A state of grade confusion

4th September 1998 at 01:00
One day we may know how many of the 2,000 plus governing bodies inspected during the spring term were awarded top marks by Office for Standards in Education for strategic effectiveness.

Ofsted's grading of the strategic performance of governing bodies has ended in the same confusion as it began. No one has been formally told. In the same way, no one but inspectors was notified when the grading system first began earlier this year.

Some Ofsted inspectors were still grading governing bodies during the summer term when the exercise had already finished at the end of the spring term.

Whatever your views about the way in which Ofsted has managed this particular exercise, there is no doubt that the issue has stimulated a lively debate about just what governing bodies have to do to be strategically effective.

As an experienced governor and governor trainer, it is a debate I welcome.For a long time now I have been concerned about the tendency of most governing bodies to get too closely involved in the detail; in other words to get bogged down in issues and lengthy discussions which are rightly the province of the professionals whom they have appointed to do the job!

The danger with this quasi-professional involvement is that it prevents governors fulfilling one of their most important roles, which is to act as public guardians of the state education system. To do this effectively, governing bodies need to know and understand - and be answerable for - what their schools are doing.

At a time when the pressures on governing bodies are so great, it is particularly important that governors consider how they should make best use of limited time.

Headteachers, too, need to come on board. It is still the exceptional head who has a real grasp of what is the appropriate level of involvement for their governing body.

Sadly, Ofsted's decision to focus for a term on the strategic role of governors has done nothing to provide any answers to those questions. Governing bodies are no better equipped to provide their schools with a strategic overview than they were before the grading began. Governors are fed up being told what they must do; what they most need is advice and guidance on how to do it.

Ofsted gave us few clues: for a grade two, the governing body had to be "highly influential in setting aims and targets". We were never told the criterion for the award of a grade one - perhaps Ofsted never bothered to define it. But if grade two was reserved for governing bodies judged to be strategically effective, grade one must surely be for those governing bodies for whom being strategically effective includes demonstrating public accountability both on paper and in practice.

The grading system may be abandoned but the issue of strategic governance remains high on the agenda. For the sake of the 300,000 governors across the country, we have to get it right.

Vivienne Barton is a Brighton governor and governor trainer

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