What’s your vision? The importance of strong governance

02 April 2015

Leader logoEmma Knights explores how schools can strengthen their improvement strategies and highlights the central role strong governance has to play in raising standards.

As leaders, we pepper our conversation with the words ‘vision’ and ‘strategic approach’. We know that we need both but are you really satisfied that your governing board has agreed a meaningful vision and strategy that drives the direction of the school, is supported by staff and understood by parents?

It won’t have escaped your notice that the accountability regime for schools is hugely coloured by inspection and the performance tables but we all know that there is much more to education than is captured by Ofsted inspectors or national performance indicators.

Let’s seize this moment and go back to first principles when considering what is in the best interests of pupils at the schools we lead.

Core functions

Setting vision, ethos and strategic direction are some of the core functions of a school’s governing board, whether it is a maintained school’s governing body or the board of trustees of a multi-academy trust (MAT).

I address audiences of headteachers at events up and down England and sometimes I am challenged over whether determining the school’s vision and strategic direction is the role of the headteacher. I do understand where that objection comes from: I am a chief executive held to account by a board of trustees and, of course, I have a role in shaping the National Governors’ Association (NGA’s) strategy that is agreed by the board. (In line with practice in the charity sector, I am not a member of the NGA’s board, as it is not thought to be good governance to be a member of a body that exists in large part to hold one to account – but that is a discussion for another time.)

The vision and strategy must be owned by the school, not be the work of a single individual; when one headteacher leaves and a new one starts, the school’s long-term strategy should stand the test of time without the vision and direction being lost or abandoned.

This is set out clearly in the first chapter of the Department for Education’s (DfE’s) Governors’ Handbook that explains the roles of the governing boards in maintained schools and academies. If you are a leader in a multi-academy trust, you will need to consult the trust’s scheme of delegation to ascertain whether the board of trustees delegates any of this function to individual academies.

Priority actions

Strategic planning is central to sustaining a healthy, thriving organisation, yet it’s the area of their work where most governing boards feel least confident. This is compounded if school leaders confuse managerial planning with strategic direction.

You will have a school development plan (SDP) or a school improvement plan (SIP) or perhaps you call it a SIDP, but it is likely to run to many pages and includes lots of action for members of staff. That is an action plan, not a strategy. You first need vision and strategy in order to determine your priority actions.

To help schools with their strategy development, the National Governors’ Association has been working with the Wellcome Trust to develop A Framework for Governance: A flexible guide to strategic planning. If your school is a member of the NGA you will have received a hard copy of this short guide with January’s Governing Matters magazine, but it is available electronically for all. It is short and to the point – not full of management jargon – and has been very well received.

It’s a good idea to convene a special session of the governing board together with the senior leadership team (SLT) to begin the process of developing the strategy, as this origination stage has to be a joint enterprise.

First, the vision should describe in a few sentences what the school will look like in three or five years’ time and what the pupils will have achieved by the time that they leave. It should be ambitious but achievable.

The strategy should provide the map that will turn the school from where it is now to where your vision expects it to be. It should consist of a limited number of key priorities – no more than six – that are measurable and for which targets are determined.

This is not an easy process; if we want to measure more than is in the performance tables, we need to come up with ways of doing that that are SMART (specific, meaningful, achievable, relevant and time-bound) but not bureaucratic.L84-Accountable-Processes

The framework includes some examples of key performance indicators (KPIs) that you may want to consider, such as staff morale, pupil well-being and resilience, but please do not be limited by our suggestions.

Before the strategy is agreed by the governing board, consult staff and parents and take their views into account.

Monitoring work

Once agreed, this short document should form the basis of the monitoring work of the governing board. Senior leaders will report termly against the KPIs and the KPIs will also inform the headteacher’s own objectives.

At the end of the year, the progress is evaluated and the strategy reviewed and updated.

Effective accountability is more pressing with the greater autonomy being given to schools; as we have seen over the past year, less oversight and more risk go hand-in-hand. We need to have confidence that public money is being well-spent and pupils are getting the best education they possibly could.L84-Effective-Governance

Governing boards are themselves under more scrutiny than ever before. The framework also reminds governing boards about the principles of governance and the questions they should be asking themselves as part of a process of self-review.

Strong governance is not a nice-to-have but is fundamental to ensuring that a school improves. NGA has identified eight prerequisites for effective governance (see right).

Having a good chair is essential to ensuring that all these other elements are in place. The relationship between the headteacher and the chair is the axis of this system of checks and balances between the board that sets the strategic direction for the school and the staff who deliver that vision.

Mutual trust

The chair, as leader of the governing board and the first point of contact for the head, sets the tone for the board’s relationship with the headteacher. There is no one way for this relationship to work; it has to be negotiated between the two individuals with both understanding the expectations on each side.

If the board’s role in accountability is fully understood and acknowledged, then negotiation of the relationship with the head can build on mutual respect and trust. When it is not working as well as it should, the headteacher must play a role in addressing the issues and in ensuring the development of the governing board, perhaps by suggesting an external review of governance.

When the relationship is working at its best, it can provide inspiration as well as support to the headteacher.


Emma Knights is Chief Executive of the National Governors' Association.

If governing boards need help in engaging with the framework and developing a school strategy, NGA can provide support or carry out an external review of governance. To find out more, email fay.holland@nga.org.uk

Leading and Governing Groups of Schools

ASCL, in partnership with the National Governors’ Association and the law firm Browne Jacobson, has published guidance on leading and governing groups of schools.