14th March 1997 at 00:00
We were shocked when our Office for Standards in Education inspection report was very critical of the school's performance and, by implication, of us, for not monitoring it more effectively. The area is what you would call poor rural, but really it is a very happy little school. The teachers are kind and seem to work hard for the children, who enjoy school and seem to be learning. How were we to know it was below average? It doesn't seem fair to blame us.

I have heard this story from other governors since OFSTED inspections were started and many more will sympathise. Traditionally governors have accepted what they are told about the school, reinforced by whether or not children and parents seem satisfied. They have been too timid to ask challenging questions and often got short shrift when they tried. Yet we are responsible for the school's success in all its aspects and must ensure that we share in studying the relevant strategic questions.

At the very least you should be able to compare your school's national curriculum test performance with the national and local education authority norms. Sometimes even better comparisons can be made through voluntary and mutually helpful collaboration with other schools serving a similar area. As well as the results, the comparative spending figures on different purposes and other aspects of management are revealing - especially important where an area is served by only one school.

Ask your governor training contact if your LEA has any value-added comparisons to help you to judge how well your school has done in the light of the ability of children coming in. Remember that where parents have little or no choice of school we have a special obligation to ensure that the available school is as good as it can be, You will now be involved in action planning in response to the report and I hope staff will join you in open discussion.

Our school exam results, measured by how many get five grades A to C, are almost exactly on the national average. Should we be satisfied with this? The school is in an affluent area and we do not do as well as the town's other comprehensives, perhaps because we are a bit smaller so have fewer teachers of less common subjects. I fear we may lose on numbers choosing our school.

From what you say about your catchment area and the performance of other local schools your results do not seem all that good. An area like yours should usually perform above the average. But please do not judge merely by the standards set by government. The quality of a school is made up of many elements, and a comprehensive, in particular, must satisfy the requirement of meeting the needs of all abilities, not just in the classroom but in all aspects of its life.

You should compare also the achievements of the most able, looking at how many A grades these attain. And bearing in mind that GCSE was designed for all abilities, you should look in a comprehensive for the proportion getting passes at any level, especially in English, maths and science. The number who with hard work pass in these three subjects provide a good indicator of its conscientious teaching, something which will weigh with employers. I have known a school surpass the national average both in five A to Cs and in the percentage leaving with no qualifications: that is a very sick school.

You should also look at the number and range of students who take part in school clubs and other activities. A good school will be always trying to extend such activities and increase participation both by staff and students.

Attendance and exclusion figures also give you a picture of a school from another point of view. Find out if your school and its competitors have any information about how students rate on entry as a measure of its achievement at the end of the process. Many now do this.

In your strategic questions related to performance you will include things such as choice of exam board and syllabus; size and ability range of groups; and selection, training and use of time by middle management (this last a vital factor if you are looking to improve performance). As it is a relatively small school it is also reasonable to consider the range of subjects offered. Often a school will struggle to compete by offering the same subject choices as others while it could achieve higher trades in the national curriculum subjects by spreading its staff expertise less thinly. The critical difference is between a six-form entry and a four-form entry school, and although some students in the latter may benefit in that groups in extra subjects may be small, there may be a price to pay in performance in basic subjects.

Remember, too, that parents do not always judge school simply by the proportion getting five GCSEs. Many are concerned about behaviour and ethos, opportunity to take part in a wide range of activities, and the care taken of those who have special talents or special needs. This is no excuse for being complacent about exam performance, but an inducement to look at other equally important "performance indicators".

In this prosperous area parents are quick to pick up on any decline in results or increase in behaviour problems: we are having a bad time with drugs. As a parent governor I know that a lot of what they say is justified and I get irritated with the head and staff because some things just cannot be disguised. Yet some parents do expect the impossible. How much should we as governors share with parents?

Teachers have a hard time in areas such as yours. As governors you have a major ambassadorial job to do to demonstrate to parents how hard the school works to maintain performance and behaviour standards. Yet you cannot do that all on your own and the best reassurance for parents is to be allowed to share in the school's thinking a bit more. It can be enraging for parents when teachers pretend that there are no problems. You need also to convince staff that parents cannot be fooled, deserve frankness about problems and should be included in the remedies.

Similarly on drugs, I am sure you are doing all the right things to contain this widespread problem and could tell a very good story as well as seeking parents' vigilance and support.

This approach also gives you a morally advantageous position from which you can say a few hard things about the realities of a comprehensive school and its obligations to students of all abilities and backgrounds. Parents sometimes will the end and not the means.

Do talk on these lines to your head and staff before you start to write the annual report. If you are going to take a franker stance you want to pre-empt questions by putting a great deal of what you want to say in the report itself. If staff think you are going to show your appreciation of their efforts and that this is the whole point of telling the parents how problems are tackled, you may well get their sympathy.

Joan Sallis explores the strategic approach to school performance in Governors Are People Like You published by ACE, 1B Aberdeen Studios, 22 Highbury Grove, London N5 2DQ Pounds 5 plus Pounds 1 pp

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