Why are you in School Governance?

By Geoffrey Hackett EDITOR

You may think what sort of impertinence is in that question, after all what I do with my time and money is up to me. True but the question I am asked most by governors and trustees especially those in their first phase of governance often goes like this. ‘What can I do to make a positive difference and how do I know I am making a difference, for my school and its children’?

  • Firstly I will say all contributions to improving education for young people are very welcome, your support can help develop children, the community and the nation for generations to come.

  • Secondly while you are a governor at one school you can (with due regard to confidentiality), through CPD training sessions, area governance meetings and association events, bulletins and websites e.g. SGA share your experiences with many other governors and trustees helping them you and the entire community to benefit.

  • Thirdly I will endeavour to point out that by simply following up on the ‘purposes of governance’ as shown in the DfE’s ‘Governance Handbook’ will help and guide you. It is at this point that very often a quizzical look sets on the face of the person I am speaking with especially those in their early years of governance who have not heard of it and/or the more established governors who have not looked at it for years.

  • Well we know things in education often move slowly but if you haven’t taken an in-depth look over the last twelve months perhaps now is the time, it’s available on several pages of the SGA website https//:www.surreygovernance.org.uk and for your convenience the Governance Handbook ‘purposes of governance’ as currently worded is shown here.

    While this embraces all aspect of governance I will make one further observation that is very useful and not easily understood especially by parent governors. As governors and trustees we do not have a specific responsibility to any one child in any one establishment but rather for every child in every educational setting starting with but not limited to the one at which we are a governor or trustee, more of that on another occasion; for now I will just focus on one aspect the last bullet point made in the Governance Handbook.

  • Overseeing the financial performance of the organisation and making sure its money is well spent.
  • The SGA Autumn Bulletin contains a very detailed report from Orbis on Fraud and Financial Irregularity (page15). It deals with how “Governors have a duty to be aware of potential risks and how they can be minimized. It is very well worth reading and passing to your fellow governors and trustees to read. So it has been include again in this Bulletin.
    Here for this article I want to introduce another concept to our fiscal prudence often overlooked for it focuses on the ‘law of unintended consequences’.

    There are many examples of financial losses caused by unintended consequences of which there is apparently always ‘good reason’ as to why we never hear much about. However the reality is that these improprieties could cost us far more in financial losses, wasted time and poor moral than the deliberate fraudsters ever can inflict on us. Fact is unintended consequences are often facilitated by weak or inefficient management then covered over to save embarrassment or out of fear – they are neither intentional nor deliberate frauds and fiddles .

    The problem is these often costly events are rarely discussed but it is only when you mention an example of where something has gone wrong that virtually everyone in the room has an example of such impact as the events I report on later. Sometimes errors are on a much larger scale sometimes on a much smaller one but certainly one which has many negative effects and with hind sight could always have been avoided but instead are doomed to be repeated because no person was either embarrassed or apologised. Yet far worse it is never made public so mistakes are not learned from to be avoided by others.

    Looked at another way, while those who take on the role of governance are individually motivated talented and purposed. As volunteers giving our time to the community governors are in the main caring people, wanting to do the right thing, to help create a secure and pleasant world for all to live and prosper in.

    So when we read in our three core objectives ”Ensuring clarity of vision....” “holding executive leaders to account.....” and “making sure its money is well spent.....” We totally agree that’s what we should do yet when it comes to doing it, then life – governance – caring – learning – all becomes a little more complex. We ask ourselves how do I challenge caringly and having challenged can I maintain a, constructive, convivial, open, trusted, valued outcome. Suddenly those simple purposes of good governance become rather hard. Rather than offend or struggle with the best approach, we stand away from an issue so ultimately the problem we seek to resolve grows worse. Both letting the process of good governance down badly and potentially allowing a larger problem to develop.

    Asking question like –
    • Please explain what you mean?
    • How does that work?
    • What are the benefits?
    • When do we expect to see them?
    • How can we measure that?
    • Given a choice would you change it?
    • Are you satisfied?
    • How can I be satisfied?

    are neither ignorant nor impertinent, they seek to acquire the knowledge and verify the value which is to everyone’s advantage. Remember ‘What I know saves me from having to think, while what I learn starts me thinking creatively’.

    Our reluctance in challenging, the factuality of information we are given can curtail the effectiveness of our duty to seek value for money. A lack of openness and or honesty in transaction and dealing; occur in all walks of life at all sorts of levels for many different reasons but here in a little list are the big four:
    1. A reluctance to land our colleagues in it.
    2. It does not directly affect me.
    3. Its above my pay grade.
    4. Well its only government money not mine.

