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Coping with the physical and mental damage of Covid-19

27 Aug

The summer term of 2020 will be memorable.  Who would have thought that when the new year broke, we would be on the cusp of experiencing the most gruelling time on this planet testing the leaders of schools and academies to the limit?  This is what precisely happened as we approached the end of the spring term.  Having originated in a market in Wuhan, China, at the tail-end of 2019, Covid-19, the virus, leapt from bats to humans.  Since then, this microscopic predator has wreaked havoc on humankind, laying low many people’s lives, devasting the world’s finances and disrupting civilization as we have known it.  The world’s scientists, at the time of writing, are frantically trying to find a cure to fight the enemy and a vaccine to stop it from entering humans and creating more mayhem.  At the earliest, they will not know if they are successful until the year ends and 2021 dawns.

Education – among most aspects of life – has been clobbered by Covid-19.

Schools and academies have been compelled to shut down during the summer term of 2020 and, at the time of writing, are directed to reopen in September 2020.  However, the government has a fight on its hands with the unions, especially as scientists have now discovered that youngsters from the age of 10 upwards can become infected with the virus and worse still, pass it on to adults – teachers, support staff and, of course, their parents.

School and academy leaders have on the one hand to do everything possible guard their communities – pupils and staff – from the virus and, on the other hand, act as “piggy-in-the-middle” between the government that is determined that institutions will open in September and the unions who justifiably fear for the lives of their members.   Their leadership will be severely tested trying to promote peace between two warring factions.

In the middle of it all are the children, who have suffered greatly, the poor and disadvantaged more than the rest.  In my mind’s eye, I see two bulls at war with each other – the government on the one hand and the unions on the other.  The ground on which they do battle are the schools and academies, and the lives that they imperil the most are the children.  I often wish that if they must fight, they take their feuds elsewhere.  However, they don’t, and they can’t.   The curious feature of this conflict is that both sides aver that they take the stance that they do in the best interests of the children.

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Ofsted 2019: How will governance be inspected?

31 Dec

I        Preamble

In March 2019, The Key, the governors’ organisation, interviewed Matthew Purves, the Deputy Director for Schools Inspection. In response to a question, Mr Purves said that governance would now be part of the overall judgement on leadership and management.   There would not be a separate judgement or grade for the quality of the work that governors do.

He acknowledged, in broad terms, that pupils’ standards of achievement had risen over the last score of years.  However, he admitted that the inspectors had been too focused on data rather than the quality of education, which was at the heart of the new framework.  In future, there would be “a single conversation about teaching quality and outcomes”.  To ensure that this was appropriately covered, he explained, inspectors would be asking the following questions.

  • What is it that the school/academy wants children to learn?
  • How does that translate into classroom practice?
  • How is that curriculum passed on through teaching?
  • How do teaching, learning and the quality of education impact on the standards children achieve?’

Ofsted will examine how well those “responsible for governance” deal with the following matters.

  • Understanding their role and how well they carry it out.
  • The school’s/academy’s vision, ethos, and strategic direction.
  • The management of resources.
  • The oversight of finance and ensuring that money, including the Pupil Premium Grant (PPG), is well spent.
  • How well governors hold the executive leaders (the headteacher or CEO, for example) to account for educational performance, the performance management of staff and the quality of education and training.
  • How well governors fulfil their statutory duties (like the ones placed on school/academy by the Equality Act 2010, the Prevent Strategy and Keeping Children Safe in Education).
  • The way governors promote the welfare of learners and ensure that the education the school/academy provides positively impacts on all pupils.

A full description of the judgement is on pages 11 to 12 of the inspection framework and page 66 to 67 of the inspection handbook.

The structure of education in England is messy, because of which there are multiple accountabilities.  In schools and standalone academies, people in charge of governance are governors.  In Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs), the responsibility for governance could lie with the trustees or the governors of the academies for which the trust board is responsible – or both.  Ofsted is keen to ensure that inspectors hold the right people to account.

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Dealing with conflicts on the governing board

31 Dec

It irks me when I hear someone say that there is considerable merit when people row with one another.  My prickles rise further when they add that conflicts are good for the soul.  They aren’t.  They frequently create win-lose situations.  At its worst, the outcome of a conflict involving two or more ends up with blood on the carpet. I have observed on several occasions how destructive conflicts have been during and in between meetings of the governing board.   Conflicts occur for a host of reason.

The first reason is a primeval one.  Our prehistoric ancestors responded with a fight-or-flight mindset, when confronted by danger.   If they fought, it was to win and for the enemy to lose.  If they lost, they either took flight or suffered fatalities.   It was a case of survival of the fittest.

