April 30, 2015

Speech from Frank Norris

Below is a speech Frank Norris gave to Governors at The Co-operative Academies Trust annual Governor Conference 2015.

Good morning colleagues. It is great to be able to welcome you again to this marvellous building.

I sincerely want to thank you for making the time to come today. When I worked in a local authority in south Manchester we used to hold an annual conference for governors and we would rejoice if one governor turned up from each of the hundred or so schools. Well today we have nearly half of all governors in our trust here today. So, well done, we have exceeded the general expectations held by local authorities, and a high achieving one as well.

Recently, Tony Stephens and I visited a secondary school with the intention of meeting the headteacher. He had heard about our trust’s success and wanted to know more about us. He was looking at us as a potential sponsor. Unknown to Tony and I, the academy had recently been judged as ‘requiring improvement’ by Ofsted.

As we arrived in the car park we found it difficult to park because no one had reserved a place for us. We waited a long time to be admitted into the building despite our attempts to get noticed. As we walked down the corridor the headteacher informed us that the full governing body would be present and they would like us to ‘pitch’ to them. This had not been mentioned before. We entered the room and were warmly welcomed by the chair of governors. The room was shabby and chairs were stacked loosely at the back of the room. Neither Tony or I were offered a coffee. We had driven over two hours to get there!

The point I’m making is that it was clear to me why the academy had been judged as ‘requiring improvement’. I can often tell from the way I’m greeted at reception whether a school inspection might not lead to a ‘good’ judgement. The visit made clear the need to ensure that the highest standards are expected and gained in everything we do. That includes us as governors.

I want to begin by reminding you of some academic research that I referred to last year at our inaugural governor conference. If you were here you will no doubt recall that I explained how weak governance can affect so many aspects of our lives and can have a damaging impact on outcomes and reputations if not carried out with rigour, honesty and openness.

Last year, I referred to the research conducted by Professor Marianne Jennings at Arizona State University on business ethics. Professor Jennings had analysed the collapse of a range of businesses across the globe and identified seven ethical issues that seemed to play a part in the downfall of the businesses. Not all of the indicators needed to be present but two or three were often enough to bring the business down. Let me remind you of the seven issues:

  • Pressure to maintain numbers
  • Fear and silence
  • Larger than life CEO
  • Weak board of directors
  • Conflicts of interest
  • Innovation trumping any other priority, such as ethics
  • Belief that goodness in some areas atones for wrongdoing in others
  • It is easy to think that the seven signs of ethical collapse relate solely to large multi-nationals such as Enron or Lehmann Brothers but the signs are relevant for all groups ranging from a cricket club committee to a charity or even your governing body.

    Being highly effective as a governor and contributing to an effective governing body is more important for our academies now than it has ever been and I say this for two reasons:

  • Firstly, the performance agenda has never been stronger. Schools are subject to sharper accountability for pupil outcomes. And, as a result, governors have a much greater role to ensure that a strategic direction is set to deliver good results.
  • Secondly, we have an increasingly autonomous school system – which gives governing bodies more power and responsibility than ever before.

A major strength of our trust is the way we trust our local governing bodies. Let’s face it, many academy trusts don’t do this. They impose a strict control over their local representatives. A good example is a visit I made to a large primary academy. I was welcomed by the headteacher and offered a good cup of coffee. Always a good start as far as I am concerned. I was quickly shown round the school and I was impressed by the enthusiasm of inexperienced staff. As we walked round I asked about the impact of employing inexperienced staff on his budget. I was thinking this would allow some additional expenditure to be pushed into buildings and facilities. The headteacher stood still and looked incredulous. He said ‘Our governing body doesn’t control the budget, we don’t appoint our staff and we have to meet targets set by the central trust. They visit occasionally but they don’t really understand our context’. When I heard this I was pretty flummoxed because it is a model of school governance far removed from our own.

One of the main issues that I enquired about was how the local community was engaged in the governing body. Did they, in effect, have some contacts with the local authority, local community representatives, local people, excluding parents? The answer was ‘No’. Our governors are appointed by our sponsor. They are chosen for their skills rather than their knowledge of the local community.

It is very easy to think that all academy trusts are the same. This visit made it clear again to me that they are not. I must say I was grateful for the arrangements we have established because they are trying to strengthen and regenerate communities so that they can take a leading role in ensuring further improvement.

