Evaluating governance – and governors

  • 22nd June 2023

Durell Barnes

Durell Barnes of education consultant RSAcademics outlines how chairs of governors might conduct reviews of governors’ contributions and assess board effectiveness


The range of skills and attributes required of chairs of governors is daunting. They need to be able to accept a high level of responsibility and accountability, to exercise strategic oversight, to have highly developed interpersonal skills, to understand finance, to appreciate the complexities of schools as businesses and centres of learning, to empathise with the head and the leadership team, to motivate fellow governors, to chair meetings effectively – the list is endless. And they need to be self-reflective and able to lead the board in evaluating its own performance.

A key principle of the Charity Governance Code (charitygovernancecode.org) is that “The board works as an effective team, using the appropriate balance of skills, experience, backgrounds and knowledge to make informed decisions.” It suggests that “The board regularly discusses its effectiveness and its ability to work together as a team, including individuals’ motivations and expectations about behaviours. Trustees take time to understand each other’s motivations to build trust within the board and the chair asks for feedback on how to foster an environment where trustees can constructively challenge each other.” Many boards find this difficult, although some tackle it as part of awaydays or strategy days, and this can work especially well if such occasions are facilitated by a well briefed outsider.

The difficulty in undertaking such discussions comes from a variety of factors, not least a lack of time at scheduled governors’ business meetings, a reluctance to subject volunteers to what might seem to be a form of appraisal of their performance, and chairs can be unwilling or not feel themselves appropriately qualified to lead such a process. But the Charity Governance Code is clear about expectations in this area: “The board reviews its own performance, including that of the chair. These reviews might consider the board’s balance of skills, experience and knowledge, its diversity, how the board works together and other factors that affect its effectiveness.” And, perhaps more starkly, an expected outcome is that: “Trustees can explain how they check their own performance.”

However daunting this may seem, there are well-developed processes which can help boards undertake this. The Code itself can assist, as indicated in its preamble: “This Code is designed as a tool to support continuous improvement. Charity boards that are using this Code effectively will regularly revisit and reflect on the Code’s principles.” This can be a useful first step and there’s a simple but very extensive form on the website which can be used. However, it’s not something which could be completed at a full board meeting, although it has been effectively used by nominations and/or governance committees (or their equivalent), based on either general discussion at a board or social meeting, or on forms completed by governors. Both the Association of Governing Bodies of Independent Schools (AGBIS, agbis. org.uk) and the National Governance Association (NGA, nga.org.uk) indicate that an annual review process is normal, being the responsibility of the chair.

AGBIS provides a simple questionnaire to be completed by individual governors and NGA has similar, more nuanced resources available on its website.

It remains the case that given the complexity of many of today’s governing bodies any such process will be time- consuming and it is important that it is not, or does not appear, mechanistic, and that its purpose is clear to all involved.

However it is approached, at its heart board evaluation will have conversations between the chair and colleagues and in setting those up, words like ‘appraisal’ and ‘performance review’ may not go down well with volunteers. I prefer to refer to ‘contribution review’ and to ‘board improvement’. The challenge remains finding the time to interview colleagues, and some chairs are inexperienced in this area. Sometimes the role can be undertaken by the vice-chair, or the chair of the governance and nominations committee (if there is one). It is worth considering sharing the role between those three or, if it is a small committee, between the members of the committee.

And it is important to put thought into the actual questions to be asked, both in any self-evaluation questionnaire and in any conversation with the chair (or the deputy as indicated above) either as a follow up to such a survey or (more importantly) as a stand-alone conversation. Some may refer to practical matters like whether people are able to devote the time necessary to meetings and their other duties. Others may invite reflection on the expected outcomes in the Charity Governance Code.

When undertaking reviews of governance, I tend to begin with a self-evaluation exercise which opens by asking governors to articulate the aims of the school and how they feel the board promotes those; this concentrates the mind. I ask what particular expertise, skills and (especially) attributes they feel they bring to the work of the board, which of their expertise, skills and attributes the board is not making use of, and if there are areas missing from the board as a whole. This can often be more useful than a top-down skills matrix. As well as discussing any training undertaken and any visits to the school by individual governors, it is important to ascertain how learning from these is shared by the board as a whole.

Any discussion of meetings, including sub-committee meetings, is enlivened by understanding what governors feel about the nature of the papers, the standard of reporting, the quality of the discourse and the effectiveness of the follow-up. Getting to the core of views about the quality of discourse is essential: Does everyone have a chance to speak? Is everyone’s opinion heard? Are all contributions valued?

Where necessary, are some contributors restrained? Only if such questions are asked will the chair be able to judge how well they are fulfilling their role at meetings (and how subcommittee chairs do so).

The key to maximising the effectiveness of the process lies in ensuring that any review takes account not just of processes and systems or even of expected outcomes, but of the human dimension in governance. Some of the most productive conversations I have during board evaluations arise in response to the simple questions: is being a governor living up to your expectations, and is the board getting the best out of you? And some of the most effective outcomes of board evaluation come from individuals and groups agreeing what, in the light of the process, they are going to stop doing, start doing and continue doing. Of course, such simple but effective outputs – and more extensive but not necessarily more effective reports – must be followed up. It gives the nominations and governance committee, where one exists, a really productive brief and neatly connects board self-evaluation with the identification, selection, appointment, induction and training of board members.

Durell Barnes is head of governance and compliance at RSAcademics.

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