Sunday, 29 June 2014

Governance and learning from a wise Mountain..

I have just heard about the death of one of our ex governors.  A thoroughly excellent man called Arthur Mountain.  He was on the governing body when I was appointed and remained for two years before finishing to enjoy his retirement, having giving many years of service to us, his local school.  He attended our school as a child, his attendance is documented in our log book and on our walls in the old photographs.

Arthur's contribution was always that of measured common sense.  He possessed that skill, which I often wish I had, of using few words in a very measured way.  However, he said with those few words far more than most of us do with many.  When I started to think about Arthur and his contribution to our school this afternoon one particular conversation stuck in my mind.  We had bought and had fitted a new water fountain on the infant playground.  Since installation it had done nothing but leak and cause problems.  We had spent a good deal of time discussing it at one particular governing body meeting.  Arthur listened to it all and then very politely interjected. 'We seem to be spending a lot of time discussing this.  Why don't you go back to having a trough in the playground like we used to when I was at school? Then we can get back to talking about what the children are learning!'

Thinking about that conversation led me to think about governance generally and the shift there has been over the past few years.  Governors have been perceived to go from (at best) well meaning, intelligent advocates of the school to trustees tasked with ensuring the successful development of the organisation.  I say perceived because actually governance always should have been the latter, and for folk like Arthur that's exactly what it meant to be a governor.  Yes, the focus from the inspection schedule on governance and accountability has certainly shifted and that has led to a raft of potential complications.

Some governing bodies have felt pressurised and devalued by the constant message they should be doing more to be strategic and challenging.  Some Heads have felt pressurised by the idea of their own leadership judgement being affected by the performance of a group of well meaning volunteers.  Sadly, politicised situations have occurred where hard working, dedicated governing bodies have been at odds with government plans.  They have ended up feeling that they have let the school down somehow.  Some governing bodies, having been rated good or outstanding, have become too much of a challenging force and not enough of a supporting body.  The balance is crucial and hard to achieve.  Getting the balance right takes constant work on relationships.  As with anything that involves constant work on relationships it can get really exhausting.  But it's worth it.

I recently did a piece of work with one of our governors on looking at gaps between pupil premium children and others.  She is a data manager in another school and I have to say her skill with data is more advanced than mine.  I had to work really hard on not feeling threatened.  Anyone who has encountered 'the fraud police' will know the feeling.  That is, an imaginary body of people that are going to rock up and discover that I actually have no idea what I'm doing and expose me!  Of course they don't exist and I do know what I'm doing for the most part!  However that feeling is not uncommon to most reflective professionals.  I worked on how I felt though and admitted outright that she has a far better understanding of excel and data management than I do.  So, she helped me.  We laughed about my mistakes, she showed me easier ways and did work for me at times freeing me up to do other things.  I was then in a position where I had useful data that teachers understood and that changed their mindset about how we come up with initiatives to help vulnerable pupils.  Our teaching staff are a very valuable asset and always approach this type of work pro-actively.  The work also relied heavily on the work of the Education Endowment Foundation.  I also have evidence of the impact governance is having on improvements for our most vulnerable pupils.

In order to have governors that are able to effect positive school development we must be reflective and proactive as leaders.  Even when we feel a bit threatened, especially when we feel a bit threatened!  I am in no way naive enough to ignore the fact that there are occasional governors who do not have a positive agenda.  There are mechanisms to help though, as unpleasant as it is.  I can thoroughly recommend the National Governors Association for help and advice.  The NAHT are also an excellent source of support and don't be afraid to ask colleagues,  Twitter is a hugely valuable resource for that type of support.

Sometimes the best thing about my job is not having 'a boss' I'm the one who gets to set the direction of my work.  However, often that's the worst part of my job.  Of course I have a boss but who that is from day to day is a tricky one.  Is it my Chair? Not quite, but she does have delegated responsibility for being my boss. Delegated from our LA, delegated from the DfE.   Is Gove my boss?  Better stop bad mouthing him on Twitter then! I don't have anyone to pass the buck to though.  It stops with me, which is a pressure, a responsibility and a huge privilege.  Let's not forget what 'the buck' is here.  Children's futures.

Back to Arthur Mountain.  His agenda was to listen, to support, to challenge.  His purpose was that we concentrate on the children's learning.  That we work together, that we don't waste time on fodder, of which there is so very much.  When he retired from governance his letter said something along the lines of 'having seen all the changes coming to governance it seems like a wise time to leave and let someone more modern take it on' how wrong he was about that but I am glad that he spent the last five years of his life relaxing and enjoying life.  He certainly deserved to.  May he rest in peace.  Myself and Worth Primary School owe him a debt of gratitude for all he did for us.