Black and White or Shades of Grey?

shades of grey

Mr Lowry was the affable Marketing Director. He and his board colleagues had their offices located on the upper floor at the front of the building. My desk was located in the sales office, also on the upper floor but at the rear of the building, the two office blocks flanking a large warehouse of engineering products. A bridge across the warehouse linked the front and rear upper floors. It was very rare for the directors to honour us with their presence but even less so Jim Lowry whose brief gave him no plausible reason to visit either the sales or adjacent purchasing offices. One morning we were advised that Mr Lowry was escorting an important visitor around the building and that we should ensure the office was clean, and that we “looked busy.” Right on cue in walked the rotund director with an unassuming but cheery visitor. Our tactic was simple. We all dialled each other’s extensions and conducted fake conversations to give the appearance of inward orders being processed. Jim pointed at a couple of things, answered a question, then took his guest next door to Purchasing. Five minutes later we were tipped off that our distinguished guests were on their way back through. Jim pointed out a couple more things then courteously opened the door and escorted his visitor…..into the broom cupboard. The more professional of my colleagues managed to retain their composure. Sadly I, in common with the majority were forced to crawl under our desks all stifling the hugest of chortles. That day Jim Lowry passed into company folk lore whilst us mere minions pontificated that if the board were more regular visitors to our side of the building then his bemused visitor would not have faced the ignominy of making the acquaintance of a wet mop.

Thirty years later having retold that humorous tale for the umpteenth time, and now a Chair of Governors I reconsidered the criticism we heaped upon poor Jim all those years ago. Why should the directors have been regular departmental visitors? They knew we were a profitable and growing company. They knew the branch network we were supporting reported positively on our work. They had no reason to know HOW we did our work provided we were doing  it well. Quite rightly their minds were occupied in their plush front-facing offices considering product diversification, the threats posed by our competition, and the opportunities offered by a new Far East manufacturing plant.  Their job was to scan the horizon of the next three years rather than be preoccupied by operational considerations.

Of course school governance has a great deal of synergy with the scenario just articulated. We delegate the day to day running  of the school to the Headteacher or CEO along with their senior leadership team. Our priorities are to ensure that they have sufficient resources to deliver the outcomes we have agreed and the impact against which we are measured externally. As with the company directors we should be on deck looking out for icebergs. The moment we descend into the bowels of the ship to start rowing among the staff, we have strayed into areas where we have no remit. There is clear blue water between our respective roles. A specific delineation of responsibilities. Indeed much of the new governor induction and subsequent training programme we offer colleagues regularly reminds us all of our strategic rather than operational bias.

I believe when schools are working to optimum capacity in every way, then it is relatively simple to keep this separation in place. When children are progressing well, staff are happy and energised, parents are advocates for the school, and finances are healthy, governors can afford to take a step back conducting the orchestra rather than tuning the violins. That doesn’t mean of course that we can ever totally rely on the reports from the Head exclusively. There are several ways in which we can and do validate the information received from senior leadership. Firstly we have access to data both in terms of external measurement and also internal tracking. There will always be a core of governors comfortable with extrapolating the headline messages from this data and disseminating this in meaningful soundbites to their colleagues. There is an expectation that governors will be familiar faces during the school day so they can see at first hand the impact of their strategies on the daily life of the school. We have access to independent reports from the school adviser, from OFSTED, and in some cases from a Diocesan inspection. All of these sources, and others, offer governors ample opportunity to triangulate the information received regularly from senior leadership. And of course it goes without saying that for this partnership between operational and strategic to function at its best, it has to be founded on the rock of mutual trust. One where all concerned are comfortable with challenging questions and occasionally courageous conversations, safe in the knowledge that we are all pulling in the same direction and are members of the same team.

Sadly this cosy, idyllic scenario is not always evident in all our schools and academies. I guess if it were we would not have inadequate inspection judgements or schools requiring improvement. The reasons we have schools in such categories are plentiful, often complex, but occasionally entirely local and unique. In this blog I want to look specifically at inspection reports where leadership and management have been criticised or given cause for concern. Most of us, if not all would agree that there is an absolutely inextricable link between effective leadership and positive outcomes. So when this is labelled as problematic where and how has this gone wrong?

There is no doubt that some boards have failed to understand their core function and have all too easily succumbed to the temptation to become operational. There are a number of Heads who have confided in their advisers their concern about operational input from governors. Why might this happen? Firstly perhaps a collective failure to access training and therefore a lack of of clarity around their role. Secondly it might be that they have always strayed into the “doing” and have failed to keep pace with the changing priorities of governance. Thirdly it might well be that the balance of challenge and support is not in equilibrium and that governors are attempting to exert too much control in a micro-management way.

But are there occasions when the opposite situation exists? Where the Head keeps governors deliberately at arm’s length seeing them as a necessary evil to be tolerated and carefully managed to minimise their influence. Recently a vice chair contacted me to query whether an annual review and strategic planning session was advisable. He was seeking my counsel because the Head had been forthright in asserting this was not the done thing and that the board would get anything it needed to know from him. You could justifiably point out that this particular board should have a much greater awareness of tails wagging dogs than it clearly does but I have been struck when working with boards this year just how often when I ask a question there is a universal deferment to the Head to answer it. This suggests an over-reliance on the Head which of course can also be dangerous.

Several weeks ago I became aware of a school that was inspected and found to require improvement. Not an  unusual outcome in itself but one that was very interesting once you started to read the report under the different descriptors. The most damning criticism came under leadership and management where it appeared there was a breakdown in the relationship between staff and the Head but that governors were blissfully unaware having been constantly reassured everything was rosy in the garden. Local intelligence has subsequently informed me that the Head is a charismatic figure, hugely popular with parents and presides over a school where the data does not indicate any underlying issues. Yet here is an experienced inspector highlighting this situation as a clear breakdown in leadership, especially governance. The report is quite unequivocal in stating that governors should have been aware of the prevailing mood between the adults in the school. Of course it’s very easy for us to adopt a judgemental position here and look down our noses at the governors in question. But for me it creates a really interesting debate about the limitations of a simply strategic focus.

Let’s consider how this might work. Unhappy staff have correct channels through which to articulate their concerns. This is right and proper and common to other sectors although inevitably in a small school community governors often find it difficult not to hear the bush telegraph. You might argue that the staff governor has a role to play here. Why didn’t he or she speak out? We will never know the answer. Perhaps fear of upsetting their line manager might be a genuine obstacle? Perhaps they didn’t subscribe to the wider staff mood? Perhaps he or she DID raise those staff concerns either publicly at a meeting or in private to the Chair? For one moment let’s imagine the latter happened. What would governors do in such circumstances? Presumably they would ask the Head if staff concerns were present and whether there was any validity. If the Head denies there is an issue and refutes any specific points raised where do governors go next? They could theoretically approach staff to validate the Head’s assertions but in doing so would they then be straying into operational waters? What would it say about the degree of trust in the Head by the board if it went behind his or her back arguably saying “we don’t believe you?” You might think there may be other factors evident that would suggest staff discontent. Is there a disproportionate turnover of staff? If so governors are entitled to ask why but if a plausible reason is given for each departure then typically governors would be expected to trust in the senior leadership’s version of events. Similarly if specific concerns raised are seen as the workings of a trouble-maker or the excuses of an under-performing teacher then it is difficult for the board to delve any deeper.

Normally when I write a blog I do so to make a point. In this case I genuinely don’t have an answer. I do subscribe enthusiastically to the theory of the strategic v operational divide as it gives a clear remit to both board and senior leadership. However, I believe it can only work harmoniously when mutual trust and integrity are evident. If the board is dabbling in matters that are not within its remit without due cause, this is a recipe for disaster. Similarly if the Head is keeping governors at arms’s length and using the “don’t get operational” mantra as a method to keep them in the dark then this is potentially fatal too. Ultimately my feeling is that when things are not right then the lines may need to become a little blurred. Governors may need to be resolute in their commitment to really know what is going on rather than being easily put off. Governors may need to ask for more evidence if concerns remain. This is not to say they don’t trust the senior leadership but given in some cases they are the employer, they have a clearly defined responsibility to their staff, children, parents and wider community. Governors may very well need to become more “hands on” for a period to assure those stakeholders that they are there for them, have their fingers on the pulse of the school, and are ensuring the values and ethics of the school are being lived daily by all concerned. If we ignore the warning signs simply because we might stray over an arbitrary line once in a while we run the very real risk of finishing up in Jim Lowry’s broom cupboard. What do you think?

