Getting the measure wrong

4th October 1996 at 01:00
New advice sheets to help governors monitor school performance are too complex. Experienced governors say that worksheets drawn up to help governing bodies monitor school performance are baffling and full of off-putting technical jargon.

The agency responsible for the sheets, the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (SCAA), has now also been given the job of drawing up benchmarks to help governing bodies set demanding new performance targets that they will be required to publish and report on next year.

School inspectors are increasingly criticising governing bodies for failing to monitor standards rigorously enough. In new advice sheets SCAA provides governors with what it calls "ways in which results of national curriculum assessment can by analysed and used to help schools raise pupil achievement".

David Hawker, assistant chief executive of SCAA, envisages governors using the sheets this autumn to help analyse 1996 assessments. "School improvement depends on getting good quality information," he says - an area neglected by many governing bodies. "They will have to get to grips with this."

But a primary school chair of governors says the document is "fairly baffling". Another chairman of a first school in Hertfordshire says the information sections are useful, giving good explanations about assessment and links with the school development plan.

However, he is worried that the technical analyses are too complex. "Most governors would not be able to do the analysis without a strong lead from the head. The ensuing discussions would have to be handled sensitively to avoid getting into day-to-day management issues."

John Wright, chair of governors of Wormley Junior and Mixed Infant School in Hudderston, Hertfordshire, is critical of the assumptions the authors make about governors' knowledge of "upper quartiles" and "regression lines".

Jane Phillips, a governor of St Nicholas JMI, Elstree, and The Hillside Secondary, Borehamwood, says the sheets are "a useful entry point for governors who, in the majority of cases, feel ill-prepared to tackle the whole issue of pupil achievement. They give us sets of sensible questions to ask together with information on assessment which they may not have gleaned elsewhere."

But she too is worried bythe statistical understanding required. "Many governors will be on shaky ground. The sheets make a valiant attempt to interpret the graphs they present. The result, however, is that there is too much new information and too little explanation.

"How many governors would have the confidence to admit that they are in the lower quartile (quarter) when it comes to interpreting tables and graphs?" Her daughter, an A-level maths student, finds the graphs confusing.

Diane Penton, who has just finished a 24-year stint as a secondary governor and is chair of Garden Fields JMI in St Albans, agreed with her headteacher that she will use the worksheet in inducting new governors. She believes that more open heads will use them to "educate governors to take more interest in the life of the school". However, she is doubtful that governors will be able to commit enough time.

They would find, for instance, the section devoted to measuring different pupils' progress from one key stage to the next "jolly hard going".

SCAA's David Hawker emphasises that there are "big training needs related to this", and hopes that local education authorities will take the lead. But SCAA's optimism may be misplaced as the sheets are intended to be worked through this autumn term - when thousands of novice governors will be wondering what they have let themselves in for, and when induction training is likely to take priority.

Copies can be obtained free of charge from SCAA, Newcombe House, 45 Notting Hill Gate, London W11 3JB. Tel: 0171 229 1234.

MORE RESPONSIBILITIES WILL HAVE TO BE LEFT TO STAFF'. If governors are to help monitor the curriculum and make schools more effective they should leave many of their other responsibilities to the staff, argues Greg Lancaster-Smith, a co-opted governor in a first school and researcher from Kingston University School of Education.

In a paper presented at the recent British Educational Research Association conference, Mr Lancaster-Smith points out that Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED) reports are increasingly critical of the way governors fail to meet their responsibilities for developing and monitoring the curriculum in schools. But he says support for undertaking this task "is seriously limited and depends heavily upon the ability and commitment among senior staff in the schools themselves. Outside help in the form of LEA courses and consultancies cost money and are limited in their value and appeal.

"The vast amount of printed material, mostly emanating from either local authority or central government, creates panic and confusion as often as it alleviates uncertainty."

OFSTED had placed upon governors a responsibility many were ill-equipped to carry out. "If governors are to have a role in monitoring school effectiveness and helping to bring about school improvement, then it is time to review carefully whether many of their other present responsibilities might be left to the senior management in their school where, in truth, many have effectively been even since 1988."

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