Searching for new frontiers

31st March 1995 at 01:00
Little on school improvement; less on the curriculum. Although annual reports to parents have advanced since the first awards of 1991, new boundaries await the buccaneers, says Joan Sallis.

STORY: The task of judging this award is more interesting than anything else my work offers, but is also more stressful. My family knows that I could set off to address thousands of people in the Albert Hall as though I were going down to the butcher's, whereas my screwed-up behaviour when working on this competition is beaten only by the weeks when we appointed a new headteacher for our school.

I reply that if I make a fool of myself in the Albert Hall it's neither here nor there. But judging someone else's precious work fairly, and ensuring that thousands of children get the right headteacher are very serious.

It's common to believe that something of great interest that you've been involved in is also very important. So of course I would think The TES Annual Report Award important in raising the profile of this statutory duty, encouraging governors to take more pride in it, and working to improve the general standard. Writing an annual report that is attractive, parent-friendly and informative is a vital part of governors' accountability.

I feel sad that poor attendances at annual meetings tend to produce perfunctory reports; hence even worse attendances and progressively worse reports.

I wish I could do something to rescue governors from this vicious downward spiral, especially as the imagination, teamwork and courage which go into a really first-class report must spill over to enhance governors' work throughout the year.

When I've unburdened all this idealism I remind myself that, from evidence under my nose, a high proportion of the 23,000 or so reports which haven't been entered for the competition are about as exciting as shareholders' reports are to those who don't own any shares.

On the other hand, I do feel cheered by the evidence that governors are beginning to ask for training sessions on report writing, and that the reports which have won awards in the competition are in great demand as models and are circulating widely in parts of the training network. This has been stimulated by the trainers themselves and particularly by the involvement, as the number of entries has increased, of experienced trainers in the sifting process.

This year we had well over 600 entries. Twelve experienced people from governor training all over England and Wales, working in pairs, prepared a long-list, each pair reducing 100-plus entries to about 20, in categories A,B and C, against common criteria. Pairs provided a check on each other, but to guard against differences of standards or differences in the quality of their batches, they also met for a day to subject their choices to the critical moderation of another pair, and another and another if necessary, until discussion produced a confident choice.

Action for Governors' Information and Training, a national organisation working with trainers, organised all this and then sifted through again to produce 60-odd finalists for judging, including 12 from which they recommended the judges select prizewinners.

It was reassuring that all four of us, working independently, had chosen the same top three in the primary sector and two in the secondary. We came together finding we only needed to put these in final order.

And what were this year's entries like? I saw them all. There has been a big improvement in general quality each year since the first competition in 1991, when 150 entries gave us enough to reward, but only just. Comparing this year with last, I would not say the best entries exhibited as much of an advance as in the two previous years, but the decisions were nevertheless much more difficult because about 400 entries reached a reasonable standard - and about half of those were worth looking at more carefully.

Each year we have extended the criteria, since the aim of the competition is to move governors on. At first we were pleased to have reports which were written in simple and friendly language, visually attractive and containing essential information.

In the second year, more governing bodies went beyond these basics, and we were able to praise those which gave some information about governors as individuals - profiles, drawings, photographs - and contained some appealing and relevant children's work. We next asked for some sharing of problems, for evidence of how the governors had tackled their work, made their decisions, their visible "workings out" if you like, and some focus on the future.

Last year we were drowned in information about individual governors and some reports had so much children's work, they were more like school magazines. We also had some attempts to share problems with parents - though not often controversial - and some timid peeps into the future.

"So where are the frontiers to be for 1995?" TES deputy editor Bob Doe asked me this time last year. We agreed that governors' role in school improvement was the new frontier. So there we were, with more than 600 reports. The good news first. Hardly any were in unredeemed education-speak, though many did bear the unmistakable print of a professional hand.

Most were simple and friendly, with some attractive illustrations and some information about governors.

But the air up the mountain now gets thinner, and there weren't that many which showed how governors had come to decisions, were frank about really major issues, or involved parents in their thinking about what lay ahead.

As for our frontier territory, school improvement, the number which said anything at all barely reached double figures. What kind of improvements did they have in mind?

Mostly, I have to tell you, sites and buildings matters. I'm not diminishing the importance of covered ways, sinks in art rooms, a better library or even the old plumbing jobs which occupied us so long. But they are an easy option because they don't threaten anybody. We all agree that little heads must stay dry, paint pots be washed, books be plentiful and well-housed, and water flow where it ought.

But the curriculum, that secret garden - which if locked will encourage predators - remains for most a mystery.

At a time when the garden, following the Dearing reforms, has been cleared for redesign, when there are many who would like to turn it into an allotment, and when politicians still trample it with heavy boots, it is vital that governors do talk about the curriculum and its unanswered questions.

Well, I said to Bob Doe, it's like the final stages of birth. There's no way back and the next bit is very hard. Perhaps we'll have to wait a few years longer.

When it comes to including what the law says they must, governors have coped well on the whole, considering the speed at which new items are added to those requirements.

Many managed to present them in an interesting way as well. We still have a lot of trouble with the home address of the chair, the omission of which marred many otherwise good entries, and some reports did not adequately record and account for gifts to the school: this we consider important information for parents. There is evidence also that the attention given to the use of school funds outside the official budget area is still a bit hit-or-miss.

The larger number of secondary schools figuring in our finalists was an exciting change this year. In the past, it has always seemed to us genuinely easier for a primary to produce a manageable and friendly report, and the much smaller number of distinguished secondary school efforts tended to score more on glossy and stylish production.

This year far more secondaries, without resort to expensive facilities, produced reports which were more inviting, more warmly communicative. (I always did think secondary schools ought to be more like primary schools.) There are a respectable number among the awards, and indeed the also-rans, which had really achieved a breakthrough.

The prize-winning reports aren't perfect. But they have many very special features and have given us great pleasure.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson governors' report was really stylish, but also conveyed a tremendous commitment to and pride in the school, and a real understanding by governors of its rich curriculum offerings, of where it was going, the standards it was aiming at, and the problems.

Steeple Bumpstead's report was packed with relevant and interesting information and, though not perhaps the smartest in the finalists, it won because of the exceptional content and because of the warm sense of community and the unity of all the partners which is conveyed.

The close runners-up among the primary schools were Bethune Park and Low Ash. Like the winner, they were informative and breathed community involvement in very different communities.

Bethune Park was a delightful read and the sense of the dignity of a caring and hard-working school in an area not without problems was palpable.

Low Ash's report was, at the same time, smart and simple and gave a great deal of information without fuss.

Wolfreton was also an informative and well-produced report, and its special strength was the clear message that the governors, staff and students all shared a sense of worth and responsibility as well as pride in their school.

Three primary schools, two secondary schools. Three city schools, two village schools. North, south and middle England, A very happy outcome.

Details of next year's competition will be published soon. To enter, send four copies of your 1995 annual report to The TES Annual Report Awards, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1 9XY

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