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The Right People Round The Fable

victorian meeting

It’s that time of year when many governing boards and trusts are finalising their structures and arrangements for the next academic year. Amidst the all too familiar cries of “Where did the year go?” we look at our likely priorities and how we can ensure close governor oversight of these key areas. But before we even begin to apportion roles to individuals it is also a great time to ensure we are relevant. Fit for purpose. And critically aligned to the constituencies we represent and the stakeholders of our school. Coincidentally therefore I have seen a few related issues discussed this week that have stimulated my curiosity and led me to jot down some ramblings on paper.

The first little Twitter exchange that got me thinking wasn’t actually around governance but about the speaker list at an educational event. Questions were raised about the diversity of those who would be publicly contributing whilst others in the exchange strongly stated their belief that the demographic identity of the speaker was less important than their ability to engage an audience and make a positive contribution to the event. To be fair this is a sensitive issue which always carries a range of impassioned views and one to which I don’t have sufficient knowledge to contribute. However, it did get me thinking about the membership of our governing boards and their relevance locally. Should our board be representative of our local school family? Most would say yes and hence we should see different races, nationalities and cultures represented, both genders, people living with disabilities, and volunteers from across the age spectrum? Or, where local communities like mine are 99% white British is this a cop-out and should we be pioneering in ensuring an even broader church on the board? I know there have been initiatives in recent times to persuade governors to look at the make-up of the board and target missing characteristics when recruiting. I wonder how successful that has been? How many boards have governors under the age of thirty? Perhaps more controversially how many boards have sought to include the gobby single mother from the council estate (stereotype I know) when it’s so much easier to work with the doctor’s wife who lives in the big house down the affluent lane on the other side of the village?

The second story that attracted my attention was the leaked letter from a county council education portfolio holder to the Secretary of State in which she asked him to reconsider the decision to place a failing school in the hands of a multi academy trust due to apparent widespread opposition from parents. The letter suggested the strict disciplinary regime allegedly favoured by the trust  was not in keeping with their wishes. Since the news broke the trust has somewhat predictably made noises about legal action but it begs the question around culture, ethos, vision, and values. I have long since advocated that these key elements, the very soul of a school, the “why” it exists in the first place, cannot ever be imposed by a Headteacher or board of governors. It might be well-written, plausible, even attractive to the outside world, but if it doesn’t carry the full support of the school community it fails its most basic of stress tests. For local authority schools this is something very much within their own control. Schools choosing to join a MAT can spend many hours of due diligence ensuring their new “host family” is a good fit. However, those schools which are forced to academise as the result of being deemed failing have no such latitude under current arrangements. The report published today by the National Governance Association looks at this and related issues and poses the question as to whether due consideration has been given to the scope of governance as the sector has expanded under clear ideological impetus from the government. It simply cannot be right that the parents and carers of our children have no say in the choice of trust into which their schools are parachuted or equally importantly have no ongoing voice in the direction of travel of their children’s education.

That rather well-worn phrase “the right people around the table” has been aired again today in the discussion around the report. My view is that whilst this is clearly aspirational it fails to take into account the reality for many of our governing boards. The government has, not unusually,  a detached and somewhat romanticised view of school governance. A model where the global Financial Director of Glaxo Smith Kline kindly volunteers to join the board of St Hilda’s Primary, saves the a fortune in budget efficiencies, and is rewarded with a bottle of Veuve Cliquot from the parody formerly known as Lord Agnew. There are few dissenting voices anywhere to the claim that the responsibilities of governance have increased significantly in recent years. At the same time people are working longer hours and hence have less time to volunteer and benefit philanthropic causes. So whilst we would all accept that a broad balance of skills and expertise is ideal, the reality I find on my travels is that most boards are running under full capacity. We are seeing parent governor elections becoming less common. I have worked with schools where they cannot find a staff governor such is the current workload being imposed on our people. Recruitment and to some degree retention of governors are real issues within English education and ones I believe require some new thinking.

Let me tell you about my own board of governors. We currently have a vacancy for a foundation governor appointed by the Bishop to protect the Diocesan interest in the school. Until recently we had two spaces but we have managed to persuade a teacher from another school to join us for next term. The criteria imposed by the church to recruit are absolutely understandable from its perspective but the reality is it narrows the reservoir of potential talent to something approaching a Saharan water-hole in the middle of a drought. The fact is weekly church attendance across all denominations is decreasing to the extent where few families can be seen among the scattered, predominantly aged congregation. Our constitution allows us to have two parent governors and we are blessed to have those positions filled by two wonderful professionals. However we have received an expression of interest from a parent who is an expert in construction at a time when we are considering the perimeter of the school, and the potential development of a nursery. Yes we can look at co-opting or affording associate status but this impacts on the necessary foundation majority on the board.

So where is this tortuous ramble going? I guess there are few people involved in education who wouldn’t agree that excellent governance is essential to the future healthy status of English state education. So it is critical therefore that we have vibrant, dynamic, innovative boards full to capacity and serving the needs of their school communities with which they are closely aligned. But for the reasons cited in this blog we are struggling in some cases. We know that our boards should be representative of the stakeholder groups we serve in terms of demographics. We know we should be seeking those with finely-honed commercial and professional skills and knowledge. We know we should be in tune with the beating heart of our communities. Yet we have to achieve these things often handcuffed by mandatory structures that arguably have not kept pace with recent developments both in governance but also the social fabric of the country. I truly believe the churches who still have a huge vested interest in our schools need to be more realistic about the governors they appoint to represent their financial and ethical interests. By insisting on weekly church attendance they immediately virtually dash any hope of wider community representation.  It must be within the grasp of clever people to agree an appointments process where ALL governors in church schools sign a commitment to uphold the Diocesan interests at all times thereby hugely increasing the potential to fill vacancies. I would go further and say relax the constraints on boards to have a designated number of governors from a particular constituency. For example if you can’t recruit a staff governor but have an additional parent who can add significant strength to the collective then why not? A good board can seek the views of staff with regards to its strategic work in other ways than direct representation.

Why can’t boards effectively decide who joins them at any given time? I can almost hear the warning shots being fired across my bows referring to Trojan Horses but these things happened anyway under the existing protocols. If the government truly wants us to be more professional then it needs to trust us to develop our boards in the way we think best suits our community and most importantly delivers for our children. We need all interested parties to ensure that governors, senior leaders, teachers, and support staff are the best they can be given our children only get that one chance. However we also need to ensure that our stakeholders, especially our parents and carers come with us on the journey. We have to end the current practice of a regional schools commissioner, often sat in an office miles away, recommending the attachment of a “failing” school to an academy perhaps geographically but certainly ideologically distant.

At a time when are schools are under unprecedented threat from central government underfunding, we more desperately then ever need innovative, dynamic, and forward thinking professional governors to work with teachers and leaders to develop the highest standards of education. But we must do so in partnership with all of our stakeholders so that our efforts are united, and our ownership collective. Indeed my next job after this blog is to write to our staff asking them for creative ways in which our school can better market our unique selling points. We will make similar representations to parents. And if we are to do these things to the best of our ability we have to work under a system sufficiently flexible to meet the rapidly shifting priorities our schools face. Let’s get the right people around the table. Let it cease to be a fable.

Broad and Balanced

seesawThe Headteacher of Ravenswood Primary School, Philomena Keating, sat back in the uncomfortable Year Four chair with her arms folded. That bloody twenty eight page report had taken two evenings to write, one of which had necessitated missing Morris dancing rehearsals in the Beaver and Dam. Now these confounded amateurs, tenuously masquerading as school governors, had the absolute gall to ask questions. Why? The data looks good. The school adviser, despite being an old crow, wasn’t as miserable as she might have been. Parent complaints have gone down. Most of the staff have come back from their stress absences. What else in God’s name could they want? Thankfully as her blood pressure rose betrayed by blotches on her rounded face, Sarah Smithers, Chair of Governors came to her rescue. “Guys, it’s getting late. Mrs Keating’s report is detailed and shouldn’t require further explanation. The figures are ok apart from Year Three and we know most of them are thick anyway. Attendance is back over eighty per cent and it’s two months since I’ve been accosted in the playground.” Local authority governor Marjorie Barnard, meek at the best of times, knew this was going nowhere and immediately decided to shelve her proposed questions about the school’s curriculum offer in light of the imminent changes to the inspection framework. Her concerns had been raised by her niece Kitty who said school was boring and that all she knew about were fronted adverbials and improper fractions. But Sarah was formidable and this was not a battle Marjorie was prepared to wage in front of her colleagues. Through the corner of her eye Marjorie could have sworn she saw the Head smile triumphantly as the line of inquiry was halted before it started.

