School governors: A culture of no surprises

Written by: Steve Barker | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Ahead of the inaugural National School Governors’ Awareness Day, Steve Barker suggests ways in which this volunteer army can work more closely with school leaders to create a culture of ‘no surprises’

After two years of stormy Covid seas it is tempting to hope that the worst is now behind us and that we can finally steer towards calmer waters.

That’s certainly the hope of everyone involved in the leadership of our schools – governors and trustees included – and it is one of the reasons why I am involved with the inaugural National School Governors’ Awareness Day on February 22, which will look forward to the challenges and opportunities of 2022 and beyond and look back at what we have learned during these pandemic years.

We are not in those stilled waters yet – the pandemic continues to cause sleepless nights for school leaders across the country – but if we are to achieve this ambition governors and school leaders need to work together to create what I call a culture of no surprises.

For me, as a governor with more than 30 years’ experience, this centres on governing boards and school leaders working more closely together to ensure that the information, including performance and other key data that governors need, flows unimpeded.

Of course, after the two years we have all been through, assessment data has not been the highest priority in many schools, and governors need to ensure, alongside school leaders, that pupil performance returns as the key focus of agendas.

The free flow of information and data is important: governors need to be continually updated on the monitoring activities from within their schools. Continual updating of information on pupil progress, safeguarding, finance and other key performance indicators ensures those in governance can meet their responsibilities and use this information to inform their decisions.

With a continually updated stream of the latest information, including assessment and performance data, the risk of governors being surprised by test or examination outcomes, safeguarding audits, staff survey results, let alone visits from Ofsted, is reduced and places the board firmly in a culture of no surprises.

Headteachers and senior leaders have their part to play, ensuring governors are fed a regular diet of assessment outcomes and other key information so that there are no shocks when end-of-year assessments and public examination results are published.

Governors need regular updates on strengths and improvement priorities linked to the curriculum, its teaching and the outcomes it leads to, in order to avoid being surprised by Ofsted inspections and local authority or MAT monitoring visits. The same applies to school context, Pupil Premium and safeguarding concerns.

But this level of accountability is a two-way function for governance. While governing boards hold their schools to account for providing the best possible academic outcomes for all pupils, and for ensuring the best possible care for all pupils, boards are also accountable for the overall performance of their schools and trusts.

Putting all the responsibility on school leaders to make sure that the information flow is unimpeded is not enough and there is much that governing boards can do to support school leaders in supporting effective governance. Here are some suggestions that could make a positive impact on workload too:

Reflect on your structures: Does your governing board need, post-pandemic, to revert to a committee model? There is plenty of evidence that suggests that a flat structure, with no committees, where the full board meets every six weeks, results in a board that has well-informed governors who have an appropriately strategic overview of all aspects of their school, rather than operating in a finance or standards silo which may have been the case previously. This can dramatically cut down the number of meetings and improve work/life balance for school staff and governors alike.

Don’t ask for bespoke governor documents: Rather than expecting school or trust leaders to produce documents solely for the use of governors/trustees, headteachers and school leaders should be asked to share documents that they use in their job. It may be a part of a report or a selection of the full data available, but sharing is more time-effective for school leaders than asking them to create bespoke reports. Sharing documents also gives governors an accurate oversight of how decisions are made, and how performance is reviewed, in their schools.

Don’t take policy reviews to meetings: Too many governing boards still spend too much time using meetings to discuss policy minutiae. Policy reviews can be very efficiently conducted online, with governors reading draft policies and being asked to submit comments and ask questions in advance of board meetings. This means that all views can be assimilated into a final draft that is then presented to the full board for final approval. It is a different approach that will save significant amounts of meeting time.

Prioritise training and development: All governors and trustees must engage in regular training and development to keep their knowledge relevant and up-to-date. Too many governors and trustees do not engage in training at all. This puts them at a disadvantage and potentially exposes their board to the risk of non-compliance because governors won’t know what they need to know. It also places additional workload pressure on school leaders. Governing boards should be holding all members to account for engaging in and accessing training.

Survey: Pressures, challenges, and new directions

Meanwhile, a survey to mark the inaugural National School Governors’ Awareness Day has revealed the challenges faced by school governors during the pandemic – and their resilience in the face of huge challenges.

Although 60 per cent of the 212 surveyed agreed the pandemic had made it harder for governors to fulfil their responsibilities, reflecting the restrictions on visiting schools, 63 per cent said that their effectiveness had not been compromised, and 19 per cent said that they were more effective now.

More than 80 per cent agreed that virtual meetings had worked well, and a quarter said that attendance at meetings had improved. Sixty per cent said they had found it easier to attend training, with 74 per cent attending three hours or more of training since September 2021.

More than 90 per cent said that staff wellbeing and workload was an issue in their schools, while 87 per cent said that governing bodies could have a positive impact on this by focusing on the issue more, making it a recurring meeting agenda item and auditing their school in this area.

  • Steve Barker is head of governance services at Strictly Education and a speaker at the inaugural National School Governors’ Awareness Day on February 22. The event is organised by Strictly Education and for registration and programme details, visit or follow @SchoolGovDay

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