Bill Laar brings the perspective of an OFSTED inspector to bear on the task governors face in trying to make sense of the standards achieved in primary schools.
Locally managed schools often have reasons to be grateful for the expertise of governing bodies in diverse and esoteric areas including finance, law, personnel administration, building and health and safety. No one is threatened by this. Heads, without feeling diminished, can accept guidance and direction in matters where they could not be expected to be authoritative.
They can congratulate themselves on securing expert free consultancy. Governors can operate, assured and at home, in areas where they know they are needed and respond with the equanimity of the informed to demands for accountability.
It is in the high-profile area of standards that trouble begins. The advent of a legally binding national curriculum and assessment has transformed much of primary education. It is probably one of the main sources of the pressure under which primary teachers now feel they work. Governors find themselves obliged by law to monitor, evaluate and report to parents on the effectiveness of their schools in providing for the academic attainment and progress of pupils.
But governors' obligations are not confined to cognitive and academic standards. They are required to account for the attendance, behaviour and attitudes of pupils, their response to the education they receive, their spiritual, social and moral development and the success of the school in providing for them. This is not a question of governors usefully busying themselves with matters they know best, but authorised investigation and critical evaluation of the very essence of schools' business.
So little wonder, perhaps, that schools baulk at the notion of amateurs - lay governors - making judgments in areas where they themselves have long felt diffident about objective evaluation. Or that governors should flinch from venturing into unmapped territory.
But it is work that has to be done and there is no escaping it. Governors themselves are accountable, not least to the children they serve, for the effectiveness of policies they formulate in conjunction with schools.
It is not just monitoring that is called for but evaluation as well. It is easy enough to find out whether things are being done and carried through, but much harder to determine the extent to which they are positively affecting outcomes and attainment.
Effective monitoring depends absolutely on accurate and illuminating information. Governors are largely dependent on schools for this information and, for its interpretation. Where academic attainment of pupils in primary schools is concerned governors will need: * Evidence that the national curriculum programmes of study are being provided in their entirety; * The results of testing in the core subjects at the end of infant and junior schooling and any other standardised testing carried out by the school or local education authority, and the ways in which the data obtained are analysed and used as a basis for target setting; * The results of any baseline assessment for children entering statutory education; * The way in which these are used to structure children's learning and to form a basis for measuring individual progress; * The outcomes of any systematic internal assessment, exemplified in profiles of pupils' work, demonstrating attainment and progress.
* Some means of assessing whether the standards of subject attainment across the school are "high enough", the evidence available to support this, and what is being done to correct shortcomings.
All this information needs to be taken into account when judging how well the standards of attainment and, by implication, school performance, compare with pupils and schools of similar nature and circumstances. This is a vital prerequisite of fair and effective monitoring and evaluation: to determine the extent to which schools are achieving optimum results.
It is too easy to be impressed by results which do not reflect pupil potential or to be misled by the apparently mediocre that represents significant advances for pupils and schools in adverse circumstances. Local education authorities are increasingly supporting schools in this most complex aspect of monitoring and evaluation by providing figures which enable comparisons to be made between similar schools.
Governors will also need to know two other things. One, whether some parts of the school are more effective than others and some groups of pupils achieve more effectively than others and the likely causes of both. Two, how much the school's achievement has changed and how far this represents improvement.
Schools are increasingly using the kind of benchmarks provided by national curriculum tests and other standardised testing to set targets for raising standards.
Governors will need to know how far the process is implemented in the schools and will wish to contribute to it as part of the leadership responsibility they share with senior management teams.
They will find the Department for Education and EmploymentOffice for Standards in Education publication Setting Targets to Raise Standards helpful.
In monitoring and evaluating the effectiveness of special educational needs provision governors need to ensure that: * Statements of special educational needs are provided for; * The Code of Practice is scrupulously applied; * Systems exist for early identification of and response to pupils' special educational needs; * An agreed policy exists which underpins in-service training and practical support for the curriculum and classroom management for pupils with special educational needs.
Attendance is often a significant pointer to a school's life and quality. Governors will need to check that: * The requirements for recording and reporting attendance are met; * Unauthorised absences are followed up; * Systems are in place to monitor attendance and to identify patterns and causes of poor attendance; * Measures to improve attendance are devised and implemented; * Parents are involved in the school's efforts to maintain or improve attendance; * Pupils' attendance exceeds 90 per cent and they come to school on time.
But governors will want to go further than what has been set out here, than standards of attainment and academic progress alone.
The education of children needs to comprise much more than these. OFSTED, for example, attaches great importance to the quality of pupil response, to their behaviour and the nature of school discipline, and to their spiritual, moral and social development.
In these areas where evidence will be less tangible and objective than in academic matters governors may seek for indications of the following from the school and those most closely associated with it: * A climate that promotes positive behaviour and deals with misbehaviour; * Rules that are perceived by the whole school community to be fair, desirable and relevant; * Strategies for identifying and eliminating bullying and oppressive behaviour; * Consistent appreciation of rules and a clear understanding on everyone's part of the consequences of breaking them; * A moral climate built on values articulated through the curriculum, the collective action of staff, assemblies, the social and cultural life of the school the nature and quality of the whole environment; * Frequent opportunities provided in the curriculum, in social, sporting and cultural activities for pupils to develop a sense of personal responsibility and ability to assume care and responsibility for others; * The ways in which the whole curriculum and individual subjects, literature and the creative arts, the general learning environment, extra-curricular activities, assemblies and collective worship, educational visits, external input and visitors promote spiritual, moral and social development.
Finally, and most daunting of all, how far can governors go in monitoring and evaluating the quality of teaching, the element identified by OFSTED as the most significant influence on pupil attainment and progress.
Governors share responsibility with classroom teachers, phase and subject co-ordinators and the senior management team for the quality of teaching.
It is hardly to be wondered at if the demands upon governors for such monitoring and evaluation have complicated their relationship with schools. Governors are unlikely to manage the task productively and effectively, however zealously they set about it, unless they convince staff that their expectations are about shared aspirations, not a series of obstacles for teachers to negotiate.
Above everything governors need to bear always in mind the whole purpose of monitoring and evaluation in all its forms is to provide the best possible education for all pupils, for whom a year lost or misused will never be retrieved.
Setting Targets to Raise Standards free from DFEE Publications 0171 510 0150
Teaching quality The governing body will have carried out its responsibility for quality of teaching if it ensures it receives proper answers to the following questions: * Is there a school procedure for monitoring quality and is the procedure fit for the purpose?
* Are strengths and problems swiftly identified?
* Are the problems addressed?
* Have problems identified earlier been cleared up?
* What is the monitoring procedure?
* What quantitative evidence is there that is has been applied?