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How do you gain experience without having the experience?

The Autumn term is always exciting welcoming new children into our schools; this year is no different, except we have also welcomed back many children who have hardly stepped foot on school grounds since before the Easter break.

What a start already to this long challenging term; five weeks completed and eleven more to go! The great news is that most of the children at our schools are back in the classroom.

We have a bit more clarity about what is expected from our schools, our school leaders and their teams - a full educational offer either delivered on the premises or off if necessary; as well as a strict regime to keep everyone safe. Meanwhile, Ofsted may drop by or the Health and Safety Executive may call to see that everything is going swimmingly.

Traditionally, this is a busy time for governance as we set up for the new academic year. We invite into our folds new people to be a part of our governance teams. We shake things up a bit by playing musical chairs; as a result, many governors find themselves taking on new roles. New Chairs and Vice-Chairs as well as committee chairs or portfolio holders, all stepping-up to support our schools.

It is also a time to pause and reflect on what we know and what we need to learn or experience to be even better. 

For some, the world of governance is completely new, a foreign language full of jargon and acronyms; expectations and a high level of commitment.

Every so often you will hear ‘...they are only volunteers!’ Really? Well, to get involved we did volunteer, but once you are on board you quickly become an essential part of your school leadership machinery.

We are all there to work with the school leadership team to set strategy; provide support yet at the same time hold them to account for the education of the children, and; to make sure that the funding the school receives is well spent. For governors like me who have practised for a great many years this trips off the tongue, but to do this well is another matter. We need to know our schools well, see for ourselves what is going on, and quickly gain enough understanding of what is expected to be able to contribute in the right way to meaningful debate.

In working to make governance even better, together we often find that certain things need to be considered to make this happen: having the right people with the right training and skills; knowing what to ask in the right way and when; and working as an effective team with clear roles and responsibilities.

Sounds easy?

In reality, this is usually hard enough for most governing bodies, boards and teams, but since COVID began – at last, I have used that word! – it has gotten even more challenging.

At least established governors have visited their schools and have seen them in action, they know the staff and the staff know them. Imagine what it must be like for our newbies just starting out!

They may have had a video tour, some sort of introduction to the school and received a welcome pack. They won’t have seen the school in action through the eyes of a governor or had a chance to meet the staff or the children. It is likely that they haven’t met the team they are a part of except on a video conference screen from their home or workplace!

How do we help them to settle in and feel confident to contribute and “make the difference” they were expecting to make?

So, how can we help and what can we do? This is an ideal time to press reset and review. Doing this as a new team can be equally empowering for everyone. Are we working as effectively as we could? Should we still have committees? Should we look again at our ‘link’ roles or portfolios? What can we do to be even better equipped?

How can we remain strategic when everything seems reactive? This question is dynamite - especially now!

Collectively and individually you will need a plan.

As an individual, challenge yourself to develop three areas of knowledge and experience this year. No less!

For more experienced amongst us, it may be refreshing knowledge keeping up to date with the latest changes. We need to ask ourselves; what will make a difference to the school and what will make me a more successful governor? Are you up to date with all aspects of compliance, with Safeguarding? What areas do I need to refresh? What training have I attended or participated in recently? What is it I really need? 

Sometimes looking at a list of training courses or getting reminders about webinars can be overwhelming if you haven’t decided what your focus should be. With this decided this becomes much easier.  We need time to absorb, consider and apply our learning. Don’t forget to share it with the rest of your team!

As many governors have suggested to me, this is only going to become more difficult as autumn stretches into winter if governors have not had a chance to see their schools in action.

You may be asking yourself where I am going with this!

The roles and responsibilities of governors have not changed but both the way to do them and the emphasis we put on them may need adapting slightly.

Seeking assurance by ensuring that is still key to being effective but we must enable and empower governors to have sufficient oversight in a timely fashion and in a way that we understand what is going on in our schools.

This is especially important if we cannot make the same sort of planned strategic visits we are used to making. Third-party reports, audits or internal peer reviews supporting what we are being told will be needed to triangulate the information we are provided. Properly thought through chats with those who have responsibility for the areas we are linked to must be planned for. Finding time on your busy agendas to hear from a key member of staff, not just your headteacher; all the while being mindful of the pressure our staff are under and their wellbeing.

As governors our development is in our own hands - for the children in our schools, many only get one chance!

In my next blog I will tackle the issues facing new governors; and will address some of the questions raised here in ongoing webinars and upcoming governor roundtables in the year ahead. For more information on these events visit SAfE’s Upcoming Events page, and find FAQs and more on SAfE’s Governance Support page.

Ruth Murton

The views expressed in this blog are my own!

About the Author:

Ruth Murton is our SAfE Governance Advisor; a National Leader of Governance (NLG), the Regional Teaching School Council lead for NLGs, and Leadership Consultant and director of Leadershipwise Ltd. She supports and develops governance in schools, academies and Multi-Academy Trusts across the South of England.

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