Ofsted Watch - Governors, get ready for your close-up
When Ofsted calls, governors should expect to be put through their paces. Inspectors' techniques vary, but after more than a dozen encounters I have yet to find one who is content to give a school's lay leadership an easy ride.
The chair and two other governors are usually invited to attend a meeting, often on the first day of the inspection. The key, then, is to make sure more than three governors have swotted up. Illness and prior engagements will not delay an inspection.
On paper, Ofsted's enquiries are simple: inspectors just want to know what the governors are doing and the effect their actions are having on the school. But these grillings can last as long as two hours and providing satisfactory answers is anything but easy. So, here are four key areas to focus on in your preparation.
Delve into the data
The first rule is to really know your school: be the master of your data. Inspectors will have prepared for their visit by immersing themselves in your Raiseonline data - you must do the same. Use it to prepare a convincing account of your school's strengths and weaknesses.
Expect to be challenged on everything you say. If, for example, you venture that teaching at the school is very good, the inspectors' next question might be: "What proportion of lessons were judged to be good or outstanding in the most recent lesson observations?"
Manage the minutes
The inspectors will examine your records. If you say that the governors are concerned about the progress of pupils in a particular year group, the inspectors are likely to request that you direct them to the points in your meetings where this issue was raised. This is one good reason for ensuring that governors' minutes are written with inspection in mind.
Keep evidence of your visits
Ofsted will want to know about governor visits - for learning walks and pupil perception surveys, for example - and how these have focused on the school's development. Again, expect to be challenged to provide evidence: where are the visit reports and what points for improvement do they raise?
How such reports are collected and collated merits consideration. Filing reports online might well be easy and environmentally friendly. However, when challenged to prove what you have done, there is nothing more emphatic than reaching for a file as thick as a house brick and letting its heft make your point.
Prove the effectiveness of management
Anticipate questions about your performance management of the headteacher. If you gave him or her a pay rise last year, you will be expected to justify your use of the public purse. The best response at this moment will be to refer to challenging targets being set and met.
Accounting for how you have deployed pupil premium funding is also a feature of pretty much every inspection these days. If you can't make a convincing argument that this money has helped the pupils for whom it was intended, expect the worst.
You are also likely to encounter questions on safeguarding, whether your statutory policies are up to date and how you communicate with parents. But the most important case you have to make is that the work of the governing body has improved outcomes for children.
The precise format of these interviews does vary a good deal. Some inspectors are directly inquisitorial, like a prosecution barrister challenging your every assertion. Others frame the encounter more like a fireside chat, in which they gently coax you into burbling away.
Some inspectors allow the chair of governors to lead. Others direct their questions to different members of the panel as the encounter progresses. There is nothing to stop any of you suggesting that another member of the team answer a question, of course, but you may be left feeling that you have advertised a weakness if you do.
I wish I could conclude by saying that there is a simple trick to banishing fears of inspection. I can't. What I can say, however, is that the earlier and more thoroughly you prepare, the better your experience will be.
John C Hare is chair of a primary school governing body in the South East of England