The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

John Dabell

How can governors help the wellbeing of school leaders?

John Dabell explores how support and challenge from governors can improve headteacher wellbeing and make the life of a leader easier.

Headteachers and governors don’t have to get on like a house on fire, but it certainly helps if they have a professional and productive working relationship that is transparent and reciprocal.

The quality of leadership, supported by efficient management and perceptive governance, is central to the effectiveness and wellbeing of a school and its community.

Governors set the aims and objectives for the school (or group of schools) and set the policies and targets for achieving those aims and objectives. They monitor and evaluate the progress the school is making and act as a source of challenge and support to the headteacher.

The best governing bodies act as the school’s critical friend, take difficult decisions where necessary and make a major contribution to the leadership of the school and its successes. They ensure that the school fulfils their duty to their students and their budget.

Leadership and wellbeing 

For governors to be effective there must be a good working relationship with the school, especially between the headteacher and the chair of governors, with candour and mutual respect.

When governance works well, governors have a good understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the school, they are fully involved in strategic planning and formulating policies and they challenge and support the senior leadership team.

Where it doesn’t work well there may be an almost total reliance on the headteacher, relationships are at best indifferent and may be hostile or acrimonious and governors’ conduct presents a barrier to school improvement. 

The relationship between heads and governors is one that see-saws between challenge and support

This is why one of the biggest threats to the wellbeing of a headteacher is the governing board. If governors’ business is badly organised their work lacks focus, and they have a limited influence on the work of the school.

One of the reasons for this happening can sometimes be because many governors are often unqualified to carry out the tasks they have been given. Despite having enormous powers and responsibilities within schools, there is no requirement for governors to have any specific training to be a governor.

Where there are training gaps, these need to be filled so that governors can understand school performance data, monitoring and evaluation, financial management and personnel issues.

The good, the bad and the indifferent

Kevin Harcombe (2010) in his brilliant book How to survive and succeed as a headteacher notes that a key relationship is that between a headteacher and the chair of governors.

He advises that they will be a head’s greatest advocate and so it’s essential to be totally open and frank and kept in the loop about all major events and decisions. He says that a good chair will listen, offer advice and discuss issues.

Heads need to build alliances with other members of the governing body too and nurturing their talents and encouraging their support is crucial. But they aren’t all the same and Harcombe identifies three main types.

1. The good

These are public spirited governors who volunteer for the right reasons, they have children at the heart of their thinking and want to give something back to the community. They are knowledgeable, they challenge and support heads and they act as a sounding board for their thoughts.

2. The bad

They come with axes to grind and focus on their hobby horses which are trivial issues. They blame the headteacher at the first sign of trouble and have themselves at the heart of their thinking.

Harcombe recommends that heads can aim to improve the bad governors, bypass or remove.

3. The indifferent

These are governors who simply can’t be bothered. The last thing a school needs is a micro-political battle between governors and the head as things can go unbearably awry. 

Developing wellness

Outstanding governance supports school success and the wellbeing of everyone within it. The better the job governors do, the more help and support they are to the head which impacts positively on their wellbeing. 

But for a partnership to work well, both sides need to support each other and keep the conversation going. Governors need to be consulted about many issues and this usually happens directly with the head or is facilitated by the head.               

One of the most important ways heads can help their governing body take on their responsibility of acting as a critical friend is to provide them with information they need to develop a sense of what the school is about.  

Heads have to decide on what really counts and a starting point might be:

  • what happens during an hour/morning/afternoon/day
  • what happens in a range of classrooms with children of different ages
  • how subjects of the curriculum are taught
  • the school development plan and targets for improvement
  • policy statements.

Organise focused visits with a clear purpose. Rather than look at ‘How maths is taught’, identify three aspects of maths teaching you want them to see, talk to the governor (s) beforehand and then invite them to look at examples of those three aspects as they move around the school.

Heads also need to provide and discuss documentation as governors have to approve most of these. Provide this in a format they can understand and encourage enquiry (as many will not have an education background) so they feel able to ask questions and be your critical friend.

This is vital for building trust between the school and the board as it allows governors to challenge in a positive way and from a position of confidence.

Maintaining good relations

If a head wants to develop a relationship with their governors that will ultimately help and support the wellbeing of themselves and the school, then the main responsibility for doing so is the headteachers. A basic problem that often bedevils a relationship is the inability or refusal of the staff and headteacher to appreciate just how difficult it is being a school governor which is why it is vital there is a shared, common language about roles and responsibilities.

Like all learners, governors need to be encouraged and valued. Respecting governors is essential, so heads need to verbally thank governors individually and collectively for their help and support.

Governors can make schools better and have a vital role in establishing an aspirational and motivational collaborative culture. The relationship between heads and governors is one that see-saws between challenge and support and when both sides know what to expect of each other, there are no limits to what can be achieved.

Our Supporting Staff Wellbeing conference takes place on Wednesday 27 November 2019 in London.

This event will equip you with invaluable guidance and easy-to-implement strategies to create a whole-school culture that priorities staff wellbeing.

Secure your place.

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