‘Independent Governor Support (IGovS)’ is a new organisation launched by a group of experienced governors who were formally National Leaders of Governance (NLGs).
Up until last summer, NLGs were volunteers, usually chairs, who were appointed by the Department for Education and the National College of Teaching and Leadership (NCTL) to work with other chairs to help them develop and improve.
In July 2021, the programme was reformed* and 60 new NLGs were appointed to carry out a more targeted role of conducting external reviews of governance in struggling schools.
We’ve been speaking to Sean Westaway of IGovS about why he and other NLGs chose not to re-apply to the updated programme but to develop a new support organisation instead.
Sean, could you start by explaining what your role as a National Leader of Governance used to look like?
Well, NLGs were typically very experienced chairs who could demonstrate a history of school improvement. They also had the capacity to support other chairs and other governing boards within their locality. Applicants were vigorously assessed before designation and during a training session at the NCTL. We were expected to do three days of free work a year – which later increased to seven days – but after that we could charge a fee (similar to that of National Leaders of Education who supported headteachers).
So what did a typical year look like for you as an NLG?
Every NLG is different but for me, as well as working full-time, I’d probably do about seven or eight ‘deployments’ a year, as they were called. Many of these were external reviews of governance, which looked at every aspect of governance within a certain school. I would look back at a year’s worth of agendas, minutes, governor papers, headteacher reports – essentially everything that a board put through their meetings.
Then I would look at the school website to check for compliance. After that I’d hold individual meetings with each of the governors – basically to find out what was going on and if there were any problems. These individual meetings allowed me to see if there were any conflicts in the board, for example if someone was confused or didn’t agree with someone else, or if someone didn’t know what was going on because they didn’t have adequate training. I’d then hold a meeting of the whole board at which point we’d go through the 20 questions every governing board should ask itself (produced by the NGA and The Key for School Governors). That was all done over 3 days and then I’d produce an action plan, so that board then had a way of moving forward and improving their practice.
I also did headteacher performance management – all of these deployments were recorded on a central database for the DfE.
Can you give some examples of what you might have discovered or put in an action plan?
There were some boards out there who maybe had 9 governors on their board – and yet they were still trying to go ahead with the formal committee structure so they were having a full governing board meeting, then finance and curriculum meetings. Essentially trying to squeeze at least 3 meetings into every half term, up to 18 meetings a year. The workload on the Heads was massive and not sustainable in my opinion.
With small boards I’ve always felt it’s better to work in the Circle model (governing boards without committees) so each governor hears everything. I would quite often restructure governing boards as part of the support I provided.
There was also one academy I worked with where the chair had convinced the board that he didn’t need reelecting every year. In this instance the articles of association clearly said the chair must be elected every year but no-one on the board had spotted this until I pointed it out.
I was quite often used as a bit of a troubleshooter for my local authority too. In cases where there was a lack of leadership on the board. Here I would go in and model how to chair a meeting, sometimes I’d sit on a board for a period of time, sometimes 6 months – on one occasion a year. In this instance, it was about modelling questioning to the headteacher, holding the headteacher to account because the governors just weren’t asking questions.
The feedback I had from my local authority and schools was always really good.
Why did you decide not to reapply for the NLG role?
After reading the application form, it became clear to me that the role would be changing, focusing on external reviews of governance for troubled schools. This misses off all of the support and mentoring that I’ve just described and straight away I realised there would be a gap in the new offer.
In your view, what is the value of mentoring and support? What’s the difference between an external review of governance and that softer, additional support you were also providing?
Well, I suppose chairs often become chairs because they’ve been vice-chairs or because nobody else offers to take on the role. This means they sometimes step forward even if they aren’t trained to do so – they’re just committed to their schools. The training for chairs has been quite sparse over the years although it’s improved recently with the Leading Development for Chairs programme from the DfE.
It’s also quite a lonely job being a chair, especially if you have a head who may not have time to communicate much. If I compare it to schools – teachers can always talk to the headteacher, so the chair’s position is then to talk to the headteacher about their issues, but who does the chair talk to? It’s very much that part of the role I thought was invaluable.
A lot of my time, for free as an NLG, I’d just take phone calls and someone would offload their problems around governance and I’d just listen and then maybe suggest some ideas.
How would you say that what you offer can differ from what a local authority (LA) can offer?
Local authorities do have governor services teams and they can provide support to governors but that level of support can vary by region. Also, in my experience, they do a good job of providing a regulatory response but what my colleagues and I have been offering is that experienced response, ‘I’ve been there and done that so I can give you this advice.’
Almost like having a more experienced governor alongside you?
Yes and personally I’ve always looked to a support package for schools too. At every single External Review of Governance I did, I’d recommend the governors purchased some sort of support package … The NGA, The Key for School Governors, The School Bus. Something independent and external where they could go to get advice and support.
I think it should be compulsory. As governing boards, we’re being forced away from the well-meaning amateur role of old and trying to professionalise governance, but we need to be given the tools to do so. I always recommended a small part of the school budget was put aside for this investment.
Back to filling out the form and realising what was missing – how did you go from that to creating a brand new organisation?
I got talking to some of my NLG colleagues who felt the same about the new NLG system, and we just thought why don’t we try to do something ourselves? Our early conversations on Twitter and WhatsApp were about the missing mentoring and support and how to fill that gap.
It was literally from those conversations that eleven of us got together. We held a quick Zoom meeting and decided to start with a website and see where we got to. That was in July 2021. So we built a website and we’re going to try it for a year to see if it takes off.
What’s the sort of message you want to get out there about your offer?
Basically that we are here to support and mentor anybody that wants it – that can range from a simple question up to an ongoing mentoring relationship. A few emails a month or conversations a month, up to a year. If there’s no travel involved, there’s no cost. So if we can do things remotely and use technology there won’t be any costs.
We’re not hiding the fact that some free support could lead to some paid support – that is still an option, but that would be at the school’s request and not something we would push forward. One of our IGovS team might start off by providing some free support and then the school might ask for us to attend a few meetings in person, or conduct an external review of governance or sit on a headteacher performance management panel – in which case we’d travel and there’d be a cost involved.
But while we can keep it free by using technology we will. Every one of our members has committed to providing at least some free support a year.
Would you attend meetings remotely?
Yes if they wanted us to give a view on proceedings in a meeting. We’re all happy to sign additional Codes of Conduct if that’s what the governors want.
How has the take up been so far?
It’s been good but we feel the need to get the word out a bit more now. We’re still getting NLGs asking to join the group, I think we’re up to about 30 now. We’re always keen on new members coming in too – we’re not closed. New members can contact us via the “Join Us” page of the website.
We’ve had two requests over the past few weeks from local authorities asking if some of our members would be able to support groups of schools.
Can you also offer support to local authorities?
Yes, that’s what we did before as NLGs. We were the point of contact for any governance improvements because we were the experts in the county. In my LA, there were only ever six NLGs and it’s a vast county in terms of distance so I was often approached by the local authority asking me to go and see a school causing concern and support the governing board.
Can people coming to you be sure there is rigour in your processes and that you’re all qualified to help?
To be a member of IGovS you have to have been an NLG as of July 2021 and have been operating as such. Normally it’s a recommendation from one of the existing members. If nobody knows the person, then it will be down to having a conversation with them.
We also have a Memorandum of Understanding which says we’re all committed to operating as part of IGovS and upholding standards. Post-deployment we have a satisfaction survey/feedback request form so every support package, other than the quick email answers, will be reviewed.
*Emma Knights, Chief Executive of the National Governance Association explained why the NLG reforms were happening in this NGA blog last year