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Book review: Effective School Governance by Mark A’Bear

Effective School Governance by Mark A'Bear

Book review: Effective School Governance by Mark A’Bear

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Effective school governance is what most individuals and agencies involved in governance in schools and academies cry out for.  The NGA, Lord Nash, ASCL, the hard-pressed chair in the school around the corner from you, the House of Commons Education Committee, the headteacher of a school which has joined a large MAT and is wondering who controls its strategic direction now – all of these and more long for effective governance to be present and have a tangible impact on the education of children across the country.

Effective School Governance by Mark A'BearWith that in mind, is a book entitled Effective School Governance will have to deliver, or its title will ring hollow. There are many, many publications around which deal with the history of school governance, examine the changes in democratic accountability and put it firmly in a political context. If governance were association football, and not just the politically-coloured football it has become in recent years, then these publications would be The Guardian’s History of Football, or , or one of the more philosophical treatises on the allegedly Beautiful Game. In contrast, Effective School Governance by Mark A’Bear is the Soccer Skills with Gazza of this arena, with any reverence and awe of the history of the game at least matched by practical how-tos of the skills, drills and techniques needed so that an individual can fully contribute to the game of governance.

Practical governance pointers

The practical nature of the book can be seen from its chapter titles:

  1. Why be a governor?
  2. What is a school governor?
  3. When should you not become a governor?
  4. How long should you remain a governor?
  5. Understanding your school
  6. Understanding and communicating with your stakeholders
  7. Operating strategically
  8. Being accountable
  9. Understanding school finances
  10. Preparing for Ofsted
  11. Sub-committees and special roles
  12. Getting the best out of governors and staff
  13. How reconstitution can be useful
  14. Pulling it all together

There are also a number of useful appendices – including a Glossary, which of course we’d recommend you read in conjunction with the searchable glossary in the Modern Governor mobile app – but more about the app and this book later.

Effectiveness through soft skills

As the author writes in the preface:

“This book places an emphasis on these crucial softer skills with practical ideas to support both new and experienced governors. There are many publications and websites with policies, statutory guides and formal descriptions of the role. This book makes no attempt to duplicate those publications, but instead gives a different perspective based on the author’s 18 years’ experience as a governor. School governance is one of the best environments for personal development; so, as well as supporting and challenging your school to continuously raise standards, there’s an awful lot to learn along the way.”

If your institution subscribes to Modern Governor blog, then the phrase “crucial softer skills” will ring all sorts of bells – and it is the case that large parts of Effective School Governance dovetail very well with our Core Skills modules – which emphasise that, beyond being knowledgeable about the theory and regulations around governance, those of us volunteering need to know how to be effective as individuals, manage our relationships with others, and communicate effectively.

A’Bear (who tweets as @MarkTheGovernor) has chaired governing bodies and IEBs during his 18 years experience of governance and his wealth of hands-on, practical experience is immediately evident upon reading the book. There is less space given to the theoretical Whys of governance, instead A’Bear dives straight in with practical, achievable tips based on his experience – but not limited to it. His examples demonstrate an understanding of the strategic implications of the decisions a governing board makes and this book should be recommended reading for anyone considering becoming a chair of governors – so if you’re a vice-chair, then Effective School Governance probably has your name on it. Despite his own role as a senior executive in Microsoft and Adobe, A’Bear says of governance:

“My skills and enthusiasm have been put to the test constantly and, as a result, school governance has done more for my personal development than any training course or experience at work.”

The book is packed with helpful and memorable practical phrases which – if you wanted to seem smart as a new governor using the book as a cribsheet- could be dropped into any meeting to good effect. However the author has seen the crash-bang-wallop impact of governance bulls in a school’s china shop and has some helpful advice:

“The classic mistake is being a bull in a china shop: a governor who perceives complacency and decides to shake things up. As a chair of governors there have been several occasions where I’ve had to unpick and manage issues that have arisen as a result of governor inexperience or inappropriate questioning. It’s far better for a governor in this situation to approach the chair first to raise their concerns.”

The accessible nature of the book – and its belief that doing (and thinking about) the role with a focus on strategic outcomes is the core of effective governance, can be glimpsed from these further extracts:

“If you become a governor with a personal agenda you will hold a school back, divert valuable time and energy to non-productive matters and act as a lead weight when it comes to progress and improvement.”

“Some schools see governors as a legal necessity and nothing more. In other cases, the other governors may think that they have the experience and know best: they are well organised and dynamic, and you should simply fall into line. That’s not the most attractive prospect in the world. You may still want to join precisely because you think the school and the governors need a bit of a shake-up. That’s absolutely fair enough and can be crucial in effecting change and driving development in some schools. However, if you feel that you are not going to derive much satisfaction from your involvement then find another school where you and your contribution will be valued.” 

“We all need direction, but we also need directing and a clear focus. Too much operational detail is the scourge of governance. Taking the time to think strategically and developing strong chairing skills will have a far bigger impact than you think. Investing the time will be well worth the effort.”

“Earning credibility can take time. It is hard to win and very easy to lose. This is one of the most difficult areas for governors, especially new ones. The more aggressive style of the corporate world is likely to have the opposite effect to the one you want and could cause a defensive response. Diplomacy, sensitivity and using fellow governors will all help as you build your own working relationship with the school.”

This book’s audience

Who is this book for? Just chairs and vice-chairs? Probably not – while the content will undoubtedly be useful for chairs (and the role of vice-chairs, particularly in those sessions where succession planning is addressed), there’s much more in what seems at first quite a slim volume which, like the paragraphs above, would be useful to anyone who takes governance seriously, or who would like to. This could be useful in developing new leaders, such as committee chairs and vice-chairs, within your governing body. It also addresses the practical aspects of thinking and planning strategically, which seems sometimes too abstract a concept to be tackled in face-to-face training for governors.

Modern Governor app v2.1Read an extended extract

Because it fits so well with Modern Governor’s approach to supporting and developing effective governance in school and academies, you can read two exclusive extracts from Effective School Governance in the newly updated version of the free Modern Governor mobile app. These two extracts are entitled Key concept: earning credibility and Gathering evidence. The first explores how a new governor – who may not have an extensive background in education – can overcome the feeling that they might not be “qualified” for the role, while the second outlines how governors can find out information to support and inform their decision making.

To view the extracts, simply:

  1. Download the latest version of the app from the Apple App Store or Google Play Store – it’s free;
  2. Ensure that you update the app’s content to get the latest definitions, blog posts and new sections (this happens automatically once a week, but doing so now will mean you get to read the extracts immediately);
  3. View the Books on Governance section on the home screen;
  4. Open the section on Effective School Governance;
  5. Read one of the extracts – they’re in the app and don’t require a PDF reader or similar.

Exclusive discount code

A printed copy of Effective School Governance is available for £16.95 – but if you read the extracts in the app you can access a discount code giving you a 35% discount on this price. If you decide you’d like to buy a discounted copy, simply view the code at the bottom of either extract – the Directory of Social Change have made this huge discount available to users of the Modern Governor app and it will only be available until the end of the autumn term.

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