Giving school governors time to talk

Over the last twelve months I have found myself asked to do more and more governor training. Having first been a governor (and Chair of Governors) in 1986, I have a lot of experience. I have been a member of infant, junior, primary, secondary and special school governing bodies. I also did a stint on an FE college board. I have chaired most of the governor committees ever dreamt of. Twice in recent years I have been asked to chair the Interim Executive Board of schools where conventional governance had failed and the school had found itself special measure

So I thought I knew a lot about governance when I found myself going to schools to deliver courses on Ofsted and governors, moving a school from good to outstanding, the role of governors in school improvement, holding school leaders to account or making sense of the Ofsted inspection data summary report.

However much I material I prepared and whatever the course, I discovered that I always had too much material and that I always had too much for the same reason. Each of the courses has a central moment when governors are asked to reflect in pairs on a key issue. It might be looking at a grid that contains all of the explicit references to governance in the Ofsted criteria for outstanding leadership and management and saying what you have done as governors and might do in the future. It could be a grid on outstanding grade descriptors for personal development, behaviour and welfare and considering what questions you might ask of staff and what question you might ask of pupils. Whatever the course and whatever the activity, this is the moment when my carefully timed plan goes out of the window. I started by allocating ten minutes, then switched to 20 and 25 and it still wasn’t enough time. I listened in carefully and consistently heard only high quality dialogue, profound insight and deep engagement with issues. It was very hard to stop governors talking, so I extended the time and added more for pairs to look at what others had written and broaden the conversation.

I realised that all the things I have believed about learning for a very long time apply to governance too. Collaboration works, the ability to listen is crucial and safe places to talk through complicated issues in informal language help in clarifying what we think and learning how to say and write what you think in appropriately formal language. I like to think I am a good trainer and facilitator who can get people talking productively, but I also know my own limitations and felt something additional must be happening.

Eventually one of the governors explained to me why my approach worked. She said: “The reason this training is so good is that we have never had the chance to talk to each like this about the school.” My instinct was to respond by saying that almost all of what governors do is talk about the school, but realised that this governor was right. In fact, mostly governors read reports written by senior staff, listen to reports given by senior staff and respond in a formal meeting. The opportunities for the exploratory talk that we think so valuable in a classroom and that happens continually in busy work places are few and far between for most governors.

Governors need time for informal talk and we need to build that time into the governance processes. Without it effective governance can be a matter of luck rather than design.

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