Coping with failure

Since September 1993 the Office for Standards in Education has identified more than 229 schools as failing or "in need of special measures" (2 per cent of the primary and secondary schools inspected). Fifteen have since improved sufficiently to be removed from the special measures register, and 11 have been closed.

Governing bodies have played an important part in improving failing schools and the experiences of some of them have been examined by Action for Governors' Information and Training (AGIT), the governor training network, with the support of the Department for Education and Employment.

Most governing bodies were unaware that their school was likely to fail the inspection. These bodies were usually not operating at their most effective: they had rarely focused on the standards achieved by pupils, and many were only partially fulfilling their legal responsibilities.

Many saw their role largely in traditional terms of attending school functions and endorsing the decisions of the head. Others felt they had been prevented from fulfilling their responsibilities.

The response of staff and governors to the news that their school had been found wanting was usually one of shock. This was soon followed by anger and the rejection of the message andor the messenger. Either the process or the inspectors were said to be at fault. However, these immediate responses were soon tempered, and staff and governors quickly came to terms with the reality of the situation confronting them. Acceptance of the inspectors' findings was invariably completed by the first visit of HM Inspectors to verify the initial findings.

One of the first tasks of the governing body was to provide support for teachers. Failing had had a devastating effect on the self-esteem of both staff and pupils. Individuals were likely to feel bruised and unvalued, and there was often a major morale-building job to be done. Strains were likely to continue as school inspectors (usually two or three at a time) embarked upon regular monitoring visits to talk to heads and observe classroom practice.

The task of re-motivating fell mainly on the head in primary schools and senior staff in secondaries. In turn, the schools' senior managers often looked to the governing body to provide the necessary support and to approve the resources to enable the school to progress. This could take the form of authorising spending on training or simply being available to talk with staff when needed. An analysis of staff training needs and an audit of the governing body made it clear what needed to be done.

Governors thought there was little point in agonising over the past. It was more important to stress that the inspection had provided the school with a better understanding of what had to be done in order for the school to improve. Careful handling of the media was also crucial.

Parents were generally found to be supportive. This support was encouraged by stressing the positive and by keeping parents informed by, for example, holding a parents' meeting at the time of the report's publication. The period between the inspection itself and publication of the report to parents was the most difficult, and there was a need to maintain confidentiality and prevent rumours spreading. It was during this period that the school and governing body had to be most active: the 40 days allowed to produce an action plan following receipt of the report.

Inspectors' findings gave governors new insight into the quality of the leadership of their school. Just over one half of the failing schools investigated experienced a change of headteacher, either just before or fairly soon after the inspection. There are, of course, many reasons for a head's leadership to falter - incompetence may be one - but, whatever the reason, the problem of poor or inadequate leadership at all levels had to be dealt with quickly. So too had under-performance of classroom teachers.

The first thing most governors did was to seek advice, usually from the local authority. Governing bodies acting alone are rarely able to make the necessary professiona l judgments about staff performance, nor are they likely to have detailed knowledge of appropriate personnel procedures.

Not all the schools which had made considerable progress since their inspection had got a new head or experienced major changes to their staff. In some cases the intensive training and development of existing staff, along with classroom monitoring and a greater awareness of what is required of them (particularly in terms of raising expectations), had been sufficient.

The staff had to be seen, and see themselves, as part of the solution to the school's difficulties, not the problem. The governing body had to ensure plans for improvement were in place, to look to outside support and advice where needed, and to back up the headteacher if some teachers were resistant to change.

Teachers have the greatest influence on the level of pupils' achievements,so governors therefore gave urgent priority to improvement plans and staffing matters - by both making good appointments and encouraging training.

Governors needed to balance their support of the head and responsibility to the pupils against the requirements of employment legislation. Again the importance of drawing upon the available expertise in personnel matters, most obviously from the local authority or diocesan board, cannot be overstated.

Addressing issues of staff competence was both time-consuming and traumatic. Matters were made all the more difficult for governors by the fact that not every member of the governing body can be kept informed of developments. There was a need for some governors to remain "untainted" to enable them to serve on appeals committees.

The post-OFSTED action plan sets out how the governing body will address the key issues identified by the inspectors. It provides a unique opportunity for governors to become fully involved in the school. However, research shows that governors often play little or no part in the creation of the action plan.

The first failing schools found action planning very difficult, largely because there was little advice available until the DFEE issued guidance last year. Governing bodies found it helpful to form sub-committees or working parties to guide the development of the action plan or to work on key issues. These groups enabled governors and staff as well as LEA or diocesan board members to work together.

Governors in these schools were involved in the whole process - although not all were involved in everything - from the formulation of the draft action plan to the monitoring of progress on individual key issues.

The most common criticism of draft action plans centred on inadequate arrangements for monitoring improvement. Governors needed to balance their involvement in the detail of the plan against the need to assess it objectively.

Producing and monitoring the action plan means governors becoming more directly involved in curriculum matters and the raising of standards. Some governors attached themselves to particular school departments or curriculum areas, or took part in staff appointments and visits to other schools. Making the governing body better informed about the school meant, for both staff and governors, a change of culture: governors became more aware of how they could influence events, and the partnership between teachers and the governing body improved mutual understanding and trust.

The local or church authorities may wish to strengthen the governing body.The legislation allows the appointing authority to bring in people to make the governing body more effective. Head-teachers and governors may also seek new recruits to add expertise by filling any vacancies.

Schools who have made considerable progress since their inspections have not experienced mass resignations of governors. Nor has the appointment of new or additional governors in a small number of the schools involved in the AGIT research led to polarised governing bodies made up of "A" teams and "B" teams.

For governors of failing schools the learning curve is likely to be steep.Governors of such schools often have not been operating effectively or have a limited understanding of their role, particularly in relation to the curriculum and helping to raise pupil achievements. This is a criticism that could be levelled at many governing bodies, not only those of "failing" schools.

Peter Earley is a lecturer at the Oxford Centre for Education Management, Oxford Brookes University.

Schools in Need of Special Measures - a Governors' Guide is available from AGIT (01926-413740) for #163;1 (#163;1.25 for non-members).

OFSTED's From Failure to Success: How Special Measures Are Helping Schools Improve is free. Tel: 0171 510 0180

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