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Governance at the Headteachers’ Roundtable summit

City, road, river and skyscraper by Mavis CW on Unsplash

Governance at the Headteachers’ Roundtable summit

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The Secret Governor may or may not be on your governing board. They may also continue to refer to it as a ‘governing body’, which may or may not be an attitude which Requires Improvement. They have indicated that this post represents a very personal opinion of their own, with which you may dis/agree wholeheartedly.

The Secret Governor is a series of anonymous posts by those involved in school governance. If you would like to contribute a piece and have it published anonymously then please email

February the 23rd 2018. A Friday.

It was a work day. I had taken an unpaid day’s leave from work and here I was in Central London at a conference. A Headteachers’ Roundtable Summit to be precise! I also paid for my ticket – £125. Yes I know there was a special governor’s discount! Yes, I am a school governor hoping to contribute to the discussions during the day. Yes, I am looking to learn something and shape policy! I am excited! I look at the list of attendees… I am even more excited!

Some background

For anyone who reads this thinking “Round tables? What?” and is reminded of Arthurian legend, here’s a little of what the Headteachers’ Roundtable – often abbreviated to HTRT – is about. As the name suggests, the HTRT is a collection of school leaders and it operates in a similar way to a think-tank.  From its formation in 2012, as a result of frustration with both government  education policy at the time and the Opposition’s response to it, it describes itself as seeking to influence policy for the better of learners. In 2016 the HTRT published its own alternative Green Paper – Schools that Enable All to Thrive and Flourish – to offer an alternative to DfE White Papers at that time. The HTRT also published a a “doorstep manifesto” (PDF) for the 2017 General Election, again outlining what

At the Summit

There are several governors here – according to the badges I see around me they include NLGs and clerks. Last year, according to a blog (with photo), one governor had her badge marked ‘CHAR’ not ‘chair’! She wasn’t asked to serve tea, which was some relief.

As governors – a group for whom while it’s expected, no induction or training is compulsory – our CPD is important to us. We need to be outward looking and have to fund much of this ourselves. We share with our colleagues. We take questions to our boards informed by the topics and issues we hear about.

Headteachers who are attending are also taking a day away from their work – but (I can’t help wondering) is that paid or unpaid? Do their chairs know and/or have to approve? Who paid their expenses? Will they be expected to provide a summary of their day’s CPD and how to apply it to their setting – or is it assumed that it will seep into their school through osmosis? Of course, headteachers are generally governors too – but I am not sure they always remember that part. We were told that this summit is for school and education leaders and would focus on what they believed to be the key issues – insufficient funding, excessive accountability, poor retention and limited school autonomy & agency. “Accountability” makes me think of governance, but then I realise that it’s probably performance measures, inspection, etc – i.e. it’s external rather than internal. Ah well.

So what did I learn or contribute to? On reflection, I’m not too sure…

You see, following on from the success of last year’s conference, as a governor and a trustee I was looking forward to this year’s conference. I took leave and paid to attend from my own pocket, as I believe that what HTRT are attempting to do is really important – influence the debate on the future of education in this country for better. The governance perspective in all of this is very important in my view – unless of course it’s decided to abolish the role of governors/trustees altogether and leave school leaders to their own devices. That depends on to whom one speaks – but further thoughts on that shortly.

The day started with some opening remarks from Stephen Tierney, chair of the HTRT. “We don’t need permission to do some things,” he said, reminding the room that “collectively we have massive experience and daily intelligence of what is going on that we can use to guide policy thinking.”

Looking around, there’s massive experience at my table too – with experienced chairs of governors, trustees, members and chairs of multi-academy trusts who performance manage these headteachers and CEOs annually… all on a voluntary basis. We’re here, and we’re keen to contribute – to provide that slightly different point of view to help triangulate information and inform the policy thinking that Stephen refers to.

I do wonder where the average accountability position lies among those in the room – those involved in HTRT are, by definition, charismatic and inspirational leaders, and the organisation was to a great extent founded via the potential offered by Twitter to bring a geographically-distributed group of people together – all of whom already have influence in the occasionally-representative world of education Twitter.

Reflection on this extract from the recent series of articles by Tony Breslin seems appropriate, particularly in the light of how some people might interpret the phrase “we don’t need permission” out of context:

One thing is for sure: for boards the outcome to be avoided – as the recent histories of Kids Company, RBS and a number of fallen ‘super-heads’ illustrate – is a combination of weak governance and charismatic leadership. Therein chaos lies, and therein the case for effective governance is made.

Tony Breslin – Leadership and autonomy in the emergent school-scape

Yes we do worry about funding, yes we sign off budgets, yes we agree staffing structures, yes we look at flexible learning – and yes we find it painful too. We also worry about exclusions and off-rolling and the health and well-being of children, young people and our staff. While we wouldn’t necessarily demand credit for this, there’s a need to acknowledge that headteachers don’t operate in isolation.

