Chief Inspector sets sight on school governance

2 Jan

I           What the Chief Inspector said in his Annual Report

Ofsted released the second annual report of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector (HMCI) of Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, in the second week of December 2013 based on the findings from inspections carried out in 2012/13. Almost 80% of schools are good or better, higher than at any time during Ofsted’s existence.  However, the spread of ‘good’ or better schools is uneven. In the Isle of Wight, 14% of young people attend a secondary school that is ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’; in Bath and North East Somerset 100% do. In Wolverhampton, 56% of primary pupils attend a ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ school; in Sandwell, 82% do and in Darlington the figure is 97%. Of the 13 local authorities (LAs) where fewer than half of the pupils attend a ‘good’ school, five are in Yorkshire and the Humber.  On the other hand, seven of the nine LAs in which all children attend a ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ secondary are in London.

The three prominent (negative) findings in the Annual Report were as follows.

(i)         There was too much mediocre teaching and weak leadership.

(ii)        There were huge regional variations in the quality of education.

(iii)       Many children from low-income families – particularly White children – were underachieving.

Heralding his report, Sir Michael expressed cautious optimism about the future.  “Our statistics this year show that more schools are now getting to good at a faster rate than at any other time in Ofsted’s 21-year history. Some 78% of schools are now good compared with 70% last year,” he said.   He was convinced that if this trend were sustained, our standing in the next PISA (Programme for International Student Assessments) league table would be much higher.

However, in a rest speech delivered at the Lilian Baylis School in Lambeth when launching his report, Sir Michael dwelt on a significant weakness in our system which could be masked by the improvements seen under his watch so far.   He avers that this weakness has caused our educational world to be split into two nations – not of rich and poor, white and black, English and other, but rather lucky and unlucky. “The lucky child is born in the right postcode, goes to the right school and has the widest opportunities,” he said.  The unlucky child does not.

The unlucky child is ”born into an unlucky area, where there are more mediocre schools than good ones, where the teaching is uninspiring and the head believes ‘you can’t really do anything with children like him’.”

The unlucky child never really has a chance, he observed. His potential is never realised, his ambitions are never fulfilled. He is really unlucky because the professionals who could and should help him do not. He is unlucky because his school and college and local authority have failed him. “He is unlucky because we have let him down.”

So what are the factors, according to Wilshaw, which make the lucky child lucky?

“The lucky child’s school has governors who hold the headteacher to account, but do not pretend they are the executive. They challenge, they scrutinise and they are interested in the most important aspects of a school: how well children are taught in the classroom and how much they learn and make progress.

“The lucky child is particularly fortunate in his headteacher. Such heads are motivated by potential and not daunted by circumstance. They do not concede to vested interests and they do not patronise poor children by making excuses. They do not measure a pupil’s ambition by sizing up their (sic) parents.

“A professional spirit permeates the whole school. There is little argument and no negotiation about what the school stands for. Children understand the boundaries created for them that may not exist in the home. As a result, teachers teach well and children learn.

“The good headteacher understands that good behaviour underpins everything. Learning is impossible without it. They (sic) know that it is not a question of drawing up a policy, emailing it to staff and leaving it to be implemented by junior colleagues. They (sic) accept that it is ultimately their (sic) responsibility and no one else’s. They (sic) patrol the corridors and respect their (sic) students, but they (sic) never confuse friendliness with familiarity. They (sic) do not call pupils ‘mate’ (sic).

“The lucky child is of course lucky in his teachers. They teach effectively; they are not bound by a narrow prescription of what a good lesson looks like. They capture their pupils’ attention and they make their lessons interesting. They do not confuse a ‘busy’ lesson for a good one. They succeed in imparting knowledge.

“They insist on high standards of behaviour and they don’t allow children to answer back. They buy into the ethos of the school and when they leave, they leave for good reasons. They haven’t been chased out by bad behaviour. On the contrary, the culture of the school supports and protects them.”

