In a world where power seems to be concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, it is vital that school trusts resist the temptation to get rid of local democratic process in schools in preference for more remote mechanisms. As a Co-operative school, locality voice in our governance structures is hardwired into our DNA.
Where local governance does exist school trusts have established a range of models. The Confederation of School Trusts’ 2021 publication Governing a School Trust lists these as;
Local advisory committees or councils – no delegated governance functions or powers – the advisory committee is tasked with meaningful engagement with parents and local communities;
Local school committees – limited delegated governance functions (but no powers), for example scrutiny of standards, health and safety and safeguarding, and community engagement;
Local governing boards – a fuller set of delegated functions and some powers, which may include some decisions over school level finance.
Like many school trusts we have evolved our governance model over the last few years - and throughout each evolution, we have maintained the voice of local communities in giving support and challenge to schools. Some school trusts have got rid of local governance altogether. We think this is a mistake. The trick is how to co-design systems that are locally influential and that bring meaningful local intelligence to the Trust Board.
It’s been a challenge to get to where we are now, but we now feel that our model is working effectively. In this blog, we reflect on the struggles we have had and offer some solutions.
Design a consequential governance arrangement
The school needs local support and challenge from enthusiastic governors who want to be part of the school’s improvement journey. We attract people who want to make a difference, not just attend meetings. With this in mind, we want to promote the majority of time spent on being in the school speaking with staff and pupils, and we keep meeting times as short as possible. We ensure that challenge and guidance offered by governors are taken seriously and result in the decision making of the Local Governing Body. We have avoided creating systems for the sake of having systems - that would be soul-destroying. Our theoretical model her is the Lundy Model of participation - Space, Voice, Audience, Influence (Paul Browning’s blog on this).
Be crystal clear about who is accountable
It’s that Ofsted question, “Who is responsible for the school curriculum, and who is accountable for the school curriculum, the Local Governing Body or Trust Board?” that can focus the mind. We have refined our model over the years so that we all know where our areas of accountability lie. In the final analysis the answer is always going to be the Trust Board, but in terms of who does the work of offering challenge to schools and to the Trust’s central team, our reply is:
Trustees focus on: living up to our values, the quality of education (including the academic curriculum), teaching and learning, outcomes, budget and estates, health and safety.
Governors focus on: the wider curriculum offer, SEND, safeguarding, inclusion (including attendance, behaviour), staff and pupil wellbeing, voice and influence (pupils, parents, staff, the wider community).
This allows for governor volunteers to be active in areas of direct concern to the school and its parents and carers.
Meet the school, not just the school governors
Governors have a specific link responsibility and they take part in two types of visit to the school.
Scheduled visits to meet a member of staff. These are often arranged as part of a governor day in schools where all governors visit at one time and the school and Chair arrange a programme of events.
Governors participate in meetings around certain areas of responsibility where a Trust member of staff is working with school leaders to audit provision, and set improvement planning. This has been particularly successful in the areas of safeguarding, inclusion and SEND provision.
After each visit, Governors complete a record visit which includes suggestions for improvement. These ideas are then brought to the next Local Governing Body meeting.
We run 4 Local Governing Body meetings a year (Autumn 1, Autumn 2, Spring 2, and Summer 2).
Meetings are designed so that they last for 90 minutes (we are increasingly good at sticking to this!).
Chairs are snappy and businesslike in the way they run their meetings.
The assumption is that all papers have been read ahead of the meeting. Presenters give a brief overview and then seek scrutiny from the meeting.
Complex or contentious issues aren’t raised at the meeting. They are raised outside of the meeting with relevant staff, so that the meeting itself can be solutions focused, and no one feels hijacked.
Collaborate with the Headteacher on report to Governors
We make this the centre of the meeting - without it becoming an opportunity for a school leader monologue.
The report is structured around the specific areas of Local Governing Body accountability.
The Trust Central Team populates the data tables in the report and heads write plain English, bullet point narrative.
Governor link visit reports are nested into the Headteacher Report so that during the presentation the meeting will pause to take comments from link governors and refer to their visit records.
Honest and transparent communication
We have designed flows of information from the Local Governing Body to Trust Board and vice versa;
Local Governing Body Chairs take part in a termly visit to the school alongside a Trust central team colleague to discuss progress against school improvement objectives. At the end of this session the Chair has a set of headlines around outcomes, curriculum, teaching and learning, budget and estate, so that they can then feedback to the rest of the Local Governing Body.
Chairs from all Local Governing Bodies meet together termly to discuss areas of common concern, to feedback on the effectiveness of their Local Governing Body, and to take headlines from the Trust Board Chair to feedback to their Local Governing Body.
Knowing what to ask?
Governors who are new to the role often wonder about the sort of questions that they should ask. To help them get started, and to support their ongoing development we have:
Designed question sets, based around NGA and CST guidance.
Planned training alongside Trust leaders for safeguarding, SEND, inclusion, Voice.
Our experience is that over time Governors are increasingly confident in their role, and knowing the right question to ask becomes increasingly instinctive.
This is not only good for reducing costs and the environment, but is also saves time. We:
Use cloud-based systems to share all paperwork, make comments and ask questions.
Give training to support cloud-based systems so that collaboration is real and timely.
Provide tech in governor meetings if needed.
Be cool in front of Ofsted
We help Governors to be confident in the two areas of knowing their accountabilities (and those of Trustees), and in knowing their school. If link visits are happening, and if there is an honest and transparent flow of information, Governors can be confident in speaking to Ofsted because they will know their school well, its strengths and weaknesses, and will be able to speak about their contribution to the school development journey.
We annually review Governor skills and Local Governing Bodies set improvement planning. Common areas for improvement find their way into the Trust Development Journey document, and appropriate support and training is provided.
Using all of these approaches we are now seeing targeted challenge and specific support in each locality. Governors are more likely to participate in meetings as they have ‘on the ground’ experience of their area of responsibility. Governors are feeling influential and their influence is supporting schools to improve.