The Why, When, How and What of Governor Visits

31 Dec

I        Introduction

The governing board has four overarching functions, i.e.

  • develop the School’s/Academy’s strategy;
  • promote accountability, i.e. hold the headteacher and staff to account in promoting educational excellence as well as hold themselves to account on the same subject where the parents, general public and the government are concerned;
  • act as the school’s/academy’s critical friend; and
  • secure the school’s/academy’s finances by living within the institution’s means, ensuring that money is spent where it should be spent and securing good value for money.

The rule of thumb is that the governors keep a step removed from the headteacher and staff and not involve themselves in the detail of running the school/academy. This makes good sense as it means that governance and management do not get in the way of each other.  Besides, many governors have day jobs – especially those that have not retired – and will not have the time to fiddle with the day-to-day workings of the institution.

So how do governors know that the headteacher and staff are doing what they should be doing so that they can discharge their function as critical friends – i.e. the third function (see above) while maintaining a respectful distance?   Governors do their work on a voluntary basis and have lives – of work, rest and play – outside the institutions they govern.  It consequently makes sense that they maintain oversight rather than engage in day-to-day decision-making. While many hands make light work, too many cooks often spoil the broth.

II      The Why

Governing the school/academy well is predicated on the information governors garner.  Information is gleaned from three sources – third-, second- and first-hand.   Members of the public – especially parents and carers – and Ofsted (when they audit the quality of education during their inspections) provide third-hand information. The headteacher and staff generally provide second-hand information at meetings of the governing board.   And first-hand information, which is critical to validate and triangulate details of the school’s/academy’s workings, is gathered from visits to the institution.

All sources of data are necessary before governors can judge how well their schools/academies are doing, including but not exclusively during visits to the institution.  A health warning, here.  Much credence can be given to the picture that a governor gleans from visits, but, second- and third-hand information should not be neglected.   Remember, the pictures that the school/academy generates for governors during visits are snapshots of the education it is offering the children.   They are incomplete.   However, visiting the school/academy is necessary and should be followed with written reports to the headteacher and governing board.  In this manner, the board develops a composite photograph of the school/academy over time.

III      The When

What should be the frequency of visits?  There is nothing laid down about how often a governor should visit the school/academy.  However, it seems to me that visiting the school/academy during the working time at least two or three times annually – for half-a-day a time – is a good rule of thumb.  Also, new governors should arrange school/academy visits as soon after they take up their positions on the board as possible.

Ensure that visits are conducted at “sensible” times of the year.  Avoid times such as the Standard Assessment Tests week and the two months of the examination period during the summer.

Some governing boards have done well to arrange visits weeks over the academic year.   During a visit week, governors do a “blitz” popping into the school/academy – of course, with the agreement of the board, the headteacher and staff.   However, it is important for both, staff and governors, to acknowledge that these visits are not Ofsted inspections.  Rather, the governors are at the institution to see and celebrate good practice as well as to highlight concerns with a view – not to denigrate – but make things better.

IV       The How

For a governor visit to be effective it is important that it is conducted as professionally as possible. All governors – including the headteacher and the staff representatives on the board – should create and adopt a policy on governor visits so that they are clear about the purposes and the way these visits are conducted.

So that governors do not get into the way of one another, it is helpful for the board to allocate discrete responsibilities among the members for oversight of the different areas of the curriculum and/or year groups. Accordingly, there could be a governor with responsibility for English, another for Personal, Social, Sex and Health Education, a third for the Performing Arts and so on.

To start with, all stakeholders must agree that governors govern and the headteacher manages.  This means that while the headteacher is a servant of the governing board – especially during meetings of the board and its committees – governors do not have any powers to exercise when carrying out a school/academy visit during a normal working day. Rather, the headteacher is primus inter pares. Visiting governors must demur to her/him.

It is courteous and necessary for a governor to request the headteacher’s permission to visit the school/academy and give her/him enough notice. Once the date and time has been arranged, the governor could schedule appointments with the relevant staff members – such as the year group leader and/or the English coordinator.   Both, the governor and the staff member, would do well to acknowledge each other’s workload and accommodate rather than place obstacles in the way of the visit.  During the initial conversation, the governor must clarify the purpose of the visit and what s/he will be seeking from it.

The governor would have already had prior information of how the school/academy was doing in the area which will come under scrutiny.   For instance, if it is to oversee work in mathematics, the governor would have had access to the mathematics policy, the progress and achievements of pupils and the targets that the school/academy hopes to hit by the end of the current academic year.   No governor should go into a school/academy visit blind.

From the second and third-hand information that is available, the governor could begin to frame questions that are sent to the school leader/s in advance of and signal what s/he would like to see during the visit.  Strong links must be made to the School’s/Academy’s Development Plan.

Questions could also arise during the visit and may be directed at the appropriate staff members during or at the end of the visit.   Here is a sample.

  • How is the school/academy currently performing?
  • Are some parts more effective than others and if so why?
  • Are some groups of pupils doing better than others and if so why?
  • How does the school’s/academy’s current achievements compare with those previously?
  • How does the school’s/academy’s performance compare with that of other institutions?

For visits to be successful it is important for a governor to know not just what to do but also what to avoid doing.

  • No governor should comment on the quality of teaching. That is the role of headteacher, senior members of the management team and Ofsted inspectors.
  • Avoid interfering with the day-to-day running of the school/academy. If a governor spots mal-practice, it is imperative that s/he reports that back to the headteacher.

Following a visit, leave a written record of the impressions left.  (See Appendix.)  Stress the positive and highlight anything negative you observe by way of questions.  Just as children learn much by adults asking them questions and making them discover the answers for themselves, so also do we adults – and that includes the headteacher and staff of the institution.

At the end of the written report give an opportunity to the staff member – say the co-ordinator of the curriculum area which you observed – to comment on the visit.   Remember, the visit is a dialogue between the governor and the school/academy, not a monologue.

V      The What

The Key, a governors’ organisation, describes monitoring visits as occasions when governors

  • see how a specific aspect of the school/academy works in practice and
  • check progress is being made towards the school’s/academy’s strategic objectives.

There are at least two kinds of visits.

The first is a ‘learning walk’ where a governor is or several goernors are taken around the school/academy with the appropriate staff members to soak up the atmosphere and activities of the pupils and staff. During such a walk it is common for governors to talk to pupils and/or staff members to find out what is going on – i.e. what is being taught and what is learnt.

The second type of visit is when a governor dips into the lessons of teachers.  If the focus is on history – it will be history lessons – and so on.   This is generally followed by a meeting with the coordinator for the subject where the governor feeds back on her/his impressions and seeks to learn more about how the subject is being developed and the progress that the pupils are making.

Such a visit provides the opportunity

  • to validate the information that the headteacher and staff members are providing governors at meetings of the board and its committees;
  • learn about educational initiatives;
  • understand how policies are working in practice;
  • learn about what the pupils’ experiences are at the school/academy directly from the pupils; and
  • ensure that all staff members are singing from the same song-sheet on the School’s/Academy’s Development Plan.



Governor’s Visit



Name of Governor



Focus of visit Date of visit
Class visited



Brief notes of visit








Three Positive Comments











Three questions arising from the visit











Teacher’s observations of visit










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