Blog: Responsibility is power - RSA

Blog: Responsibility is power

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  • Picture of Tom Gilliford
    Tom Gilliford
    Former Project Engagement Manager
  • Education
  • Creativity
  • Creative Institutions and Systems

Nicky Morgan’s comments at the National Governors Association (NGA) summer conference and the new Ofsted inspection handbook both make clear that governors need to be at the vanguard of school improvement. Both the Department for Education (DfE) and Ofsted believe that it is the responsibility of governors to drive forward positive change in schools. Rather than being intimidated by this, governors must remember that with this great responsibility comes great power.



The Secretary of State told delegates at the NGA conference that she sees governors at the centre of a school and profession driven education system. She also laid a pretty hefty challenge at the feet of governors by calling us to “deliver a school system that allows every single young person to realise their dreams and deliver their potential” - a challenge that, I think, we are more than happy to accept. Her vision for how we achieve aim is grounded in a reorientation of governing boards towards skills rather than community representation, an approach that makes some people wary of her intentions.

It is understandable that some see this move as a challenge to the local power of the governing board and suspect that it puts their own positions at risk. But why would this be the case? Why would or should existing governors be removed from their positions? Such a worry implies that those serving on governing boards are unskilled and unfit for the position. Which for anyone who works with governors knows is demonstrably false. Governors need to have greater confidence in themselves and see the Secretary of State’s comments in a positive light. Rather than assuming that we lack the skills she talks about, we should see this as a call to arms. A licence to use the creative power we already have to be the agents of the change we need.

School governors are already skilled, we need to make sure that we are using our skills. tiny_Twitter

A similarly positive outlook can and should be applied to the new, if somewhat intimidating, Ofsted's ‘School inspection handbook 2015’. The new Outstanding Leadership and Management descriptor mentions governors three times more than its previous iteration. It would be all too easy to assume that this means that Ofsted feels governance is a particularly concerning area, but this is not so. Ofsted is making the clear and direct point that in outstanding schools, governors are actively engaged in the strategy and direction of a school. Indeed this focus demonstrates that schools,where governors do not exercise their power, are not reaching their full potential.tiny_Twitter

Too often we governors place false limits on our power, assuming that we must wait for direction on exactly how and what change to make, rather than working within the mandate we have been given. Ofsted holds us responsible for the development of staff, for ensuring equality of outcomes, for the vision of the school, and at all times asks us to be uncompromising in our ambition for these areas. To live up to these responsibilities we must be the agents of change within the system rather than shying away from trying new ideas and ways of working. If we feel that old systems favouring short-term attainment driven targets prevent the development of deep understanding, then it is our responsibility to develop new ones. If we want to see teachers given the time and resources to carry out action research, then we must find space in the timetable and  money in the budget. If we want to see an education system with the development of creative capacities at its heart, we must write it into the school development plan.

If governors are to live up to our responsibilities we must embrace the power that comes with it. We need to embrace the RSA’s power to create approach and remember that we already have the skills and the opportunity to make change, perhaps what we need is a little more confidence.tiny_Twitter


Fellowship in Action

At the NGA Summer conference the RSA and its North West Chair ran two troubleshooting workshops on the barriers facing creativity in the curriculum. The fantastic NGA delegates had no problem in embracing the power to create approach to tackle these challenges. Here’s just a taste of what they came up with:


Fear of failure

Micromanagement stifles creativity but sensible delegation of responsibility to designated governors and middle management not only distributes power but means more creative minds are available to tackle problems when they arise.


The feeling that innovation can lead to failure means that schools are loath to trial new ideas. But by limiting time scales and formalising research practices the risk can be minimised and the pay-off can be potentially invaluable.



Undervaluation of creative skills

When educators don’t share their ideas innovation is stifled. Governors can insist that schools build cross curricular collaboration into CPD  calendars as well as including it in performance management criteria.


If creativity isn’t valued then people are unlikely to use it. Governors can recruit with creative skills in mind and build creativity into performance management systems.

Next steps:

 Are you a governor? Take our Governor’s survey here and tell us what you do to make your school creative.

 Are you a teacher? Learn more about using research to drive innovative practice by clicking here. Or look for a vacancy at one of our Academies here.



Tom is Project Engagement Manager, working to connect Fellows with the RSA’s research. He is a school governor at a South London Primary school. You can follow him on Twitter at @tom_gilliford

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  • "Such a worry implies that those serving on governing boards are unskilled and unfit for the position. Which for anyone who works with governors knows is demonstrably false. Governors need to have greater confidence in themselves..."

    Respectfully, this article is a puff piece that can be summarised: 'Governors: believe in yourselves, you can do it!'  The reality is that this simply isn't true.  The positive difference that a well-led team of governors can make is immeasurable.  These governors exist and, in some cases, every one of a board of governors contributes positively to the work of the group as a whole.  The problem is that too many boards of governors lack direction, or leadership, or worst of all, the requisite knowledge of what constitutes effective education. 

    A school employs a large team of trained professionals to build the education, and future lives, of young people.  Teachers and administrators alike are employed for their skills and their experience as educators; each is answerable to managers and line managers and, at the top, the Head, who is answerable to a board of governors, many of whom have no direct training in education or education leadership.  So, if a governor is the least qualified one in the building - particularly if said governor is outspoken or opinionated - it should be no surprise when they do little to further the growth of the school or its pupils.   It's not unlike taking an elite SAS unit and then handing decisions on their mission and how it should be carried out to a group of retired bank managers at the local cricket club.

    Many governors simply use their position to espouse their beliefs and impose what they consider most important for their child's education.  The governor who forces every child to do team sports because 'it was good for me: taught me leadership' does just as much damage as the governor who forces through timetable changes to ensure extra lessons for sciences because 'the arts aren't proper subjects'.  What of the governors who, like most governments, want to demonstrate growth more than they want to achieve it?  These are the governors who want extra time for Maths and English, who want the pupils fed frameworks to ensure that no one fails, everyone achieves A grades and they can tell their friends how they turned the school into a league table-leading beacon of excellence.

    "perhaps what we need is a little more confidence."  Perhaps.  And perhaps it is easier for governors to feel that confidence when they have the pedagogical understanding and experience of education leadership required to carry out their roles effectively.