Those of us, like me, who spend far too much time on eduTwitter will probably testify that much of the discourse revolves around how children are taught rather than what they are taught. I ascribe this obsession to a battle of egos around which pedgaogy and methodology works best when in truth the vast majority of teachers I have ever spoken to change their method or approach to fit the subject or context. Now it would appear OFSTED has raised the stakes. The 2019 inspection framework will now require inspectors to look at the quality of education rather than mere progress and attainment data, important though they remain. It is suggested that those at the helm are concerned that some schools may be concentrating far too heavily on those subjects which are tested to the detriment of others. We have all seen creased copies of a Year Six timetable consisting almost exclusively of English and Maths lessons, the only concession being to those subjects that require mandatory inclusion in the school week. The obsession with “hitting the figures” and the undoubted high-stakes accountability has sadly led to some senior leaders trying to play the system to the clear disadvantage of their children. And whilst that might be unforgivable it is to some extent understandable given the pressures to achieve.

Hence the announcement of a much clearer focus on what is being taught has been welcomed almost universally. Education is far more than the forced imposition of facts to be absorbed by young minds. Education is far more than memorisation of times tables and the ability to recite a Kipling poem in the dinner hall to order. Education is about exposing children to the beauty of learning. Education is about offering the broadest variety of subjects and topics possible to draw our children in, engage their interest, and in the process develop that lifelong love of learning in all its forms to which most of us aspire. Education is about instilling in children a responsibility for the environment and the world in which they live. Education plays a critical part in preparing our children for adulthood. And we must never forget our children only have once chance at that education.

The requirement to develop a curriculum that meets the minutiae of the new framework but more importantly the needs of our children will be integral to governance from this point onwards. Whilst we have been warned off straying into the operational aspects of school leadership, and rightly so, such is the importance of this renewed curriculum concentration that we must have clear oversight of what our school is delivering. Yes we must avoid asking “How” subjects are being taught but we absolutely have a duty to ask “What” is being delivered in our classrooms. And we need to ensure that our offer is clear, finalised, and in place from September of this year. In other words as governors we cannot wait until the new academic year before we start to explore this issue with senior leadership. The intent, implementation, and impact of what children are learning must be explicit in the minds of all governors and teachers before we depart for Tuscany or Tenby in mid July.

For governors there are a number of questions or even threads which we need to start asking with immediate effect. With regards to the intent, what is the rationale behind the school’s curriculum and do all subject leaders have sufficient expertise and understand what is being taught in that subject through the school and why? Do we have a governance structure that offers us a clear insight into what is being taught and a method of both scrutinising and challenging or do we need to amend how we operate? Are we ensuring that we are not adding to staff workload and if there are additional challenges, are we trying to compensate in other areas? If inspection does not seek to validate internal data what information should governors be receiving from school leaders and how often, especially when considering the excellent “Making Data Work” paper by Professor Becky Allen? Are we developing vocabulary and reading skills effectively in the Early Years and is reading pivotal across the broader curriculum? How does our curriculum promote personal development, well-being of both children and staff, and take into account our responsibilities as global citizens in a precious but threatened environment? Are there any immediate or longer term training and development needs for both staff and governors to ensure we have sufficient depth of knowledge in future? And perhaps most importantly of all, is our curriculum accessible to every child in the school irrespective of perceived ability, or whether they live with disability?

There will be  large number of schools inspected in the autumn term and curriculum cannot be viewed as a long term project or work in progress. It has to be in place, being effectively implemented, and be able to demonstrate impact right from the start of the Autumn term. If your school is awaiting “the call” then are you having these discussions with leadership NOW? If you don’t have a Curriculum Committee have you considered structural change? Are you currently reviewing your nominated governor roles to ensure they meet the revised priorities of the school? Will you ensure your website accurately represents what is being taught to each year group from the beginning of term? And are you asking the questions in the previous paragraph with particular emphasis I suggest on the quality of subject leadership?

By and large I believe this new direction of travel will be largely welcomed by those of us who love to witness and read about the joy of education. The careful intertwining of subjects around a theme that promotes the key educational skills of reading, writing, and numeracy but hooks children in via the wonder of experiment, exploration, and collaboration. It is a long awaited opportunity to bust the myth of having to teach to the test and to prepare our children fully for life in our changing world. From a governance perspective we are pivotal in shaping what we teach our children in 2019-20 and we must be absolutely involved in developing and tweaking the content without getting involved in just how that is delivered on a daily basis. Yet another challenge for hard-pressed volunteers and as always the remuneration remains unchanged. However we are not driven by materialistic gain but by the knowledge that children are thriving and maturing every day in the safe, welcoming, exciting, and developmental environment we  help to provide. What a legacy that will be when we hang up our highlighter pens!

 

 

The Last Train To Inadequacy

train crash

It was 9.24pm in the Year Five classroom of Lovely Lane Community Primary School. The meeting of the full board of governors had reached item seventeen on an agenda of twenty six. It had been typically slow going since the meeting started late, as ever, at 7.07pm. The turgid progress through the business at hand had no effect on the oblivious chair of governors, Jim Kellett who by this stage had risen to the full height of his pomposity. A small but proud man with a shiny head, he puffed out his barrel chest and proclaimed “This item is for noting only and is a reminder to Link Governors to look at the updated training programme.” He attempted to move on to noting the new model complaints policy when a meek voice from across the table politely enquired “What’s a Link Governor please Jim? Do we have one?” The question came from Mrs Winifred Bowater, the baby of the board with a mere seventeen years service to the school. “Good question Winnie” retorted Jim whose tone betrayed the fact he believed it was anything but good. “It means the Training Governor.” “Ah I see” said Winnie, “We don’t need one of those do we? After all we’ve no new governors.” “Exactly” said Jim, “Who needs training with all the experience around this table?” There then followed a fifteen minute reminiscence of the board’s most recent training experiences being ruined by finger nails on blackboards, and difficult to read overhead projector acetates.

The inexorable ramble towards midnight was broken by a timely intervention from the clerk, a wise lady with unlimited patience which in the case of Lovely Lane Primary was most certainly a virtue. “I appreciate you feel there is no need to engage with the training programme but you need to ensure you are all up to date with your safeguarding awareness.” If Jim regularly talked bull, this was a red rag. “Safeguarding awareness? Absolute nonsense Felicity. You take the minutes for us. You know we have a new five foot fence around the school with padlocks on all entrances. Nobody can get in and to the eternal gratitude of our neighbours none of our brats can get out!” He guffawed in self-importance missing the fact that at that very moment three governors discreetly checked their watches. Or was it their pulses?

Six months later to the day the OFSTED inspection report for Lovely Lane was made public. The school was deemed Inadequate in each of the grade descriptors. The report detailed how on the day of the inspection a child chasing an errant football into the street was knocked down by HMCI thankfully with only superficial injuries. It recounted how the Chair waxed lyrical about the Single Central Record and how governors were proud of that day in the studio with Year Four putting the song together. It told the story that when asked about the Pupil Premium governors insisted their numbers hadn’t come up in the monthly draw. And that one governor, when quizzed about British values confidently answered “Three pounds fifty seven.” Jim Kellett raged against the report, plagued his local MP at the golf club bar, and then blamed his colleagues for their incompetence. He refused to accept the imposition of an Interim Executive Board until he was promised that the school’s public speaking award would henceforth be dedicated to him.

In the finest traditions of governance I must declare an interest here. I am currently a tutor employed by the Governor Services department of our local authority. And whilst I may be biased I have to say that the breadth and quality of the provision is excellent. Traditional knowledge-based courses on such subjects as finance, safer recruitment, and the role of the Chair are now being increasingly supplemented by skill-based sessions such as asking challenging questions and how to make difficult decisions on panels. The vast majority of maintained schools in the county have a service level agreement for training. Yet incredibly over half never access a single course. The obvious question therefore is why? In times of acute financial hardship why are so many schools effectively throwing hundreds of pounds down the drain.