While there are grammatical errors in Sir Michael’s speech, where he confuses the singular with the plural – referring to the “lucky child” and then later talking about “their parents”, mentioning “the good headteacher” and then later on referring to this person as “they”, and “their”, the nub of what he says is worthy of attention and gives us the pointers to good governance which is fundamental to promoting good school leadership.

II          Elements of Effectiveness

The key element of ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ leadership in schools is having good governance: “Good governance is crucial to tackling underperformance and supporting improvement. Governance that is weak does not challenge the school about its performance or press the school to increase its aspirations.”

In failing schools, Sir Michael highlighted the following characteristics.

(i)         Governing bodies failed to challenge a well-established incumbent headteacher until it is too late.

(ii)        There are low aspirations arising from a lack of understanding of how good other schools were, and a failure to understand that ‘the world has moved on’.

(iii)       Headteachers fail, for various reasons, to develop their middle and senior leaders.

(iv)       Schools are unable to handle the transition to new leadership, either because governors have no plan or because there is too little depth in leadership.

In our September 2013 (56th) issue of Governors’ Agenda, we identified nine features of effective governance.   Those governors who make a positive difference to a school

(i)         carry out statutory duties associated with school education;

(ii)        understand the strengths and weaknesses of the school;

(iii)       ensure clarity of vision, ethos and strategic direction;

(iv)       understand and take sufficient account of pupil data – especially in regard to the progress made;

(v)        are aware of the impact of teaching on learning and progress in different subjects and year-groups;

(vi)       challenge and support leadership in equal measure;

(vii)      provide support for an effective headteacher;

(viii)     understand how the school makes decisions about teachers’ salary progression; and

(ix)       performance-manage the headteacher rigorously.

The National Governors’ Association (NGA) takes this a bit further and describes the eight elements of effective governance (see Governing Matters, November/December 2013), i.e.

(a)        having the right people around the table;

(b)        ensuring that these people understand their roles and responsibilities as governors;

(c)        having good chairing;

(d)        having good clerking arrangements;

(e)        the prevalence of good relationships based on trust;

(f)        members having a good knowledge of the school;

(g)        members committing themselves to asking challenging questions; and

(h)        members developing the confidence to have courageous conversations in the interests of the children.

III        Knowing the School

For governors to discharge their duties well they first need to know their schools intimately (the sixth element of the NGA’s list) – in particular, how well the pupils are doing – both in terms of their progress and achievements – and the quality of teaching and learning.  So that the information they garner stands up to scrutiny, it should be sought in three ways – first-hand, through school visits; second-hand from reports of the headteacher, School Improvement Adviser, parents and pupils; and third-hand, from Ofsted inspections and the objective data on pupils’ progress and achievements that can be accessed in RAISEonline, Ofsted’s dashboard  and the Family Fisher Trust’s dashboard. Academia calls this “triangulation”.

Data on pupil progress and achievement must complement information received from the headteacher on audits of teaching and learning and the continuing professional development of teaching, support and administrative staff.   Where there is a mismatch – say between pupils’ progress and the quality of teaching and learning, other elements of good governance will be required, like members asking challenging questions and having the courage to engage in difficulty conversations in the interests of the children.

A health warning here would be apposite.   Governors are tempted to scrutinise data on pupils’ achievement and progress only at the end of the Key Stages.  This is insufficient.  All children, in whatever age groups they may be, deserve the very best.  As a consequence, it is critical for governors to look at the aggregated progress and achievements of pupils in every age group as well as interrogate the information on any particular category of pupils who are underachieving, finding out the reasons why and taking action to remedy the situation.

Governors are volunteers and many come from non-educational backgrounds (which is not to say that they have not been to school, college and/or university).  They spend considerable time attending meetings, recruiting and (sometimes) dismissing staff, checking out best value for money when monitoring the budget and being advocates for the school with parents and the larger community.   However, if time can be found, it is well spent when governors visit their schools.   More headteachers are now encouraging their governors to accompany them on learning walks to see firsthand how the school operates during a normal working day.

In addition, in accordance with the governing body’s policy on school visits, there would be merit in governors making time to see the school operating outside of these “learning walks”.   What precisely would be the purpose of these visits?   Where there is a system of link governors – for discrete areas of the curriculum or to oversee year groups, the visits would help the governors learn more about the curriculum and the pupils.

