About to head into a busy period of school governing with committee meetings, a full governing board meeting, the Hertfordshire annual conference, our Improvement Partner Standards Visit and Headteacher annual appraisal all in the space of a couple of weeks. These are exciting times as we have a lot of new governors joining us as well. It’s incredibly full-on but I do love it.

Recruiting school governors

The problem

A couple of years ago our Primary School Governing Board came to the realisation that the vast majority of our members were parents of children at the school. While this wasn’t a problem per se — none of us were there to represent the interests of any particular group, nor did we have any issues with governors not ‘being able to take their parent hat off’ — we knew that it was desirable to have a much more diverse group around the table supporting and challenging the school.

Finding governors is not an easy task, typically for one or more of the following reasons:

  • People do not know that a vacancy exists
  • People don’t understand what the job is
  • If they do understand the role they can see that it is a lot of work and they are reluctant to volunteer

Typically it has been easier to get parents involved; we can easily communicate with them to explain the role and they naturally want the school to be as successful as possible. Finding people outside of the parent body to join us is much more of a challenge.

Things we tried that didn’t work very well

Working with local businesses

Being a school governor effectively gives you board-level experience at an SME, making strategic decisions and asking questions of the Headteacher (CEO) whilst not getting involved in the operational day-to-day running of the ‘business’. My thinking was that the role would offer great experience for someone at a large firm who is on a ‘management fast-track’ scheme as they would be able to bring their skills back into the workplace. One Saturday, I wandered into two of the large supermarkets in our town and asked to speak to the respective managers. One the two was very keen on the idea; he had been a school governor himself, understood the role and had been looking for how his firm could get more involved in the community as part of the group’s outreach work. It seemed like a perfect fit.

A few months passed and we found ourselves with a new school governor, ready to start and keen to get stuck in. Unfortunately our time together was short-lived. Although he had been given time off from work to attend our meetings and other governor functions, he already had a very busy life and soon found that he could not devote the time to the role that it required. We understood — he was not the first person to feel this way after starting — but we were back to square one.

In hindsight, although I think that the idea was sound, people need to come to the role of their own accord and not because they are asked or compelled to by their employer. I don’t have an insight into what was discussed within his firm prior to our governor applying but I suspect that it was floated as an idea and he felt as though he should help out. It’s a bit like where a company has a formal HR-led mentoring scheme where you put your hand up and they pair you up with someone — inevitably this often doesn’t work because the two parties have not come together ‘naturally’ for their own reasons with a clear view of what they both want to get out of it.

Online recruitment portals

One other avenue we explored was using the governor recruitment portals, School Governors One-Stop Shop (known as SGOSS) and Inspiring Governance. I spent some time looking through the latter, reviewing profiles of people that live within a few miles of our town. For some reason we didn’t push this very hard; perhaps after the experience with recruiting someone locally I was concerned that having to travel to our town to attend the meetings would be just one more barrier to success.

What finally worked for us

One night, on a governor training course, I got chatting to a couple of governors from another school about our recruitment challenge. They had been through the same problem and had successfully tackled it by dropping a letter from the Headteacher and Chair of Governors through the letterboxes in the local area. This sounded like a simple but genius idea. There must be lots of people who want to get involved with the community but don’t know that the opportunity exists and this would be a great way of engaging them. I floated the plan with my own Governing Board and we agreed to give it a go.

When a parent vacancy arises and we ask for nominations we normally send out quite a detailed letter with background information, details of the responsibilities and the commitment required. It makes no sense to not be up-front about it. We want to avoid having parents nominating themselves, getting elected (through what inevitably ends up being something of a popularity contest), being trained up and then finding that they can’t or don’t want to do the job. My initial stab at the letter for our door drop was based on this, spread over a couple of pages. Luckily one of our governors helped to chop it right down to something that was short, punchy and would fit on a single side of A4; the strategy was to try and reduce the barrier to someone emailing us or picking up the phone in response. We could slowly reveal more about the role to them later once we had made initial contact, including the amount of work the job entails. A shorter letter is easier to read, much less daunting and saves significantly on the printing cost.

Our letter drop has proved to be a stunning success. In summer 2016 we posted 500 letters which resulted in four or five inquiries and eventually three superb new governors joining us. They have a lot of professional experience — one is a Finance Director at an international hotel chain, another is an Executive Headteacher for a group of schools in a neighbouring county — and they each said that the letter landed just at the right time, when they were already toying with the idea of trying to ‘give something back’ and be more involved in the community. This past summer we printed 1,000 letters which resulted in five people coming forward, four of whom will be joining us initially as associate governors as part of our succession planning. Again, they bring a fantastic diverse range of skills from their professional lives including teaching (one is a professor emeritus at a world-famous university), Human Resources, public speaking and marketing.

After an initial enquiry I met each candidate for an hour or so at a coffee shop in town to get to know them and to find out what they could bring to our board as well as answer general questions about the role, the school, its ethos and our challenges. If this went well we then arranged a meeting with the Headteacher who gave them a tour of the school. If the Headteacher and I were both happy we scheduled a formal interview with our Vice Chair of Governors, followed by reference checks and finally a vote by the Governing Board as to whether they can join us.

