‘The Right Stuff Fluff’ – The qualities heads need and Wilshaw’s plan to pay governors

FluffCOMMENT - Someone I know – we’ll call her Rachel – was recently interviewed for a primary headship.  On paper she was an excellent candidate – already an experienced and successful head, she has transformed the school she has led for the past few years, despite its situation in one of the most challenging areas of the country.  She was, however, beaten to the post by another serving headteacher.  Rachel was disappointed, but decided to take the feedback offered in order to ascertain if she had made any fundamental errors.  The local authority advisor informed her that the governing body felt that she was “not fluffy enough” for the school.  Obviously, Rachel immediately checked in the National Standards for Headteachers, a document issues by the DfE, for details on ‘fluffiness’, because it was an area of competence she had singularly overlooked as part of her professional development.

I’m telling this story because in recent weeks, Michael ‘look at me, everyone!’ Wilshaw has opined on the subject of school governors.  Declaring the ‘worst’ ones to be like the jury which was recently dismissed for being too stupid to understand the case they were meant to be discussing, Wilshaw suggested that it would be a really good idea if some governors were paid.

I was reading this on the BBC website, which tends to be succinct but too brief to include the funniest parts of what the Two Michaels (like the Two Ronnies, they share the same first name; but that’s where the resemblance ends, because the Ronnies were affable, amusing chaps who were actually likeable) say, so after I’d finished laughing, I had a bit of a Google in order to find a bit more detail.

The most interesting part of Wilshaw’s utterances on the subject was his statement “I have said it before and I will say it again, we should not rule out payment to governors with the necessary expertise to challenge and support schools with a long legacy of under-performance.”  I’ll deal quickly with the question of how such people would be appointed, by whom and who would pay them – because if it’s the school, such a person would then be an employee of the school whose tenure might just depend on not rattling cages too hard, mightn’t it?  What Wilshaw appears to have forgotten is that the last Labour government recognised the need for external, professional challenge to schools and set up the ‘School Improvement Partner’ concept, whereby education professionals – many of them serving or recently retired heads – were attached to schools and challenged the head and the governing body throughout the year on standards.  The Conservatives decided to abolish the system, though many governing bodies chose to retain a SIP for precisely the reasons Wilshaw suggests.  These are usually paid by the local authority when schools have bought back support services, ensuring that there is suitable objectivity.

A spokeswoman for the DfE said that “offering incentives might attract talented governors to very challenging schools.”  I wonder what she meant by “talented”?  It would be a cynic indeed who interpreted “talented” as ‘someone driven by bundles of cash rather than public service’, wouldn’t it?  Interestingly, in my experience the least good governors have been some of those nominated by a political party who, because they serve as councillors also, get expenses for attending council meetings.  Their attendance at governing body meetings is often abysmal, because – and you might be able to guess the reason – they seem to prefer attending council meetings instead.

Anyway, apparently Michael W reckons that the governors of the schools which are at the bottom of the league table pile are too concerned with school dinners and not enough with English and maths. He said this as he launched the new Ofsted tool for torturing schools in rough areas, the ‘data dashboard’, which puts schools in ‘quintiles’ according to how good their results, children’s progress and attendance were last year.  Wilshaw said that this dashboard thingy raises the stakes for governors: “Many governors know their school well already. But for those that don’t, there are now no excuses. Inspectors will be very critical of governing bodies who, despite the dashboard, still don’t know their school well enough.”  You have to wonder what went on at the governing body meetings at the schools where he was head, because the ‘data dashboard’ is simplistic and basic beyond belief compared with the data sets that governing bodies have been taken through by headteachers for quite some years now.  Some people might even wonder if Wilshaw has had personal, bitter experience of a governing body wittering on endlessly about chicken nuggets and the consistency of custard, given his apparent knowledge of such discussions.

Note to Michael W – in a league table indicating the charm, tact and diplomacy of Michaels, you’d be well and truly at the bottom, engaged in a regular, annual play-off with your pal Gove in order to determine who should win the ‘Smug blamer of everyone else except my own organisation for the failings of schools’ award.  There would be no escape, year on year, from the bottom ‘quintile’ for either of you.  Battling it out at the top of the table, of course, would be Palin, J Fox, Gambon, Aspel and Ball, with Palin the obvious champion as (like me) he’s from Sheffield, where charm, tact and diplomacy are the default setting.

Now, the more observant, analytical and thoughtful of you will have gone back to my opening paragraph (the one about the headship candidate who wasn’t fluffy enough for a governing body) and wondered aloud if this story doesn’t actually support Wilshaw’s suggestion that some governing bodies aren’t much cop and need a paid ‘professional’ to help them along.  Unfortunately for Mikey W, the school in question wasn’t actually in one of those ‘challenging areas’; moreover, governing bodies in the more affluent parts of the country tend to have more than their fair share of the “governors with the necessary expertise” that he suggested might get paid in order to encourage them into the rougher areas whose schools repeatedly appear in the bottom ‘quintiles’ of his ‘dashboard’.

No, I’m afraid that the decision on the appointment of the most important post in the entire school was made by a group which already benefited from a range of professional expertise, but which apparently gave as its principal reason for rejecting a candidate her lack of ‘fluffiness’.  That some of them were willing to say this out loud in the context of a formal discussion of who should be appointed to lead a school – well, it’s an argument about governing bodies, but it’s not an argument for paying people to be on them.

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Helen Freeborn

Helen Freeborn was a secondary headteacher for 11 years until she gave it all up to live in Greece. Now returned after four years abroad, she divides her time between consultancy, training, a range of writing projects and catching up with all the television she has missed.

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