How to succeed on judgment days

7th September 2001 at 01:00
Nigel Gann on a practical guide to what OFSTED wants

The Office for Standards in Education's 1995 document, Planning Improvement, was the first to emphasise governors' key role in planning.

"They can give a school direction and share its aspirations. With the headteacher and staff, they can make things happen," it said.

This was heartening stuff to read in what were still early days in the maturation of governing bodies.

In 1997, the then chief inspector of schools, Chris Woodhead, decided it would be a good idea to find out what governing bodies were actually doing. For the spring term of 1998, governors were graded (out of seven) on how their procedures and practices enabled them to play a strategic, influential role in the management of the school.

It meant that just being a governing body of a good school wasn't enough. We have to be governors who actively contribute to the school's effectiveness. This was enshrined in the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, which requires governing bodies to "conduct the school with a view to promoting high standards".

However, the results of the 1998 gradings did not paint a pretty picture. A quarter of primary school governing bodies were "poorly placed to know about or influence the education provided". In secondary schools, 20 per cent had "insufficient influence".

Disadvantaged schools were far more likely to have an ineffective governing body than better-off neighbours. And only one in 20 special school boards was effective in monitoring and evaluating.

But these were superficial judgments - and had any real debate taken place about how to assess the effectiveness of governing bodies? Once it was known that OFSTED was grading governors, local education authorities worked to produce evaluation instruments so that they could make such judgments for themselves.

One of the fundamental questions was how much influence a governing body has on school performance and improvement. Amazingly, we still don't know the answer, although researchers Peter Earley and Michael Creese have suggested there is a clear association between effective schools and effective governing bodies. But perhaps a good school produces a good governing body.

When OFSTED started inspecting local education authorities, the whole question became even more confused. Overall, the inspectors found LEAs are providing excellent support to their governors. But mysteriously, it is having no discernible impact on schools.

But now, published this summer, we have School Governance: Making it Better. This is a study of governing bodies in schools in special measures or with serious weaknesses - with particular reference to those that became more effective as their schools became more successful.

The report predictably stresses the need for the governing body to be clear about the aims and values of the school, to organise its business efficiently, and to ensure individual governors are trained and clear about their roles. More significantly, OFSTED expects to be able to see "rigorous systems for monitoring and evaluating the school's work".

In the early 1990s, the keyword for governors and headteachers was "partnership". A schools minister, addressing a governors' conference, pictured the ideal relationship between a governing body and its headteacher as "like a marriage". This is a strange idea of what is essentially an employer-employee relationship.

Today's keyword is "accountability". The headteacher and professional staff are accountable to the governing body for the school's performance, while the governing body is accountable to parents and the wider community.

The report goes on to quote examples of good and bad practice. We read of a headteacher being happy to keep her governors uninformed in preparing and monitoring the development plan; of headteachers who report to their governors what the school has been doing, but "without actually saying what impact these actions have had"; of a governing body failing to monitor the plan sufficiently closely, so that it did not realise its school was simultaneously overspending and underperforming.

But there are many examples of good practice, too, such as a governing body using quantitative measures to monitor children's behaviour well before their statutory involvement at the level of exclusion appeal.

There are useful checklists on the conduct of effective meetings, the individual roles of governors, the job of the chair, and on visiting the school.

This is an excellent document full of practical guidance. It should be studied by all governors and headteachers. And, of course, by all OFSTED inspectors.

Nigel Gann is senior consultant with CfBT Education Services and chair of governors of a primary school. See www.ofsted.gov.ukpublicindex.htm for copies of 'School Governance: Making it Better' (reference HMI 281), tel: 07002 637833.

Next week: Gerald Haigh looks at how governors can improve on what OFSTED has identified as one of their weakest points - monitoring and evaluating the work of their schools.

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