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Ever wondered what makes a ‘great’ governor or trustee?


Ian PhillipsMany of us get into governance to make a difference and support our local school or trust, but it’s not always easy to understand how to be effective and have a positive impact.

A new book aims to help governors and trustees to make the most of their contribution by identifying some of the key attributes of great governance volunteers.

Experienced governor and author of ‘How to be a great GoaT’, Ian Phillips, spoke to us at The Hoot to explain why those attributes are so important, as well as the fundamental importance of strategy.

First of all Ian, could you tell us a bit about you and your professional background?

Well, as you can tell I've got a few miles on the clock so it depends on how far you want to go back. My last job before retirement was as a speechwriter for senior European business people who had to deliver speeches in English when it wasn’t their native language.

And how did you get into governance?

I became a governor for the first time in spring of 2002 in my son’s sixth form college, becoming chair four years later. That was from 2006 to 2018, and in 2014 I became a National Leader of Governance.  

I was asked to go and support a single academy trust primary school. I'd never done anything like that before but I decided to take it on the basis that I really, really, for the first time in my life, couldn't make things worse! I could only really make things better. It was very interesting and we were able to successfully turn the school around in two terms and then brokered it into a new MAT, of which I am still a Trust Member.

After that I was asked to oversee the merger of an infant school and a junior school and become the chair as a neutral outsider. I did that for a couple of years and that also went well. I was then asked to go and help close a very small infant school which was no longer viable. The decision had already been made but the board just needed a bit of governance support which I was able to provide. There have been several other schools I’ve supported as well.

You clearly have a lot of experience in governance, what was it that made you want to write your book, ‘How to be a GoaT’?

I was hoping to share my knowledge about how schools and colleges can develop sustainable strategies for success, given the enormous pressures that they're under. 

As you’ll be aware, we’re currently in a perfect storm of funding issues, dilapidated buildings, falling rolls and a huge rise in the need for special educational needs support and provision - with very little funding to support those pupils. Headteachers now are closer in their role to that of a chief executive of a social enterprise and therefore it falls to governors to be in charge of strategy. I hope to empower governors and trustees to really understand that critical part of their role and learn how to do it well.

You have a section on ‘attributes’ and what it means to be a great governor or trustee. So much of our role is focused on compliance but it’s these softer skills that we can find harder to grasp sometimes. Why did you feel that was important to include?

There are a number of books on process or how to have a good meeting and what a good set of minutes looks like and that kind of stuff. This book includes some of that too but I think sometimes it can be difficult for governors to realise the profundity of the role and how existential it can be when schools are, for whatever reason, stricken.

You may be familiar with the Tolstoy quote at the start of Anna Karenina which is that “all happy families are happy in the same way, but all unhappy families are unhappy in their own particular ways”, and the same applies to schools and colleges. 

You have to accept that schools are individual; the headteachers will be individual, the kids will be individual, the families will be individual and the governors or trustees will be individual. And what I try to do in the book is extract what is common to us where it's gone well or where it hasn't and see what we can learn from that. 

And your point about governors not necessarily realising the importance of the role, why do you think that is?

I think that the induction processes for new governors can be quite superficial: this is how many meetings you'll go to, this is the committee you may have to be on, these are the terms of reference etc. 

If there isn't someone, particularly a chair, that advocates for the existential importance of governance and governors, you kind of run the risk of drifting into a process-driven tenure where you have a meeting, read the minutes, go along and look at the agenda but no-one has actually sat you down and said, look, this is the role. And so what I've tried to do in the book is say, ‘These are the attributes you need to be a great governor or trustee, now let's see how they play out over the three major theatres of governance, which are strategy, performance management, and financial oversight”. And I also add in succession planning and crisis resolution as well. 

That's what I've sought to do. Whether the book succeeds in doing that, I will leave others to judge, but that was the mission of it. These are the characteristics of great governors and then this is how those attributes work when you have to think about strategy, for example.

Can you give us a summary of how you have helped to turn a school around using this approach?

To take a recent example, it took a term to sort out the headship, sort out the legacy issues, steady the ship - all just by being there - and then releasing the acting headteacher to lead the pedagogy of the school and let the board sort out the business side. Term two was about developing a meaningful sustainable strategy, including finding a new head. 

This school wanted to join a multi-academy trust and so we looked at our options and chose one. We could do this fairly quickly because the school was already a single academy trust and didn’t need to go through a protracted conversion process.

The staff wanted someone to put an arm around them and say, it's going to be okay. You teach. We will do the rest.

It strikes me that your success has also been achieved through really effective chairing. How would you advise governors to issue challenge in some of these challenging situations you describe?

I think it’s important for governors to be ambitious as to how they can be better, and do things better, and to be curious about what they’re being told by the school.

I've tried to seed the book with things where you can issue challenges politely and not adversarially. I know some people are nervous about confronting headteachers because we all remember what the headteacher was like when we were at school and they're sort of on a pedestal. But they're just regular people trying to do an unbelievably difficult job in unbelievably trying circumstances. 

As I say in the book, we employ the headteacher, not the other way around.

I love the title of the book. Governance can sometimes feel a little ‘worthy’ but this makes it fun and a little bit human. Did you enjoy the process of writing it?

I did. A friend of mine, a couple of years ago said, ‘You really ought to write a book about governance based on your experiences’. And I thought, yeah, why not? And then I had the idea of focusing on these key attributes.

I happened to notice that if you keep on writing the phrase ‘governor or a trustee’ in the book, it's going to get unremittingly tedious, which is when I spotted the first initial letters. And I thought, ‘that’s it, let’s go with GoaT.  

It's a short book. I've deliberately made it short and I’ve priced it incredibly keenly, so the greatest number of people can access it. I particularly hope it reaches new governors, too.

At the end of the book you’ve got some practical, handy tools that will be useful for governors. Could you tell us a bit more about that?

I thought it might be interesting for people to see some of the things that I'm talking about throughout the book. So, there’s a very simple form we used when a board I was on wanted to get solar panels and one of our more ferocious governors said, ‘What's the business case for this?’ and ultimately, there wasn’t one. So I went away and, along with a colleague, designed a pro forma that captured all the details of a particular proposal in a single sheet.

When I’ve mentioned an approach in the book, I’ve also tried, where possible,  to accompany it with something useful in the appendix. So when I talk about primary school transformation, I’ve put the relevant flowchart in the appendix. 

I wanted to speak to schools that need help as I think that’s where I can add the most value. You forget how much time you put in as a governor. That's the thing, particularly when you're a chair of governors in a challenged school, you just don't count the hours. It’s a noble thing, being a governor, and I've tried to share that advice in a useful and simple way, making it very accessible linguistically and structurally.

That's the dream. And then I'll sell the film rights to Steven Spielberg! If I may, I’d like to share The GoaT mantra, It’s something that evolved while contemplating the book pre-publication. Many boards struggle with the imminence of difficulties and the hope of some knight on a white charger riding to the rescue. So I came up with this short epigram to focus the mind: “If not now, when? If not us, who?” It rather encapsulates the spirit of the GoaT, I think.

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  • Beth Parsons 27 Jun 2024, 07:20 (20 days ago)

    This really resonated! Especially the bit about induction as that was exactly my experience!, and something we have been working to shift. I’ll be ordering a copy, with the suggestion then that it is shared with new / potential Trustees. Thank you!

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