Second, no one likes to lose and certainly not in front of spectators.  In the animal kingdom, the loser slinks away.  In human exchanges, often, there is nowhere to go but “to slink away”.   The loser feels trapped; the blood drains from the face and the conflicting encounter is followed by sleepless nights.

Conflicts are part of the human condition.  So, expect clashes at meetings of the governing board on contentious issues.   But they can be used to good effect.   Just as a kite soars high when it is confronts a gutsy wind, so also can great decisions be made by the governing board when members disagree with one another.

Conflicts can have positive outcomes, provided that there are certain ground rules.   However, if not managed carefully, they can cause ruination and chaos.

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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










How will inspectors assess governors as leaders?

12 Aug

From September 2019, Ofsted’s new inspection model takes effect.   There will not be a separate judgement for governors. Rather, inspectors will include a section on governance in their report subsuming governance practice into leadership and giving leadership a grade.   What does this mean?

I           The areas that will come under the microscope

Gulshan Kayembe, one of The Key’s associate experts who has experience of inspecting schools and academies, has described what the inspectors will be scrutinising when judging governance. Set out below are the key questions they will ask themselves prior to making judgements. For instance, do governors

  • understand their role and carry it out effectively;
  • ensure the school/academy has a clear vision, ethos, and strategic direction;
  • ensure resources are well managed;
  • hold executive leaders – the headteacher or the Chief Education Officer (CEO), for example – to account for educational performance and the performance management of staff;
  • oversee the financial performance of the school/academy, and ensure money is well spent (including the pupil premium);
  • hold leaders to account for the quality of education and staff training;
  • ensure the provider fulfils its statutory duties (complying with provisions of the Equality Act 2010, implementing the Prevent Strategyand abiding by the advice contained in Keeping Children Safe in Education);
  • promote the welfare of learners; and
  • ensure that the education the school/academy provided has a positive impact on all its pupils?

The full judgement on leadership covers a wide range of matters for which the school/academy leaders are responsible.

You can read a full description of the judgements vis-à-vis governance on pages 66 to 67 (paragraphs 233 to 241) of the inspection handbook.

In maintained schools, those responsible for governance are governors. In a single academy trust, it’s the trustees. In Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs), it may be local governors or trustees depending on the scheme of delegation.

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An effective clerk’s responsibilities to the governing board

4 Jan

I           The governing board’s tripod

The effectiveness of a governing board is dependent on a range of factors.  It is difficult to put these factors in a pecking order of importance.   However, every person on the governing board should operate with conscientious and probity by

(i)         discharging her/his responsibilities responsibly and

(ii)        acting in concert with the other governors to make the whole greater than that of the sum of the parts.

Three important people stand out with their noses just ahead of the rest of the members of the governing board. They are the chair, the headteacher and the clerk. The legislation prescribes that every school/academy must have a headteacher and chair on and a clerk serving the governing board. However, the headteacher may opt not to be a governor, though her/his attendance at the meetings is imperative.

  • The chair holds the reins of operations. S/he invests more time and effort than the rank and file of governors and is the port of call in emergencies.
  • The headteacher acts as the point of contact between the governing board and the school’s community, i.e. the pupils, staff and parents. S/he operates as a conduit for communication or (to mix my metaphors) a gatekeeper – ensuring that governors keep their noses out of issues of management.  However, the headteacher in the latter role – the management supremo – could also be obstructive – a definite no-no – and block governors from discharging their responsibilities.
  • Last, but by no means the least, every governing board has a clerk. In the halcyon days, the clerk operated as a glorified cleric (in a non-religious way).   Not so any more.

Much has been written about the role of the chair and the headteacher, vis-à-vis governors’ efficiency and effectiveness; much less about the role of the clerk.  The National Governors’ Association has spearheaded training for clerks so that they can understand governance, develop knowledge, secure the skills necessary to service the needs of governors and governing boards and act as the governing board’s trusted adviser.  It is a vital role for governors to discharge their responsibilities responsibly if the governing board is to act efficiently and effectively, adding value to the school/academy.

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Clerking Governing Bodies Professionally

18 Aug

I        The Clerk Competency Framework and how it can be used

Not so long ago, the National Governors’ Association proposed that the clerk to the governing board should be renamed the “director of governance”.   This is unsurprising, as the responsibilities of the clerk have grown in proportion to those of the governors she/he serves.

In April 2017, the Department for Education (DfE) published a competency framework for clerking.  It provides non-statutory guidance on what it takes to make clerks effective in maintained schools, academies and multi-academy trusts.

