Governors need to up their game in challenging school/academy leadership, says Ofsted

1 Jan

The schools’ inspectorate Ofsted published a new report in December 2016 on the state of school governance, called Improving governance: Governance arrangements in complex and challenging circumstances.

The report is based on 2,632 responses to Ofsted’s public call for evidence last autumn, 96 routine inspections or monitoring visits, and dedicated visits made by inspectors to 24 schools which had recently improved standards. The report outlines the barriers faced by governors in these schools and the actions taken to strengthen their professional skills to fulfil their roles.

Ofsted’s report stated that governors often lack the necessary skills and training to challenge school leaders effectively. At one institution, the governing body accepted a senior leader’s assurance that the school budget was in a healthy position. A week later, the governors discovered that the school had a deficit of more than £300,000.

Weak governance is associated with governors’ lack of knowledge about pupil progress and achievement or budget management at their schools/academies. Governors’ failure to challenge their headteachers follows from this lack of knowledge, according to the report.   “When inspectors judge the leadership and management of a school to be less than good, a common underlying weakness is the failure of governors to hold school leaders to account,” the report states.

More than 2,000 respondents also told Ofsted that recruitment and retention of governors was a challenge. This was especially so in the poorest areas of the country. “The challenge in finding governors with the necessary knowledge and skills was often greater for those schools that were in areas where unemployment was high and qualifications low.”

In one school, parent governors told inspectors that they knew that teaching and learning were improving only because their own children had told them so. “On all of these boards, governors did not have enough knowledge about their roles and responsibilities,” the report stated. “These weak governing boards rarely looked outwards and often failed to keep up to date with developments in education. They tended to pay little attention to pupils’ outcomes.”

Consequently, governors lacked the ability to raise important issues, or to ask probing questions. They became over-reliant on their headteachers’ version of events.

Weak governance often remained undetected until the school/academy was inspected by Ofsted. Two-thirds of the schools/academies surveyed had not identified any weaknesses in governance until Ofsted had judged the schools/academies to be less than good.

I        Findings and Conclusions

The key findings of the report were as follows.

  • Many governors lack the expertise needed in an increasingly complex education system to hold school leaders to account.
  • Governors need better access to highly skilled people who have the educational expertise to help them meet the increased demands of their role.
  • Recruitment and retention of governors is a serious challenge, particularly in some of the poorest areas of the country.
  • Clarity about lines of accountability, roles and responsibilities is an essential part of effective governance.
  • Weak governance, including in some of the poorest areas of the country, is at risk of going undetected until the school is inspected by Ofsted.
  • Paying the chairs of governing bodies can act as a means to achieving a professional and open relationship between governors and school leaders.
  • Governors from within the community make an essential contribution, particularly in areas of deprivation.

II       Recommendations

Ofsted main recommendations to Governing Bodies, Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) and the Department for Education were as follows.

(1)        For Governing Boards

Governing boards of all schools/academies should do the following.

(a)     Ensure clarity of roles, responsibilities and lines of accountability for governance, particularly where multi-level governance makes accountability complex.

(b)     Publish information about governance on the school website in line with statutory requirements or the academy funding agreement to ensure transparency and clarity of roles and responsibilities[1].

(c)     Ensure that they have robust review methods in place to assure themselves that their boards are effective.

(d)     Secure professional support and governor training as needed to ensure effective governance.

(2)        Multi-Academy Trusts

Multi-academy trusts should undertake the following.

(a)     Review schemes of delegation annually and ensure that clear lines of accountability, back to trust board level, are understood and effective.

(b)     Publish each academy’s annually reviewed scheme of delegation on the website of the multi-academy trust and ensure that local governing boards, where they exist, fully understand their roles and responsibilities.

(c)     Ensure that local governing boards use support from experts across the trust and beyond to monitor closely the performance of the academies where they have delegated responsibility for doing so.

(3)        Department for Education

The Department for Education should consider publishing national quality standards to encourage schools/academies to continue to improve governance by undertaking robust self-assessment and making use of their findings

III     Reflections

The National Governors Association (NGA) was not surprised by these findings as they confirmed its own (findings) on what makes an effective governing body.  NGA’s long-established eight elements of effective governance set out the blocks needed for good governance. The absence of one or more blocks inevitably leads to less effective governing boards.

The NGA’s eight elements of effective governance are

  1. having the right people around the table;
  2. understanding roles and responsibilities;
  3. good chairing;
  4. professional clerking;
  5. good relationships based on trust;
  6. knowing the school/academy – the data, the staff, the parents, the children and the community;
  7. commitment to asking challenging questions; and
  8. confidence to have courageous conversations in the interests of children and young people.

The Ofsted report posited that paying the chairs of governing bodies could lead to more professional conversations with their headteachers.  However, Ms Emma Knights, Chief Executive of the NGA, disputed this. “There’s no evidence to show that paying governors improves governance,” she said. “Given that we’re all so strapped for cash, that doesn’t seem a very sensible use of money right now.”

[1] ‘What maintained schools must publish online’, Department for Education, updated November 2016; www.gov.uk/guidance/what-maintained-schools-must-publish-online

and ‘What academies, free schools and colleges must publish online’, Department for Education, June 2016; www.gov.uk/guidance/what-academies-free-schools-and-colleges-should-publish-online.

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