Stephen also quoted Desmond Tutu :

“There comes a point when we need to stop just pulling people out of the river; we need to go upstream and find out why they are falling in.”

Seems we have a collective wisdom! Will we stay afloat until the end of the conference? If not, who throws us the lifebelt?

Then there was a conversation with Robert Halfon MP – chair of the Education Select Committee. Well he had a conversation with Laura McInerney. He kindly welcomed us all to the “headmasters’ conference” – to some gasps from the audience.

In fact, he said it twice! He explained the workings of the Select Committee but I expect lots of us were familiar with that as – unfortunately for our social lives and dinner party conversations – we follow such things regularly. Plenty about holding people to account at Select Committee – but overall a bit of a soundbite conversation, with no opportunity for questions. Not much learned there then…

David Benson – the headteacher of the Kensington Aldridge Academy which was badly affected by the Grenfell Tower disaster – was a joy to listen to. A very moving tale of the effects of the fire on the community and the solutions found to ensure his young people were supported and were able to continue their education. He also sang the praises of many people – including his governors.

It’s always hard to remember which parallel sessions one has signed up for, often months before, but Sir David Carter was a must see on ‘Ethical Leadership’ – something we can relate to! A really good session by Sir David, when we came in from the cold, and some really good take home messages. He said that ethical leadership involved four tests to stay on track.

  1. Firstly, the sleeping test: if I do this can I sleep at night?
  2. The newspaper test: would I still do this if it were published in a newspaper?
  3. The mirror test: if I do this can I feel comfortable looking at myself in the mirror?
  4. And finally, “the killer one”, the teenager test: would I mind my children knowing about this?

It appeared that by mid-morning many were desperate to charge their phones,  so the back of rooms were busy with some who weren’t… engaged? There was some shuffling and checking of phones so I guess others were equally engaged – but of course, they had schools to run. Or headteachers to support.

An average lunch combined with the inevitable networking. Networking at events is crucial but if one didn’t know the HTRT key players (other than those speaking) it wasn’t easy to find out who they were. As is often the way at events like this, times like these can be used for organisers to catch up with those whom they already know. We were asked to ensure that we all made a visit to at least one exhibitor – the funding for an event in a venue like this isn’t covered just by tickets – even the non-discounted ones.

The post-lunch session… traditionally a time when one’s eyes find it hard to focus on a series of bullet-pointed slides. Wait – there’s a a flip chart at the front with coloured pens! Hang on, it looks like there may be a discussion…?! Sat at a table with people one hasn’t met before and being given a group task is either a roll-your-sleeves-up opportunity or a who’s-going-to-dominate-the-group challenge. Either way, we may be able to contribute! Someone walks between tables listening to conversations. Maybe our table’s discussion is heard from afar and deemed ‘uninteresting’. Either way we appear to be avoided! A governor on another table is persistent in trying to get governors or governance mentioned – but sadly the words never make it to the flip chart. A shame, because in such sessions that often feels like the measure of an idea or of opinion’s validity.

A break for coffee and cake are next. I see a couple of governors leave – maybe they need to catch their train – or maybe the coffee isn’t sufficient and they now need something stronger. I look at my watch… the long train journey to somewhere beyond London looms. is it time to go already?

On reflection

Having attended the preceding summit, I have to say that this year – sadly – it felt different, for two main reasons. First, it felt as if a large group of contributors were the same as before. We do need to widen the debate and sphere of influence and include more than just those who are vocal on social media. It also felt that the role of governance had somehow slipped off the agenda – and it wasn’t clear if this was by accident or design. Whether we – or headteachers – like it or not governance is part of the accountability system within schools. It goes without saying that governors and trustees are absolutely welcome at HTRT – there aren’t many school leadership events that have a reduced fee for governors and trustees – but the HTRT Summit does. None of the workshops attended mentioned/discussed the role of governance – though of course it may have been front and centre in other ones which were running in parallel.

Being at the HTRT Summit as a governor felt like being a ghost – you are there, but you are generally not seen, heard or acknowledged.

So come on HTRT please don’t disappoint us next year as we know you do listen.’

Thinking about the Summit on the train home and in the days and weeks since, several questions spring to mind:

  • Are contributions from those in governance welcome at an event like this? As mentioned we were made welcome personally, but it’s a different thing to welcome and take on board ideas and contributions which might not be expected.
  • To that point, what does meaningful contribution look like at an event like this? If HTRT cannot recognise the worth of our view by including opportunities to contribute meaningfully then are we really welcome?
  • In governance we often ensure that parent governors know that they are “representative parents” rather than “parents’ representatives” – which of these models fits the school leaders within HTRT? Are they “representative school leaders” or “school leaders’ representatives”?
  • Will the HTRT’s recent ‘appointment’ of a Special Adviser for governance make a difference to the next agenda? Is one person enough?

Image credit: City, road, river and skyscraper by Mavis CW on Unsplash.

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