Review by Martin Matthews

4 Feb 2018, 5:00

Challenge: How governors can challenge school leaders effectively, by David Marriott

How can governors challenge school leaders effectively? That’s a mighty difficult question to answer in such a short book.

Challenge is one of those ethereal aspects of governance: you know it when you see it. As the author says: “Going beyond paying lip service to ’challenge’ is this book’s key focus.”

As a national leader of governance, I feel very protective of the role.

I shouldn’t have worried; through the chapters it’s clear Marriott has been up close and personal with many real, complex governance situations.

When he says being a governor is equivalent to “a high-powered, well-remunerated, full-time professional job”, it shows he understands.

Only those who have been governors know how difficult defining challenge can be. This book sets out to demystify what it is.

Only those who have been governors know how difficult defining challenge can be

The first couple of pages aren’t as positive as they could be, but once you settle into the chapter it becomes clear the author knows and cares about its value.

The constant references to the governance handbook and the governance competency framework demonstrate a level of professional rigour which governors need to inform their learning. The scenarios at the end of each chapter sound like many conversations I’ve heard first-hand and this supports both personal reflection and training discussions. The commentary sections will enable group discussion to unpick both the positive and negative aspects of the vignettes.

School leaders should expect challenge: it improves the education children receive, but it must go hand-in-hand with support, and must neither be disrespectful nor aggressive. The first vignette commentary is a good example of this: it discusses the governors’ teamwork but also considers “the headteacher seems to be taking on too much”: this is challenge and support in the same conversation.

The human dimension of governance is carefully and fairly explored. The author clearly understands that “the boundaries of [governors’ and educators’] respective roles need to be understood and respected”. Neither should tread on each other’s toes, but tiptoeing up to that point is what excellent challenge looks like.

The chapter on data sources is comprehensive. It sets out the need for methodical, systemic and triangulated challenge and clearly explains how this dovetails with the school improvement cycle.

The ‘making use of data’ section outlines the what, where and when of why challenge is possible. That includes a question on “how do you know your head teacher is honest”. Thankfully dishonest staff are rare, but as the author says, “telling the difference between a valid explanation and an excuse is not easy”.

This book is an excellent addition to a school CPD library

The chapter on the principles of effective challenge refreshingly tackles both the positive and negative aspects of being a governor. It doesn’t pull its punches on unprofessional or weak behaviour.

The author is right that a board cannot “wait for the next Ofsted inspection”; children get one chance and governors have to be sure they provide effective challenge. The mention of a professional clerk is welcome but I would have hoped more was made of the role of the chair in setting ethos.

The context of schools is also very important and this section helps to unpick how each strand has individual properties which need governance variations. Many governors don’t know how unique or similar their schools are, and this may help them reach out to other governing boards.

A short bibliography would be very welcome. My other suggestion for improvement (as I declare an interest) would be to explain where to find external free peer-to-peer support from the national leaders of governance programme.

This book is an excellent addition to a school CPD library, and possibly the first of a governance section. It’s worth teachers reading it to get to grips with the basics, while middle leaders and new senior leaders would find it useful as would any governor extending their subject knowledge.

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