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Strategic vs operational: practical examples
Are there examples of what the governors' strategic role involves? Some of our associate education experts give examples to show the difference between strategic and operational involvement in a school and what this means for governors. We also relay guidance from a local authority.
- Teaching and learning
- School finances and staff pay
- Health and safety
- Internal school management
- Communicating with parents
- School policies
Below, we look at some examples that demonstrate the difference between strategic and operational involvement in a school. The examples listed are not comprehensive, but are designed to give you an idea of the governing board's role.
Some of the examples have been put forward by some of our associate education experts, while others have been gathered from across The Key for School Governors website. Throughout the sections below, we link to articles with further information where relevant.
Teaching and learning
The governors' role is strategic
During our discussion, all of our associate experts emphasised that the role of governors is to set the school's strategic direction and hold it to account. Governors should not be involved in the operational running of the school.
A further article from The Key looks at the division of roles between governors and the headteacher. It includes a KeyDoc developed with another of our associate education experts, outlining the difference between the two roles.
Introducing split-year classes
Schools may sometimes decide to teach their pupils in split-year groups. This usually involves teaching pupils from two consecutive school years in the same class.
Harry James, one of our experts who is a national leader of governance, said that if a headteacher proposes the introduction of split-year classes, the role of the governors is to consider whether there are good reasons for this. Reasons for introducing split-year classes could include:
- Low pupil numbers
- Financial/resource pressures
- A belief that it is a better way of delivering the curriculum
Governors should also ensure that a process is in place for evaluating the impact of splitting the classes. Once these matters have been covered, governors should leave the headteacher to implement the change.
Another article from The Key looks at questions governors can ask when monitoring teaching and learning practices.
Changing the way homework is given
The decision to change the way homework is given is a strictly operational matter
We asked Harry if the headteacher must consult the governing board if he or she intends to change the way homework is given.
The decision to change the way homework is given is a strictly operational matter, and that governors should not be involved. Governors' involvement here would blur the boundary between strategic and operational responsibilities.
However, Harry said that it is good practice for the headteacher to inform the governing board that he or she intends to change the way homework is given. This could be done by including it in the termly report to the governing board, or by raising it in the headteacher's regular meetings with the chair.
School finances and staff pay
The school budget
In the following video Graeme Hornsby, one of our associate education experts who is an experienced school business manager (SBM) and governance consultant, discusses how governors can be involved in drafting the budget:
Another article from The Key explains that it is the responsibility of governing board to approve the school budget. However, the school business manager (SBM), or other responsible school leader, should present the budget to the relevant governing board committee for approval.
The following article from The Key looks at spending and accountability in relation to the pupil premium. It explains that while the school's senior leadership team (SLT) decide what pupil premium funding is spent on, governors have a role in prioritising areas of spend at a strategic level. It also looks at how schools are held accountable for their pupil premium spending:
Approving teacher pay
Another article from The Key looks at the role of governors in approving pay recommendations. It says that school leaders ensure teachers are appraised accordingly, before putting pay recommendations to the pay committee.
The pay committee then approves these recommendations, usually after scrutinising anonymised reports to ensure governors do not learn of individuals' salary details.
What governors should not do: LA guidance
Guidance from Cornwall Council for its schools includes examples of activities governors should not be doing. These include:
- Writing school policies
- Carrying out audits, even if the governor has professional experience in the relevant area
- Fundraising – the governing board should consider income streams and the potential for income generation, but not actively fundraise
- Undertaking classroom observations to judge the quality of teaching
Health and safety
Harry pointed out that part of the governing board's responsibility as an employer is to ensure that health and safety inspections are carried out regularly and efficiently.
This is not the same as researching the best company and booking the inspection, and it does not involve governors carrying out the inspection themselves. These decisions should be left to the headteacher and the SLT.
Another article from The Key looks at the legal responsibility of governors for health and safety.
Who is the employer?
Footnotes 38 and 39 on page 70 of the Governance Handbook explains that the LA is the employer in the following types of schools:
- Community and community special schools
- Voluntary controlled schools
- Maintained nursery schools
The governing board is the employer in:
- Foundation and foundation special schools
- Voluntary aided schools
The National College for Teaching and Leadership (National College) explains that in academies, the academy trust is the legal employer.
