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Being chair, problems with personnel, setting targets: education officer Paul McGann offers us his top tips on governance

Being chair

Being Chair   Being Chair Examining the roles and relationships of the chair of governors

The best person to be a chair of school governors is not always the governor with the most knowledge of education, but the governor with the best ability to create and maintain good relationships with the entire school community. The chair of governors will need to relate to senior professionals outside the school from the LEA and Ofsted, the professionals working inside the school, parents and the wider community.

A good chair of governors needs to be able to:

  • Communicate well
  • Listen
  • Empathise
  • Understand the issues that are being raised with him or her, without necessarily agreeing with them
  • Step back from a particular problem and look at it in the wider context

Important relationships

The key relationship for any chair of governors and indeed for any school is the relationship between the chair and the headteacher. Ideally, a chair of governors should be the key supporter of the headteacher, but it should also be the case that the chair of governors will be best placed to ensure that the school is accountable to the community.

Many chairs find this balance difficult. The key lies in regular meetings and regular contact. This allows a good working relationship to develop and any issues can be swiftly tackled between the two of you. It also means you avoid the sort of public disagreement that can be very damaging to the morale of staff and to the confidence that others have in the school.

Supporting the head

In the programme Being Chair, we see the significance of the relationship between a new headteacher and her chair of governors. The chair of governors has within his or her knowledge the history of the school and the relationships which have developed over time between the school and the community. A new headteacher would do well to take advantage of this knowledge so that any changes which they bring occur in a sensitive manner and one which will fit into the overall ethos of the school.

Training is an important part of all the governors' duties. Most local education authorities now provide excellent training courses in a wide range of issues that are of assistance to governors in their various roles. These training sessions, in addition to providing important information to governors, are an excellent way to meet and learn from other governors who are in exactly the same position as yourself.

And finally...

Being a chair of governors can be an extremely rewarding role. Although it carries with it additional duties and accountability, it is also an opportunity to operate right at the heart of the school and its community and really make a significant contribution to the lives of our young children.

Problems with personnel

Problems with Personnel   Problems with Personnel School governors discuss how to handle a dismissal

Problems with personnel arise very rarely within most schools. However, when they do, governors can find themselves thrust into a situation that is not only emotionally charged, but that also raises important legal implications in respect of employment law.

It is an area in which governors can find themselves making decisions that might have an impact on the livelihood of their staff. It is important, therefore, that governors are aware of their responsibilities within the area of personnel and that they have both the policies and procedures necessary to deal with such issues and to seek appropriate advice when necessary.

The heat of the discussion

The worst time to discover that a policy or a procedure is inadequate is in the heat of a discussion. It is important that the relevant subcommittee of governors regularly reviews the workings of policies and procedures and ensures that they understand which areas require their intervention by law, and in which areas they may exercise some discretion. This can be achieved by the use of case studies, which get the governing body working through examples to see how they would deal with the situation using existing policies and procedures.

Final decisions

It is important to remember that in most personnel issues the governors' role will be that of final decision maker. For instance, in disciplinary cases, it is the governing body who will determine the appropriate level of sanction for serious cases of professional misconduct. To carry out this responsibility fairly, it is vital that the governing body does not take part in the collection of evidence or put themselves in a position where they are pre-determining the outcome of a case. The role of the governing body is to ensure that somebody in the school conducts an appropriate investigation so that when the matter comes before the governors, all of the relevant information is available.

Reaching a judgement

When serious matters come before the governing body panel, it is important that suitable legal advice is sought. All local education authorities have this advice available and it is important that the governing body checks that any decision it wishes to take falls within the appropriate legal framework. Procedures that have been followed must be demonstrably fair.

And finally...

While much of governor training may dwell on personnel problems, it is worth remembering that the bulk of the relationships between a governing body and the staff in a school will not be based on problems but on very productive relationships. Governing bodies should spend time considering ways of improving the relationship between the governors and school staff as well as dealing with any problems when they arise.

Setting targets

Setting Targets   Setting Targets How governing bodies work with heads to set and deliver targets

These days it might seem to governors that most of their work involves dealing with various plans and the targets they contain. But the Setting Targets programme is a useful reminder to us that targets do not have to be about pupil achievement alone - they can also be an important way of measuring the success of a whole range of the activities connected with the school.

Challenging targets

A governing body needs to be aware that when it comes to pupil achievement targets, the expertise often lies within the school and not necessarily within the governing body. However, it is the governors' duty to ensure that the targets contribute to improvement in the school - something that requires an element of challenge. The programme showed how, by asking a series of strategic questions, the governing body can carry out the function of challenging the targets and supporting the school in its improvement agenda.

Questions such as 'How do targets compare with previous years?', 'How do they compare with similar schools?', 'How do they compare with national and local averages?' and 'How have some of the initiatives in the school contributed to changes in the targets?' can lead to excellent discussions between the governing body and the school.

Be specific

The Setting Targets programme highlighted other areas in which targets can be useful to a governing body. In considering the school development plan or the governors' action plan, governors will want to ensure that instead of just vague promises to improve, the plans contain some targets that will enable governors to measure their success.

Targets should be SMART:

  • Specific: Rather than just vague targets such as "We will try to improve maths", targets should relate to the specific areas of maths where improvement is sought
  • Measurable: A target such as "We will improve the ethos of the school" is almost impossible to measure, whereas targets relating to levels of pupil behaviour, levels of absenteeism, and so on can be measured
  • Achievable: While all targets should contain an element of challenge to ensure that there are improvements, it is important that targets are achievable, or else they become a set of dreams that are never realised and this can lead to demoralisation
  • Relevant: It is important that when setting targets they relate to the key issues pertinent to the school at that time, otherwise much needed attention and resources can be diverted into areas which will not directly contribute to improvement in the school
  • Time-related: Setting a time by which the target should be achieved means that the target is not just left "up in the air", but there will be a specific time when discussion about the target takes place

When setting targets, in any aspect of school life, it is important that governors don't fall into the trap of valuing what is measurable as opposed to measuring what is valuable. Many of the things that a governing body values about a school might be quite difficult to measure, but this does not mean that they are any less valuable to the life of the school.

And finally...

Governors should avoid trying to focus too much on whether targets are achieved or not. The critical issue is the discussion about why targets have or haven't been achieved. For instance, if a school exceeds its target for pupil success in national tests, it could be because activities have taken place within the school to bring about this success. It could also be due to factors outside of the school's control (for example pupil movement during the course of the year) or it could be because the target set was unrealistically low. The discussion as to why the target has been achieved should give governors an answer and contribute to school improvement.