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D is for Distributed Governance

Creating your own monitoring jigsaw


Could distributing your governance load be the answer to improving board effectiveness and outcomes for pupils? Absolutely!


Nationally, in state funded schools, there are over 250,000 governors, whose volunteering is potentially worth millions, if not billions to the school community. Whilst many governors give a lot of their time, which according the to the National Governance Association can be up to 17 hours per month, the distribution of work across the board, can be unequal, with only a handful of ‘active’ governors taking a proactive role in supporting and monitoring the school, outside of the usual board meetings.


This I found out very early on in my governing journey, where a lot of the work tended to fall to me as chair, and as any chair will tell you, you can’t do it all yourself, and indeed you shouldn’t. Whilst the governors on the board I chaired were reliable at attending meetings, it became clear that some did not really appear to prepare, understand the school, or monitor the school outside of the three full governing board meetings, and attendance at the odd committee. I concluded in the first few weeks as chair that we were not really a team, we were a group of individuals, that despite being there for the children and education, we were not really effective or making a difference.


This became abundantly obvious two months later, when we had the Ofsted Visit, and the school was judged as Notice to Improve (this was back in 2012). To be fair, the school had been trundling along as satisfactory for many years, but our impact as governors was not being felt, and there had not been sufficient challenge. And as I have found out through my career, I have to be able to see the difference I make to feel rewarded. So…


Fast forward 15 months, and the board (and school) was unrecognisable. From day one after the initial inspection, governors and senior leaders met, and created an action plan for improvement. But what was different to previous plans, was for every improvement area, there was also a governor action; and a new monitoring framework was developed. Whilst we all know that governors should not be operational, it is important that governors are involved in school improvement planning. This is so that they can understand the reasons for improvements and develop their own key lines of enquiry for monitoring.


At the heart of my work to reshape the board’s work and impact was to create a more pluralistic board, by building better relationships and improving our communication. I also wanted to get to know my fellow governors skills and attributes, so I developed an appreciative skills audit, which went beyond the traditional skills audit focus, to really get to understand my fellow governors, their motivations and their assets. I had done this in the first few weeks of my new role as chair, and therefore when my work was accelerated by the Ofsted visit, we were well prepared as a board to spring into action, and to deploy the right governors to the right improvement priorities.


One of my favourite quotes is by Aristotle - 'the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’. And when a board shares the tasks out (equally) more can be achieved, especially at full board meetings, when there is more space for strategic discussions.


Distributed leadership is a term that is often used now to describe this shared approach to delivering a board’s goals. But, how can you distribute leadership from a board to an individual, when the leadership role of governance sits collectively at board level.


Distributing leadership does not mean distributing responsibility. But, in essence what we are talking about is more like distributed governance - sharing out the monitoring, challenge and support.


By far the best approach I have found is to develop a Link Governor system. However the key to a successful link systems is simple: Clarity, Consistency and Completeness.

  1. Clarity: By agreeing as a board the nature and scale of the Link Role and creating the right roles.

  2. Consistency: By agreeing a programme of Link visits across the year, which all governors commit to carrying out as agreed. This system of distributed monitoring will help the board to gain a broad understanding of the school and where to direct more attention as a whole board.

  3. Completeness: By creating a simple reporting system, and making sure that all governors get to hear what others have found.

Finally, the success of any Link system is accountability - and in governors holding each other to account. Good accountability is key to compelling governors to act. Strong teams are not afraid of challenging or in being held to account. Clarity builds consistency, which improves completeness leading to impact.


So what would our top five tips be to you in developing your own monitoring jigsaw?


  • Gaining commitment from all of your governors to a more proactive way of working, developing a code of conduct, contribution and expectations;

  • Agreeing what your board’s Governance Jigsaw looks like to make it’s monitoring more effective and assign a piece of the jigsaw to each governor;

  • Ensure that governors invest time in becoming confident champions in their given link role, and that they get the right support and training;

  • Knowing that challenge is supportive when carried out constructively;

  • Ensuring collaboration is at the heart of your link role system - with staff and collectively as a board - remembering that your Jigsaw ‘picture’ will change overtime, and together you can create the right picture.

Image: Shutterstock

National Governance Association - Annual Survey of its members