    There are of course many ways the people who commit these wastes try to justify them:-
    1) I was doing what I was told to do.
    2) Nobody cares how it’s done anyway.
    3) It’s not hurting anyone and its easier.
    4) So what, if they paid me properly.
    5) Its always been done this way.

    Those are just a few but often the problem is created through a lack of training or a lack of willingness to learn or take instruction the irony here is we are all in the business of education.

    Let me say I have never heard of anyone who gets out of bed and says I am going into work today to make a mess of things. So if some little error occurs are we going to upset that person or tell their boss no, after all its easy to make a little error now and again. Problem is of course we should because if they don’t have the experience the knowledge or the ability, it is not their fault. Reality is though, it may well be our duty or their Manager’s responsibility to ensure they are kindly and constructively made aware.
    Clever talented management always: -

    either employs or trains all their staff to be better than they are. Shares experiences, praises goodwork loud clear and in public, admonishes poor work quietly and in private. Rewards success enthusiastically, listens hard, is always available (open door). Learns from failure, their own and others and uses the experience of failure today to build the success of tomorrow. Shares the work, delegates appropriately and takes all the responsibility for any errors in the team.
    However, the very fact that we are reluctant to intervene with the little things often leads on to big things happening. More importantly there is a more damaging problem that grows up alongside this reluctance. If we never suggest to someone that things could be different, better or they might try doing things another way; then they feel that no one cares. It is also often the case that if on the one hand we don’t complain when things are wrong we most likely don’t praise either when things are right and if no one cares about what a person does either way, then why should any person be understood. Very often such small innocent actions may involve some substantial cost implications. But then again while we sit at home and blame the government for the way they spend or don’t spend billions of our hard earned money, when given the opportunity, as we are every day, to do something about it with the small amounts that make up those billions; what happens? It suddenly becomes the government’s money not ours because we fear the back lash of drawing the perpetrators errors to them. When I say government here I am not referring to any government of any type but every type of government since time began.

    The big mistake is there is a belief that there is ‘public money’ and there is private money or ‘our money’. Truth is there is only one genuine currency in this nation its ours. The government has no money of their own, only what we give them from what we generate. Now it is of course very complicated because many of us think if they tax the rich the poor will all be better off but it is not so for many reasons.

    Reality is in the longer term, it matters little where they take in taxes, duty or charges be it Income tax, capital gains tax, national insurance, import or export duty, local rates, business rates or VAT etc we all pay for it. If that were not true why when Tesco pay their tax bill does the cost of potatoes go up in the shops. Why when fuel tax goes up do taxi fares and all goods in shops go up. Why when we get a wage increase and we pay more tax does the cost of petrol or train fares go up. Every penny that is spent from the ‘public purse’ is paid directly or indirectly to the government either now or in the future by us all, it is our money. Its worth chiefly assed by GDP, gross demographic product. We elect politicians to guide the government to manage society for us while we create some more. So no, it is not government money we spend it’s a little of our effort defined by the pound’s value.

    Overseeing the financial performance of the organisation and making sure its money is well spent.

    This for me is where all governors, trustees and directors could really be doing something of great value for every child in education we are the observers of the process and the recommenders of the strategies. not the palaeontologists but the security of the present and the perspective on the future. But if because we fail to praise the good we see for big or small achievement we then somehow lose the moral authority to correct the small mistakes and we finish up also having to ignor the big errors.

    So I am going to give you some examples. Which were recently drawn to my attention. They happen to be three fairly major construction examples they came about from simple low cost errors yet created massive avoidable cost. HR or other areas can and do create similar.

    They are all from recent years and they will from my perspective remain anonymous for it is not intended that they be used to persecute or challenge any person involved but to help us all to understand what happens that can cause major problems and loses within the system with out us even knowing and so they never even become told to prevent recurrence. Staggering is that having mentioned the one event I knew of to a few people how many said oh that’s nothing what about xx or yy, So my question is this. Do we need an amnesty and a declaration that we will challenge and resolve these problems before they reoccur? For they sadly reoccur to often.

