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What’s in it for me?

1 Jan

As we stand on the cusp of another US Presidential inaugural address and, with bated breath, wait to hear what the newly elected President-designate, Trump, has to say on 20 January 2017, I cannot help recalling John Kennedy’s speech 56 years ago, in particular, his stirring conclusion: “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country……..Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask for you…..”

We have just come out of the festive Christmas season.   In many households, the occasion brought a glut of excess – over-eating, over-sleeping, over-drinking and everything else that could smack of degeneracy.   However, it was also a season of giving. In particular, I am thinking of the thousands, if not millions, of those who gave up their own celebrations to be of comfort and bring happiness, joy and companionship to those that were much less fortunate than themselves.  In particular, I pay tribute to Crisis at Christmas, which established centres all of the country, providing succour to thousands of homeless people – with warmth, food, drink, medical attention and counselling.   This would not have been possible without an army of volunteers.

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Green Paper: Schools that work for everyone

1 Jan

I        Preamble

On 12 September, the Government published the Green Paper, Schools that work for everyone, which the Department for Education (DfE) has taken off the websiteThe deadline for responses was 12 December 2016.   We now have to wait on the Secretary of State, Justine Greening, to give the nation a steer on where she wishes to go from here.

The Green Paper proposed a number of recommendations which, if implemented, will affect four discrete institutions:

  • Independent Schools
  • Universities
  • Selective Schools
  • Free Schools which are faith orientated

The proposals were issued against the background of increasing pressure on school places – especially good ones.  Primary numbers grew by 11% between 2010 and 2016. This will feed into the secondary sector for the rest of the life of this Parliament.   The most recent projections are that the primary school population is estimated to increase by a further 174,000 (3.9%) from the current year to 2020.  The secondary school population will rise by 284,000 (10.3%) over the same period.

While the Green Paper made it abundantly clear that the government would continue to support schools with the Pupil Premium Grant to promote the education of the most socially deprived children in our system – i.e. those entitled to free school meals (FSM) and in care – it expressed government concerns that those children whose families just fail to qualify – i.e. the just about managing (JAM) – were being short-changed.

Children entitled to FSM come from families in one of these classifications. Those in receipt of

  • Income Support
  • Income-Based Jobseekers Allowance
  • Income-Based Employment and Support Allowance
  • Child Tax Credit
  • Working Tax Credit
  • Universal Credit

This effectively means that if either parent/carer is earning more than £16,190 annually, the child does not qualify for FSM.  In January 2016, the national average for those entitled to FSM was 14.3%. The government is, however, worried about children in families on modest incomes who do not qualify for such benefits but are, nevertheless struggling financially.

Information on the educational achievements of such children is opaque as it melds with data on those who come from well-heeled backgrounds.  Accordingly, the first two questions that the Green Paper posed for us were as follows.

  • How can we identify such children?
  • How can we better understand the impact of policy on a wider cohort of pupils whose life chances are profoundly affected by school but who may not qualify or apply for free school meals?

So what plans does the government has for the four groups set out above?

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Ofsted Annual Report 2015/16

1 Jan

Preamble

Sir Michael Wilshaw, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools (HMCI), published his fifth and final Ofsted annual report on the education system in England on Thursday, 1 December 2016.  He retired 30 days later.  In presenting the report, Sir Michael said “a world class education system is within our grasp – but only if serious capacity challenges are urgently addressed”.

Sir Michael stressed that a north/south ‘geographical divide’ meant the ablest pupils in the North and Midlands were less likely to reach A/A* at GCSE. He said: “Standards can only truly be considered high if they are high in every part of the country and for all pupils regardless of background or ability.”

However, his report is, in the main, positive.    The country’s schools/academies, he avers, had made progress over the last five years. Educators could be justly proud.  “Young people are getting a better deal than ever before,” he said.  School/academy leaders responded well to the changes in the system.  The decision to replace the “satisfactory” judgement with “requires improvement” led to schools/academies upping their game, making a greater effort ensuring that pupils are offered the very best possible education.     Of the former 4,800 satisfactory primary schools/academies, 79% were now good or outstanding and, of the previous satisfactory secondary ones, 56% were good or better.

