Part of the solution;Briefing;Governors

18th June 1999 at 01:00
Coping with ... in our occasional series, Jane Martin gives a personal account of dealing with special measures

I have just experienced my first "interview" with one of Her Majesty's inspectors: now I know how it feels!

I am one of the so-called "educational professionals", who knows the score - or ought to, if anyone does. And yet.... I realised just how nervous I was when the inspector reassured me kindly that I had no need to apologise for not being on every governing body committee!

Yes, I am a governor at a school which failed its inspection - I refuse to use the term failing school - and is now in "special measures" with less than two years to convince the inspectorate that we can improve. This was the second monitoring visit for our school; hence my calmly controlled (so I thought) anxiety.

I hasten to add that I have been appointed since the school was put on to special measures. This inevitably changes the perspective. I am "part of the solution". This, of course, is the crux of the matter for governors: in a school placed on special measures, governors will be both part of the problem and of the solution. As I observe the governing body I can see the tensions this raises.

Being part of the problem is too much for some. In my school several long-standing (and committed) governors have decided this is the moment to stand down. It is understandable: people feel they have done their best, only to be judged to have failed. And it is certainly true that a school under special measures needs all of its governors to have maximum energy, enthusiasm and commitment.

The majority of governors have stayed on; this is important not only for continuity but also as a demonstration of support and solidarity with the school. For these governors the task is to overcome their own demoralisation as well as empathising with and trying to counter staff demoralisation.

I have only been at my school a short while but quickly recognised that there are a number of key elements required by a governing body in special measures if they are to become part of the solution.

l Firstly, acknowledge your situation. It is an awful experience but it is happening to your school. Don't waste time and energy blaming the local education authority or the Office for Standards in Education or anybody else. Have one session behind closed doors, if you must, for a good moan about the injustices and apportion blame elsewhere if it is due - but then be constructive and move on. Recognise that everyone must pull together. The chair will have a great deal to do and if all governors can provide support by getting into the school and prioritising meetings this will be all to the good.

* Concentrate on the action plan and then focus on that document, the targets set and the processes for achieving them. Make sure you monitor the situation regularly: sadly, this will almost certainly mean more meetings. In our school we have just set up a Governors' Action Plan Committee of "link" governors who meet with senior management monthly for semi-formal short meetings. If you are asking governors to meet more regularly, keep to a strict schedule of no more than one hour, otherwise it is too much to bear. Inspectors will be judging you against the action plan and looking for evidence that things are moving forward.

* Remember your role as a "critical friend". This is a time when it is even more important than ever. Staff morale will be low and the pressures great, particularly in areas where the biggest improvements are required. The role of governors must be to support the school and have faith in the staff while at the same time asking tough questions. Curriculum link governors can help here, but remember: every time you ask "How is it going?" the next question must be - "And how can we help?" * Get the best training and support you can for the governing body. Have a good hard look at training and see if there is extra support available. Most local authorities offer post-Ofsted support and some have designated staff particularly to help in special measures.

* Take every opportunity to talk up the school in public, either at school events or in the community. Remind people of all the school's positive aspects and the hard work everyone is making on behalf of current and future pupils.

* Finally, believe that you can improve things! If you don't believe it, no one else will.

Jane Martin is a fellow in educational research at Birmingham

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