Joe Chaise, chair of governors at a primary in the south east of England, writes:
It took the lead inspector an hour. Her manner was kindly, but each of the innumerable areas for improvement was a boulder dropped on me from a height. Her assessment mentioned no strengths, save for noting that our head was committed and focussed.
Then, as her list drew to its conclusion, she delivered the hammer blow: “Governors really are going to have to work a lot harder in the coming months”.
She shuffled her papers and I opened my mouth to speak, but the inspector got in first: “Could you close the door as you are leaving?”
The words that I had momentarily struggled to formulate were the offer of my resignation as chair of the governing body. Not because I disagree with school inspections. Not because I disputed any of her findings. And not because I am anything but committed to the inspector’s prescription for school improvement.
I wanted to hand in my notice because, despite crawling over the work of the school in minute detail, and quizzing me for seventy minutes earlier in the day, the inspector could find nothing, not one word, approving or otherwise, to say about the school’s governance.
Over the past two years, a day has not gone by without an external governor coming into our school. At a guess, I devote five or six hours a week to governing-related matters, and I am not the only member of our governing body of whom this is true. We are known as an activist body, and even receive invitations from neighbouring schools to train their governors in how to effectively undertake business.
Eight hours earlier – at a disturbingly early hour – a fellow governor and I had displayed our wares to the inspector. We had showcased our deep knowledge of the school’s data, evidenced the effectiveness of our interventions and pointed to the occasions when we had challenged the school. That our school has serious issues, we are in no doubt. And we were frank about the struggle we have experienced to provide the education that our pupils deserve. Those shortcomings have not, however, been for want of effort on the governors’ part.
If all that demonstrable effort has been for nothing, as the inspector implied, what possible purpose could there be in intensifying our program of support? Twenty-five per cent more of nothing, is still nothing, after all.
Dismiss my howl for our work to be recognised as the anguish of a chair of governors who feels that their school has been harshly judged, if you wish. I fear that the HMI’s omission is emblematic of a troubling mindset that is endemic in the school inspectorate.
Governors, Ofsted appears to assume, are foot soldiers whose capacity for unremunerated good works is such that neither denigration nor demeaning tasks will dim their enthusiasm. The expectation appears to be that the harder you kick this volunteer labour force, the more effectively and energetically it will work.
I once had the pleasure to see Sir Michael Wilshaw in the flesh – he was addressing a group of 30 or so headteachers and school leaders. One head took him on. “Where are we to find the resources to push up teaching standards as you suggest,” she demanded, adding that a significant part of her day was taken up in statutory meetings with external agencies.
“Get someone else to cover those meetings,” suggested Sir Michael. “Why not send a governor along, if you can’t go yourself.”
His suggestion can probably be discounted as one proffered under pressure and off the cuff. But it speaks volumes about an institutional attitude towards governors that is easy to detect in many local authorities too.
The worst of it is that, so long as schools depend upon the inspector’s favourable opinion, we feel the need to demonstrate the servility of a colonised people to their conquerors – ever fretful that a poor impression might impact on our schools.
At another Ofsted event that I attended, Sir Michael was not able to be physically present. He exerted his presence, nonetheless. Three hundred of us gathered at a central London conference centre to receive some generally useful instruction on improving standards in literacy and numeracy.
Proceedings opened with Ofsted minions unfurling a cinema screen. The projector whirred, and an image of Sir Michael’s head – ten foot high, six feet wide – appeared before us. My recollection of the content of his pep talk has long since dimmed, but the Orwellian experience of the giant talking head remains a vivid impression. Filling out my evaluation form, I commented on this curious audio-visual spectacle, but my head caught sight of my notes. “Oh, no”, she groaned, tugging the form from beneath me, and discreetly shredding it with her fingers. “Think of the impact on the school, if that were traced back to us?”
How might this situation be improved?
For a start, Ofsted could finance research to show how effective governance does impact on schools. No one doubts that there are moments in the life of a school when what governors do is critical – appointing a head or making constitutional decisions such as becoming or entering a trust, for example.
The case that ‘working a lot harder’ to challenge and monitor the school really makes a difference to day-to-day teaching and learning, however, is based on anecdote and assertion. “There is an acute lack of evidence.... of a demonstrable causal link between the actions of/effectiveness of the governing body and pupil performance”, according to research conducted in 2012 by the DfE-backed School Governors' One-Stop Shop. Furthermore, it is possible to find outstanding schools where the governance is demonstrably weak.
Rigorous evidenced demonstration that governors’ efforts really do make a difference would provide at least a modicum of incentive to ‘work a lot harder’. It might also generate beneficial, empirically verified, examples of how this can best be undertaken.
More thought might also be applied what governors get out of governing. A warm feeling from involvement in good works is great: systematically and verifiably acquiring skills and experiences that might be transferable would provide a more tangible return for those willing to give up their time without crossing the paid-governors Rubicon.
But let’s start with something easy that could be implemented tomorrow. What about some common courtesy? However far short of the ideal a volunteer’s efforts fall, they need some kind of encouragement if they are to carry on. Any work undertaken without pay deserves celebration, even if its focus requires attention.
Meetings with governors should be set at times that are convenient to governors – and time slots should be adhered to. “When are you able to spare us some time” would be a great question for Ofsted to build into all their transactions with volunteers. It might also adopt a policy that it is never acceptable for a group of salaried officials to keep volunteers sitting around waiting on their convenience.
For what it is worth, I generally enjoy being a school governor. The opportunity to deploy whatever talents I have and to contribute to my community, is one that I cherish. All I ask from the inspectorate is a tiny sign of recognition that might quell the tempest of rage into which they have pitched me. Perhaps if that happens, I will find reason to carry on. Ofsted will also have taken a step towards helping governing bodies become the ‘inspiring and disciplined environments’ that Sir Michael believes all classrooms should be.