to tailor reading plans? Did they research how to encourage reluctant boys to read?
- What input did you have in setting the targets?
You want to know how the targets were set and if everyone was in agreement. Do they believe the targets are reasonable? Why or why not?
- How do you prioritise your tasks as literacy lead in the 30 minutes you get each week?
You want to understand what they prioritise and why, and whether 30 minutes is enough to deliver on the objectives. How are they monitoring and supporting literacy across the school in 30 minutes a week?
- How are other year groups doing against their literacy targets?
You want to know if the lack of progress is only in year 6 or if it's a wider problem. You might review last year's data against this term's test results to analyse progress.
- What will improvement look like and when can we expect to see it?
Put the ball in the teacher's court and let them take the lead. Even if you determine together that the original targets are unreasonable, keep challenging to ensure that the new targets continue to represent improvement.
You agree next steps by:
- Identifying what actions need to take place
- Determining the deadlines for those actions
- What do you need to deliver on these objectives?
You need to know what the teacher needs in terms of time, support and resources. Really listen to the answers.
Acknowledge their expertise, but don't be afraid to push back if you think they're actually capable of delivering more with the right support.
- How can I help you get that?
Whatever it is, it's now your job to go and champion their cause and try to get them what they need.
After the meeting
- Complete a monitoring form which identifies the agreed actions and timeline and send it to the teacher for review. Once agreed, send it to the relevant committee and the headteacher
- Meet with the headteacher to discuss the form and see what adjustments can be made to help the teacher achieve their targets
- Check in with the teacher to ensure they're now on track and have what they need to be successful
Your school's been judged as requiring improvement. When you ask the headteacher why, they say it's because there's not enough funding.
Too much support
You commiserate with the head and accept that there's little that can be done to improve the school until the funding system improves.
Too much challenge
You subject them to a gruelling hour of questions but you don't really listen to the answers.
You listen to and acknowledge their concerns about funding, but you also point out that a school similar to yours has been judged 'outstanding'. You challenge your headteacher to dig into the real reasons the school is under-performing, and suggest enlisting the help of a school improvement adviser.
Together, they realise your school’s staffing costs are well above the national average. They develop a new staffing structure that will cut costs and improve attainment by making better use of teaching assistants.
Your head tells you the new structure will lead to redundancies. You recognise that this will be painful and monitor the headteacher's emotional wellbeing as you support the redundancy process.
Questions to ask on...
Keith Clover is a national leader of governance. He chairs 2 governing bodies within a multi-academy trust and is an academy consultant for a diocese.
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