It is easy to forget that we are unique in the relationship we have with the Co-operative Group and the rich history of the co-operative movement. I regularly think back to the reading room that was an integral part of the Toad Lane shop in Rochdale, way back in 1844. The origins of the co-operative movement emphasised the importance of education with a reading room above the shop. All subsequent shops included a reading room. A decent education was at the heart of the co-operative offer. As far as I am aware we are the only academy trust that works in unison with a major British business and is the only one that can reflect on a commitment dating back to 1844 in terms of providing a good education for all.

Since our previous governor conference in June last year our trust has experienced three full inspections, one unannounced inspection of behaviour and safety that was really looking at radicalisation, a mathematics inspection linked to a local authority inspection and a monitoring inspection. I am delighted to say that in all of these the academy and the trust came through with flying colours. The Ofsted bar has been raised and the challenges are even greater than they were but our academies cleared the bar.
The extensive inspection experience I have confirms that in the best schools, inspectors see visionary leadership by the head and a strong leadership team. But they also expect to see effective oversight by the governing body. Good governors focus on the central issues which lie at the heart of school improvement - the quality of teaching, the progress and achievement of their pupils, and the culture which supports this.  The best governing bodies get the balance right between support and challenge. They ask the right questions at the right time and in the right way. Let’s face it, being able to challenge senior leaders is a real skill and it is very important we do it with sensitivity but we also need to keep in our sights the needs of the pupils and students. Getting the balance right between challenge and humanity is the greatest gift any governor can acquire.

Good schools that can sustain their ‘goodness’ invariably have governors who know their schools well and they know those that lead them well. Indeed, the strength of our trust and one of the reasons why our academies are now much better than they ever were is because we have a clearer governance structure and have more committed and principled governors. I have put it on record nationally that I would welcome academy trusts being inspected in the same way local authorities are. I know that we have areas to improve but I am also reasonably confident that we have a governance structure and governors that are the envy of many. We may not be perfect but we are ‘ahead of the curve’ and it is crucially important that we maintain our advantage.

We will always have some governors learning their trade, so to speak, and we are fortunate to have some real star performers but it is important we do all we can to assist those learning to be more effective. We need to ensure our governing bodies have a decent balance of newies, middlies and oldies because when academies or schools face difficult situations including inspections inspectors try to determine whether the governors have got it in them to truly hold senior leaders to account. Having star performing governors is crucial at this stage, but the ability of governors to challenge and hold senior leaders to account becomes an important indicator of the academy's capacity to improve. Inspectors carefully reflect on the strength of the entire governing body and not just the star performers so we all need to be as effective as we can be.  Unfortunately good governance isn't universal across the country. Most of the nearly 5,000 schools or academies that aren't good not only have weaknesses in leadership, but also governance. As a result, nearly two million children are missing out on a good education.
Let me read you some examples of weak governance from recent Ofsted reports:

The governing body has not paid enough attention to ensuring that the Pupil Premium funding is used effectively to improve the achievement of those students eligible for support. In recent years members of the governing body have been too accepting of the school’s view of its performance. For too long [governors] have not had enough information to enable them to monitor patterns in pupils’ achievement, oversee improvements in teaching or make confident decisions on salary progression.

So let's be clear - poor governance that focuses on the marginal issues and not the important ones can quickly turn an effective governing body into a less than good one. We all need to take heed of this and be alert to the danger signs. It is easy to sit back and think that we are doing well. Nearly all of our academies are now good and we have some impressive stories to tell but you and I know that we will not get far if we sit on our laurels. In my view, if we’re going to take a further step forward we have to be even better.

We need to model highly effective practice if we are to expect the same from our senior leaders and our staff. They are looking at us in the same way children look at their parents for any flaw in an argument or for a contradiction that might suggest there is a weak spot. Unless we demonstrate highly effective practice it doesn’t seem right to expect it of headteachers/Principals, middle leaders, teachers, caretakers and others. As my late mother used to say in her strong Irish accent ‘What’s good for the goose should be good for the gander’.
Last year I was asked to quickly pull together an article for the Guardian newspaper that summarised my view on effective school governance. I had just a few hours to turn the article round but this is what I came up with. You will no doubt have your own views but see whether you agree with me.

