Don't be the weakest link

16th April 2004 at 01:00
Governors are dragging down their schools' inspection results, Nigel Gann warns

There is a very good secondary school in the east of England. We know it's very good because it was recently inspected, and the Office for Standards in Education tells us so. It is a beacon school, with all sorts of awards.

Described as "very successful", with standards well above the national average, it is continuously improving, providing very good education, through very good leadership and management. "Excellent" leadership is provided by the headteacher.

Just the sort of school we would all be proud to work in, as staff or governors. Of the 29 graded judgements made by Ofsted, the school achieves four at grade one (excellent), 21 at grade two (very good) and two at grade three (good). This is a remarkable performance by any standards, especially since we hear that the new framework is being applied very rigorously and more schools are being subjected to special measures even than last year (see TES, January 23).

So where's the problem? Well, this school scored "only" satisfactory (grade four) marks in two areas: accommodation and resources, and the performance of its governing body. Yet the report describes the governing body as providing "very good support and challenge to senior managers" and working strategically "to assist in the school's development and to improve its own effectiveness". So what is it not doing so well? With the new framework, with its far more rigorous judgement of governing bodies, it seems that schools are more likely to be let down by their governors.

This may be down to the new evaluation form, S3. It comprises a list of statutory duties that the governing body must fulfil, ranging from providing a collective act of worship to ensuring pupils receive the curriculum to which they are entitled and are not discriminated against, to having a performance management policy for staff. It is the responsibility of the chair of governors to complete the S3 before the inspection.

The governing body of the school described above failed on three points: ensuring daily collective worship, meeting ICT requirements, and monitoring its race equality policy (a statutory requirement only since last spring).

That was enough for it to drag down the school's otherwise impressive performance.

This is not only happening in secondary schools. A small rural primary school recently received a good Ofsted report overall, despite the "failure" of its governing body. Here, the governors were not monitoring the school's performance, nor were they holding the head to account, let alone ensuring statutory requirements were being met.

What an excellent governing body looks like is described in Ofsted's new handbooks for inspecting primarynursery, secondary, and special schools (www.ofsted.gov.ukpublications). These are absolutely required reading for governors and senior staff in all schools, whether due for the brown envelope or not.

Headteachers should also be asking themselves: "I'm doing my best - is the governing body doing the same?" I've developed a checklist for heads which can help them answer this question.

It contains 20 prompts, ranging from "do I ensure the governing body is fully involved in formulating policies?" and "do I share with the governors all the information that helps us to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the school?" to "do I welcome governing body meetings that are challenging and sometimes uncomfortable for me?"

Both the handbooks and this self-evaluation form (for more details, see below) can be used to help schools give themselves a health check at any time. Having an excellent headteacher is not enough by itself any more. A priority in schools nowadays must be to have an excellent governing body too.

Nigel Gann is an education consultant and chair of governors. He is co-author of the Department for Education and Skills' materials for training governors in performance management. See www.hamdoneducation.co.uk

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