The answers I think are complex. Firstly we should always acknowledge that governors are volunteers and hence training will usually compete with work and family commitments in addition to attending meetings and school visits. All of course unpaid. There is also anecdotal evidence that some governors find attending central venues with a room full of strangers is daunting especially when their confidence in their ability might be fragile to start with. More concerning is the attitude of some boards that training is not for them. Schools like Lovely Lane where there is huge experience but also a mistaken assumption that they therefore know everything and would hence find training a waste of their time. And highly professional boards with a Carlsberg collective skills audit who believe they are above demeaning themselves by sharing a training room with the oiks from the school down the road.

So how should we go about convincing colleagues that training is critical to individual and collective development? Well firstly the status and kudos of training needs to be elevated beyond “ought to do” to “cannot miss.” Government can make an immediate and significant impact here by making induction training for all governors and trustees compulsory within three months of taking on the role. This makes it explicitly clear that self-improvement is at the heart of good governance. OFSTED needs to ramp up its exploration of board training records at inspection and factor in to the overall judgement the commitment of the board to access training.

Compelling that these may be they are extrinsic motivators and in all likelihood would only ever result in minimum compliance. The real trick is to develop a tangible, genuine desire within each individual and hence each board to be the absolute best they can be. We can pull at heartstrings by reminding colleagues that we are advocates for children who only get one chance at their education and hence it is critical that each and every one of us performs at our optimum to maximise their outcomes. We can remind each other that we are highly skilled employers responsible for significant budget, human resources, and performance management elements which require us to be completely up to date in our knowledge base. We can constantly look at skills deficits and knowledge gaps and ensure we develop a culture of training and upskilling so these are always being plugged. We can also remind hard working colleagues with precious free time that it is even possible to access online training whilst stuck in a room on the fifth floor of the Hemel Hempstead Holiday Inn.

All too often staff training and continuous professional development is one of the first casualties of severe budget constraints. “What happens if we pay for this course and she leaves?” is a common cry whereas “What happens if we don’t pay for it and she stays?” is a much more fitting response. The same arguments are applicable to governor training. Yes, money is in short supply everywhere. Yes, boards are having to make really tough decisions in many areas. However we must resist the temptation to make governor training a front-line casualty of government underfunding at all costs. By investing in our development and hence improvement we put ourselves in a much better qualified and knowledgeable position to deal effectively and efficiently with the challenges we face. We must do this. Our children deserve nothing less.

A Time To Move On

brexit shambles

Let me be explicitly clear about what I think to begin with. In 2016 I voted to Remain in the European Union and did so confidently and enthusiastically. I won’t pretend I knew the financial implications and risk to industry and business that will in all likelihood ensue, but I was comfortable in a collaborative organisation that had helped to shape peace since 1945 and had opened up the continent for all generations to exploit cheap air travel and thus enjoy opportunities not afforded our family predecessors. I was also very concerned about the growing anti-foreigner discourse and the Islamophobia shamefully whipped up by the right wing media. You see I don’t have a problem with people of different faiths, cultures and ethnicities. I don’t care if you have a black face. I don’t care if you talk like Arnold Schwarzenegger. I see only people. And actually lots of people who have enriched our communities through their culture, cuisine, and willingness to work hard to support our NHS and agricultural sector amongst others.

Most powerful of all I saw Brexit as a regressive, backwards-looking policy predicated on fear and, in some cases ignorance, that sought to recreate the good old days of the 1960s when we were enjoying the last vestiges of our Empire. In truth those days probably weren’t ever that good anyway especially if you were female, black, disabled, or poor. No. I saw nothing in leaving the European Union that met the challenges of a 2019 global and technologically expansive British society. That enabled the hopes and aspirations of our younger generation to be realised. That delivered a business model in any way superior to the mature agreements we already had in place.

Three years ago I don’t think any of us could really have guessed just what an awful mess the country would have made of the easy, smooth and orderly transition we were assured. Very quickly it became apparent that those who had led the cacophony around leaving had not told the truth. The bus was the biggest liar of all. One by one the loudest ran away fastest leaving others, including our hapless Prime Minister to deliver the promised milk, honey, and unicorns. They lurked in the shadows poking their strident but less savvy colleagues like Rees-Mogg, Francois, and Redwood and using them as John Bull mouthpieces.

Since that fateful day I have campaigned fervently for a reversal of the decision or at least another opportunity to gauge public opinion. I have spent hours researching and studying, listening to business leaders, experts, and those in Europe still shaking their heads in disbelief. I have been tireless on social media challenging the vaguest of Leave promises now reduced to “It will be alright,” “Britain is great,” and of course the robotic “WTO terms.” All of course flagrant nonsense.

Then recently on my way to Damascus something happened. The truth dawned upon me. But first let’s go back in time a little to understand my sudden change of realisation. Europe has always polarised Britain. Nobody has ever seemed to like or dislike Europe a little bit. Outright Europhilia or Europhobia appeared the dominant positions. Thus when this hugely complex question was reduced to a far too simplistic binary vote in 2016 the continued and entrenched polarisation was guaranteed. Had either side won by a landslide then the referendum would have been long since consigned to the dustbin of irrelevant political history.

In reality we got almost the worst possible outcome. A margin of victory so narrow it solved nothing. Sadly the architects of Leave bolstered by their champagne-sharing media mogul friends dressed the result of as winners versus losers. Where a hugely complex and consequential process was reduced in common parlance to the outcome of a football match suffixed quickly by the words “get over it.”

I sat there one Friday morning recently still shaking my head. Nay, anguish that despite the overwhelming weight of seemingly incontrovertible evidence that people seemed hell bent on sleepwalking our nation into economic and financial ruin. Then it happened. Then I realised. This was never about facts. This was never about logic. This was never about the force of argument. This was about raw emotion, sometimes passed down from previous generations. This was about a feeling we do not belong in Europe. This was about the notion our country had lost its identity in the wake of globalisation and immigration. This was always about the heart and never about the mind. This was about a willingness to accept huge potential economic fall-out just to be able to say we won, we are free, and we are great.

So how has this changed things for me? Up until last month a fierce advocate of a second vote, I have now changed my mind. I am certain a second vote would carry a Remain majority. Some people have undoubtedly been swayed by facts rather than feelings. But I suspect not many. Not enough. A second vote would not carry a hugely different result from 2016. And then what? It would be the Remain camp crowing about winning whilst millions of understandably embittered people would be labelled as losers. It changes the result but changes nothing.

No. Through gritted teeth I say we have to deliver Brexit. Because we voted for it. Because we deserve it. Redundancies and all. Potential Irish instability and all. But not I must emphasise a No Deal exit. A No Deal exit would be the greatest act of political treachery since Tommy Blood ran off with a bag of gold, silver, and diamonds. A No Deal exit on those parroted W.T.O terms would devastate business for years, would impact hugely on farming, would threaten vital medical supplies, and would plunge the neediest into deeper poverty whilst its proponents will still sup vintage Krug in the golf club bar with retired army colonels from Chipping Sodbury and Abinger Hammer, laughing at the utter gullibility of the peasants.

The only solution to getting us out of this whole Brexit mess is for nobody to get what they want. Nonsense? I’ll go further. The only solution is for us to all agree something we don’t agree with. It may be the beleaguered and incompetent Prime Minister’s version or a hybrid Norway Plus Plus Plus alternative. It needs to be something that gives us law-making freedoms, agricultural and fisheries control, and, if we must, greater controls over immigration. But it must also protect jobs and businesses so we can transition with the minimum pain possible. For European supporters like me that would stick in my throat. But it would also be hated by the arch-Brexiteers who despise France and Germany with every bone in their bodies (unless on holiday there) but would still be forced to trade with them.

The truth is today isn’t important. The damage has been done. Never in my lifetime has a single issue divided households and workplaces to the point where people now deliberately avoid discussing it for fear of causing a row. Never have so many people been blocked on social media. Never have so many people especially politicians been insulted.It is the future that is important. A polarised issue with a binary choice and divided electorate could never be delivered. Brexit or Remain in any of their most pure forms were always impossibilities. The time has come, for the benefit of our children and theirs, to agree on a solution that none of us actually wants but acknowledges, like in the most acrimonious of marital breakdowns, that neither party gets the whole house. We need, if there are any left, statesmen and women to come together at this, the eleventh hour in a spirit of consensus and putting dogmatic behind pragmatic. We need to say enough is enough. We need to draw a line in the sand and allow us all to concentrate once again on those critical issues such as education which have been shamefully neglected for three years. We finally need an exit from Brexit.