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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.

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Towards good governance: mind the pitfalls

28 Aug

I           Preamble

Ministers and civil servants of the Department for Education (DfE) exhort schools to populate our governing bodies with governors who are knowledgeable and have discrete skills in areas such as human resources, estate management, finance and the law, among other things.  Where governors have gaps in knowledge, they are encouraged to read and train to discharge their responsibilities well.   The National Governors’ Association (NGA) has produced an excellent skills audit for governing bodies to identify and plug the gaps in knowledge and skills.

However, like a football team comprising talented players, a governing body may well have members who are both, knowledgeable and skilled, in all the identified areas, yet fail to function like a well-oil machine.  Why?

When I was a teacher and planned residential trips for groups of pupils, I organised games for them at the end of an arduous day’s work.  One game I played was to ask children to walk from point A to point B blindfolded.   Between the two points, I would place obstacles and invited each child to remember where these were placed by taking a good look before putting on the blindfold.  The children took it in turns to do so.  The one that succeeded did not touch any obstacle.

Often, when the “chosen one” began the journey, her/his peers shouted out instructions about the direction in which the child should move and the obstacles s/he was to avoid.      It was a great challenge which the youngsters enjoyed enormously. Sometimes, before the blindfolded child began the journey, I would mischievously take away all the obstacles. It was great fun to hear peers shouting “Left!”, “Right!” and “Straight”, “Avoid this!” and “Beware of that!” when there were no obstacles on the way and to see the surprised face of the “chosen one” at the end of the journey when the blindfold was removed.

The lesson that I learnt (and hoped the children did too) was that when embarking on a journey it is as important to know what to do as what not to do, to get from point A to point B.   For governors to be classed as “Outstanding” by Ofsted and others, it is no different.

So, what can governors do and avoid doing to succeed by minding the pitfalls and gaps?   There are (in broad terms) two groups and one individual comprising the (governing) body, per se.   The first group comprises the patricians – i.e. the Chair and Headteacher; the second group is made up of the plebeians – the rest of the members; and finally, we have the clerk, the servant of the governing body.  Each category has issues which can act as hazards.   Continue reading

The “how” is at least as important as the “what” and the “why” of good governance

9 Apr

I           The “What” and the “Why”

The advice streaming out of the Department for Education (DfE) to governors is all about ensuring that they have the knowledge and skills necessary to discharge their functions.  The government obsesses so much about these aspects that it is planning to legislate for schools and academies to do away with parental representation on their governing bodies. And where the governing body wishes to have parental representation, it will be required to ensure that the parents are knowledgeable and skilled in school governance.  (See 3.29 to 3.35 of the White Paper, Educational Excellence Everywhere.)

However, let us address a simple question first.  Will having knowledgeable and skilled governors on boards be enough for the governing body to operate effectively and make the right, positive impact on the quality of education, teaching and learning and pupil progress and achievement?  I don’t think so.

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The “Governance” of Multi-Academy Trusts

9 Apr

I        Preamble

A Multi-Academy Trust (MAT) is a group of semi-independent schools – formally called academies, which have clubbed together.  The trust is accountable to the Department for Education.   There are now about 5,000 academies in the country.  Altogether, 48% of these are in some kind of group arrangement.  Local authority maintained federated schools are not unlike MATs.

With government determine to convert every single school into an academy, it is, perhaps, apposite for us to give some thought and time to reviewing how a MAT should govern.

A MAT is a single legal structure that is responsible for several academies within it.  A board of trustees/directors governs the MAT.  However, more often than not, it delegates considerable powers to local academy committees/governing bodies.  An academy trust has articles of association, the legal governing document that sets out the composition and procedures for the academy trust.   However, this must not be confused with the scheme of delegation that every MAT should have to clarify the roles and responsibilities of

(i)         the trust body;

(ii)        the body that has oversight of an academy;

(iii)       the chief executive; and

(iv)       the headteacher of each academy.