That apart, the answers to some of these questions could be sought during visits, never forgetting that governors are not inspectors and the purpose of visits is to learn more about the school rather than make judgements on it.  During a visit, the governor may wish to find the answers to these questions.

1.         What is the mood of the pupils?  (Are they interested, bored, excited, engrossed, restless, concentrating….?)

2.         How are the pupils behaving?  (Do they interact well with the teacher and with one another?)

3.         Are there sufficient resources in the room for the pupils to carry out the tasks on which they are working?  (E.g. books, stationery, equipment, computers, calculators……)

4.         What is the condition of the classrooms? (E.g. the standard of decoration and maintenance, the quality of the furniture, floor coverings……)

5.         What are the displays around the classrooms like?  What can you discover about the topics being covered in the classes from the displayed work?

6.         How do the pupils conduct themselves at the beginning, during and end of the lesson?

Such visits then add to the bank of background information governors garner which can be deployed to good effect at meetings of the governing body and its committees when charting a course for future development and improvement.

Governors (individually) have no rights, powers and responsibilities.  These flow from the corporate governing body.   The headteacher, in a normal school day, is in charge and governors, at all times must respect her/him and the staff that serve at the school when visiting.

Sometimes, inspectors forget that governors are not meant to make judgements on the quality of teaching and learning and the standard of work of teachers.   Where inspectors make a negative judgement on governors over this function, they should promptly slap on a formal complaint to Ofsted and follow this up with another to the NGA, who will champion their cause.

IV        Being Effective

So what are governors meant to do with the information they have?

To answer this question, we need to ask two other questions: “What are the purposes of education?” and “What outcomes would we like to see for our young people?”  There is much disagreement about the answers to these.   Ofsted obsesses about pupil progress and achievement in the narrow terms of the core subjects (at primary level) and the gold standard of five good GCSEs and success in the English Baccalaureate.

I do believe that the litmus test for schools is much more than that. It is about enabling pupils to develop themselves to live fulfilled lives and to create a legacy that ensures that when they depart from their mortal coils they leave the planet in a better condition than they found it.   The trouble about this purpose is that the most valuable aspects of the kind of education that leads to these outcomes such as character development – fostering resilience, optimism, determination, emotional literacy, well-being and happiness – cannot be measured and if they can only with considerable difficulty.

If we value only those aspects of education that we can measure and ignore what are very valuable areas of education that are immeasurable we do so at our peril.  School governors are in the unique position to ensure that the balance is struck and maintained – whatever Ofsted and government think.

V         Key Findings in HMCI’s Report

And talking of Ofsted, the key findings in Sir Michael’s most recent annual report were as follows.

(i)         Nearly eight in 10 schools in England are now good or better – the highest proportion since Ofsted was founded 20 years ago.

(ii)        Around 485,000 more primary school pupils and 188,000 more secondary school pupils attend good or better schools compared with a year ago.

(iii)       Nearly a quarter of a million pupils are still languishing in inadequate schools.

(iv)       There are only three local authorities where fewer than 60 per cent of primary school pupils attend a good or better school compared with 23 local authorities in 2011/12.

(v)        Major concerns remain over secondary school provision in some parts of the country. In 13 local authorities fewer than half of secondary pupils attend good or outstanding schools.

(vi)       Inspectors judged teaching overall to be good or outstanding in 65% of schools, up three percentage points from last year.

(vii)      There were more English and mathematics lessons judged less than good than in many other parts of the curriculum

(viii)     Much of the weakest teaching in schools was concentrated in the lower attaining sets and in the younger age groups, in both primary and secondary schools.

(ix)       The significant growth in the number of academies over the last few years has helped to raise standards in many of England’s weakest schools.

(x)        Too few of the new converter academies are using their status to raise standards further.

(xi)       Poor White children, by far the largest proportion of children eligible for free school meals, are being left behind. Since 2007, the attainment of this group has improved more slowly than all other ethnic groups.

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