Ofsted’s chief fires and then takes aim at governors

17 Apr

During the first three months of the calendar year 2013, Ofsted’s chief, Sir Michael Wilshaw, has added to the chilly winter winds making the climate for school governors very inclement.

In a speech on 20 February 2013, he averred that a contributory factor for 6,000 schools rated less than good was poor leadership, of which governors were very much a part.  He compared the worst governors to jurors who were incapable of understanding their responsibilities in a court case – people (possibly) like the first lot of jurors who had to pass judgement on Vicky Pryce, the former wife of the ex-Energy Secretary of State, Chris Hulme.  Those jurors were dismissed for seeking answers from the judge on the most banal questions.

On 27 February 2013, Wilshaw launched an online, at-a-glance report card for each school (School Data Dashboard), to have access to the end of key stage attainment data of the pupils of the school, which includes information on how they compare with schools across the country.  The unspoken words appeared to be “Governors, you may run, but you cannot hide.”

In an article in the Times Educational Supplement (TES) on 22 March 2013, he explained why he was turning the screws on the 300,000+ governors.  “In an era of ever-greater accountability, autonomy and complexity of school organisation, the role played by the governing body is crucial in determining institutional success.” The expectation is (despite resistance from the teacher unions) that governors spend more time understanding what makes for good pupil progress, i.e. the quality of learning and teaching.

This will be possible only if governors take time out during a normal working day to visit the school and learn about how it operates – not always easy, especially if governors are full-time professional people earning their crusts and/or working parents bringing up families.   Even if these problems are surmounted, there is the danger that governors will tread across the minefield of school management and lose sight of the bigger picture of school improvement.   The governing body deploys the headteacher as its chief executive to manage and run the school.  That’s not the function of governors.

So what exactly should governors do to discharge their duties to the satisfaction of Wilshaw?

Firstly, it’s vital that governors are as well informed as possible about the education offered to the pupils – that it is at least fit for purpose if not the best that can be offered.   The structures and diktats of Michael Gove and his troops do not always make this easy.   Schools tend to react to his latest pronouncements rather than develop practices based on the premise that children have illimitable potential if given wings to fly.

Proposals for the (now still-born) English Baccalaureate Certificate (EBC), for instance caused schools to narrow their curricular diets to ensure that the pupils raised the standing of their schools on the league tables rather than follow their dream in choosing the subjects they wanted.

Floor targets[1] have had unintended consequences.  Headteachers and staff have focused on children who are borderline at the various key stages, neglecting the below and above average for similar reasons.  A good rank in a league table appears to be more important than ensuring that all pupils are given the opportunities to which they are entitled.

The information, consequently, that governors need to garner should be done so carefully, bearing in mind the statutory responsibility of children being offered a broad and balanced curriculum.   The data can be first-, second- and third-hand: first-hand through direct visits and observations; second-hand through reports of the headteacher at meetings of the governing body and its committees or through the reports of senior and middle leaders during governor visits or meetings; and third-hand through the reports of local authority adviser or, in extremis, Ofsted inspectors.

The information should include the progress made by the pupils across the school and not just the end of the key stages.  Schools are being censured by Ofsted and placed in special measures or categorised as requiring improvement despite doing very well at the end of the key stages and having excellent value-added measures in place because of dips in pupils’ progress during the in-between years.  Sometimes the little progress can be justified, because pupils improve at different rates over their school careers.  However, if poor progress is coupled with poor teaching and shabby work done by the pupils, governors have the right to find out why this is happening and insist on appropriate action, something that’s impossible if they don’t have the basic information.

Secondly, governors need to ask the right questions to challenge.  The perspectives that governors bring to their schools are invaluable.   The headteacher and staff are sometimes so absorbed with the nitty-gritty of dealing with the urgent that they slip up on addressing the important.

Governors could consider asking a few generic questions that are challenging and supportive.

(1)        Are you doing what you are meant to do, or have you been deflected by detritus?

(2)        What is the impact of what you have done so far?  If not as effective as it could be, what should be done differently?

(3)        Is there something that we have missed at the school and are not doing what we should be?  What could that be?

(4)        What skills and knowledge are lacking in our staff members and how can we remedy this?

(5)        Do we need external help and support?  Where can this be found and what resources should be set aside for this?

Thirdly, the governors together with the headteacher have to agree on an appropriate course of action to improve the school, always bearing in mind that the institution does not have to be bad to do better.

And finally, at governing body and committee meetings, governors are charged with establishing a system for monitoring development and fine-tuning the course charted with the passage of time. The school is an organic body that grows and evolves so that nothing stays the same; adjustments are constantly needed to original plans.

Wilshaw has acknowledged that governors are doing this work in their own time. The overwhelming majority do not even request expenses.   While the research shows that people derive much more job satisfaction from voluntary rather than paid work, it is a bit rich to place such severe demands on school governors who discharge their functions on a wing and a prayer.

Consequently, Wilshaw has repeated his call for some governors to be paid. It has been mooted in high places that the chairs of governing bodies should be paid and appointed only after open competition.

Emma Knights, chief executive of the National Governors’ Association (NGA) is uncomfortable.  She remarked that volunteering was an important part of the ethos of parents and the community supporting local schools.   She added that there was already provision in place for paying governors in certain circumstances, such as where temporary governing bodies were created to turn around failing schools, adding that there was no evidence that schools would be improved by paying governors.

Besides, paying some governors and not all would create a two-tier system and have unintended, detrimental consequences.  Most governors I have spoken to are loathe charging for any expenses because it would be taking bread out of the mouths of our children.


[1] At the end of Key Stage 2, 60% of pupils are expected to attain level 4 in both, English and Mathematics – the floor target for a primary school.  At secondary level, the floor target is that 40% of pupils are to attain grades A* to C in at least five subjects including English and mathematics.

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