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Strategic leadership for governors and trustees: obligations, opportunities and pitfalls


Strategic leadership for governors and trustees: obligations, opportunities and pitfalls

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Dr Tony Breslin

Strategic Leadership for Governors and Trustees: obligations opportunities and pitfalls is a new module released this week by Modern Governor. The module has been written by educationalist and governance specialist, Dr. Tony Breslin, author of the recent RSA report, Who Governs Our Schools: trends, tensions and opportunities, and a regular contributor to the Modern Governor blog. In this article he summarises the rationale for the new module, and outlines some of its content.

The leadership landscape in schools is changing, and with it the roles of all those involved in school governance and school leadership. Over the past decade a new language focused on how schools are organised and how they collaborate has emerged: a language of academies and free schools, of federations and multi-academy trusts, of trustee boards and local governing boards (linked through schemes of delegation), of Executive Heads and Heads of School, and of CEOs and Regional Directors.

More than just a change in jargon

Often, changes of terminology, especially in education, herald little more than a change in the jargon, but the emergent vocabulary of governance and leadership signal fundamental changes in how we organise schooling and how individual schools are led. Modern Governor’s new module aims to enable governors to understand these changes, to grasp a sense of how the new leadership arrangements are intended to operate, and to ask the right questions as they ponder decisions about how the governance and leadership of their own school, federation or MAT evolves.

In particular we spend time exploring the particular challenges of maintaining stakeholder buy-in and ensuring community connectedness in multi-school settings – such as MATs and federations – and in settings where organisational models that involve some form of executive leader are employed. These models that have profound implications both for governance and for the experience of school leadership itself, especially in terms of local school based governance, as I discuss in depth in my recent RSA report, Who Governs Our Schools? Trends, tensions and opportunities and in a related Modern Governor blog: The challenges of a changing policy landscape:

Who governs our schools – the challenges of a changing policy landscape

These changes also offer an opportunity to reflect on the relationship between the strategic and operational domains. As we say in the module, the essence of effective governance is being able to think strategically, to define a direction of travel, to get ‘above’ the detail and to monitor progress towards clear objectives.

Strategic vs. operational – not always an easy distinction

In this context, the new module offers a more nuanced sense of the relationship between these two areas, so often presented in the governance literature as completely separate areas of activity. In reality, their interplay is more complex, with those involved in governance taking the lead in framing strategic direction, while co-producing strategy with the CEO, Executive Head or Head and other senior leaders. Operational matters are, of course, the responsibility of the professional team, but those involved in governance need to assess whether operational activities – such as decisions about the curriculum, assessment and behaviour – are at one with the values, mission and strategic direction agreed by the board.

This doesn’t mean day-to-day meddling but it does mean keeping values, intentions and responsibilities to the fore, both when they are discussed at the board or in sub committees or working groups, and when undertaking visits to observe and learn from classroom practice and other activities. There are a number of questions those in governance can ask – of themselves and of senior leadership in an institution:

  • Does the curriculum or the behaviour strategy express these values?
  • Does practice in the school appear to mirror the intentions and priorities set out in the school improvement plan?
  • Do particular interventions reflect these priorities?
  • And, critically, do they appear to be having the desired impact and, if so, how is this impact measured?

These are not questions that governors are required to answer, but they are questions that they should be prepared to ask – in a positive, supportive, enquiring manner, and in a spirit of mutual trust. Why? Because operational realities should inform strategy making and be an expression of any strategy adopted, hence the intrinsic and sometimes messy relationship between the two.

The compliance-creativity conundrum

This tension between the operational and strategic domains is not the only one that can tax the minds of the professional leaders and governors alike. There is a similar tension between the need to be both compliant and creative. As governors we are required to be compliant with a growing range of legal and statutory responsibilities – not just in terms of the curriculum but in terms of issues such as the wellbeing of children and staff, child protection, health and safety and, latterly, GDPR. But the sheer complexity of governance also requires us to be creative in our thinking and our practice.

Retaining this creative spirit, and promoting it amongst children and staff, is not easy in an environment where the regulatory load can be burdensome and where performance (especially as evidenced through examination outcomes and inspection) is so publicly measured, but it is vital if children are to excel in their learning and staff are to enjoy their employment.

It would be too lofty a claim to suggest we solve the compliance-creativity conundrum that every school, federation or MAT board struggles with; we do not. However, by urging a focus on outcomes for children (and not just academic outcomes), our aim is to enable governors, trustees and boards – working in a spirit if partnership and co-production with senior leadership teams and the school communities that both serve – to be more informed and confident in striking the right balance.

Activities and Feedback

Early in the module we pose five questions:

  1. What direction do we wish our school, federation or MAT to go in, and why?
  2. What specific objectives do we want to achieve by going in this direction?
  3. What kind of strategy will we need to achieve our objectives?
  4. How will our strategy be produced, monitored, evaluated and amended as we move forward?
  5. What kind of educational experiences and outcomes will our chosen strategy and strategic objectives produce for the individual child?

A willingness to periodically reflect on these or similar questions is the mark of an effective governor and an effective board. It might be worth sharing these questions with your board colleagues before embarking on the module.

Get more detail on the module here:

New module: Strategic leadership for governors and trustees: obligations opportunities and pitfalls

I’m keen for any feedback on both this article and the module itself – I’m on Twitter @UKPolicyWatch or on email via tony.breslin[at]

Image credit: Nick Fewings on Unsplash.

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