School governance has changed in recent years. Gone are the days of light-touch oversight with a good dose of jolliness; governing boards are now expected to be more business-like rigorous, ensuring that the school fulfils their duty to their students and their budget.
Never, then, has it been more important for school leaders and governors to work effectively together. Governors need to be both a great source of challenge and support. We asked two experienced professionals for their tips on how to get the working relationship right:
Getting to know a new headteacher or chair
When appointing a new headteacher, the chair of governors will have been on the interview panel and so will know the head on paper, as it were. The first thing to do after the head has accepted the post and signed a contract is to give them a copy of Jill Berry's excellent book, Making the Leap.
The chair should discuss how the existing and new headteacher want to manage the crucial changeover period, including a "getting to know you" session between the chair and new headteacher. The first formal meeting when the new head is in post should be a scene-setting session where the headteacher can describe her/his vision for the school and the chair can talk about the role being one of strategy and direction, not operational. This ensures clarity on both sides of the relationship from the outset.
Discuss how often you both want to meet and include the clerk in this so she /he can schedule discussions about the governing body meetings. Keep building this relationship and it will be a powerful influence on the quality of leadership in the school.
Vivienne Porritt supports school leaders with many aspects of leadership and is a national leader of WomenEd. She was also recently appointed a Fellow of the Chartered College of Teaching. You can follow her on Twitter @ViviennePorritt.
Encourage governors to ask questions
For governors to support headteachers, they need to know what's going on and need information in a format they can understand. A lot of governors are not educationalists and don't understand data spreadsheets and acronyms etc. This is not to say headteachers should dumb down the information, but they need to be aware – it's about making sure governors understand the information they are given and are encouraged to ask questions.
The role of the chair is central to supporting governors to ask questions, but if the head also encourages enquiry, it can really help to build trust between the school and the board.
Julia Skinner is a retired but not retiring woman author of an award-winning blog, The Head's Office. She is passionate about school governance, young people's creative writing and all things learning. You can follow her on Twitter @theheadsoffice.
Let governors suggest the format
Governors also need to engage with the information the school gives them.That is why format is key – if governors have ownership of the format and paperwork, it immediately helps them engage and puts the accountability back on them. One of best ways to get this right is for governors to explain to heads what they need.
The headteacher's report is a classic example of this. As a chair of governors, I've seen a head's report that gave amazing information, but went on and on when actually we just needed to focus on data and standards. It took us six months working with head, but we got a report that gave us the information we needed in a format we understood.
This meant we could offer challenge in supportive way and from a position of confidence. It also meant the head had confidence that we knew what we were talking about and questioning well. Importantly, it also enabled governors to celebrate opportunities too.
The headteacher's report
I see items in this report as the starter for discussion across the governing body. I worked with my head to agree a header for each item – purpose, responsibility, acronyms and key points. The latter are two to four bullet points summing up what the head or the member of SLT wanted governors to know. The detail which follows is kept to one or two sides.
The items are, of course, strategic. We usually include: improvement and evaluation; staff; students; and the fourth could be events, successes etc. These structures keep the report to a manageable length for all of us and discussion focused on the governors' role – strategy, challenge, support.
Try different meeting agenda formats
One board I have seen has added a column to the agenda which labels each item "decision", "information" and "discussion". This has helped some governors to prioritise what information they need to read before meetings. As a trustee of an academy, some of our trusts packs for a board meeting can be 300 pages long, depending on what projects are on at what time.
Sometimes you don't need the agenda to know which bits you need to know about. For example, I take no notice of buildings etc as I know there are people around table who know much more about that stuff and me wading through 100 pages isn't a good use of my time. I focus on the headteacher's report and standards.
This type of agenda can help to guide the information and, on discussion points, as chair, I make sure everyone has said something. Some people don't say anything because they are shy and nervous, but if you are asked a question, it gives you the opportunity and you know someone is listening. Quite often, that governor will then comment again. If heads do this it is even more powerful – it's the chair's job to get people talking not the head, so if the head wants everyone to talk, you know they respect your opinion and that, again, builds trust on both sides.
This agenda format also help you see items that might crop up again in future, for example a discussion point that might need a decision in future meetings. It is important for governors to note it and, with this format, heads know people won't just rock up not knowing anything about anything.