The Office for Standards in Education has begun grading governors' performance when it inspects their schools. But a recent survey I carried out of inspectors' reports suggests that fewer than one in 10 governing bodies may be making any significant contribution to the effectiveness of the school and one in 20 gives cause for concern.
The extent to which the work of governors is commented on in OFSTED reports varies considerably. In some cases, particularly in secondary schools, the governors' contribution was discussed in detail but, in other reports, their work was covered in a couple of sentences. It is not clear whether this is due to a failure by some inspectors to "think governor" or because the governors in that school were not being effective.
OFSTED publishes all reports on the Internet and I looked at reports on 91 schools from 41 local authorities published last August. These included reports on 39 secondary schools (four of them grant-maintained), 44 primary schools, five special schools and three nursery schools. Of the total, one secondary and two primary schools were said to be in need of special measures to improve.
Given the variation in detail presented in the reports, it is difficult to draw any general conclusions about the effectiveness of governing bodies across the country. But, assuming that the absence of very detailed comments means that the governing body is neither outstandingly good nor extremely ineffective, one might estimate that, based on the evidence in this sample, between 5 and 10 per cent of governing bodies are making a significant contribution to the life and work of their schools.
About 5 per cent of governing bodies might be said to give cause for concern and 1 per cent are so ineffective as to seriously prejudice the pupils' standard of education.
Governors contributed to the evidence for the reports in every case. Occasionally, only the chair was interviewed but, more often, discussions were held with a group of governors.
Vice-chairs and chairs of finance committees were sometimes mentioned as having been interviewed but there was only one mention of inspectors attending a meeting of a governing body - perhaps governors choose not to meet during the week of an inspection. Only one report mentioned having studied the minutes of governors' meetings.
In general, the detailed comments on the role and work of the governing body will be found under two headings in the report. There is usually a reference to the involvement of the governors in the school's financial management in the section headed "Efficiency of the School" and more general comments will be found in the section headed "Management and Administration". The comments were rarely very critical even when the school appeared to be experiencing difficulties.
In a separate study of the reports on 100 successful secondary schools, the most frequent reference to the work of the governing body was in connection with their financial responsibilities. In quite a few cases, governors were noted as failing to meet their statutory responsibilities, perhaps towards an area of the national curriculum or not providing the required information in the school's prospectus. About one in five governing bodies in secondary schools was failing to ensure that the law on daily collective worship was implemented.
The broadsheet, Governing Bodies and Effective Schools, jointly produced by the Department for Education and Employment and OFSTED in 1995, suggests that a governing body has three main roles: to provide a strategic view; to act as a critical friend; and to ensure accountability. The frequent use of these phrases in a number of reports suggests that this is the model being adopted by inspectors and the presence of these common themes suggests that a clearer view of what constitutes an effective governing body is emerging from OFSTED.
Monitoring is an aspect of the work of governing bodies to which the inspectors appear to pay much attention. Though School Governors - A Guide to the Law (DFEE 1994) and Governing Bodies and Effective Schools both stress the importance of the governors' role in relation to school improvement, few of the reports in the sample commented on this.
Governors are volunteers and, as the reports make clear, the majority give a considerable amount of time and commitment to their schools. It is regrettable, therefore, that this effort has sometimes been dismissed in a few phrases.
Since January, OFSTED inspectors have been required to grade from 1 to 7 the strategic role of the governors in all schools' affairs. Inspectors will consider the extent to which the governors' procedures enable them to play a strategic and influential role in the management of the school.
This change will enable the responsibilities now placed on governing bodies, and the way in which governors fulfil them, to be recognised more adequately. As well as giving governors their due, this will enable more reliable conclusions to be drawn about the effectiveness of governing bodies and good practice to be disseminated more widely.
Effective Governance; the Evidence from OFSTED, is obtainable, price Pounds 9 including postage, from School Management and Governance Development,22 Ashmere Grove, Ipswich Suffolk IP4 2RE