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?