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‘Governors govern unpaid in our spare time. By way of thanks, we are subject to intense cross-examination’

Joe Chaise, the chair of governors at a primary in the south east of England, writes:

I have spent the past week swotting for Ofsted. By slightly underhand means, I obtained a list of more than forty questions that inspectors had already asked of governors of schools in my local authority area. It has given me a chance to rehearse answers to queries such as: "give me an example of a time when you have had to challenge the head teacher?" and, "how effectively do governors fulfil the full range of their statutory duties?".

There are complex factual questions. “What have you learned about the school from the RAISEonline data”, for example, as well as enquiries that require judgement and detailed knowledge, “how do governors track how pupil premium is allocated and the impact that it is having on standards?”, for example.

Looking through the list after it fell into my hands, I realised that after five years as a fairly hands-on chair of governors (COG), I could answer about half off the top of my head – albeit with threadbare evidence to support some of my assertions. There was no question that this would be enough to impress the inspectors, so my headteacher and I have spent the week just gone working up our answers.

In some cases, gaps in my understanding of the school’s work have been beneficially plugged. I had only a hazy notion of what UPS stood for, much less how we were using our "upper pay scale" staff to drive up attainment. I jolly well do now, and have acquired a modest file of evidence in respect of initiatives in hand to achieve this end.

In other cases, we have retrospectively worked up paper trails to cover bases that perhaps were neglected. The governing body had not paid much attention to the continuing professional development (CPD) of our senior leadership team (perhaps because of the time expended on the assistant head, whose observed lessons have been consistently "inadequate" and who is consequently going through "capability"). Nonetheless, we now have a minute of a discussion about CPD between governors and the head that, once noted by the next Whole Governing Body, will cover our backs.

It is a deception, to be sure, but at the milder end of the scale. The last time one of the primaries in our pyramid was inspected, its headteacher sent their most disruptive pupils away for the day on a surprise trip that was supervised by the school’s weakest teachers. It is a trick that is harder to get away with these days – but it is just one in an armoury deployed by wily heads.

At my school, we have to do well. We serve an economically-challenged neighbourhood and, as noted above, we have two senior staff members who, most observers agree, are impeding progress. Partially as a result of this, our data is not brilliant, and unless we can make everything else in the school look like it is running with determined efficiency, there is a real danger that we will go into a category.  

But lifting my eyes from the questions on which I will be examined, it is hard not to wonder whether this effort will actually benefit the school and the children in our care?

It has brought some rigour to some of the scrutiny that governors must apply to their schools. The days of playing cheerleader for the staff and pupils are gone. At a recent Ofsted event that I attended, the head who recited from memory the results of their last teaching observations won plaudits. A counterpart who haughtily told the room that "in my school I consider all the teaching to be outstanding", was told in no uncertain terms that she was clearly "part of the problem" herself.

But are we also "governing to the test" – to adapt a pejorative phrase – with issues as potentially troubling as those of a drill-and-kill approach in the classroom? There are numerous reasons to think so. But the one that strikes me most forcibly, as I try to learn by rote what evidence I have to prove that my interventions have helped drive up attainment, is this. Who in their right mind would subject themselves to such a regime?

School governors are, by definition, lay people, who govern, unpaid and in our spare time. By way of thanks, we are subjected to intense cross-examination, conducted by trained and highly experienced professionals. Fall short in these verbal duals and we are quite reasonably held to have let down our communities, and may well be pilloried in the local press.

This is not a plea for payment. But the more widely it is known what an encounter with the inspectors is like, the harder it will be to recruit to governing bodies. I will be thrilled if I am able to deliver for the school. But when the time comes to find someone else to take up the chair, I will be emphasising the pleasures of presenting the team prize on sports day, rather than those of playing advocate for the school’s defence in Ofsted’s harsh court.

 Joe Chaise is a pseudonym

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