School governance - great professional development for arts leaders

CEO of ITC, Charlotte Jones, talks about the highs and lows of school governance and how she believes more arts leaders should take on the task

24 February 2016

For the past four years, I have been the Chair of Governors of a girls’ comprehensive school in south east London. It takes up time, brainpower and emotional energy, but it has been the best professional development I possibly could have had to develop my own arts leadership role - I am currently also Director of The Independent Theatre Council (ITC).

The role of Chair is to provide support, challenge, and act as a sounding-board for the Head Teacher, whilst facilitating a board of governors to hold the school to account and be effective custodians of the school’s values (well, that’s what I’ve been doing anyway!). It involves a lot of listening, engaging, and asking questions, along with an extraordinary amount of dealing with people. Sometimes the conversations are difficult and require a lot of thinking. I have had many opportunities to practice problem-solving, communication and people skills – if I didn’t have the skills before, I had to develop them fast. I have made loads of mistakes and had to learn by doing.

The ITC board has been very supportive of me taking on this role despite it being quite time-consuming (on average about half a day per week). This is because it has offered me a real insight into the education system and a great opportunity to observe and participate in a wide range of leadership challenges. They also recognise that it keeps me thinking and energised in a way that no other training could. Experiencing and managing some of the frustrations of school governance have helped me to think more creatively about working with the ITC board to make their experience and contribution more meaningful.

Our most recent all-consuming task as governors has been the appointment of a new Head Teacher, which I'm pleased to say we successfully achieved last week! This was a huge relief all round – maybe I can grow my nails back now!

Recruiting the right person to lead an organisation is the single most important responsibility of any Board. We had to find a way to act together to confidently make a series of complex decisions, taking into account the views and needs of a wide range of stakeholders including pupils, parents, staff and the local authority. The buck well and truly stopped with us, despite the governors being a disparate and diverse group of volunteers. Chairing that group through this journey has been a challenging and fascinating process - the stakes were also particularly high this time as we failed to appoint last year and have been working with an excellent (but temporary) interim Head Teacher since September.

I would like to see more arts leaders and practitioners becoming school governors, but not with the primary objective of persuading schools to prioritise the arts - governance is not about lobbying. I suspect that few members of our school community are particularly aware of my day job, and our school has a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) specialism. However, throughout our Head Teacher recruitment process, the STEM to STEAM conversation kept naturally coming up.

School Council representatives asked the candidates about the importance of arts and creativity in school life. The question about reinvigorating our STEM specialism produced answers which embraced arts practice. The impressive woman we have appointed to the Head Teacher role has already sought governors’ support in working with an arts charity to initiate a project to use the arts to assist pupils in danger of exclusion. No one at our school has suggested reducing arts GCSE subjects in the curriculum in response to the EBACC. All of this is great to see.

Our governors apply their expertise from their working lives where appropriate to provide a holistic and broad sounding-board for the school. We all recognise how much we are learning in the process. Nine governors volunteered to give up at least three days of their time to the Head Teacher recruitment – eager to learn and engage in an activity that would have a significant impact. I would recommend school governance to anyone seeking life-changing leadership development. As with any worthwhile activity, you get out what you put in.

Sign up to receive a monthly round up of blogs, information and opportunities from AND.