With the local authorities in a kind of financial free-fall, schools have had to find other ways of operating in collaboration with one another.   They do it mainly through MATs or federations to

  • pool and deploy resources more efficiently;
  • share professional expertise and learn from one another;
  • offer career opportunities for talented and/or ambitious staff members;
  • improve the quality of education for the pupils; and,
  • ultimately improve pupil progress and achievement

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Leaving a Legacy

5 Jan

The start of a new year gives us the opportunity to act Jason-like, looking into two directions: backwards – on the year that has passed and to the future – the one ahead, setting out plans for the future while also wondering what events are likely to unfold.    Reflecting on past successes and failures and pondering how we can build on those successes and learning from failures are always compelling.

Commentators are awash with reflections about the past.  Optimists are keen to look to the future to confront the world and its problems and leave an impact for the positive, possibly a legacy by which they will be remembered when long gone.

In the last issue of The Times Educational Supplement of 2015, Sir Tim Brighouse, former Schools Commissioner for London and Chief Education Officer for Birmingham, however, wrote: “Seeking a legacy is fool’s gold: so often it’s seen as the bedfellow of hubris….”

To prove his point, he describes politicians keen to leave a “legacy of initiatives as an essential platform for the next step in their careers”.

Fortunately, he did not write that it is “always seen as a bedfellow of hubris”.  Sir Tim particularly aims his revolver at politicians of all persuasions who run our educational system.  He mentions the plethora of education acts that have littered the corridors of educational history.  More recently, the ex-Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, introduced (or imposed if you prefer to be more aggressive), the English Baccalaureate, synthetic phonics, a new primary curriculum, a mystical assessment system, new GCSE gradings, the end of coursework and the proscription of BTEC courses, among other things.  Continue reading

Chief Inspector to turn his sights on school governance in 2016

5 Jan

I           Sir Michael Wilshaw’s thoughts on school/academy governance

In a commentary he published on 19 November 2015, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools (HMCI), Sir Michael Wilshaw, said that he would be turning his attention to school governance, similar to the study he did of primary schools in October 2015.

He paid tribute to the overwhelming majority of governors who do wonderful work in very difficult circumstances, stating: “There are thousands of people across the country, who give up their time to serve on governing boards. We know that the majority take their duties very seriously and act responsibly and in the interests of the whole-school community.

“Inspectors find that in many schools, governors and trustees are making an important contribution to raising standards and lifting aspiration. The best of these champion the school in the local community and take great pride in the success of their pupils.”

However, these welcome words appear only after, in his usual “headmasterly” way, he sets out what governors are supposed to do and chastising the few who fail to do so.

By way of preamble, he trots out the obvious. “The …… increasingly autonomous education system over the past five years, including the rapid growth of academies and free schools, has placed more power into the hands of governing boards than ever before,” he remarks.

He reminds governors and trustees that they have responsibility for setting out their schools’ and academies’ visions, ethos and strategic direction.  No surprise there.

He adds that governors “have to be perceptive people who can challenge and support” their headteachers/principals “in equal measure and know when and how to do this”, warning them that they should not overstep the mark by trying to run their schools/academies by themselves.   The Chief Executive of the National Governors’ Association (NGA) had already put this strategy pithily by exhorting governors and trustees to operate in an “Eyes on, hands off” manner.  Continue reading

Drive to alter school structure seen as key to raising standards

5 Jan

I           Plans to convert every state school into an academy

Prime Minister David Cameron said that by the end of this parliament – i.e. 2020 – he intended to convert all secondary schools into academies.  The Times Educational Supplement (TES), in its first issue of 2016, wrote that ministers were considering publishing a White Paper to formalise plans to convert every state school into an academy.   Of the 23,500 (circa) institutions in the country, there are now over over 4,500 academies – 2,075 secondary (comprising 61.4% of all secondary schools) and 2,440 primary 14.6% of all primary schools).

Also, in a speech he made in March 2015, the Prime Minister pledged that he would open 500 new free schools in the following five years.   He averred that state-funded, start-up schools were “raising standards and restoring discipline”. Free schools can be established by academy sponsors, teachers and groups of parents. They operate outside local authority control. Continue reading