Strategic vs operational: practical examples

Governors and trustees set strategy and hold senior leaders to account – they don't get involved in the day-to-day running of the school or trust. Sometimes it's hard to walk this fine line, but our practical examples will help you clarify your role.

Last reviewed on 17 March 2023
School types: All · School phases: All
Ref: 5140
  1. Policies
  2. Pupil premium
  3. Budgets
  4. Teacher pay
  5. Staff surveys
  6. Parent complaints
  7. Subject or departmental improvement plans
  8. School newsletter
  9. Introducing split-year groups
  10. Changing the way homework is given
  11. Health and safety inspections
  12. Monitoring the single central record (SCR)
  13. Remote learning

These examples are illustrative

You won't come across all of them. They're meant to help you work out what is and isn't your role.

They'll also help you to:

  • Say no if you're asked to do something outside your strategic remit
  • Discuss it with your senior leaders if you're not consulted on something that is strategic



Your role (strategic)

You have an important role in contributing to the strategic direction of many policies, and in checking and approving some policies once they've been written.

You also can hold the senior leadership team (SLT) to account for how policies have been implemented, and whether they've been successful.

Senior leaders' role (operational)

The SLT will actually write and implement the policies – this isn't your role.

Read more in our article on governors' role in overseeing school policies.

Pupil premium

Your role (strategic)

Hold the school accountable for how it spends its pupil premium funding (extra money for disadvantaged pupils). Make sure it's being used in accordance with the rules and is having an impact.

You could do this through committee meetings, or by appointing a pupil premium link governor.

Senior leaders' role (operational)

The SLT decides what to spend pupil premium funding on, and implements the chosen strategies and initiatives.


Your role (strategic)

You should scrutinise the budget (or each school's budget, if you're a trustee in a multi-academy trust (MAT)).

You'll approve it, and monitor it throughout the year. This helps you meet your core responsibility to oversee financial performance and ensure public money is spent well. It also means you can make sure resources are distributed in accordance with your strategic priorities and the school's or trust's ethos and values. 

Senior leaders' role (operational)

In a maintained school or single academy trust (SAT), the school business manager (SBM) presents the budget for approval, either by the finance committee or the full board.

In MATs, the chief financial officer (CFO) might work with each school's SBM to set the budgets. Budgets are approved at local governing body (LGB) level before being passed to the board of trustees for approval.

Read about the the budget approval process in your school type in more detail.

Teacher pay

Your role (strategic)

Your pay committee approves teacher pay recommendations, once the recommendations have been made by senior leaders. You'll usually scrutinise anonymised reports to ensure you don't learn individuals' salary details. 

If you're in an academy, this might be delegated to LGBs. Check your scheme of delegation.

Find out more about governors' role in teachers' pay progression.

Senior leaders' role (operational)

Senior leaders carry out appraisals themselves, and make sure teachers are appraised effectively and in line with the statutory requirements. As explained above, they make pay recommendations and put them before your pay committee.

Staff surveys

Staff surveys can be used to collect staff members' feedback on everything from job satisfaction to wellbeing.

Your role (strategic)

You might:

  • Decide to carry out a survey to find out staff's opinions on a strategically important issue – for example, a specific policy, wellbeing or overall job satisfaction
  • Have input into shaping the questions to make sure you end up with the information you need
  • Work with the SLT to identify strategic priorities based on the results of the survey, once it's been conducted
  • Hold the SLT to account for the success of any new plans or strategies put in place to correct the issues revealed by the survey

Senior leaders' role (operational)

Someone on the SLT should do the leg work, essentially. This'll include:

  • Carrying out the survey
  • Collating the results
  • Implementing actions or plans to address any issues raised by the survey
    • For example, the survey might indicate that staff don't feel they're involved in the decisions that affect them, so the headteacher/CEO might work on a new way of gathering staff feedback to inform decisions, and present this to you
  • Reporting back to you on how the new initiatives have gone

Another of our articles looks at the governors' role in carrying out parent and staff surveys.

