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Headteacher boards – the graveyard of strategy?

Photo by Antwon I on Unsplash

Headteacher boards – the graveyard of strategy?

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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, with which you may dis/agree wholeheartedly.

As with all Modern Governor posts, any organisation featured has a right of reply, so if you are or have been involved in a headteacher board and would like to publish something addressing some of the issues raised here, then please use the Contact Form on this site to get in touch.

Picture your school’s future

Can you do that as a governing board? Maybe, if you’ve been diligent in doing your strategic planning, you can. Can you see the significant challenges in one, two, three years… and how you might respond?

Imagine that you’ve done the planning, you’ve slavishly adhered to the holy text that is the NGA and ASCL’s Staying in control of your school’s destiny and yet… and yet… your school’s future is in limbo; that strategic direction you so carefully researched, debated, consulted on, and bought into – has come to a grinding, seemingly interminable stop.

Where does that leave governors, school leaders, staff, and (most importantly) the children?

Whose strategy is it, anyway?

Two years ago, our “Good school recognised the need to take control of our own destiny – and so we set out to secure a partnership with schools where could offer support to each other, given the shifting political and economic planes we were trying to navigate.

Governors attended training on academisation, briefings from the Local Authority and Regional Schools Commissioner’s office as well as introductory meetings with a range of new and existing MATs and partnerships.

We decided which path we preferred, kept all relevant internal and external parties informed of our plans and undertook exhaustive, extensive due diligence to ensure that our eyes were firmly wide open – and produced copious amounts of evidence and information to support our application. Most importantly, we were very honest all the way through about the reasons why we needed more support than we were getting as well as being clear about our own strengths.

Then the headteacher board (HTB) met after not inconsiderable delay and the outcome was… well, we are in limbo. They need more time to pass in order to gather more evidence before making a decision.  One would think that they might seek this evidence from us. However, we have not been invited to meet anyone on the board (only non-decision makers associated with the RSC’s office) and the notoriously opaque published minutes of the HTB Meeting offer no detail that would be helpful to share with any of our stakeholders. There is also a lack of practical advice and support for our school, so sorely needed, whilst we continue to wait for news.

Of course we don’t want to make such a significant change to our school if there are any concerns; however, why not openly engage with schools much more early on in the process instead of what seems like at the end?

What’s the problem?

…governing bodies are open, and transparent, and very clear about whether organisations the governors work for are benefiting from contracts with the schools. This is not true of HTBs.

Laura McInerney Headteacher boards are corrupt, self-serving and secretive Schools Week

It is hard to understand why independent governance and professional clerking is such as integral part of school leadership, yet absent from the decisionmaking process at RSC level.

It’s also equally difficult to reconcile that school governing boards are encouraged to ensure clarity of vision concept and strategic direction – but only sometimes. Maybe those decisions which are still left at a genuinely local level – not in HTBs, but in individual schools – are those which the current system has decided in advance have no real impact.

There are other questions about the built-in opacity of headteacher boards. Anyone with any insight into how academisation can affect a school, a community, an area, will know that when some schools join MATs that this will affect local schools – intake, staff recruitment, even levels of pay. So it would be good to know what interests are declared when a school’s application to academise is considered by a board – those interests could be due to MAT affiliation, or proximity to the converting school, or any number of reasons. We can look at the composition of a board and make an educated guess at who might be required to recuse themselves from such discussions – as some of our board might over sensitive topics in a governing board meeting – but in general HTB minutes give us no confidence that this has happened.

Meanwhile, we governors are keen that our school remains focused on the children’s education and that teachers are supported as best as possible – all this within the shrinking LA maintained system that prompted our initial urge for change in the first place. And so it continues…

What about… leadership boards?

In discussion with others in this area, this thought came up: why isn’t there a governance presence on headteacher boards (and yes, I know it’s a naming thing, but still…). Where’s the voice of governance at this level? Who holds these boards to account? The fact that – in order to gain influence, or at the very least have your point of view considered by a HTB – your school would have to academise – is this another lever used by the DfE to force school’s hands? I genuinely don’t know.

Given the “only academy headteachers” rule for HTB membership, it might be that only academy trustees would be allowed, which some might  argue would compound the problem. Actually, is the direction of travel that only chief executives of MATs might be allowed on HTBs? What about heads of schools – a growing role which doesn’t quite match the headteacher role of recent years  – as detailed of in one of Tony Breslin’s recent articles the changing nature of school leadership.

We’re often told – often by those who are self-appointed as being representative of governors – that our boards shouldn’t be made up of similar people, with similar outlooks, and similar worldviews. It seems to me that HTBs could well be exemplars of how not to populate a board responsible for making critical decisions. Members of these boards will all have taken the red pill of academisation – and are they people with broadly similar viewpoints? How does an RSC guarantee a plurality of opinion here?

Here’s a crazy idea – which will never happen. I would love to see a Regional Schools Commissioner invite headteachers of and governors from non-academy schools onto his or her HTB. Maybe they’d be the equivalent of associate members – they wouldn’t be able to vote, but they could roll up their sleeves and get involved in the discussion, the questioning, the reflection that we’d hope would happen in individual school boards. This would only work if board minutes were detailed in coverage, designed for an audience beyond the RSC’s office, and delivered to that wider audience.

One other thing: are the boards clerked (I genuinely don’t know)? If so, by whom? If so, are these clerks independent and what are their terms of reference?

Post-script:

Update: I see that – after this article was written – the same idea was mentioned at the recent NGA conference:

So, given that this might not be just a hare-brained notion my brain has conjured up while I wait patiently for the HTB to get off its move forward, what does governance – and even maintained school – representation on  a board look like? Your answers will be at least as good as mine.

The greater good?

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a mental image of HTBs – given to me by someone with a strong opinion about the openness, or otherwise, of that part of the system – taken from Hot Fuzz – it’s one that comes to mind whenever they’re mentioned. For the greater good.  Obviously.


Image credit: Antwon I on Unsplash


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