1,500 letters sounds like a lot but it doesn’t stretch very far. The map below shows the area that we managed to cover across the two summers, give or take a couple of hundred houses.

If you are part of a school governing board and are also struggling to find people to be involved, I strongly recommend reaching out to the community this way. The text of our letter is below or you can download it in Word or plain text formats. Before you start, remember to read The Right People Around The Table which gives you excellent up-to-date guidance on the recruitment process that should be followed from start to finish. Good luck!

The letter

Dear Sir/Madam,

Have you ever considered becoming a school governor?

The Governing Board of [school name] in [town] needs additional governors and would love to attract the skills and experience of people from our community.

School governors are volunteers who work together with the Headteacher to deliver the best education for the pupils at their school. Generally, school governors are not specialists in education. Instead, much of the role is about exercising common sense – and of course working together in the best interests of the children. The governors at [school name] work with the Headteacher on a diverse range of matters – from deciding what kind of school we want [school name] to be and thinking about how we want it to get there, to setting school policies and ensuring money is spent on the right things.

Most important of all, the governors are there to question and challenge the school’s leaders on the standards of educational performance. Ultimately, they work with the school to ensure that pupils receive the best opportunities to learn in an environment in which they feel happy and secure.

The full governing board meets every half term, with separate committees (made up of smaller groups of governors) which meet four or five times a year. Meetings last around two hours and are lively and interactive. Most of our current governors work full time and manage to fit in their role around their other commitments. Their motivation is invariably to make a positive contribution to something of fundamental importance – educating our children.

This is a hugely exciting time to be a governor at [school name]. The school is currently rated [rating] by Ofsted. We recently introduced mindfulness practice throughout the school with very positive feedback from pupils, staff and parents. Later this year will be pleased to welcome a school dog to part of everyday life at the school. [School name] is not standing still and we continue to make many innovative changes.

Governors are unpaid, doing what they do simply to try to make [school name] the best school it can be. In return they gain skills which they may not otherwise acquire, as well as getting a wider perspective on a key part of their community. Most importantly, governors get the satisfaction of knowing they are helping to make a difference in the education of the children who attend [school name].

If you would like to know who the current governors are please have a look at the staff photo board in the main reception area or on the school website at [website address] where you will find their details.  If you would be interested in having an informal chat about the role to find out more about how you can contribute to governance at our school, please email the school with your details at [email address] and we will arrange for our Chair of Governors, [name], to contact you and arrange a time for a conversation.

Thank you,

[Headteacher’s name]
Headteacher

[Chair of Governors’ name]
Chair of Governors

Hertfordshire Governor Conference 2015

UPDATE 27 NOVEMBER: Hertfordshire County Council have now made the presentations available on their website.

A couple of weeks ago I attended the Hertfordshire Governor Conference. This was my second time at the event in as many years. Both times I found the content to be informative and inspirational. I also left with a feeling about how much more I could/should be doing for my school as a governor, but I assume that's a good thing!

Whenever I go to a conference I end up taking copious notes. As well as sharing these with my school's governing body I thought I would post them here with the hope that they would be useful to somebody.

Councillor David Williams opening speech

  • 85% Herts schools are good or outstanding

Matthew Syed keynote—journalist and two-time Commonwealth table tennis champion

  • Natural talent vs working hard for achievement
  • Western culture promotes emphasis on the former whereas the evidence is more for the latter
  • Relate to children thinking “I’m just not good at maths, I don’t have the right brain for it.”
  • Also teachers who struggle with aspects of the job
  • [| Relates to the ‘estate of the mind’ thinking?
  • Need to promote a ‘growth mindset culture’
  • Contrast of aviation industry having a learning culture (from 50% of US pilots in peacetime dying in crashes to 2014 record of 1 crash in every 8.1m flights) to Healthcare which does not have one. In aviation they are constantly learning and wanting to do better by examining all of the data.
  • Politicians don’t look at the outcomes of their policies and if they do—and the data is poor—they spin the information.
  • Example of concentration of 5 of the top 10 table tennis players worldwide in one street. Reasons behind it were great coaching and 24h access to a dedicated table tennis centre close by to allow meaningful practice.
  • Question from the audience about resources/budget: Don’t diminish importance of it, but it is independent of culture.
  • Resilience
  • Don’t keep praising children for their talent, say “well done, you worked hard” and other phrases that praise the effort.
  • Most important people to get into the growth mindset are the teachers.