    Let me be quite clear, this is not a witch hunt nor for that matter a warlock hunt. There is no purpose to be served in our condemning the past for often the innocent rather than the guilty finish up taking the blame and suffering the consequences. The experiences of the examples given should be heeded by all to ensure that there is no recurrence. We must find the way to be open with all to prevent any recurrence without recrimination so that we may re-educate and reform our good practice. A process which could be told by sharing examples not only of examples with major cost implications but also sharing those with low cost but high cost moral values or of high loss to community values.
    This is a little story often experienced in larger organisations of how things go wrong: -

    There are four people named Everyone, Somebody, Anybody and Nobody

    There was an important job to be done and Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it. Anybody could have done it but Nobody did it. Somebody got upset about that because it was Everybody’s job. Everybody thought that Anybody could do it but Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn’t do it. It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done.

    Who are you?
    Now three anonymous events but at what cost to education unless we can learn from them. Then perhaps in some way their loses may be redeemed, should they bring you to write to g.hackett@surreygovernance.org.uk so we can share your experiences of large or small events either increasing or saving cost or time so those in Surrey Governance and administration may benefit for all.

    Potentially Avoidable Disasters

    Case one: A brick wall .

    A build with nearly 200 metres of wall beyond the boundary apparently the foundation trench to this 220 metre long 2 metre high decorative brick wall was dug along the line of red and white poles which marked out the boundary the wall was built finished before it was apparently discovered some 12 months later that the vast majority was over 2 meters beyond the school boundary whether the survey, the plans, the first measure was wrong or indeed, as some suggested, a practical joker moved the marker poles one night we may never know. Though surley a check of the measurements before the trench was dug or before the hardcore and the cement foundation was poured or even before it was signed off and paid for might have saved many 10.s of thousands in rebuilding with a new contactor.

    Case two a cold hot house

    This is a recently built school that has a high specification and certainly looks like the ideal place for education with spacious classrooms well lit from large windows and full of technology which controls temperature, air-conditioning, blinds, shutters, screens, video boards etc there are apparently three types of heating systems to get the right temperature and atmosphere into every type of room, hall, laboratories, kitchens, theatres, sports halls etc but apparently the only areas it works is in the corridors. Apparently the school was finished in June and students were transferred from the old school in the September. The humorous comment from the teller was “they’ve not stopped moving about since” because students move to different rooms at various times of day so the most uncomfortable/ unbearable rooms can be avoided of course there has been a constant flow of heating service engineers in and out of the building for the last few years.

    Apparently reason being a temperate May day when the systems were all tested and signed off.

    Case three on the tiles a roof full saga

    The substantially 100 year old school was waiting for the major overhaul of the roof which had been promised for some 10 years and while waiting for the new roof, repair after repair has had to take place to keep children and staff dry. Though the money was allocated many years ago the budget had grown while following the banking crisis funds have remained low. Over two years earlier than the work was started the school thought real progress was being made when a detailed survey was conducted including, asbestos, beetle, bat, bird roosting and dry rot reports were undertaken in preparation. The school was delighted when in the May their Council finally said the work could start July with the understanding that the preparation work especially round the area of the early years and nursey classes would be carried out before the children’s return to school.

    So what went wrong?

    Why did the scaffolding and the site cabins arrive then disappear again. Well simply because somebody forgot to renew the bat roost rehousing licence and that takes 12 weeks, oops!.
    Well these things happen, we all make a mistake now and again but who pays for this? Answer - every single man, woman and child in the county but then this is one of those little mistakes. The work was moved on to the Autumn half term however consider the cost of bringing the scaffolding and the site huts back and forth and then the difficulty of repairing a roof through the winter instead of the summer and the extra time in work and weather or light breaks. Not to mention the inconvenience to young children from just two years studying beneath the dust and the noise.

    These failures will continue unless action is taken– without fear, favour or recrimination.

    I have said and I will continue to say, this is not to create a witch hunt but to help everyone understand how with a little thought, a little planning and some training and support, we could all by work- ing together massively improve so many things for everyone. Perhaps at some stage and if enough of us find a place to report their experiences something will be done to improve. In the meantime I would like to hear of your experiences of where things could easily have gone better and saved problems, time or money for without we expose the problem to the light of day we will not find a proper solution.

    To me the saddest thing and the real elephant in the room is that these case are anonymised for fear of retribution, recrimination and a fear of large and small ‘P’ politicisation

    It is time instead of naming and shaming by use of demotivating criticism, inuendo and whispered conspiracy theory to support community awareness and assist each other to attain better standards for all in education but working in fear of honest discussion praise or complaint is I feel not building the road to a better society.

    We in Governance must stop waste and improve performance if we share, consider and evaluate such problem examples. We give constructive research planned motivational solutions and resolutions as appropriate whilst appreciating that applauding good work and publicly saying ‘well done’ is vital.

    This article is available on the SGA website under Training.