Parent complaints

You should steer clear of getting involved in any parent complaints. This is so you can remain objective, so you can be involved if that complaint should ever be brought before the board. If a parent complains to you, you should refer that parent to your complaints procedure.

Your role (strategic)

You might:

Senior leaders' role (operational)

The SLT will:

  • Develop your complaints policy
  • Handle the investigation and try to resolve the issue before it reaches the panel stage

Subject or departmental improvement plans

This is a plan that's put in place to help a subject or department improve.

Your role (strategic)

You should have a monitoring role, to:

  • Check on the subject/department's progress
  • Hold the SLT to account for how it's leading/supporting performance and progress

Senior leaders should report back to your full board or the most relevant committee on a regular basis. They can update you on the progress being made, and provide you with any data you ask for. This will help you scrutinise the school's work effectively, and check the plan is being implemented properly.

If the department isn't making progress, you can ask the SLT to review the improvement plan and take steps to amend it. 

Senior leaders' role (operational)

The SLT should review the precise details of the plan, and effectively monitor it day-to-day to make sure the subject/department is making progress. They'll have the relevant professional experience to do this, and are best placed to decide where amendments or improvements can be made. 

The subject lead/head of department may wish to present an overview of the plan to your board or committee, so you can be satisfied that a strategic plan is in place. 

School newsletter

Your role (strategic)

You could speak to relevant staff about the newsletter within the wider context of the school's external communication strategy. This could help you check that the school has a good plan for engaging with parents and/or other stakeholders.

Senior leaders' role (operational)

Governors should not directly interfere with planning or writing the content. Read more in our article on governors' role in the school newsletter

Introducing split-year groups

Some schools teach their pupils in split-year groups. This means teaching pupils from 2 or more consecutive school years in the same class.

Your role (strategic)

Introducing this is a major structural change to your school, which could affect your budget, resources and outcomes for pupils. For these reasons, you should be consulted.

When the headteacher brings the proposal to you, consider whether there are good reasons for the change, such as:

  • Low pupil numbers
  • Financial/resource pressures
  • An evidence-based belief that it's a better way of delivering the curriculum

You should also make sure that:

  • The proposal is in line with the ethos and values of the school
  • A process is in place for evaluating the impact of splitting the classes

Senior leaders' role (operational)

The headteacher would come up with a proposal to introduce split-year classes, and present this to the governing board.

They would then implement the change if it's agreed.

Changing the way homework is given

Your role (strategic)

This is very unlikely to have any strategic focus. It's best to leave this one entirely in the hands of your SLT. You shouldn't pass comment or get involved in controlling teaching and assessment methods.

Senior leaders' role (operational)

It's for headteachers and the SLT to discuss, decide on and implement any change to the way your school or the schools in your trust set homework.

It would be a good idea for the headteacher to inform the governing board that they intend to change the way homework is given, or for the CEO to inform trustees. They could include it in the termly report to the board, or raise it in 1 of their regular meetings with the chair.

Health and safety inspections

Your role (strategic)

As employers, boards of trustees in academies and governing boards in foundation and voluntary-aided maintained schools need to make sure that premises meet health and safety requirements. This includes making sure that health and safety inspections are carried out regularly and efficiently. Boards don't organise or carry out inspections themselves.

Find out more about the board's role in health and safety.

Senior leaders' role (operational)

Someone on the SLT should research the best company and book the inspection.

Monitoring the single central record (SCR)

Your role (strategic)

The governor with responsibility for safeguarding should make sure the school's keeping up with its statutory duties by asking:

  • How complete the record is
  • How frequently it's reviewed and updated
  • How the information is stored

Governors should not check the SCR themselves. Find out why in this article.

Senior leaders' role (operational)

Senior leaders carry out the task of physically checking the SCR, making sure all of the relevant boxes are complete and that the document as a whole is up to date

Remote learning

Your role (strategic)

Senior leaders' role (operational)

The SLT will organise the nuts and bolts of how remote learning will work. They’ll cover every detail, from what platform the school should use, to what work to set and how often, to who’ll set and mark the work.




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 chair of trustees at a large secondary school with single academy trust status. Previously, he was head of department at the education department of a Russell Group University.

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.

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.

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