A Place for Bristol Governors

Schools should be like businesses

Thanks to Modern Governor for this post

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In this guest post, Ben Kay shares some of his experience of being a governor and how what he has learned from business in his professional life might inform how schools are led and managed.  Previously at EE, Ben works for IBM Social Consulting and is a governor at his daughter’s school. You can follow Ben on Twitter or LinkedIn – this post was originally published on his blog and is reproduced here with permission.

Firstly let me say that I know that this post will divide the audience, but wanted to lend my thoughts on a topic that is close to my heart and I believe is imperative to the future of the education system in this country.

I became a school governor a few years ago, and my perspective on education has changed dramatically as a result, however my reasons for becoming a governor haven’t. Put simply I want to share my business experience with the school, to help the school become even better than it already is, and (cliché) ‘to make a difference.’

If it ain’t broke…

Schools have run very successfully across the land for a long long time without my input. I am fortunate that I work with a good school, with an outstanding Headteacher and Senior Management Team, and superb teaching and support staff who achieve fantastic results under very challenging constraints. So who am I to suggest I can make a difference?

The simple fact is that times have changed, and irrespective of your political persuasion, the stark fact we have to accept is that in order for us to provide world class education going forward, we need to change how we lead and manage our schools. To continue as we have always done is just not an option.

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So what has changed?
Money, money, money…

Education (like all public sector) budgets are constantly under pressure and cuts. We all operate in a ‘do more with less’ scenario. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t condone these cuts, however I understand the necessity and economics behind public spending cuts, the unfortunate result is that education needs to ensure ‘best value’ in everything that it purchases. Archaic local authority procurement processes often stand in the way of entrepreneurial schools getting the best deal on many aspects of school life (something my school has suffered recently). Because of the commercial drivers of the private sector, we have always operated in a budget-managed world, and have needed to seek new ways of generating income. Within schools we need to think creatively (and strategically) about our budgets in order that we can continue to operate effectively.

Performance-Related Pay

With the recent introduction of performance-related pay for teaching staff, we are starting to see a change in how we set objectives and performance manage. The principle is simple, reward those whose performance is great, and tackle the pockets where it is not. It is not acceptable to continue to increase pay for those individuals who fail to demonstrate the expected standards. Clarity of expectations is key, and is a responsibility of governing bodies and headteachers to ensure every member of staff understands what is expected of them, and how they can demonstrate it. Similarly it is the responsibility of staff to be clear about their barriers to achieving expectations, and work with the school to overcome them. Experience does not necessarily equate to quality. The private sector has operated this annual cycle of objective setting, progress and performance reviews for a long time, so we need to ensure we access this experience, and tailor it to the educational context.

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Roles have expanded exponentially

I am under no illusion that roles in school have increased dramatically over recent years, whether it be tracking pupil progress, safeguarding or the huge amount of other responsibilities that teachers and staff have in addition to their ‘day job’. Time, targets and workload are ever increasing to the point that teachers are nearing breaking point. The challenge is now how the private sector can share it’s experience of time, workload and stress management to ensure teachers are able to do what they do best, teach our children.

We need to look to the future, and be clear about our direction

The role of the governing body is to be strategic. This is not an aspect that schools have really needed to consider in much detail historically, but given the changing sector we need to talk about the future. Strategy is different to planning, and requires a different thought process, and so schools need support in lifting from the day-to-day operation, and starting to ask (and answer) questions like, where are we going? What do we want to be known for in the next 1, 3, 5 years? How will we differentiate (market) our school to ensure we get enough pupils to maintain/maximise funding?

No longer a job for life

With 40% of NQTs leaving the profession within 12 months, and staff turnover rate of 20%+ (and increasing) we are losing some great (and potentially great) teachers, because of the increasing pressures of the job, and finding it increasingly difficult to replace them. Unless we apply some the practices of attraction, recruitment, performance management and retention of staff that we have honed in the private sector, we will quickly face a critical situation where we cannot staff our schools with the right type of individuals to deliver an education that our children deserve.

It sounds very dramatic when I lay out the challenges, but I firmly believe the sector is at (or nearing) a point where some tough decisions need to be made. At the core of every school is (and must remain) the best interests of the pupils, their academic education and the enrichment activities that will produce the well-rounded individuals we want them to become. But given the changes that have occurred, we can’t continue without fundamental changes in the way we think and operate. The private sector has grappled with all of the above challenges for many years and so we must take notice of the numerous case studies that demonstrate the best (and least likely to succeed) approaches.

I have worked in the private sector for nearly 20 years, and my day job is spent working with some of the biggest and most successful businesses in the world, and considering how they will continue to exist in the future. The commercial world is under very similar pressures to education. The ‘more for less’ / efficiency / effectiveness principle (whilst maintaining output) is one of the bedrocks of every successful business. This principle translates to schools, the only difference being that schools ‘output’ well rounded educated individual and not physical goods or services. Let us not lose sight of what makes our education sector so great, but accept that we cannot continue the way we always have.

So my question is this is education really so different to the private sector? How can we afford NOT to look to the experience that resides in the private sector? Simply put, we just need to sit down, pay attention and listen.. who knows, we may just learn something.

Questions for your governing board
  • Do you have a shared, clear understanding of the divide between the school’s strategic direction and its operational matters?
  • Do you understand the skillset / ‘day job’ of your governing body, and are you utilising them accordingly in school?
  • Is your objective setting / performance management process in place?
  • If so, is it working effectively to reward over-achievement and challenge underperformance?
  • Are you thinking creatively about new sources of income?
  • What does it mean for a secondary school to be “businesslike”? What about a primary school?
  • Is your school getting ‘best value’ from all of its suppliers?
  • If your school were your own business, what would you do differently?

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