Kyra Journal January 2018; Governance Reviews

Governance Reviews: Impact and Improvement

Strong school governance is vital to the success of all schools, and according to the National Governance Association, it is more important than it has ever been, with governing bodies having more responsibility and being held accountable for the performance of their schools more rigorously than ever before.

Over the past few years, Ofsted has put an increasing emphasis on the effectiveness of governance when inspecting schools and academies, with the performance of the governing body now forming a crucial component of Ofsted’s overall judgement. Perhaps it is as a result of this that governing bodies are increasingly taking part in external or self reviews in order to reflect on their effectiveness and to maximise their efficacy. It is important that every governing board reviews its performance as a whole, and the NGA recommend that this exercise is carried out internally annually. In this article we will be looking at two examples of governing bodies that have taken part in reviews of governance, one external review and one self review, and looking at what difference the reviews have made to their governing bodies.

Allison Jackson, chair of governors at the Welbourn Primary School, a small, rural primary school in Lincolnshire, was inspired to initiate an external review of governance as a result of several factors. “The school was going through a period of transition, this included changes in the governing body (with people leaving and new governors taking their place), and the adoption of a temporary executive head model, so it seemed like a good time to reflect. The Ofsted judgement of ‘requires improvement’ was also an added incentive to make sure that we used the external review to ensure the governing body became as effective as possible in order to best support school improvement”. For Allison, support was close at hand as the Kyra Teaching Alliance, who were already commissioned to do a review of teaching and learning at Welbourn, put her in touch with Sean Westaway, a National Leader of Governance with a particular interest in small rural schools. Sean then agreed to lead the external review.

The review began with a contextual discussion with Allison establishing where the governing body was at, what they were currently working on, and what areas they felt needed further development. Sean then met with each of the governors individually to obtain their views on how the governing body was performing and how it was supporting school development, and also to discuss their individual contribution to governance and the specific expertise and skills that they bring. Allison tells us, “each governor filled in questionnaires regarding their skills, including skills analysis and a skills matrix, and also a questionnaire on their understanding of governance.” Sean utilised the competency framework for governance, published by the DfE, to help to assess the governing body’s competencies and training needs.

Sean also investigated the current efficiency of the governing body by reading through the minutes of previous governance meetings to see how robust the minutes were, and also to review the quality and challenge of the questioning within the meetings. He also attended meetings to observe their structure and organisation, and to see the questioning of school leadership in action. Following this, Sean produced a report which outlined the context of the school and the governing body, the key aspects of governance which needed to improve, and an action plan to help support the governing body in improving and making positive changes.

The external review helped to highlight specific areas which needed improvement; these included the strength and detail of minutes, and the amount of challenge and accountability presented through questioning. The review also underlined a vital need to consider the financial development of the school, and to consider the vision and long-term strategic plan for school improvement.

In light of the report, Sean supported the governing body to instigate change in several ways. One of the first ways was to address the lack of challenge in questioning by attending governing body meetings himself, and modelling best practice of effective questioning, as well as discussing with the governing body what effective challenge should look like, and how to embed challenging questioning into governance meetings. He supported the governing body to use small groups more effectively to focus on certain areas; for example, Sean worked with a small group of governors to discuss working on a 3 – 5 year strategy for school improvement, and what that might look like, including vision, values and strategic priorities. Sean also supported Allison as chair; she tells us “he provided a wealth of knowledge for me as a new and inexperienced Chair, and helped to provide me with the skills needed to get the most out of the governing body and our meetings”.

The review also revealed where training was necessary within the governing body, for example, in the area of risk management, and the governing body followed this up by seeking coaching to amend specific skill gaps. All governors engaged in some kind of training, including a training session led by Sean on the new code of conduct for governors. The Clerk attended a ‘Clerk’s development programme’ to guide them in taking robust and effective minutes, and other training within the governing body has included widespread engagement with online courses, such as training through the Virtual College. According to Allison, the external review has encouraged all governors to become more proactive in developing their skills and their understanding of governance, as well as fostering an increased desire to look outwards, to learn both from experts in the field, and from the success of other governing bodies.

Allison reflects on the difference that the external review has made to the governing body of Welbourn Primary School, “we were a fragmented governing body before Sean arrived, and with his help we have become more unified and more focussed upon our goals. We now have a framework to help us to operate strategically, and are committed to detailed succession planning. We are becoming a much stronger governing body, capable of giving the kind of support which will improve leadership and teaching and learning that the school greatly needs. If you are part of a governing body which is considering taking part in an external review, I would highly recommend it; not only does it help to give renewed focus, but it has also given us the tools to become a much more efficient, effective and successful governing body, which will hopefully result in a more successful school, and ultimately, in improved outcomes for pupils, which is what it is all about.”

