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Out of the dark ages

Now in their fifth year, the TES awards show some governors have made a real breakthrough in annual reports to parents. Joan Sallis finds much to celebrate among the entrants, from pride, honesty and compassion, to courageous nettle grasping.

It is a privilege to have been involved in this competition from the beginning and to have been able to witness, through my access to some 2,500 governors' reports entered in that time, a rapidly evolving form of communication between schools and their parents.

I expect change to be only barely detectable if you are yourself part of it, but I do think that there comes a moment when the pace suddenly accelerates and you sense that the people concerned are on the brink of understanding what is required of them, even if they don't yet know how to do it. Perhaps that moment has come for school governors.

I try always to remember, when my enthusiasm threatens to overwhelm my judgment, that even this year we have only had about 800 reports out of a possible 25,000 or so, and there is plenty of evidence from my other contacts with governors and heads that outer darkness is extensive.

When I am told about poor attendances at the annual meeting, I say: "Look at your report and tell me honestly whether it would make you want to come to the meeting if you were an ordinary parent".

The replies are honest if not encouraging. Most schools recognise that their reports are unexciting reading, but often they are not motivated to change or don't know how.

Yet I do believe that this competition has set standards, awakened a significant minority of governors to the report's possibilities and motivated them to do better. In the first year about two thirds of the entries were so dull that you wondered why anyone could have thought them worth a stamp. Nevertheless there were enough that were worth reading, we praised what could be praised, and each year have moved the winning post on a few paces.

The result is that this year at least two thirds met all important legal requirements and reached a creditable standard of simple and friendly communication, attractive lay-out and a determination to familiarise parents with governors and their work. This made it very hard to draw a line between those meriting an award and so many only a hair's breadth behind. It was even harder to be sure that you had found the right criteria for those submitted to the judges as possible prize-winners.

What were we looking for at the quality end? Every year we tried to identify the growing points and so set new targets, and high on the list for two years now have been honest sharing of issues with parents, insights into how governors did their work, and some sense of governors' role in school improvement.

Have we found much evidence in the reports that the governing bodies concerned even understood these aims? Sadly I must say no.

There is a silly story about a child's report which said: "Now that Kate's handwriting has improved so much, we can see for the first time how little she knows." Now that there are so many readable, attractive and friendly governors reports we can see for the first time how little many governors are really doing.

When we asked for governors' "workings out" we got many clear accounts of organisation and working practices and committees; little or nothing about issues and how decisions were made within these admirable structures. When we looked for honest sharing of problems we found a lot about dangerous parking at the gates and budget cuts but these issues are easy to share because everybody agrees about who the villains are.

Schools have many difficult choices to make these days, and it would be very exciting to see a statement about the purpose and character of school journeys or the approach to classroom disruption, for instance, to name but two minefields.

There are some signs that governors seem to be addressing the obligatory consideration of opting out much more seriously. They are still, in the main, deciding not to. But there is much more evidence that they have carefully considered the pros and cons in reaching this conclusion.

When it comes to judging school performance and seeking its improvement, I doubt whether many governors know where to begin or would receive a friendly response if they tried. The only catalyst is an OFSTED report saying the governors are not doing their job (I have come across some) or, even more decisively, the threat of "special measures". I am not surprised about this slowness in grasping nettles. I know all the problems and that the competitive stance we are often forced to take as schools makes it hard to admit to having any problems in public, although I actually think honesty wins hearts.

I think the coming year will see a huge advance in governors' recognition of their role. When governors are criticised by inspectors for school shortcomings they have never even known about, or tried to face and been fobbed off, for instance. When they realise they have been merely fire-watching and even missed the fire. When a school is classed as failing and sometimes this will be associated with the loss of a head and you realise it's sleeves rolled up for everybody, including and perhaps especially the governors.

Nobody wants to be awakened in such a rude way and I don't relish it. But it is exciting as well as painful to see how people can grow when it is really necessary, and develop talents and qualities life might otherwise not have brought to light. I cannot forget that a few of the best reports submitted for this competition over the years display governing bodies which have grown through pain or shock into new dimensions of courage and competence, and sometimes they don't even need to tell us that: it shows in every word.

I would not like to suggest that the judges under-valued the progress already made. Most of the reports are now free from jargon. That alone is a big advance. Hundreds are attractive to look at, with relevant and sometimes beautiful illustrations, children's work, photographs or sketches. That is splendid.

And perhaps the most striking difference from previous years a large majority of governing bodies now seem very well organised with a clear understanding of their routine tasks, good work-sharing, active committees, efficient communication and much more widespread knowledge of the law and the working rules. Many excellent governor training teams must take credit for this.

This year another plus most entrants met legal requirements, though I must add that one very attractive and readable report failed them all, quite a feat! We were again unhappy that so many did not give the home address of the chair: the judges felt that the spirit of the law and accessibility required this. The main legal failing otherwise was to give too little information about voluntarily raised funds and their use.

My own personal highlights? I was deeply moved by the small school a runner-up meeting the threat of "special measures" with such courage and commitment, the governors' energy, their honesty, and an orderly, quite matter-of-fact approach to daunting problems. I was even more touched by the way they showed the school operating normally, in photographs on almost every action-packed page.

Both first prize winners stood out for their pride in the school and the impression of leadership by the governors, as well as the sheer volume of stylishly presented information and the teamwork the reports displayed. One runner-up, Withernsea High School in Humberside, was the kind of mould-breaking but smart and fully informative tabloid we always hoped to receive.

I was impressed by the progress made in less than a year by an award-winning school which had previously been governed as part of a group of schools and which had only had its own governing body (after a fight to establish this) for under a year. Another governing body set out its own targets for its work and the monitoring of it.

I loved the many crowded, frankly sometimes messy reports, which nevertheless gave an unbelievable amount of information of great interest to parents and in which the governors were clearly the hub of a close school family. Despite their homeliness some of these clearly would mean a lot to the parents they so warmly and respectfully addressed: there is more than one kind of excellent report.

Many courageously described painful decisions on redundancy, and there was plain speaking on budgets and class sizes. More mundanely, I valued the very full statements of the unofficial school fund.

I have no doubt that this competition has been worth while. I think there is scope now for giving it a local focus, to involve more people and spread good practice more widely.

One spin-off from the award is a new "do-it-better" guide to annual report writing by Joan Sallis and published by AGIT with support from McDonald's to enable enough free copies to be distributed through the governor support network for every school.

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