Cultivating The Lawn

overgrown lawn

My two most recent humble offerings have concentrated on the issues of culture and ethos within schools and the role that governance can and should play in shaping both. I make no apology for expeditiously revisiting this turf. You see I am troubled by a couple of things I have read recently. The first is the allegations stemming from a couple of Multi Academy Trusts that students are being systematically humiliated by trust staff in order to create a baseline of total compliance with school rules. The second derives from alleged comments from an OFSTED inspector praising a school’s positive and inclusive ethos but bemoaning the fact it will not have sufficient impact on attainment outcomes for children. If culture truly does eat strategy for breakfast then both of these issues cause a problem for governance. Whilst the school culture should have shared community ownership you should be able to trace the roots of that process back to strategic governors searching their souls and agreeing a concept for the DNA of their school. What they are about. Linked to their core values. But how many of us setting out our vision for the culture and ethos of the school then follow that through? How often do we ask the Head for evidence that school life on a daily basis accurately mirrors the key principles of our culture? Or do we create a culture because it’s en vogue on social media but only on a tokenistic basis where we then never think or bother to challenge whether or not those values are being lived within our school community?

The title of this piece is the opposite of the alleged practice of “flattening the grass” which supposedly has been common practice within a couple of trusts. I say alleged because thus far we only have the word of those who previously worked their and “friends of friends.” I can only imagine if safeguarding principles are enshrined within those teaching communities that at least one concerned staff member will have referred this matter under whistleblowing and hence is currently under investigation. I would also very much hope this is on the radar of the relevant regional schools’ commissioners and OFSTED simply because, if it is true, it is difficult to construct a narrative other than around emotional abuse. The fact that one trust has supposedly hired a crisis management company to deal with the fall-out from this social media frenzy is an interesting development.

In proceeding here therefore we still have to be careful as thus far there is no independent corroboration of these appalling claims. But let’s for a moment assume they are true. That Mr Walton, the trust’s deputy CEO waltzes triumphantly into the staff room at St Aloysius’ where he isn’t actually a staff member and high fives the Head of Humanities shouting “I’ve finally broken that gobby Robinson kid in Nine Alpha.” I am sure that there are those on edu-Twitter who are fairly ambivalent about such practices should they exist. They see compliance and control as key drivers for learning and may, possibly, hold a view that the end justifies the means. Behaviour is still clearly an issue in many schools although it should be noted that the majority achieve high standards of respect and conduct without having to resort to silent corridors and micro-management of students. There is also a fairly obvious but also well-researched link between good behaviour and positive educational outcomes.

The question is here what can or should we as strategic governors tolerate or ignore in the name of operational behaviour management in our schools. Well my view is that depends completely on your culture and ethos. If you believe the operational outcome of compliance is supreme then you will accept any methodology that gets you there. In other words not just flattening the grass but even the daily application of the heavy roller. If however, as I do increasingly, you believe that culture and ethos MUST supersede any operational methodology then you would simply not allow such heinous practices to play any part in your school life.  Of course the Head or CEO might whinge about you muddying your hands in the “doing” bit of school life but in my view such intrusion is wholly justifiable. How can we sit there and create a culture of respect, compassion, integrity, and inclusion then allow these educational ideologues to promote, at least initially, a reign of terror and an absolute abuse of authority? If we do then I’m afraid our culture is hollow. It is the straw house of the first little pig. It is the seed that fell on rocky ground. It has no roots, no foundation, no meaning. It should be laid bare for what it is. A wholly cosmetic exercise constructed by theorists for whom education is about the control of children not about the joys and wonders they bring to our lives.

All of which brings me on to the second concern I have felt in recent days. Whilst not as emotive perhaps as the first it is probably even more frustrating. And that is the alleged inference from an inspector that an inclusive, holistic, and positive culture is a wonderful thing but one that ultimately will have no bearing on the outcome of a formal inspection. Just let’s think about this for a minute. We are saying here that a school that takes in the SEND kids other more “ambitious” schools find an inconvenience will be compromised. That the school which offers a safe and nurturing haven for our most disadvantaged and often sad children will receive no credit. That the school which uses Pupil Premium money to enrich the narrow lives of children such as taking them to the seaside for the first time in their lives will not have those wonderful smiles on faces acknowledged because they haven’t reduced the attainment gap by three points in a SPAG test?

In some ways this is a far more common conundrum for governance than any ethical discussions around behaviour policies. All of us explicitly realise the high-stakes accountability from external testing, school league tables, and independent inspection. The bald facts are thus. If you fall below floor standards the regulatory microscope is firmly trained on you. If you fall below neighbouring schools in terms of narrow educational attainment the likelihood is the Trip Advisor mentality will send prospective parents elsewhere. And if the inspector concludes your provision requires improvement then in a flash you have the Monitoring and Intervention Team crawling all over your classrooms and you haemorrrhage both children and teachers, the former with an inevitable detrimental impact on your funding. So yes, whilst we may not like the tent it is all too often preferable to be inside it peeing out rather than vice versa. Hence we see Year Six timetables crammed with English and Maths, lunchtime and after-school boosters, and even holiday revision classes. Governors may not always be exactly comfortable with this but have reluctantly and expediently accepted it for the greater good of performance. Happy to sacrifice the joy of education at the high altar of attainment. A greater worry of course would be in those schools where governors or trustees are blissfully aware of the constriction and strangulation of the curriculum to placate the system.

This issue above all others I believe poses a huge dilemma for governors. The reality is the current educational landscape shows little sign of changing its emphasis although the OFSTED consultation around “the quality of education” is for me a wholly positive development but one which I fear may bring the inspectorate into conflict with the current government. A government whose gelatinous schools’ minister continues to expound the virtues of traditional teaching and is entirely focused on standards of learning in core subjects even though his boss in the DfE bizarrely trumpets a totally different agenda. There is a powerful lobby that certainly has the ear of government. They espouse strict behaviour policies. They have firm views on returning our classrooms to the ambience and style of 1960s oak-panelled grammar schools. They are suspicious of children’s rights, discussions around mental health, and are uniformly unprepared to challenge the government on its woeful dereliction of duty when it comes to funding. They want academies. Lots of them. All of them. They collectively bask in the reflective glory of PISA tables whilst sneeringly denigrating any concerns of the impact of their preferred regimes on children. They are poking their noses into early years provision challenging play-based learning and instead espousing much more formal learning at the age of four. And they build this traditionalist agenda on research. Lots of research. Research that supports their arguments whilst conveniently ignoring any counter-arguments.

This therefore is the prevailing narrative against which governors have to make huge decisions. Do we offer a rich, diverse curriculum promoting the joy of learning in all its forms, inside and outside the curriculum, during and outside the traditional school day. Or do we go with the inevitable, inexorable flow and channel all our energies into ticking boxes come July on some data sheet somewhere?

I cannot answer that admittedly huge question for you. It takes enormous bravery, some may say suicidal tendencies, to put at risk exam results, league table positions, and inspection grades. I must stress I am not for one minute here diminishing the great importance of ensuring children leave our schools and colleges able to read fluently, write persuasively, and having mastered the basic Mathematical rudiments. Clearly these are critical. But what about a thirst for learning in history and geography acquired for life? What about the ability to converse fluently abroad in a modern foreign language? And of course the ability to act dramatically on stage, pass your Grade Four piano exam, or represent the district at cross country. The reality is for many children this wider exploration of what schools CAN offer will be of far greater subsequent value than the ability to write about the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet or solve a quadratic equation in ten seconds.

And it is there for me where the answer lies to this highly complex challenge for governors. We have an overarching duty to meet the needs of ALL children. It is my belief that when we narrow the curriculum, make learning joyless, and fill children’s leisure time with yet more revision that we let some of them down. The less academically gifted. Our precious Special Educational Needs and Disabled children. Those whose futures will not be shaped by meeting the expected standard in reading and comprehending a piece of writing. If we govern for all then culture, as well as eating strategy for breakfast, trumps academic performance obsession every single time. It means being brave. It means having really courageous conversations in the boardroom and possibly even in the staff room. It means accepting that your provision may not be sufficiently valued by a visiting inspector but at the same time the absolute knowledge that what you are offering ALL your children is right for them. It means understanding that some parents may take their children away or even refuse to enrol them in the first place but that ultimately you will gain. It means potentially tough discussions with school advisers, local authorities, and Dioceses but being resolute in your determination. Most of all it means being able to sleep at night knowing that the culture of your school is being lived every single day in every single way by every member of the school community. That I contend is fundamentally why we govern.