We need to make time for training: The one thing which stands in the way of effective governance is a lack of training. This can be down to poor access to quality training or an unwillingness to attend. Various excuses are put forward for the latter from "I'm a just a volunteer" to "I don't have time". Both of these are unacceptable. I don’t always agree with Lord Nash but when he said, "volunteer does not mean amateur" he was correct. As far as not having time to attend training is concerned, if a governor uses that as an excuse then they need to think hard about whether them being on the board is in the best interest of the school. I thought I would make a point about the trust’s approach to governor training here. Our trust stretches from Stoke through Manchester and over to Leeds. It takes me two hours and 15 minutes on a good day to travel from Stoke to Leeds. This distance doesn’t prevent sharing between teachers and academies but it is a problem when trying to get governors together for training. That is why today is so important. It is the only day in the year we have established where we ask all governors to come together.

To overcome these problems we have established a strong relationship with the National Governors Association. They have established some excellent online training on things like finance, safeguarding, progress measures, how to be an effective governor etc. They also issue a regular newsletter that highlights recent changes in regulations and emphasise particular issues. The Modern Governor website is excellent. Everyone here has access so if you haven’t received your login details or have misplaced them please contact Heather Unwin next week.

One of the most important roles on any governing body is that of the Development Governor. This role is the one that identifies the learning needs of individual governors and/or the governing body. If individual governors identify a training need the trust can help steer governors to an appropriate training source. It could be online but it may also be delivered by a local authority or private training provider.

Recently, I met with a cooperative governor at our Manchester academy to review the induction he had received when he joined. He was supportive and helpful but not too complimentary. Following the discussion, we have established two important training events to try and address this. Both take place here and will start at 6pm with a meal and a chance to informally chat to others but on 16 June we are hosting a session where you can find out more about our academies, our trust and how we fit into the broader cooperative movement. This event will be useful for governors who have a year or so experience but have wondered what is going on elsewhere. On 8 July, we will host an evening for new governors. This session will cover all of the important things you will need to know to be an effective governor.

And finally, if you feel your governing body could do with a general review, please speak to your chair of governors. The central team would be very happy to provide this or find an independent colleague who could carry it out.

Honestly review the effectiveness of each governing body meeting. At the end of each meeting ask governors to inform each other on the efficiency of the meeting. Did it finish on time? This is a real bug bear of mine especially if governors have child care commitments. It is quite reasonable to ask governors to attend but it is also important they have the chance to finish when it is planned to. Did the meeting cover the most important issues? Did all governors contribute? Simple questions but you would be surprised at what I have seen during my time as an inspector. How about sitting through a standards committee meeting at a school in Greater Manchester (not ours by the way!) that lasted 4 hours and senior managers were expected to attend. One manager spoke for 5 minutes three hours into the meeting!

Challenge each other: The National Governors; Association has been encouraging chairs to set up performance conversations with fellow governors, as happens on a lot of other boards of trustees. Chairs who have started this have said it's a useful way of thanking those who have contributed a lot and allowing those who haven't a chance to reflect on why not. Reduce pre-reading to a minimum: Have papers for governors that make a clear recommendation and provide a short overview so that if governors don’t have time to read all of the paper they can get a sense of the issue from the top page. Our trust board meeting this week had 24 papers! On reflection it would have been useful for me to identify key papers for particular governors to focus on. This would allow the work to be shared more evenly and the job of prepping the meeting would have been reduced and shared more evenly.

Learn from other schools: School-to-school support is developing slowly, but more needs to be done. We need to set up a network arrangement for Development Governors to meet or the chat online. We have meetings with chairs of governors and these are proving very useful but much more can be done.

Be visible: Governing bodies need to be visible within schools and the local community. Sometimes boards are not very good at this. We need to make sure that as governors we know the schools we serve. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to ask our governors to visit the academy at least once in the year during the working day. This opportunity provides the chance to meet with staff and chat to the children/young people. We need a policy for governors to follow. If your governing body does not have one please speak to your chair of governors. Our academies have approved such policies.

Enlist the support of your headteacher: Headteachers have an important role to play with improving school governance. The best heads know that it's in the interests of the school and the children to have excellent governance and do all they can to support this – from giving governors a budget for professional development to sharing external reports and data on school improvement. I have always held the strong belief that generally good headteachers end up with a good governing body over time and to a certain extent good governors end up with a good Headteacher over time.

So the importance of good governance is more important now than it ever was. If we want to be the best for our children and young people we need to model it ourselves. We need to ensure this happens at all times and is consistently applied across our academies. All of our children and young people can improve, I can improve and so can all of our governing bodies. Let’s use today to try to ensure we take a further step forward.