It’s been three years since I first became a school governor, and only now do I feel I’ve probably got sufficient experience and ideas to write a blog. Having tried, and quickly abandoned, a couple of previous attempts, I’d like to keep this one going! I hope it will provide a useful mixture of practical ideas and wider policy explanations. I’ve got no professional link to the education world, and have found the latter is perhaps the requirement with which I’ve struggled the most – but it is a critical part of being on a governing body.
As a primary school governor – and for a school within sight of the City of London – there might be a bias towards that context and away from secondary and higher education: apologies in advance. And whilst the school is part of a well-known academy chain, my own feeling is that it’s largely irrelevant; I hope everyone agrees that all children have the right to the best education possible, regardless of how the school is run. Sometimes I wonder if they do. I have no particular affiliation to one particular structure: what matters is what we honestly judge works best, in different contexts and at different times. I don’t particularly dislike Michael Gove (as the education secretary) nor Ofsted.
On the basis that the best things come in tens (commandments, bowling pins, Things I Hate About You), here are ten things I’ve learnt whilst being a governor.
Visiting the school really matters: I used to take whole days off work to visit the school, which I started to feel were distracting the SLT and resembling the visit of a very minor scion of the royal family. By midday the carefully prepared timetable would have petered out, because something unpredicted would’ve happened. I’ve found it much more valuable to make shorter visits at different times of the year – to see a couple of classes, show my face at Inset day, meet the parents at coffee mornings or the Christmas play. It’s given me a much better overview of the school’s daily life whilst not being a burden. (I hope!)
“Stakeholders” is a horrible term and a vital concept: I’ve often struggled with meeting parents, especially to have an in-depth conversation amid the rush of home time and whilst overcoming language and cultural barriers. I’ve done better at talking to teachers and hopefully breaking down an impression of governors being distant Pillars of the Community. There is no excuse, ever, for not talking to and learning from the children, even when they mysteriously decide en masse that what the school needs most is a 50ft diving board, despite not having a swimming pool.
Lies, damned lies and statistics: When I started I struggled with the reams of A3 paper and the swamp of data presented thereupon; there seemed to be no clear narrative about what mattered. And it turned out we were missing some areas of concern and poor performance. We’ve worked with our new head to focus on key trends and the thinking behind a couple of set targets. There’s nowhere to hide, but that focuses all our minds!
Show your workings: it’s harder than I thought to – another awful word – triangulate the mass of information gained from the three actions above. My own thought processes work best like this: what are we trying to achieve (mission)?: what is working, and isn’t working (data)? —> have we seen that in real life (informed anecdote)? —> start again. What is the narrative, and what is it based on?
Strategic advantage: is it right for governors to point out spelling and grammar mistakes in documents prepared for us? I sometimes worry that it represents a wider inability to stay at a strategic level, and focus on the bigger picture to which headteachers’ reports can only be a guide. For me the most difficult part is using school visits to observe and validate strategic direction, whilst not (even subconsciously) judging the tactical, in particular whilst sitting in on classes.
Voluntary does not = amateur: I also doubt, however, that many people spend time being a governor with an overt desire to perform the task in a mediocre and half-arsed manner. Nonetheless, it’s a significant time commitment which requires effort in understanding where knowledge gaps lie and then addressing them, whether that’s through training, reading or visiting. It’s probably more fun talking to teacher friends over brunch than slogging off to a distant school on a winter’s evening, but the long-term benefits of both are crucial.
Edutwitter can be awful: one of the drivers behind not blogging earlier was the astonishing levels of anonymous vitriol pouring forth from some quarters. One lady apparently sends complaints to teachers’ schools when she disagrees with their tweets, and accuses innocent people of alleged serious crimes. Then I realised they’re the online equivalent of that lonely person down the road, who fights with their neighbours because the hedge is an inch too high. Irritating and a bit sad – but not a reason to never leave the house or go online. And that’s great, because…
Edutwitter is brilliant: I’ve learnt an enormous amount about education (and the underlying psychology) from a plethora of fascinating blogs: @hfletcherwood, @c_hendrick, @tombennett71 and many others on teaching practice, @daisychristo on assessment, @positivteacha on gender and mental health, @jamestheo’s serious but LOL-inducing posts. A range of thorough but accessible education policy wonks and journalists – @samfr, @edudatalab, @branwenjefferies, the Economist’s anonymous public policy writers, the big Kahuna @amanda_spielman. And last, but definitely not least, blogging governors like @5N_afzal. It’s impossible not to learn a great deal from this lot.
The more diversity, the better: I can’t remember now who encouraged me to be a governor, and I don’t know how many friends and colleagues I’ve succeeded in recruiting. But there are still too many people who perceive it as something for a) parents with children at the school and b) retired people. The statistics indicate this isn’t entirely wrong. So spread the word among everyone you know!
It really does matter: one day at lunch I got talking to a year 4 child, who told me all about her family’s escape from a Kurdish village as ISIL approached on three sides. She then moved on to how much she enjoyed her lessons, and how good her teachers were. And that’s why I do it, really.