Get down on your knees for Ofsted

30th January 2004 at 00:00
It's a law that's been ignored for years - but inspectors have been failing governors for not enforcing daily collective worship, writes Gerald Haigh

The early predictions that governing bodies would face closer scrutiny under the new inspection regime introduced last term are proving well-founded.

Governors talk of 90 minute-plus meetings with inspectors, and "rigorous" and "penetrating" questioning about how they are fulfiling their responsibilities.

The new framework has been blamed for contributing to an increase in schools failing inspection (see TES, January 23).

However, Ofsted has moved to head off fears that the framework could also have led to hundreds of governing bodies being failed - even if their schools weren't.

The difficulty was caused by our old friend, the "act of collective worship" - more commonly thought of as "assembly". The law says it has to happen daily, all the pupils have to be there, and the content must be broadly Christian. In reality, of course, one or more of these conditions is often missing: there may be nowhere for everyone to meet, the community can be multi-faith, and some small group activities - extra reading, instrumental lessons - may be squeezed into assembly time.

Ofsted's own figures suggest 3.7 per cent of primaries and 77 per cent of secondaries aren't complying with the law.

Before last term, such failings were noted but not seen as serious. The new framework, though, takes governors' statutory responsibilities - collective worship is one - more seriously. It said that if a school fails on one or more of them, its governance will be deemed "unsatisfactory".

The position was compounded by the fact that whether a school complies is often a matter of judgment. The word "worship" itself is open to interpretation. Where one inspector will accept a "reflection" or "thought for the day", another will want an actual prayer.

The governing body of City of Portsmouth girls' school - chaired by Neil Davies, chairman of the National Governors' Council - fell foul of the framework last term. "Governance was good within the school but was marked as unsatisfactory because of 'failure to carry out statutory responsibilities'," says Mr Davies.

Thanks to a welcome revision of its guidance by Ofsted, City's governors have been upgraded to good. But it seems safe to assume that a few other bodies fell foul of this requirement.

Ofsted's revised guidance - Update 43 - was issued at the end of last term.

Inspectors have been told that where there is a breach of statutory duty that doesn't affect learning - and where governors have tried hard to comply - the omission should now be recorded but not affect the overall grading on governance. They have also been told to look back at past inspections to see if this updated guidance might change the governance grade. (if you think you were unfairly marked down on worship, write a polite letter to your inspector).

The examples given in the updated guidance need to be studied because there are subtleties. For example, if a school has a good "legal" assembly three days a week, it may well escape downgrading if it is the best it can do.

But governors at a school that has daily assembly, but with no spiritual content, can still get into trouble because "non-compliance affects pupils' achievement".

It's easy to forget that spiritual and moral development are elements of pupils' achievement.

Throughout all of this, heavy emphasis is placed on whether or not the governors have tried all practical means to comply.

It's good that Ofsted has moved to get this glitch out of the way, because the new framework, in its attention to leadership, including governance, has implications that are much more far reaching.

The framework sets out four areas of governance: shaping the vision and direction of the school, ensuring statutory duties are complied with, understanding the school's strengths and weaknesses, and challenging and supporting senior management. Governors will be - and have been - methodically questioned.

"It's not just general chat," says Eddie Alcock, vice-chair at Grays Convent high school in Thurrock. "The bulk of the time was spent probing the part we played in strategic planning, and particularly the extent to which we challenge the head. They didn't just involve the chair. They wanted to know just how far each of us was involved in planning."

The questioning can be highly specific, says Neil Davies. "It's 'how do you know a lesson is effectively monitored? Do you know the criteria for a successful lesson? How are you going to get to your visionary goal?' " Ofsted also probes strengths and weaknesses: if test scores have dipped governors will be asked about why and what's planned for the future. In one case, the chair was able to point to minutes of a meeting at which the possibility of a dip was discussed before it even happened.

Similarly, a chair of finance who was questioned about a large budget carry-over was able to explain the reasons in detail.

What's important is to show understanding of what's going on - and, where appropriate, to demonstrate the capacity to question. Nobody says that any of this is easy. But help is there, both in Ofsted's own documents and, invariably, local authority's governor support organisation.

One governor said: "It's a bit like having to lose weight. You know perfectly well what you need to do - there's no shortage of guidance. The only problem is actually doing it."

Are you ready?

Tips for governors to help prepare for the new inspection sysytem * Get Ofsted's inspection framework and forms, and work through them methodically.

* Look at issues from the last inspection. Tie up loose ends.

* Assign individual governors to curriculum areas, or year groups. Don't do detailed curriculum planning, but know how it's done.

* Be familiar with school policies, and how well they work on the ground.

* Keep work in line with the school's improvement plan.

* Know the school's strengths and weaknesses and what's being done to improve.

* Keep asking the question, 'how do we know?'

* Don't manage the school - know how it is managed.

* Avoid surprises: look out for big changes on the horizon (such as pupil numbers).

* Keep good minutes of meetings to remind you, and inspectors, of actions, challenges and changes since the last inspection.

* Have as clear a vision as possible of the next five years.

* Everything leads to teaching and learning.

* Find out what your authority is doing to help you.

* Start planning for Ofsted now - avoid last-minute patching-up.

See publications for framework; for inspection forms

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