I’ve sat on school governing boards for years, but it wasn’t until the pandemic hit that I took a step back from the role to give my trusted CEO a bit of breathing space in a time of great challenge and uncertainty.
This was a common theme, according to data from GovernorHub, which showed a sudden drop in file uploads in the first few weeks of the pandemic, as school leaders worked on the huge operational challenges that lay ahead.
So, what can we as governors do to alleviate these pressures on our school leaders and provide appropriate support?
Understanding the challenges
At GovernorHub, we recently surveyed 4,000 governors and trustee members to find out how they think their heads and CEOs are doing.
It showed more than half (57%) were concerned about the mental health of their headteacher or CEO, and seven in 10 (71%) reported worrying about the mental health of all school staff.
Seventy per cent said they’re concerned about the workload of their headteacher or CEO, and 75% reported being concerned about the workload of all school staff.
Eight in 10 of those surveyed said their board was tracking the workload and mental health of the headteacher or CEO, while 86% said they’re doing so for all school staff.
One respondent told GovernorHub:
“The pressure on leadership teams and school staff has been immense. They have received scant recognition, support or acknowledgement. I fear that there will be many people leaving the profession and know of many who already have.”
It’s more important than ever for governors to build a strong and thoughtful working relationship with their school leaders – and to make sure that boards themselves don’t add to the high levels of stress and workload.
We recommend chairs keep on top of their regular catch-ups with headteachers to see how they’re doing and make sure they have the support you need.
There’s a lot of compliance in governance, but the importance of creating strong working relationships should not be understated.
Set a schedule so it happens regularly and decide how you’ll communicate – phone, email or video call.
But whatever you choose should be tailored to how you work best.
Being sensitive to workload
There are some practical changes that governors themselves can offer to ease workload for headteachers, such as revisiting the time of board meetings.
Sometimes a verbal update at a board meeting can save on significant preparation time.
We also suggest governors use a short ‘KISS’ exercise to check in with their school leaders:
Keep – what’s working well for your workload?
Improve – what workload issues do you have and how could you improve them?
Stop – what can be stopped permanently or in the short term to assist workload?
Start – what can you start doing to improve their workload?
Knowing where to find support
Governors should know where to signpost their headteacher for further support, if needed.
The local authority might have dedicated support networks for headteachers.
If you’re in a multi-academy trust, it may have networks or other support mechanisms.
Your board may be able to set up one-to-one confidential meetings for you and an external coach, to help you talk through stress points.
Ideally, this person should have past school leadership experience and be external to your school management.
Wellbeing can feel abstract and knowing how to embed a culture of wellbeing can be tricky, especially for boards who must approach the issue strategically, not operationally.
Look to embrace it as part of your school’s vision and values.
If it’s not a key feature already, a good start for boards is to refresh their vision statement in collaboration with senior leaders.
It’s been a challenging time for governors and trustees too.
Ensure the board is working efficiently to protect members from common stressors such as heavy workloads, a lack of purpose and time constraints.
Keep meetings focused and on track, make sure workload is shared equitably and retain a focus on induction and training so every governor has the know-how to function in their role.