 

Not So Bad Thank You

Wellbeing“How are you?” must be one of life’s most asked questions. From a genuine enquiry into somebody’s health, perhaps after a period of illness or injury, to a simply courteous greeting offered the world over, it is a question that prefaces many meetings and conversations. In the majority of situations there is no response either sought or expected.

Increasingly as governors however, we are seeing a need to rise above any superficiality in asking about the general health and well-being of our children, staff, and school leadership. In a high number of schools governors are legally the employers and hence have an implicit duty of care for those in our school communities. It is also becoming abundantly clear that mental health and emotional stability are very real issues of concern. We have reports of children burdened with exam stress, peer pressures through social media, and the complexity of growing up in the modern world. We have teachers and members of staff crumbling under a workload intensified by high stakes external exam results and inspection grades. We have headteachers burning the candle at both ends as they grapple with issues far removed from traditional education such as safeguarding, social deprivation, and dysfunctional families. Recruitment of leaders is becoming ever more troublesome. Retention of teachers is an ongoing issue with twenty per cent leaving the profession within five years of qualifying. Of those who hang around more and more are exploring the potential to reduce classroom hours to compensate for the time spent planning and marking at home. And we can never ignore the reality of a rise in self-harm and stress in our children, especially those navigating the turbulent waters of adolescence.

For governors these sensitive but critical matters can be very difficult. As volunteers, especially those who work, getting into school to gauge the prevailing mood often proves impossible. On the occasions we do interact with our school community everything appears to be fine as staff summon up a tired smile to greet you whilst tenaciously grinning and bearing their load so as to neutralise any adverse impact on children. Staff turnover can be an indicator of poor well-being but again a narrative can always be developed that makes such departures seem less worrying. And of course as guardians of the strategic direction of the school we delegate full operational responsibility to the leadership. All too often perhaps we bask in the reflective glory of exam success without wondering about the personal impact it may have had among those who have delivered it. For us to start delving into well-being we inevitably start to stray into operational matters. We may not be in the galley rowing but we have come down from the deck to see how the boat is being powered. And when that happens Heads, perhaps understandably get twitchy about us venturing into their domain.

Last time I wrote about culture and ethos. For me well-being is inextricably linked to both. A school trumpeting compassion as a value does not watch idly as an NQT flogs himself or herself to death. A school advocating respect does not denounce or denigrate staff who refuse to give up their Sunday afternoon family bike ride to upload plans for the week after Easter. And it is this very important correlation between culture and well-being that legitimises governor involvement. On a purely mercenary level the smooth operation, and hence achievement of our school are totally predicated on staff feeling valued, understood, and of course energised. The key question therefore is how do we start, as governors, to ensure well-being is culturally embedded in our school? There is a simple starting point.

Governors have one direct performance management responsibility. Appraisal and pay progression of the Head is determined by us. The targets against which we judge the Head should be clearly linked to the school improvement or development plan. However there is also scope within that review and preview process to introduce a mutually agreed well-being objective. Many of our Heads simply work too many hours and some will be susceptible to burn-out. Too many expend all of their energies in looking out for their colleagues and precious little time looking after themselves. A Head at home with stress is no good for the school but even less beneficial to them. By ensuring there is a measurable and achievable well-being objective annually puts the Head’s health at the forefront of our annual considerations.

However, a well-being objective for the school leader has another benefit. If cascaded down the performance management network we can create a framework whereby every member of staff is held accountable for their own well-being against a backdrop of mutual care and compassion. Of course the danger for governors is that we can utilise superficial and tenuous measures in ensuring an appropriate work-life balance. A yoga session is lovely. Cakes in the staff room are probably very tasty. And a night out on the last day of term could very well allow them to let their hair down. However they are all temporary. The angry parent renders the yoga session a distant memory. The cakes add to the anxiety about expanding waistlines. And the evening with colleagues was great until Miss James sobbed into her second bottle of Prosecco and left everybody feeling even more miserable. No, well-being cannot be cosmetic. It is not about a number of quick fixes or sticking plaster solutions. If we are really serious about workload we may have to engage in some of those difficult but necessary conversations. Each year we are asked to adopt new policies some of which impact directly on our people. When did we last challenge the teaching and marking policy with added expectations to now offer feedback in five different colours of ink? When did we last ask the Head if he or she actually read the plans that have to be submitted by Sunday evening each week. And when did we last challenge the inherent expectation that staff would be working at weekend anyway? Certainly in my school we have an unwritten rule of not accepting any new initiative that adversely impacts on teachers without  overwhelming evidence of necessity, or a compensatory reduction in workload elsewhere.

If well-being is to be truly seen as a school imperative then surely we need a governor to have direct oversight of that area of school life? A governor who, other than the Chair, keeps an eye on the Head and when asking “How are you?” is actually concerned about the answer. A governor who can detect the mood in the staff room and who is sufficiently discerning to notice excessive tiredness. A governor who co-ordinates an annual anonymous survey of staff well-being to ensure the information we receive from leadership is in harmony with the news from the coal face. A governor empowered to ask about pastoral and even counselling support for struggling students, looking at a buddy system in primary schools, and taking the time out to survey the children leaving the school on their experiences and worries on their journeys with us.

Well-being is not a project, a campaign, or a superfluous area of education for governors to tinker with. Well-being is a fundamental and essential area of our work. Yes it may at times look that we straying into the operational but we must remember one very simple reality. As employers it is absolutely in our interests to ensure that we maximise the attendance, happiness and productivity of our staff. It is not just the right thing to do, it is the most effective thing to do. It is possible to develop a culture that places well-being at the heart of our community. That places a greater premium on health than exam success. That makes our staff want to come to work rather than want to stay at home. Governors. We have work to do.

The Road to Nowhere

road-to-nowhere

Last week I walked into a high street branch of Thomas Cook’s (other travel agencies are available). I was met by an affable lass in ultramarine blue and with striking white teeth. I couldn’t help wondering if she’d been seconded there due to the late cancellation of TCX816 from Manchester to Punta Cana. She resisted the urge to direct me to the fire exits and emergency breathing apparatus and instead enquired as to how she could help me. Easy. “Can I please book two long haul flights?” “Of course sir, did you have a destination in mind?” replied the glamorous assistant. “No” I retorted. “However I would like to be in Vienna on Thursday lunchtime, Sofia on Friday afternoon, and Athens on Saturday morning please.” To be fair to the lady she must have made the call unobtrusively as I didn’t see the medical team arrive. They gently escorted me into the vehicle and on to the quaint rural retreat where I was to undergo my subsequent psychiatric assessment.

During the course of 2018 I have been privileged to deliver a number of training courses for various governing boards across God’s county. I have also worked in greater depth with another couple. It has become increasingly clear that boards are really starting to understand the distinction between their strategic remit and the operational element delegated to the school’s leadership. They know we are charged with thinking rather than doing. In a boat we would be steering rather than rowing. Even more succinctly they know to ask “How well” rather than How?” Armed with this clarity they usually draft a three to five year plan, the contents of which are commonly aligned to, and intrinsically linked with the school development plan. Governors know their school was in the bottom quintile nationally for Key Stage Two Maths last year and hence they have a robust improvement plan. So at the end of the current academic year they want to be in Vienna, next year Sofia, and the third year enjoying the historic delights of the Acropolis. It is likely that if this document is the school development or improvement plan then the operational element will be included. In other words the journey length and milestones are set by the board but the Head and leadership team will have added the methodology along with resource implications and progress to date.

However, what has become similarly evident this year is that several governing boards do not have a vision. Some may have a mission statement on their website, often underpinned by a religious or value-driven ethos. But when I have challenged boards, not on the journey and stop off points but the destination, they often look blank. They will point to the strategic plan and show the commitment towards Maths improvement but they cannot actually answer the question “Where do you want your school to be in three years?” Of course academic progress is critical if we are to optimise the life chances of our young people. Yet I doubt any of us have exclusively academic aspirations for our children. We want them to be safe, happy, inspired, grow in confidence, enhance social skills, and hopefully forge a lifelong thirst for learning and self-development. Yet how many of us have ever undergone a process where we ask these absolutely fundamental questions? How many of us have ever really focused on the destination, the pot of gold at the end of our rainbow?