Internal school management
Reviewing departmental development plans
A member asked if it is appropriate for governors to view the details of a departmental development plan, to help monitor an underperforming department.
Jackie Beard, one of our experts who is also a national leader of governance, told us this is an operational task. This means it is ultimately up to the SLT – not the governing board – to review the precise details of a departmental plan, and robustly monitor it to ensure that sufficient progress is made. It is the governing board's role to hold the SLT to account, ensuring that the SLT are monitoring the performance and progress of the department.
The head of department may wish to present an overview of the plan to the governing board or relevant committee (including information on how it will be monitored) so it is satisfied that an appropriate strategic plan is in place.
However, Jackie emphasised that the SLT, not the governing board, should analyse the details of the action plan. They will have the relevant professional experience to do so, and are best placed to judge where amendments or improvements can be made.
To monitor the plan effectively, the SLT should report back to the governing board, or relevant committee, on a regular basis to update on whether sufficient progress is being made. Governors can also assess other evidence such as progress data, to see if the development plan is being implemented properly.
If sufficient progress is not made, then the governing board can ask the SLT to review the departmental development plan and take steps to amend the plan.
Is it appropriate to request minutes from staff and senior leadership meetings?
A member asked us whether it would be appropriate for governors to request to see copies of minutes from staff or SLT meetings.
Bill Dennison, another one of our experts and national leader of governance, said that he would be “very cautious” about governors requesting copies of minutes of such meetings, as governors must be careful not to stray into operational matters.
Governors must be careful not to stray into operational matters
Sharing minutes from these meetings might be appropriate when staff or senior leaders have been discussing an issue of strategic importance to governors. This could include issues such as academisation, changing the curriculum, or deciding on a new school uniform. He also said that governors may face opposition from unions if such requests are made, particularly in relation to the minutes of general staff meetings.
If governors want to find out about staff views on an issue, instead of asking to see meeting minutes they should ask to speak to the headteacher or a relevant member of the SLT in the first instance. For example, they could ask the headteacher to update the governors during a governing board meeting.
Communicating with parents
Commissioning a parent survey
Parent surveys can be used to collect the parents' feedback about various aspects of the school.
Harry said that governors’ involvement in these surveys would begin by them making the decision to carry out the survey. Governors may ask the SLT to research parents’ opinions on specific policies or the school as a whole.
The governors would ... work with the headteacher to identify strategic priorities
Once the results have been collated, the headteacher would present the results to the governing board. The governors would then work with the headteacher to identify strategic priorities based on the results. They might identify, for example:
- Parental dissatisfaction with the level of clubs and sporting provision provided for pupils
- Lack of communication to parents about the progress of their child
- Parents feeling their children are overworked
Once particular issues have been identified, governors can ask the headteacher to take measures to address them. The governors can then hold him or her to account for the outcomes of these actions.
Another of our articles looks at the governors' role in carrying out parent and staff surveys.
The school newsletter
Another article from The Key looks at governors' role in relation to the school newsletter. It says governors should not directly interfere with content, but could speak to relevant staff about the newsletter within the wider context of the school's external communication strategy.
Another article looks at governors' role in overseeing school policies, including how they are written, approved and reviewed.
It explains that although governors should not write policies, this does not mean they have no role in the process. Governors have an important role in contributing to the strategic direction of many policies, and in checking the draft policy once it has been written.
Harry James is a national leader of governance. He is currently chair of governors of a primary school in London, and is part of the steering group for an academic research project looking at school accountability and stakeholder education.
Graeme Hornsby is an education consultant with significant experience of school business management at a senior level. He has particular expertise in strategic financial planning, human resources and governance.
Jackie Beard is a national leader of governance, advising governing boards in all aspects of their role. She also sits on an independent appeal panel for exclusions and admissions for a local authority.
Bill Dennison is a national leader of governance. He is currently chair of governors of a large secondary school and a governor of a large sponsor-led secondary academy. He was previously head of the education department of a Russell Group university.
This article was updated in response to a question from a governor at a medium-size primary school in the London.
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