Kyra Journal Jan 2018; Governor In Focus

Governor in Focus: Juliet Brookes

Juliet Brookes has been Vice-Chair of Governors at Sturton by Stow primary school for over 3 years. She brings to the position a wealth of experience in education research and policy from her role as a senior manager at the National College of School Leadership, and more recently, her current role as Research and Development Lead at Kyra. She is a Local Leader of Governance (LLG) and helps to deliver NGA training on behalf of  LTT (Lincolnshire Teaching Schools Together). In recent years she has also completed an MSc in social research and her thesis had a school governance focus.

Tell us about your journey towards becoming a governor, and what motivated you.

There are several reasons I decided to become a governor, the first being that I felt I had something to offer. My work means I have up-to-date knowledge and understanding of educational issues and policies, and I have skills which I believed would be beneficial, which I have developed through being a senior manager, such as project management and strategic thinking. Becoming a governor was also an opportunity to keep my work life real, and to be actively involved in a school on a practical, hands on level. Finally, I felt I had time and energy to give to the role, and saw it as an opportunity to make a positive difference and ‘give something back’.

I decided to submit a profile on the Inspiring Governance website (www.inspiringgovernance.org), and was emailed not long after by the head teacher of Sturton by Stow school. The head was looking for someone who lived outside of the community, who could offer an objective, external perspective (I live half an hour away). She invited me to meet with her and the chair of governors; this gave the opportunity for me to introduce myself, for them to ask questions to make sure I was right for the role, and also an opportunity for me to ask questions to find out if this was the school for me. I attended my first governance meeting around 6 weeks later.

 

Tell us about your role in the governing body at Sturton by Stow over the past three years

I was asked to lead governor training to begin with. I completed a skills audit and encouraged governors to attend relevant training. I attended a training event myself on effective governance, which focussed on how to effectively set agendas and run meetings in order to be most efficient and productive. I shared this information, and set a proposal based on it to the governing body, to have a structured plan of meetings in advance of each school year, and introduced agendas which clearly showed decision and assurance items.

I now monitor literacy; I make sure that there are literacy focussed school visits, that the right questions are asked of the head teacher and that data is closely monitored; I then produce monitoring reports. I am also Vice-Chair, which means working closely with the Chair of governors to make sure that the governing body is as effective as it possibly can be. In addition, I am on the Headteacher performance management panel along with the Chair and an external member from the University of Lincoln. Now as a Local Leader of Governance, and through training and supporting other governors and governing bodies across Lincolnshire, I have a good idea of the ‘bigger’ picture of governance, and can bring back ideas and examples of positive practice to the governing body of Sturton by Stow.

 

What were the weaknesses of the governing body when you arrived, and what improvements have been made?

We had three relatively new governors on a governing body made up of eight people. As a new group, it took time for everybody to get used to working together, to find their place, and to use their skills to contribute most effectively. However, things have really fallen into place since, and we have a very good balance of skills, experience, knowledge and a good level of professional development.

We have improved how we do our monitoring visits; they are now more effectively organised and planned, each with a specific individual focus and with clear aims. We now do skills audits on an annual basis and also individual self-reflection questionnaires of strengths, skills, and areas to improve, which inform our training plan. There are currently no skill gaps in the governing body and we are really mindful of skills, and who could pick up in certain areas if any unforeseeable gaps did occur. We are also becoming more mindful of how everyone in the governing body can make sure that they keep their knowledge and understanding of the educational landscape up-to-date.

 

How does the governing body make a difference?

By making sure that there is a balance between working alongside school leadership in a friendly and respectful way, while still being able to ask the difficult questions which fully challenge. Ultimately, it is our duty and responsibility to the pupils, as governors, to make sure that we continually challenge leadership for full accountability and adequate evidence. A vital part of this is preparing for meetings in advance by carefully reading through relevant reports and data, and formulating the critical questions prior to each meeting.

We also set the vision for the school, and this is re-visited every year. We develop strategy around this by deciding where we want the school to be in 5 years’ time, and how we are going to get there. We ask the hard questions to ensure high standards. We are ambitious and strive to do everything we can to enable the school to be as successful as possible. We are also a visible presence and sounding board, attending school events and talking and listening to parents and pupils.

 

What are the biggest challenges of being a governor, and what are the biggest challenges which governing bodies face overall?

Personally, I think the biggest challenge of being a governor is finding your place within the governing body when you first begin; it can take time to get to know the role and how best to use your skills. After that, it’s about being clear where the boundaries are; what you can influence and what you can’t; what is your responsibility, and what isn’t. For example, the curriculum is not the governors’ responsibility. Sometimes it can be hard not to want to get involved in everything, especially when you are passionate about the school! I also know that some people find the level of time and commitment a challenge; being a governor is not simply a matter of attending 6 to 12 meetings a year, it goes far beyond that. You have to do preparation, paperwork, training, reading, write reports, attend events and do regular school visits. It is an extensive role and an important responsibility, and you have to be willing to put in the time and commitment accordingly.

For governing bodies as a whole, there is inequity in the school system which can have a huge impact on the effectiveness of governance due to financial constraints. Smaller schools with smaller budgets do not always have the funds to train governors, which can leave them lacking the skills to do their job effectively. Rural and coastal schools often struggle to recruit governors with business skills and expertise, as there are often fewer business organisations in these areas to call upon. Another challenge is the pace of change in educational policy; it can be hard for lay governors to stay on top of these changes, though there are ways to do this, such as subscribing to weekly bulletins on education news.

 

What are the key characteristics of strong governing bodies?

Collaboration is key. All governors need to be working together and with the leadership team towards the same goals, and supporting each other. Also, in an effective governing body, everybody knows what their role is, and understands their responsibility to effectively challenge the senior leadership team while still being supportive and respectful. They will challenge each other as governors too, keep developing themselves in terms of skills and knowledge, and look outwards to learn from the expertise of others, and from other successful governing bodies. A strong governing body will also regularly reflect, both at an individual level, and on its effectiveness as a whole, in order to continually develop and improve. Finally, a strong and effective governing body must be made up of people with the desire to make a real difference to the lives of children, their education and their opportunities, and always put the pupils first.

Hear Juliet Brookes discusses her experience of being a school governor at the Kyra YouTube channel: Kyra TSA

Follow Juliet Brookes on Twitter @Jayemby