To be fair some have. Governors, often exploiting the relative freedom of an “away day,” have brainstormed a vision against a backdrop of Werther’s Originals and sparkling Buxton mineral water. On some boards this process appears to have been driven by the Head. Both scenarios are laudable but not sufficient. Governors are one grouping within a community. There are other stakeholder groups such as parents and carers, staff, the children, the wider community, the Diocese, the local authority, other schools or academies. There is surely no point in governors articulating a powerful vision for the school if those other groups disagree fundamentally with our aspirations? A vision has to be collective. It must have common ownership. It must require us all to row and steer in the same direction. The minutiae of how we agree our destination is complex with so many groups to consult. It is particularly challenging in those multi-academy trusts where the trustees are geographically and possibly even ideologically distanced from some of these stakeholders.However it really is a task worth tackling. It gives us clarity. It unifies. It provides real focus.

Of course there is a very powerful argument that governors should go back even further. Establishing where we are going and how we are going to get there is clearly critical. However before we consider both surely we need to agree what or who we are? What is our ethos, our culture, our DNA. How do we want to be seen and thought of in the wider community? What are the absolute fundamentals, the non-negotiables that shape all of our work and provide the context for our tireless volunteering? Again when I ask these core questions I am often met with silence. Some will rattle off the school’s values. And again it is right and proper that our  school community has basic principles it wishes to adhere to. In itself establishing a culture is merely tokenistic, something that looks good on a glossy website and scores brownie points with Mr or Mrs OFSTED. No, a culture simply has to be lived. It is no good referencing inclusion if we are off-rolling the less academic Year Eleven students. Compassion is powerful on paper but lacks credibility if staff are claiming bullying from senior leadership. In the immortal words of Coldplay, “Nobody said it was easy.” However I truly believe establishing an identity and a core purpose for the school or academy are vital. The challenge for us all is to ensure as in all things that we do what we say. That the reality is exactly what it says on the tin.

As we approach a New Year perhaps you can resolve as a board to visit or revisit these really important elements of our strategic purpose? Let’s strengthen our culture and clarify our vision. Having done so we can then sit back, put up our feet, and enjoy the scenery of the ride. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all

“Order! Order!”

speaker

I left my meeting and briskly walked from the Town Hall to Wigan North Western station. It took around seven minutes and meant I had ample time to cross over to platform five for the 13.05 train to Preston calling at Euxton Balshaw Lane and Leyland, my chosen destination. Within five minutes of having sat on the unwelcoming metal bench an announcement was made over the station’s tannoy system “Northern Rail regrets to announce that………” You can guess the rest. Frustratingly this was an hourly service. Thankfully it was at the height of our marvellous summer and hence there was no need to shelter from the elements. I had a book in my bag which provided a welcome distraction. Of course I tweeted several times about my delay. And I looked jealously into the First Class carriages of the 13.18 to London Euston on platform four where diners were enjoying smoked salmon and scrambled egg whilst I munched on a Dairylea butty clumsily squashed by my laptop.

At 14.05 the service from Liverpool Lime Street arrived and I got on, making myself comfortable for the fifteen minute journey that lay ahead. At 14.25 I got off the immobile train. It had just been cancelled having developed an irreparable fault with its doors. By this stage mild irritation had developed into incandescent rage. I tweeted Northern Fail  (as they are affectionately known) using phrases relating to drinking sessions in buildings where beer is brewed. With minutes however my ire had turned on the Secretary of State for Transport, Chris Grayling. You may never have seen this minister. Rumour has it he’s never been seen outside of Heathrow Airport. Certainly as far as the national rail network is concerned he has presumably been replaced by a bus. I ranted about his incompetence based on an abject failure to relieve this incompetent franchisee of its responsibilities.

In a rare moment of calm later that day I pondered if my social media attacks on Mr Grayling were justified. After all he isn’t a mechanical engineer or scheduler of timetables. The thing is politics transcends everything. It is virtually impossible to consider any aspect of our lives that is not affected by politics and decisions made by governments and local authorities. Sometimes those links can be tenuous. For example the price of the bottle of Douro I will purchase this afternoon may be influenced by taxes, climate conditions, inflation, and any tariffs imposed by the exporting or importing nation. Sometimes those links are more explicit. Waiting for four hours in an Accident and Emergency department (surely the worst places on God’s earth?) can be directly attributed to the lack of sufficient funding from successive governments to meet the needs of an ageing and growing population.

And so it is with education. Our sector has long been a political football. Every government believes it will find the elixir of educational success. A bit like the Premier League manager who takes on the flamboyant and disruptive Uruguayan midfielder in the misplaced arrogance that he possesses the man-management skills to tame the wild individual. The fact that in 2018 we still have young men and women leaving school without having mastered the basics of literacy and numeracy suggests our politicians have failed to develop a  panacea of educational success. There is a very clear link between political decisions and educational outcomes. Historically selection at the age of eleven created winners and losers and labelled some as such. More recently the conclusion that local authority management of schools should not be automatic led to the creation of academies and free schools. In 2018 one can point to the retention crisis in teaching, increased class sizes, forced redundancies, and a surge in the profits of B & Q’s bucket section, and link this inextricably to insufficient funding. Similarly at present we have government ministers peddling narrow ideologies and teaching methods, or unashamedly promoting the entire academisation of the nation’s remaining maintained schools. Both of these approaches are arguably politically inspired.

So to put it simply we can never discuss education in isolation. Education is political because its direction, and ultimately its success or failure will be largely predicated on political decisions or thinking. Traditionally however governors have steered clear of thorny discussions around education. We have risen above such petty squabbles and instead rejoiced at the improvement in boys’ writing in Key Stage Two or that Mrs Hartley has recently completed her National Professional Qualification for Headship. Even when times in schools have been really tough we have shied away from wider potential culpability and instead concentrated on our own very narrow collective responsibility to try and make a silk purse from a sow’s ear.

I believe governors were wrong. We are still wrong. We have mistakenly conflated being political with being party political. Which of course is a nonsense. It is perfectly acceptable for somebody to call out the Conservative government on its woeful underfunding of state education without being labelled as a placard-waving Corbynista. Similarly it is entirely appropriate to question Angela Rayner on Labour’s proposed education service without being accused of wishing to privatise the whole state sector. As a governor it is possible to support the government on many areas of  policy yet still challenge any perceived abdication of educational responsibilities. I would go yet further and state an opinion that governors who ignore the political landscape, especially in times of austerity, do so to the detriment of their schools, colleges, nurseries, and academies. There are simple things that all governors can do. Such as writing a letter to one’s Member of Parliament inviting them into your school to talk about budgetary deficits and the increasing difficulty in ensuring the best possible outcomes for all children. This is a politically neutral act yet acknowledges governors’ responsibility to ensure their school has sufficient money and that it is well spent.

I fully accept many governors do pay attention to the influence of politics in education but not in the full glare of social media. This is completely understandable. In the UK politics is largely bi-partisan and hence almost inevitably adversarial. In recent times the landscape has become increasingly polarised which has had a direct impact on some of the rhetoric around people’s political stance. Ridiculously we see Conservative supporters being accused of having been complicit in hundreds of deaths of the sick and elderly. Equally we see card-carrying Labour members labelled as Marxists willing to sell the country down the river on the back of some grotesque Orwellian experiment. All too often this hurtful and outrageous labelling extends into the world of education. Just because you favour traditional teaching methods and silent corridors does not automatically make you a child-hating Nazi. If you question isolation booths and “no excuses” regimes it doesn’t make you a school-shaming Commie. To automatically draw such analogies is not only deeply unhelpful, it actually significantly diminishes the debate because potential contributors are scared off. As with all things Twitter, we should always endeavour to play the ball not the man.

That said there should not be any no-go areas. Provided we do so courteously and respectfully then all politicians are fair game when it comes to governor and wider educational challenge. If a Member of Parliament uses social media to promote certain ideologies or methods they should not expect a clear run. Not only should they face challenge on those views but also on their performance where their roles directly impact on education. Just because you share that politician’s view doesn’t make your their mouthpiece or apologist. Nor does it negate the questioner’s right to question. If you are a minister advocating universal academisation whilst sitting on a prominent multi-academy trust then you should legitimately be quizzed on potential conflicts of interest especially where there is a superficial suggestion that your trust has received preferential treatment. Whether that minister is right-wing, left-leaning, or unashamedly centrist does not affect our right to question and their responsibility to be held to account.

