Ofsted’s Take on Good Governance

25 Aug

What exactly are Ofsted’s views of good governance are, given that there are so many interpretations hanging around in the educational mist?   Two useful sources have been the National Governors’ Association’s (NGA’s) South East England and West Midland’s Conferences held in the Spring Term 2014.

I           Senior HMI Emma Ing

Senior HMI Emma Ing, speaking at NGA’s South-East conference, said that effective governance was fundamental to schools getting to “good”.  While education in England has improved massively in recent years, governors in poorly performing schools had to do more to arrest mediocre teaching and weak leadership, she remarked.

HMI Ing praised London schools for reducing the gap in achievement between disadvantaged pupils i.e. those who have a Pupil Premium entitlement – and the more well-heeled ones.   In fact, a recent report from the inspectorate stated that schools were now spending the extra money “more effectively” than at any other time since this resource was injected into the system in 2011.  [The much better A level results in 2014 of pupils on free school meals (FSM) is evidence of this – at the time of writing.] Spending has been on hiring extra teachers, booster classes, reading support and learning mentors, among other things.

However, she added, the rest of the South East had fallen behind.   (The statistics reveal that West Berkshire is the worst county in the country.)   White, working class children are the main casualties.  The underachievement of this cadre of children is one of the main barriers to preventing English schools from being the best in the world.

Governors have often wondered how they can “measure” the ethos of the school.   A litmus test is pupil behaviour – not just the behaviour one observes in classrooms and around the school but also the on-task behaviour devoted to pupils’ focus on what is being taught.   One of Ing’s favourite questions to a year 7 pupil when visiting a school is who she/he thinks is “cool in year 11”.   If the pupil replies that it is the young person who smokes behind the bike-shed, then it is more than likely that this child will emulate that young person in four to five years’ time.

She mentioned that headteachers come and go but a governing body stays on forever. This is curious, because governors also come and go, as all people come and go.  However, the positions, such as headship, and the bodies – such as the governing body – remain constant.

In the plenary, following a role-play session in which governors were invited to behave as inspectors during a school visit, HMI Ing asked the delegates what they had learnt.   One said: “We just need to ask simple questions like why we are at the bottom of the quartile.” Another added:  “We need to probe more deeply into the information with which we are presented.

I wonder whether the governor-delegates who were there realised that what HMI Ing did at the end was what she expects a good teacher to do at the conclusion of a lesson, i.e. demonstrate how well the pupils have learnt by providing the feedback that she asked of the governors.

II          NGA’s West Midland’s Conference

The regional director of Ofsted in the West Midlands, Lorna Fitzjohn, who was the first speaker at the NGA’s West Midland’s conference, began in an upbeat manner stating that the proportion of schools judged to be “good” or better had been swelling year-on-year despite the inspection regime having become more challenging and daunting.   Effective governance had been a fundamental requirement for this to have happened.

Where schools were failing children was in inconsistencies at every level – from regional to within schools, Lorna Fitzjohn said.

Governor effectiveness, she explained, would be measured in a number of ways by the inspectors – through a scrutiny of the minutes of meetings of the governing body and its committees, notes of meetings with the headteacher and inspectors’ exchanges with pupils and their parents about their interaction with governors.  [Clearly, there is a need for governors to establish a more egregious school profile, as, in my experience, few pupils and parents know who the governors are.]

Lorna Fitzjohn said that governors must engage in self-evaluation. The analysis should include the impact of their work in current and future improvements.

She sounded a warning note.  Not only was it necessary for governors to have the right knowledge and skills.  What was more important was that they use these assets for the benefit of the school.   This would be possible only if governors first knew their schools well – the strengths and areas for development – or if you prefer – weaknesses: the good, bad and ugly about the schools where they serve.

Towards the end of her presentation, Lorna Fitzjohn encouraged governors to attend feedback sessions following Ofsted inspections.  I am very conscious that some chairs of governors discourage other members from attending such meetings, which is sad and unhelpful to the school.

III        Commentary

Most governors become governors to make a difference to the schools.  However, there are often substantial gaps between what governors do and what they are meant do for a number of reasons.

(i)            The first reason for this is because of governors’ ignorance about their role and responsibilities.  This can easily be remedied through training, in which many (though not, in my experience, all) governors engage.   Ignorance can also be addressed in two other ways (there may be more), i.e. by visiting the schools at which governors serve and seeing what happens firsthand, and through reading the papers for meetings in advance of them and keeping up to date with governance literature.

(ii)           The second factor responsible for the gap in what governors do and what they are meant to do is one of tension between governance and management.   The boundary separating the two is blurred. Some duties for which governors are responsible are, frankly, management matters – such as the recruitment and dismissal of staff, dealing with parental complaints and reviewing decisions of headteachers to exclude pupils for long periods or permanently.   However, there is no question that developing strategy is a prime function of governors; yet, many governing bodies are hardly, if ever, involved in working up their school development plans.   More often than not, headteachers draw up the schools’ plans and present them to governors at meetings of the governing bodies or their committees for approval.

On the other hand, some governors stray into areas that are clearly not within their purview – such as taking up (in the first instance) the complaints of parents.   Fortunately, this happens very infrequently.

(iii)          Thirdly, governors – who are volunteers and have day jobs – are being expected to spend increasing amounts of time (which they don’t have) on their duties.   They have to fit in a gallon of duties – i.e. earning a living, bringing up families, caring for relatives and school governance – into a pint-pot of time.   Former responsibilities of local authorities are now being discharged by school governors.

Apart from attending a minimum of three governing body meetings and three committee meetings a year, governors are now expected to attend training, read governance literature, visit their schools and set aside more time for away-days to (yes) frame the school development plan and carry out self-reviews.    The commitment expected can be off-putting and deter potentially capable people from serving on governing bodies.   It is laudatory for the over 300,000 volunteers to, nevertheless, offer to serve and do so much.   As an educational consultant, I salute them.

Perhaps, Ofsted, too, will recognise the huge contributions they make when next they visit the schools they inspect.

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