Seminar: Raising achievement through engaging parents (Carole Bennett, HfL Head of Business Development)

  • Parenting impact is the most overwhelming factor, above the school, in terms of attitude to learning etc.
  • In secondary school friends start to take over but parents still sit above the school in terms of impact
  • Schools can raise attainment by 5%, however…
  • Parents who take an active part in the child’s learning can make a 30% difference!
  • Involvement in learning is not (just?) knowing what the school did
  • Children reading—not correlated to parents spending time reading with the kids or taking to the library. Correlation was with having books in the house. Why? Because the parents read a lot for pleasure and modelled the behaviour. Children learn by what they see. They will think it’s important and want to do it.
  • Nagging the child makes musical tuition a chore. Model the behaviour and pick up an instrument for pleasure yourself!
  • Parental engagement is not performance management, not telling them what to do and them going away again
  • Some areas to think about relating to parental engagement
    • What is being done –> So what? –> What next?
    • Newsletters (also blogs, Facebook, Twitter –> go where the parents are, don’t make them come to you)
    • What is your communications strategy? Don’t add on lots of channels without thinking why and what for. What difference does it make? Can get sucked into logistics e.g. ‘Don’t forget fancy dress day, please don’t park here etc.’ Not learning!
    • Do parents know what your children are learning? If they are doing growth mindset at school, how do the parents know?
    • Themes of learning, let parents know regularly what they are. Remind the parents to ask what they learned. “We had a visitor to the school today. Ask your child what they learned.”
    • Do you get parent feedback on your communications? For the parents who are difficult to reach, ask them why? What can we do to help?
    • MarvellousMe app. Works on interactive whiteboard and pings the parent to say what they have achieved.
    • “You’re really good at tennis!” “I’ve worked really hard at it, that’s why. I do 6h a week.”
  • Meetings/consultations/parents evenings
    • What are they for? Clear view for both parents and the school.
    • Who feeds back on the design, frequency and information?
    • Feedback? Chairs, timings etc.
    • Ask parents what they want.
  • Learning and development for parents
    • How do parents develop their knowledge of
      • Curriculum
      • Learning
      • Approaches
    • How were the topics/areas selected?
    • Who does it? Why?
    • Who goes? Why? Why not?
    • Think about not just subject-based learning, also think about themes, e.g. questioning, growth mindset, strategies for children in terms of how to get unstuck etc.
    • Have the parents had the opportunity to say what they think would be useful?
    • See ‘the learning pit’—don’t helicopter in and get them out of the struggle when they find work hard, let them know that this is a normal feeling and, help them to practise getting themselves out of trouble. Reinforce that it is a normal feeling to be frustrated etc. when in the pit.
  • Parent2Parent
  • How can we as a GB change the way the institution runs?
    • Reshaping the curriculum?
    • Using parents specialisms within the curriculum? (Do a survey to find out what parents do!)
    • Recognise home learning in the school day
    • Feed into the governing body
  • Investor in Parents award is something the school can go for (parents collect the award in front of their children in assembly and the children love it!)

The Federation Journey

  • Chair of Barclay and Almond Hill (both were chairs) and now a federation
  • Hard Federation is one governing body over all of the schools
  • Have separate finances as they have a junior school and a senior school
  • Why?
    • Raise aspirations/outcomes
    • Sharing teachers with opportunities to upskill them too
    • Shared expertise
    • Shared interventions
    • Shared premises
  • Governing Body decision to consider the federation—confidential (staff don’t know, for example, except heads, chairs etc.)
    • Committed core of governors prepared to do it
    • Look at pros and cons
    • Create a consultation document
    • Circulate and get feedback over ~6weeks
  • Decided that they would have a hard federation or nothing
  • 21 governors (option to go to 24), 1 chair, 3 vice-chairs as there is lots more work to do
  • Caused a lot of trouble for the LA as they hadn’t done it before and they wanted to get it right
  • Took two years from start to finish
  • Not a lot of solicitors fees as they are not combined legal entity (although they do have the name)
  • Get money when becoming a multi-academy trust (they are not one) but it goes very quickly, need to be very careful if you go this route. Solicitors fees are thousands to set up new legal entity.
  • Secondary school negotiates purchases for both schools and because there is one GB the junior school agrees at that level to the purchase and gets billed.
  • Secondary school is a grade II listed building and needed £5m of work on it, so the GB didn’t want to go independent and immediately become liable for it. By being federated the council are still responsible and have found the money for the work.
  • Audience point: Biggest thing for a 3-school federation is recruitment and retention. New contracts for all school staff when the federation was established.
  • Joined up with secondary school and concerns about the other 6 feeder schools. Junior school said the secondary could share best practice with the other juniors!

External Reviews of Governance—Pat and Mick Furness

  • Governing body are volunteers but they are volunteering to work
  • Those who don’t contribute are putting on the others
  • 20 (now 21?) questions for governing body to ask itself
  • [| Reminder on ‘School Governance: Learning From The Best’ publication
  • Lots of reviews use two reviewers, one may be being trained in the process
  • Nine criteria for effective governance
    • 45 questions questionnaire
    • Baseline for a discussion
  • Minutes need to reflect ‘matters arising’ from the previous meeting and that there has been follow-up. Show challenge. Evidence!
  • Challenge, impact and ambition—Ofsted love these. Prove we cover them in our minutes.
  • Changed in March
    • Four areas looked at by Ofsted
    • 25 questions questionnaire
  • What do we spend the pupil premium on? How much impact does it have? Trend analysis for the past three years…

Andrew Cook, Ofsted Regional Director, East of England—keynote