The absolute key to governors becoming politicised rather than political lies in the manner of our approach. Are we questioning politicians in the best interests of children or the best interests of our personal political ideology? Are we asking sensible, intelligent questions in a courteous,  mature manner or are we instead making snide comments to appeal to the lowest common denominator of our echo chamber? Are we genuinely seeking answers and evaluating them or rubbishing responses at the first opportunity. We are educators. We are leaders. As always we must consider what we as governors need to do to improve the educational landscape of our country. But then we remember that we, like teachers, are role models. Would our children be proud of us trying to make their schools better? But also, and critically, would our children be proud of the way we are behaving in the process? If we get that right at all times, eduTwitter will never need a Speaker.

 

 

 

 

Lead Us Not Into Stagnation

stagnationLittle known fact. If you enter the Amazon website, click on books, and then enter the word Leadership you unleash seventy six pages of weighty tomes all dedicated to the art, at least it appears to be, of being an effective leader of men and women. From business leaders to politicians, to educationalists to sports coaches, each has different opinions and different recommendations for getting the best from your highly effective team. When one considers the human psyche and an inevitable propensity to either lead or be led it is clearly an important issue. If the led are to be galvanised, mobilised, and incentivised, it requires a skilled front man (or woman) to facilitate this process.

Earlier this year I was invited to join our senior management team where I work. I already had line management responsibility but the incoming chief executive believed my area of work was so critical to the company that it required direct representation at senior level. I accepted the invitation because I saw it gave me, as a leader, an opportunity to help shape our future direction. I already had leadership experience both historically and in other sectors so this “promotion” held no fears for me. I was more than happy to try and model the words of John C Maxwell who stated “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” In other words a person of direction, prepared to get stuck in but to offer strategic and innovative vision. Whether I am currently meeting that brief would be best answered by those who report to me.

Those who most clearly demonstrate an aptitude for leadership are usually very well rewarded. In some cases leadership brings power and authority. There are the inspirational leaders such as Tony Blair and Barack Obama whose personality and likeability get them elected more than once. There are others through the annals of history who have led in other ways where potential opposition is frightened away, such as cuddly old Adolf and the unassuming Josef. There is no doubt that political leadership is vital to the success of a nation. I would argue that currently our two major political parties are led by people significantly lacking in certain leadership skills and this is reflected in their abject handling of Brexit and other pressing issues affecting our country.

In the world of business leaders are often very handsomely compensated for their ability to drive their organisations forward. In an increasingly marketised education sector there is great concern over the huge salaries of certain chief executives in the academy sector. Their trusts would refute allegations of impropriety by pointing to the results these leaders are achieving across several academies up and down the country. In other words those imbued with leadership quality can expect to be prominent in society and to enjoy three annual holidays in their gated villa in the Maldives whilst at home their groceries (or as they prefer to call them provisions) are dutifully delivered by the Ocado driver in the absence of Fortnum and Mason offering such a service.

When it comes to school governance there is one very distinct difference when it comes to leadership. The greatest, most inspirational, knowledgeable, and insightful Chairs or Trust Directors deliver annually their great expertise with identical remuneration. Nothing. Zilch. Rien. They devote hours of their time, usually in addition to their paid employment and family commitments, to ensure that their schools and academies are ensuring the best possible educational outcomes for all of their children. And when they succeed, and their schools exceed expectations, they get the huge performance related bonus of…nothing.

Now hang on there a minute Neil. So you’re arguing Chairs should be paid? Not at all. I have consistently opposed paying Chairs or indeed any other governors. All governors volunteer out of a sense of public duty or altruism. I have always been concerned that if there was remuneration we might attract candidates motivated more from self-interest than the needs of their community. No, I was merely drawing attention to the fact that unlike leaders in other sectors those involved in governance do not enjoy some of the traditional trappings of success. So why do we become Chairs of Governors? Often of course it appears to be natural succession almost like being in line to the British throne! In other cases there is literally nobody else willing or able to assume the mantle. And of course there are a good many instances when a particular governor possesses leadership ability or demonstrates an innate aptitude and the capacity to take on the role. So  the emergence and subsequent appointment of the Chair differs right across the country dependent on circumstances and context at the time.

In addition to our voluntary status there is another factor that separates Chairs of Governors from their counterparts in business, commerce, sport, and other sectors. We have no individual power or authority. To put it succinctly we cannot hire or fire. We cannot “order” people to do things. We cannot make a decision without the full backing of the board other than clearly defined circumstances where that authority has been delegated to us by our colleagues. We are primus inter pares. First among equals. But undeniably if you look at a job specification for a Chair of Governors it is clearly a leadership position. From taking control of meetings, to dealing with complaints and appeals, and to forming a supportive but challenging relationship with the Head or CEO, we take charge of the board’s business on a daily business. And yet traditionally there has been a complete lack of training in this incredibly important skill. My own local authority runs a course for new Chairs but inevitably that looks at governance legislation and practice and contains precious little on how to recruit, develop, and lead a disparate team of individuals all of whom are volunteers and over none of whom you can exercise any authority. To its eternal credit the National Governance Association (NGA) has developed a leadership programme for Chairs or aspiring chairs. However, this does not seem to be widely replicated nationally. Given the critical role the Chair plays in the growth of the governing board this is clearly a concern and one I would invite local authorities and multi-academy trusts to consider investing in.

Of course even the most experienced and able Chairs are challenged by the role. Often they are exclusively privy to confidential information which cannot be shared among the board and which can at times weigh heavy on our shoulders. Handling complaints or appeals is not just really time-consuming, it is very often emotionally energy-sapping. On many occasions I have thanked God that my wife was still up when I got home from a difficult meeting, or that online governor colleagues are available with a comforting word or sage advice when things seem impossible. To those governors reading this blog if I might ask only one thing from you it would be this. Please remember that it is extremely likely that the Chair will be involved in work you do not or cannot see. It is almost certain they will be working on behalf of the school for far more hours than you could imagine based on your own experience. And as has been said, often that work is being undertaken alone and possibly in confidence. As such the role can become extremely lonely. That loneliness is alleviated considerably when colleagues enquire as to your well-being and offer both support and assistance. Often there is little that can be done practically but the knowledge that others are thinking of you offers considerable solace. Next time you see your Chair, please ask how he or she is faring.

My biggest concern around leadership in governance is the assumption that it is the sole domain of the Chair or possibly vice-Chair. We have all been rightly indoctrinated in the mantra that governance is strategic rather than operational. We are thinkers not doers. We are steering the boat not rowing in the galley. For some governors this separation has been difficult to take on board but progress has been made. Yet most governors still demonstrate their commitment to the school through attendance at board and committee meetings, school visits, compiling reports, or interrogating and understanding data. Yes these are essential elements of our work and getting to know our school. However it can be argued quite powerfully that these are operational elements of our strategic role. I would argue far fewer governors get involved in our strategic work at its purest level. Innovation and providing new solutions to old problems are alien concepts to too many governors. Thinking outside the box and having regular lightbulb moments are seen as the sole preserve of the leader. But whilst in many cases Chairs are brilliantly perceptive and enlightened they are not challenged anything like enough. Leader yes. Infallible, no.

For our governing boards to be at their absolute best we need all governors to come to the party. Not just in terms of their physical commitment where the vast majority of colleagues are irreproachable. Where we need that commitment to change rather than become greater, is for boards to develop a culture of innovation and to constantly challenge the status quo especially where this has been modelled and shaped almost exclusively by the Chair. Perhaps a meeting agenda item can be “Ideas.” Challenge each governor to bring an idea to the next meeting that will enhance the effectiveness of governance or make an improvement to outcomes for children. Chairs can assist greatly by encouraging challenge. An annual review of your leadership, anonymous if absolutely necessary, gives members an opportunity to reflect on your leadership and compliment you on your strengths whilst gently offering developmental food for thought. This creates an ethos of check and challenge founded on mutual trust and respect. Critically it also facilitates distributed leadership right across the board with members empowered and entrusted to volunteer opinions and alternative solutions. Every governor is a leader with the Chair conducting a harmonious orchestra. Ask yourself this. When the Chair is silent for a period of time (e-mails or phone calls cease for a period) is any other governor filling the void and taking up the mantle of leadership ensuring the momentum of the board is guaranteed?

Chairs are usually excellent leaders. They inspire, they motivate, they organise. But these are skills and qualities that should not just be limited to their role. Every governor has the potential but also the duty I would argue to contribute to that leadership. Let’s stop waiting to be asked or even reminded. Let’s start using our initiative. Let’s start to be proactive rather than merely reactive. When, not if, we get this right we will offer great support to our precious Chairs but also enhance our collective work and hence improve outcomes for all children. And that of course is why we do what we do.