School Boards … keep a clear head

If school leaders and Boards are honest, there is a little corner of their minds which wants to say ‘please, just make all of this go away …’. The stresses on school enrolment, the spiralling costs – in time as well as in money – of measures to protect against Covid-19, the uncertainties of the year ahead and what learning will actually look like … each of these alone would be enough to send many a normal human being scurrying for the hills; moreover, after the debacle of the IB results this year, and the uproar around SQA results in Scotland, school boards in England are waiting with horribly bated breath for the A Levels and GCSE results to emerge.

Add to this the astonishingly impossible task of meeting local and national government requirements, which boils down to – ‘you must socially distance, but not if you can’t, and if you can’t, on your head be it’. The pressure on schools is approaching the limits of tolerability: Covid-19 hasn’t gone away – and no, we don’t absolutely know what the exam diet will look like next summer. In fact, we don’t know much about anything as far as the year ahead is concerned – although schools do know that they have students who need to be taught, and a community that needs to be nurtured, and they have proven themselves remarkably resilient and adaptable in doing so over the past few months. School leaders and teachers are the absolute unsung heroes of the crisis, keeping learning going and spirits high, often at their own expense. School Boards may have had the anxiety of keeping the school afloat, and they may have had to make some very difficult decisions, but the credit for keeping school communities alive goes firmly to the staff.

This said, school Boards should beware of allowing the pendulum in their governance to swing too far towards simply agreeing with school leaders. A worst case scenario for this new academic year for schools is not so much a further spike in the virus, but rather the implosion of leadership and governance, where, for example, Governors start issuing decrees, and leaders are so busy managing, and so driven to distraction that they don’t have the time to take part in measured strategic discussion informed by their expertise. The relationship between leadership and governance is akin to a beautifully tuned stringed instrument; when the right amount of tension is applied, and when all the parts align, then the sound which emerges resonates strongly and clearly. Slacken the tension at either end, or neglect its rigorous upkeep, and the whole project fails. Governance and leadership need to work in tandem, as partners, for a school to thrive, and it is incumbent upon Boards to lead the way.

So, as the new school year approaches, my advice to school Boards is to keep a clear head. Remember that you are there to provide oversight and insight, and to do so in a reasonable manner, neither unhurried nor (usually) demanding of immediate response. You are there to hold the vision of the school – the strong oak tree in the middle of the storm, so do not flap your leaves in despair at lower grades, or the first sign of parental dissatisfaction next term, but take time to consider carefully. Support your leaders, but do not give them carte blanche to make decisions for which you are responsible. By all means lessen the load of expectation around papers for Board meetings (a good thing, in any case), but do not stint in your incisive interpretation and analysis. Ask as many questions as before – more, probably – while supporting as much as before … again, more, probably.   

School Boards exist for a reason. They are not there to lead the school; they are there to ensure the leadership of the school functions appropriately, and to provide a wider perspective born of diversity and distance. The skill of a great school Board is to challenge without upsetting, to be clear and decisive without being narrowminded, and to act with wisdom in all things.

Remember that clear head …

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