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One governor’s search for professional development

Drowning under a mountain of paper

One governor’s search for professional development

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(or: how I ended up ankle deep in paper at work one Christmas)

Martin MatthewsIn this guest post Martin Matthews shares his experience of taking his professional development as a governor seriously enough to complete an MA in governance. Martin is a National Leader of Governance, a chair of governors and has been a governor on several governing bodies across Greater Manchester as well as a Manchester Challenge governor champion. In the next few years Martin will have served more years as a governor than he has been alive – in the meantime he tweets at @mm684 – contact him there if you’d like a copy of the research described below. In Martin’s own words “it’s not light reading…”

At heart I’m one of those people who always has to have something to do, usually to keep me out of mischief. Sat at home one evening four years ago scanning emails, deleting spam I found an email advertising a distance learning MA in education by Edge Hill University. I liked the idea, as the thought of being back in a lecture hall surrounded by people young enough to be my children did not appeal.

Continuing professional development (CPD) for governors is very thin on the ground. After a few years most of the training available has been done and barring the truly exceptional there isn’t much new. In defence of Oldham LA it’s the same nationally. The National Leader of Governance (NLG) community and the National Governors Association (NGA) raise this frequently at a national level. Eventually the Chairs’ development training course from the National College was developed. If you haven’t seen this then have a look, it may be what you are looking for.

Drowning under a mountain of paper

Drowning under a mountain of paper by Christian Guthier – used under CC-BY-NC 2.0

I spent considerable time studying the prospectus and weighing up just how close to the entrance criteria I was. To be honest I think it was the twenty years distance from writing essays that meant I’d forgotten just how much time and effort was involved. With hindsight I wonder just how much my procrastination was due to the distant memory of academic deadlines.

A first?

Edge Hill’s initial rebuff didn’t surprise me at all. It took a few months of exchanging emails and providing proof of my qualifications before they accepted I could be considered for the course. I then asked if I could study governance, fully expecting them to say “no”. A governor had never asked so they were unsure what I would study – and if anyone would be able to mark it. The vice-chancellor told me that none of the 7000+ teachers who had done the course had ever completed one module on governance, let alone the whole course. I argued my case that governance is both an integral and essential part of school life and just as valid a topic of study as any other.

The course structure is quite simple; four assignments and a research module in four years. This sounds OK but trying to fit that into family life, work and governance proved much more of a challenge.

The first assignment came as a distinct shock to the system. Since finishing uni twenty years previously I had studiously avoided writing anything longer than an email. Constructing an argument was as much of a problem as were paragraphs and 3000 words on the same topic. I don’t think it helped much when I asked my wife to read the draft of my essay and she looked at me and said “3b”. Apparently my sentence structure, use of punctuation and connectives was not up to scratch.

Two and a half years later I had completed four assignments only the research module remained. That proved the biggest hurdle of all.

Ankle-deep in Ofsted

My research centred on the governance themes from 184 Oftsed reports. I only later realised that the research methodology I had chosen and the subject matter were both deeply out of vogue. A year and nine resubmissions of my research proposal later and it was finally accepted.

That leads to how I found myself literally ankle deep in paperwork reading 184 Ofsted reports and extracting and analysing the governance sections while the office was quiet. If you like governance then some Ofsted reports do make interesting reading. How I felt for the governing body plunged into special measures on a report of thirty four (yes 34) words. Many times I read inspectors’ comments on governing bodies criticising or praising them for things that were nothing to do with governance. Background research showed that it is much more likely that a school will do really well or really badly if both the head teacher and chair of governors are male – but who knows why? All these themes and more came from the research. Beavering away I completed the research and had time to reread and revise it several times, further adding to the deep litter filing system which had evolved. Part of the submission included a document on what themes emerged for governance self-review, a version of which is published on the SASE web site.

And finally…

Finally submitting the research was like sending your child into the wide blue yonder. Waiting for the result was worse.

My teenage children find solace in humour at my expense. When I got the email confirming I had passed they took great delight in pointing out that it was April the 1st. So much so that it took me several days to really admit to myself that I had passed, that it was really finished and that I had beaten the deadline by two months.

Governors care about schools; it’s why we give our time. As the government pushes ever further towards a professional volunteer governance community we have to start to feed research back into governance the same way teachers feed their research back into education. The system then starts to improve and children benefit. I’m not vain enough to think my research will make much difference but little by little as the volume of governance research increases the system will start to self-improve.

I’m fortunate to be the first to graduate with a masters in governance, others are already well on the way. Was it worth it? Yes. Has it given me a level of credibility when dealing with education professionals who try and patronise governors as volunteers? Yes. Will it help children? I hope so.

Questions for governing boards

  • As a governing board, do you have a commitment to training, professional development, or both?
  • Is this commitment (or absence of it) shared by all members of your governing board?
  • What’s your collective understanding of the difference between training and professional development?
  • If your governing board could ask a “big” question about the practice of governance, what would it be?
  • Do you have colleagues on your board who would like to roll up their sleeves and engage in some applied study or professional thought about governance? If so, how might you support them as a governing board?

Image: Drowning under a mountain of paper by Christian Guthier – used under CC-BY-NC 2.0.

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