Why and how should governors visit their school?

27 Aug

A central part of governors’ functions is to promote accountability – theirs to the parents and the senior management to them.  Governors who succeed know their school well.   They are able to give parents and account of how well the school is doing and hold senior managers to account.   They keep themselves informed by triangulating – i.e. garnering information from third-, second- and first-hand sources.

Governors generally receive well-balanced reports periodically on their school through Ofsted and the local authority in which the school is sited – third-hand sources.   The headteacher plays a lead and critical role in reporting on the school to governors at the meetings of the governing body and its committees – a second-hand source.   The chair is in a more privileged position to receive second-hand information though regular meetings that she/he has with the headteacher in between meetings to keep abreast of developments.   Occasionally, governors receive positive and (sometimes) negative and unsolicited reports on their schools from the parents of pupils – another source for second-hand information.

However, as important as the above mechanisms for learning about the school are, it could just be possible that the whole story is not being told to governors.  Hence they need to secure information on their school through first-hand sources.  This can best be done by directly visiting the school in a planned and orderly manner.

Governors who descend on their schools without notice will generally be given short-shrift, not only from the headteacher and staff, but also fellow governors.   School governors don’t have any powers individually so there is no merit in ‘strutting their stuff’ and prancing around at school during a normal working day expecting all and sundry to worship and adore them.   The powers derive from those vested in the corporate governing body not in individuals.

Notwithstanding, if governors are to be effective, they need to find the time to visit the school when it is functioning.   The frequency of such visits is a matter for governors, though it will be useful for visits to be made twice annually.  However, several governors are bemused and perplexed about what precisely they are meant to do when visiting their school.

Before addressing that issue, it is worth noting that the Department for Education (see here), National Governors’ Association and many local authorities have provided excellent advice on governors’ school visits – covering the purpose of such visits, how to prepare for them, what to do and what not to do during the visits and how to round off matters after the visits are done.

(1)       Purpose

It is impossible for governors to make critical decisions on the strategic direction in which their school should move unless they have sufficient information about how it functions during a normal school day. This will include data on the kind of pupils that the school is trying to educate, the quality of the staff at the school, the level of resources, the strengths and weaknesses prevalent in regard to the quality of education and how well the school is meeting its current objectives, including how the pupils are doing.   Visiting the school will be a direct way of gathering some of this information.

However, governors are not inspectors so that going around with clipboards and pens is definitely a No-No!   Any governor doing so will come a cropper and slide into an abyss.

When governors visit their school in a planned manner, which is in accordance with a policy, staff members get to know them and if they already do, know them better.   In many schools, governors are foreign bodies to staff members – men and women from Mars.  Some governors try to overcome this problem by having photographs of themselves (a rogue’s gallery) on the school notice board.  As revealing as this may be, it is more important for staff members to know governors first-hand, as governors have a responsibility of having direct knowledge of their school.

(2)       What to do before a school visit

For visits to work well, there is merit in governors determining every term at their (joint) meeting who will visit and when during the term and what the purpose/s of such visits will be.   This will not preclude any governor visiting even though s/he is not scheduled to do so, provided that there are compelling reasons, the headteacher is given at least a fortnight’s notice and the date fixed for such a visit that is mutually convenient to both, the governor and the school.

For the newly appointed/elected governor, an introductory visit to learn about the school will be very helpful and welcomed by the headteacher and staff.    Provided that the necessary CRB check has been carried out on the governor, it could be quite an experience to be taken around the school by an articulate pupil and see the school through the child’s eyes.   However, where there may be reservations about this arrangement, a senior staff member may be a better bet, though there is nothing to stop the governor from having conversations with pupils during the visit.

Many a governing body has governors designated to oversee discrete areas of school life, such as special needs, health and safety, safeguarding and the core subjects.   Others may be linked to particular year groups.   The experienced governor could, therefore, go with a particular focus – e.g. seeing how the provision for special needs is made and delivered or experiencing how classes in a particular year groups function.

The headteacher and visiting governor could agree a timetable for the latter to meet pivotal staff members with whom s/he can talk – such as the Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCO) or the year group leader.  Better still, prior to a visit, the governor can ask for information on the areas that are to be observed, such as the Special Educational Needs (SEN) Policy.

Where the governor has a child at the school, s/he should avoid visiting the class where that child is taught so as not to embarrass the child, staff member and the parent.    I recall how aeons ago, when I was young, the one domain that I cherished as a child was school, because it was the area where my parents were unable to intrude.  (Mind you, at that time we did not have parent governors at the school in India where I grew up.)

(3)        During the Visit

Prior to the governor’s entering a class, s/he should agree with the class/subject teacher how to be introduced to pupils and the role to be played.

Where questions arise, the governor should make a note of them and ask the teacher after the lesson at a time that is mutually convenient.   There will be, occasionally, an exchange of words among pupils and between the pupils and the teacher.   What transpires should be kept confidential, as far as possible.

In the current environment, teachers are observed to death – by the headteacher, local authority officers, parents and, of course, Ofsted inspectors.  The governor must be sensitive to this and ensure that neither the teacher nor the pupils are distracted (as far as possible) by the governor’s presence.

(4)        After the Visit

When the lesson is over, the governor should steal a moment or two to thank the teacher and the pupils for being allowed to visit them during the lesson.   Both, the teacher and governor, will also find it useful to arrange five minutes to give each other feedback on the visit – what went well and what did not.

For a school visit to benefit the governing body, per se, the governor must write a report.   How that report is set out and the contents would be a matter of policy for the governing body to determine well before such visits are undertaken.  However, certain broad headings for the report would be apposite and include

  1. the name of the governor, the date of the visit and the classes visited;
  2. the purpose of the visit;
  3. a summary of what the governor saw/observed;
  4. three positive comments about the school that the governor observed;
  5. three questions that the governor wants to ask; and
  6. feedback from the teacher/s of the class/es that the governor visited.

Copies of this report should be given to the headteacher and the clerk.   The former can file it as a source of evidence to demonstrate how well governors discharge their duties and show it to Ofsted when next it inspects the school.   The clerk can include the report in the agenda bundle for the following governors’ meeting to keep members informed.

(5)        Final Thoughts

While governor visits are not meant to be non-judgemental, in the nature of things, the observations made will have elements of judgement.  For instance, the three positive remarks recorded in the report to the governing body will, by definition, be judgemental.   However, this will be welcomed by all.

Avoid the negative at all costs and leave that to Ofsted and the local authority – if the school is not an academy or free school.   Rather, there is more merit in asking probing questions that will, inevitably, arise, during and after the visit, which starts a dialogue.   Good governance is not about having the answers to all educational matters, but rather asking the thought-provoking questions that cause the school leadership and management to think in new and constructive ways.

Visiting a school when it is in session is (in my experience) most rewarding and uplifting – at least as good as, if not better than, attending meetings, which sometimes are long and occasionally boring.   Observing the children at work, bright as buttons, operating in unorthodox ways and engaging in lateral thinking, frequently gives governors a great lift to their work.   Watching children function as they interact with one another and the staff who educate and care for them evokes memories of Wordsworth famous lines from the Intimations of Immortality,

“….Trailing clouds of glory do we come

From God, who is our home

Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

Visiting the school then becomes an invaluable investment in time and well worth it.

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