Not learning, but coasting;Briefing;Governors

29th January 1999 at 00:00
Is your school in good shape? Jane Philips gives a checklist for governors.

A new word has entered the inspectors' vocabulary. In the past, it was only schools for which "special measures" were required or those which had "serious weaknesses" which were singled out for different treatment. Now coasting schools are to join that unhappy band which the Office for Standards in Education and others will wish to keep under the microscope.

For governors, this provides a conundrum. Many have been shocked when their school has "failed" its inspection. They had no idea things were so bad. How then, can governors be expected to know that their school is coasting on an undeserved reputation?

Coasting schools are probably producing reasonable, good or even excellent results. In all probability pupils are well behaved, absence rates are low, teaching is satisfactory and relationships are good. So the usual measures that inspectors and governors could use to define an unsatisfactory situation are not in evidence.

How then, can we define a coasting school? In essence it is a school which is neither declining nor improving.

In the "standards" debate, coasting schools have become unacceptable. It has become orthodoxy that all schools can improve. This is true but the task is daunting. One local authority was shocked to discover, when it plotted all its schools on a graph, that the vast majority were coasting. As a governor, how can you ensure that your school is not coasting nor declining, but improving?

From my perspective, working in education and in industry, an improving school is analogous with a "learning organisation".

A working definition of a learning organisation is that it has a culture of continuous improvement - it is never satisfied that things are good enough.

In a learning organisation, complacency is a dirty word. The defining features of a school which is a learning organisation are:

* that everyone - pupils, staff and governors - have enquiring minds * that learning is a priority for all - lifelong learning is happening;

* that knowledge is a commodity to be shared with all;

* that mistakes are viewed as learning experiences - so judicious risk-taking is the norm.

As governors, an important part of our monitoring role is asking the right questions. Below is a set of questions, approved by the National Association of Governors and Managers, which can start the "coasting or improving" debate in your school.

It comes with an enormous health warning. For many schools this will be a challenging document.

It is designed to enter the secret garden that has, in the past, been the sole preserve of the professionals. It is stretching the boundaries - most schools will, I suspect, out of honesty have to answer "no" to many of these questions. And the crunch question comes at the end.

With acknowledgement to Andy Hargreaves, Paul Shaw and Dean Fink. Jane Philips is an occupational psychologist and a member of the NAGM national executive.

ASKING THE RIGHT QUESTIONS

Are there regular opportunities for staff to examine and reflect together on classroom practice and pupil learning?

* Are governors involved?

* Is there dialogue across departments and within and between key stages?

* Are governors informed of this dialogue?

* Do staff turn to each other to solve problems?

* Do governors turn to each other to solve problems?

* Is there a common understanding between staff as to what counts as progress for pupils?

* Do governors share this understanding?

* Do pupils experience the same high expectations of their progress across departments and within and between key stages?

* Do governors share these high expectations?

* Does the school measure what it values, not just those things that are easily measured?

* Do the staff values and the values of the governing body coincide?

* Do governors have an understanding of best teaching practice?

* Do staff have opportunities to read about, examine and share best practice within and beyond school?

* Is there feedback from pupils about the quality of their learning experiences in school?

* Is feedback shared with governors?

* Is the relationship between parents and staff a learning relationship - do they learn from each other?

* Are governors involved?

* Is the relationship between governors and staff a learning relationship, do they learn from each other?

* What role does the head play?

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