Monday, 13 October 2014

Governance is a 'thinking not doing role': discuss

School governance is a strategic rather than operational task. Governors don't run the school. They tell the school where to run and make sure it’s on track to get there. To help safeguard the strategic/operational divide the National Governors' Association defines governance as ‘a thinking not a doing role’. I would want to develop that definition a little as it may give the misleading impression that governors simply sit around quietly thinking about things. We tend to be a mouthy lot and have been known to vocalise our thoughts in speech. Just occasionally.

It would be more accurate therefore to say that governance is ‘a speaking not a doing role’. But even that is open to misunderstanding, as it makes governor board meetings sound like a glorified talking shop. What to say, then? I think we need to break down the thinking/doing, speaking/doing dichotomy that is inherent in the NGA's definition and my suggested alternative. We may profitably do that by drawing on the insights of ‘speech-act theory’. 

'What's that when it's at home?' I hear you ask. Well, 'speech-act theory' is the understanding of linguistics developed by Oxford academic J. L. Austin. The brainy prof cautioned that speaking is not to be set in opposition to acting. Rather, speech is a form of action that has practical effects.  Austin proposed that language may be broken down into three component parts: First we have basic units of speech, or words. Second there is the use to which we put our words, such as as making promises, or issuing commands. Finally, what we do with our words has an effect upon others as promises believed, or commands are obeyed. That in essence is 'speech-act theory'. 

Words then are not ‘just words’. When we speak we are engaging in ‘communicative action’, to use the jargon.  For example, you order a home delivery pizza over the phone, promising to pay for it on when it comes. It arrives piping hot 30 minutes later (hopefully) and you eat it.  Your words of promise and command spoken to the person in the pizza shop did something. They were communicative acts that made stuff happen in the real world. 

Now for a thought experiment in an attempt to apply the insights of 'speech-act theory' to the role of governance. To return to our pizza illustration, it isn’t the job of governors to cook the thing. That's the operational bit. If the school were a giant pizza parlour, staff and students would produce the goods, not the governors. We set the strategy by ordering the exact kind of pizza we want and then hold the head to account to make sure we get what we ordered. Governance is more than a ‘thinking role’ because we don't just idly dream of the educational equivalent of great pizza. We use words to order it. It involves more than aimlessly sounding off, because our speech is intended to have a practical effect upon the school: the production of outstanding pizza student achievement

Without the aid of Italian fast food, it works like this. The governors' Statement of Vision and Values sets the school's destination of travel. Our strategy provides the ‘route map’ that will help us get there. It includes detailed coordinates such targets for exam results, improvements in student behavior and attendance, and enhancements to the quality of teaching. By setting the vision and strategy and holding the head to account against key performance indicators governors help keep senior leaders on their toes, thus driving forwards the process of school improvement. And so it is that the words we use have the desired impact on our students’ learning outcomes. They are not 'just words', but ‘speech-acts'. Geddit?

To bring this discussion to a conclusion, in place of the NGA’s construction of governance as ‘a thinking not a doing role’, I propose that governance should be defined as a ‘strategic speech-act’. Admittedly it may not catch on as a snappy slogan. But putting it like that safeguards the strategic/operational divide without the danger of implying that governance is all thought/talk and no action. We speak therefore we do. The communicative actions of the board promote high standards of educational achievement in order to ensure that every student exceeds their potential. 

For evidence of the impact of the board's 'strategic speech-acts',  check out the Board of Governors' Report to Stakeholders 2013/14 that will be sent to parents and carers at the end of this term.