How can the framework be used?

Governing boards can use the framework in several ways.

(i)         The first is to understand the role of professional clerking and how it can improve governance.

(ii)        They can treat the competencies as a template for a person specification when recruiting clerks.

(iii)       The framework may be used to set clerks their objectives and for performance appraisals.

(iv)       Finally, the document may be used to identify where improvements may be required in the service they receive from their clerk.

In turn, professional clerks can use the framework to assess their own practice and identify their training needs.

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Governors’ effectiveness: skills and knowledge not enough

18 Aug

The Department for Education (DfE) exhorts governing bodies to recruit governors in accordance with the skills.  This is best achieved if the governing board carries out a skills audit prior to the recruitment process to see what skills gaps exist.  The National Governors’ Association (NGA) has an excellent template for governors to engage in such a skills audit.  However, it is not possible to use the template unless the governors are members.

Tap into the Google search machine – Governors’ Skills Audit – and you will access 620 links.  Once the governing body knows what it wants, it begins the trawling process and, if savvy, seeks the help of the Schools Governors’ One-Stop Shop (SGOSS) and/or Inspiring Governors to help it get what it wants.  Both organisations carry out with great efficiency the task of finding governing bodies suitable persons – with legal expertise, financial nous, human resources know-how, curriculum proficiency and many other skills.

Over 300,000 school governors are required in England alone.   Our schools depend on their largesse to serve and contribute without the expectation of being remunerated or even given a stipend.   Several schools carry governor vacancies.  Inner city ones have several vacancies and are hard-pressed to find people willing to contribute their time and talent to their local schools.

At a time when the country’s economy is not exactly in good shape, many in society are scratching around for a living, providing for their families and making ends meet.   Altruism is in short supply and hard to come by.   The upshot is that a governing board is often keen to appoint anyone who breathes as a member.    However, it does so at its peril.

Skills are vital – more so than experience, albeit how many years someone has served as a governor could be advantageous.   The question is what is the quality of that experience.   Experience of engaging in bad practice is worse than having no experience of being a governor.  There is no fool like an old one.

So, what can be done to ensure that one’s governing board has members who are not just functional but also flourishing.  Having the right skills and experience are important but there are other requirements if governors are to be effective.

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Planning for the financial year: timetable of activities

18 Apr

Governors’ responsibilities have grown (with their powers) like Topsy.  That 350,000 citizens in this country chose to become governors is amazing, given that they are required to discharge these responsibilities for the love of their schools and the children in them in their spare time.   It is, therefore, critical to plan work annually to ensure that governors do not collapse under the pressures stemming from the responsibilities they must bear.  Set out below (with some help of The Key, a governors’ organisation) are the tasks that governors are required to undertake and suggestions about when precisely they should be tackled.

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The challenge of governance

18 Apr

In the report of the inspectorate, Ofsted, Improving governance: Governance arrangements in complex and challenging circumstances, published in December 2016, a key recommendation was that governors secure clarity of roles, responsibilities and lines of accountability.  This is a bit of a tall order, given that the boundaries between governance and management are blurred.

There are a few things, however, that are clear.

First, no governor – apart from the Chair who can act in an emergency – has powers s/he can exercise and certainly not in school on a normal working day.  These powers are reposed in the Headteacher.  The powers of governors lie with the corporate governing body, which some governors find irksome given individuals’ penchant for control over others.    However, most governors welcome acting in concert and, certainly, no governor would want to be held personally liable if anything goes pear-shaped – especially in finance.

Second, governors are responsible for developing the strategy of a school, i.e. setting out the overarching objectives in the School Development Plan (SDP), determining the overall expenditure for the year in the light of the budget received but giving the Headteacher space to meet the objectives and spend the budget in line with the levels of expenditure agreed with the governors for the different areas of school life.

Thirdly, governors hold the headteacher and her/his senior management team to account – checking out how well the objectives are met and ensuring that the expenditure is in line with the plans made and that senior school staff members operate in an ethical manner.

The third area – the accountability – is daunting because of the requirement for governors to offer “challenge”.  This word has become hackneyed.  As clerk to several governing bodies, I am constantly pressed by governors to ensure that in the minutes I include the word, “challenge” repeatedly to please Ofsted inspectors, whenever they do pay a visit.  At such times, I wince.  Often, the casualty of “challenge” is “support”, i.e. working in collaboration with the headteacher and her/his senior colleagues.   Challenge and support are not exclusive but rather complementary – two sides of the same coin marked “school improvement”.

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