Governance reviews do not have to be external and any governing body can do a self review of its performance in order to reflect, instigate positive change, and improve. One way in which governing bodies can structure self review is through the National Governance Association’s  ‘20 questions’, and this is exactly what the governing body of the Federation of Frithville and New York Primary Schools have recently done, led by chair Sue Brackenbury. The  ‘20 questions’ are, as the name suggests, made up of twenty key questions for a governing body to ask itself; the questions have been formulated to encourage governing bodies to reflect on their practice, and challenge themselves to progress and improve. The questions address the three key aspects of effective governance; governing board effectiveness; vision, ethos and strategy; and effective accountability.

For the governing body of Frithville and New York primary schools, the journey of self review began with the formation of a small working group of three governors (including the Headteacher) and the Clerk meeting on three separate occasions to go through the 20 questions. Each of the 20 questions was discussed, and notes were taken by the Clerk, either recording evidence of how a particular area was being effectively met, or with an action plan on how a particular area might be improved. Sue Brackenbury, the Chair of governors, tells us, “once the responses to the 20 questions were complete, we sent the documentation out to each of the governors to inform them of the areas we felt were effective, areas in which we needed to improve, and the suggested action plan to effect the improvements.” The governing body also completed an up-to-date and comprehensive skills audit alongside the 20 questions, to help to identify any training needs.

Some of the areas highlighted for improvement in the self review included the need for governors to be fully prepared for meetings to allow them to formulate challenging questions; also to keep themselves and each other up-to-date with the latest developments in education.  It was also identified that a clear time span for agreed actions together with timely follow-up would help to avoid any time lag which had in the past hampered progress (these points to be noted in the minutes of meetings). Armed with this knowledge, a workshop was arranged by Sue where the outcomes of the 20 questions, including proposed actions, were discussed by the governing body and either agreed to or amended.

Contributions made at the workshop were amalgamated into a review document and circulated in preparation for a second workshop, at which a final action plan for the governing body was produced. Sue tells us “at this workshop we finalised what our action plan was to be, which governors would be responsible for each area of improvement, and the timescales. The outcomes of the review have been incorporated into our Federation Improvement Plan (FIP) and have resulted in clear responsibilities for governors, including monitoring activities for each governor to perform, clearly identified within the monitoring cycle.”

The governing body also decided to adopt a coaching model, which has ensured a strong element of informal learning and training within their work, and is helping all governors to develop their skills further in areas where they may not be as knowledgeable. The coaching model essentially links together an experienced and less experienced governor attached to major roles, for example safeguarding, SEND, finance and school performance. Most governors will act as the ‘experienced’ governor in one area, and the ‘inexperienced governor’ in another, so that all governors are continually learning from each other. This approach also builds in an element of succession planning, and helps to protect against skills gaps which could potentially develop if a governor leaves. To support this, the governing body is in the process of refining its induction programme for new governors, to make sure that any new governors gain a really secure understanding of governance, and a clear knowledge of what their role and contribution will be.

Sue tells us that overall the self review of governance at the federation has been ‘very worthwhile’.  Sufficient challenge of leadership is ensured in governance meetings, with questions formulated in advance and clearly recorded in the minutes, in bold, so that the challenge is easy to identify.  “At each meeting of the full governing body, we review our action plan as a matter of course. In this way we ensure that all actions take place in a planned and effective manner and if any new initiative occurs, we can build our response into the monitoring cycle very quickly and easily.”

“The self review has also led to other benefits, one really important change being to the performance management process across the federation, the timetabling of which has been altered so that performance management of teaching and support staff follows on from the Headteacher’s performance management which is carried out in September.  This ensures that everyone is working to federation priorities and objectives.”

Sue highly recommends the use of self review to other governing bodies, after finding it an effective way to engage her governing body in their own development. “The fact that we took part in a self review has meant that the governing body has taken ownership of its own development, and this has encouraged a willing and committed response to improvement. Each governor has had a role in helping us to change from within, and become more effective in supporting the federation overall”.


Relevant Resources

20 Key Questions for a Governing Board to Ask Itself (2012)

Governance Competency Framework (2017)

The Governance Handbook (2015)

NGA Skills audit + Skills Matrix (2017)

NGA’s Model Code of Conduct (2017)

All resources available at