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Volunteers on parade;Governors

The seven-point grading system has been introduced without consulting governors, says Anat Arkin

The National Governors' Council has criticised the Office for Standards in Education for its handling of a new system for grading governors on their strategic role in school affairs.

OFSTED introduced the seven-point grading system as a temporary measure for this term after finding that many inspection reports gave little information about the work of governing bodies. Intended to encourage inspectors to look more closely at this area, the system was announced in OFSTED's latest newsletter for inspectors.

The NGC is asking why governors were not consulted first.

"Other areas of voluntary service have found that you do need to be very careful about how you introduce something like this," says NGC chair Pat Petch.

"If people do not have confidence in the system, they will either ignore it or walk away from it, which, after all, as volunteers they can do."

Pat Petch has written to Chris Woodhead, chief inspector of schools, to ask what criteria inspectors are using to make judgments on governors, what experience inspection teams have to enable them to make these judgments and what role governors themselves are expected to play in the process.

The NGC is also concerned about the type of evidence inspectors are using to assess governors' effectiveness. Pointing out that inspection teams rarely attend governors' meetings and tend to rely on the minutes of meetings, Mrs Petch says: "One of the problems is that governing body minutes are to some extent a reflection of what the clerk puts down. They do not necessarily always get to the essence of the discussion, which could have been quite gritty but will appear quite bland in the minutes."

She argues that informal conversations with school staff can be equally unreliable as a basis for assessing governors' effectiveness. Governors who are doing their job in strategic terms may be asking quite difficult questions about what is going on in their schools. But while some headteachers and staff will see these questions as part of a constructive dialogue with governors, others may resent what they view as interference.

"We all need to be quite clear about what we would regard as being hard evidence," says Pat Petch.

The National Association for Governors and Managers, in contrast, has welcomed OFSTED's new grading system, saying it could show up the need for more governor training.

"There are still many governors who are not totally au fait with what they are doing and are not taking the training that is on offer. So this is a very positive move," says NAGM chair Hadrian Southorn. OFSTED's new focus on the role of governors follows comments by Chris Woodhead in successive annual reports that too many governing bodies were failing to check that their policies were being carried out.

In his latest report Mr Woodhead says that governors are usually very supportive of their schools and in many cases have taken the lead in improving site security.

But, he adds: "Governors are less frequently involved in strategic planning or decisions about the curriculum.

"Nor are they sufficiently involved in monitoring or evaluating the effectiveness of their schools or the outcomes of their financial decisions. In particular, few governing bodies establish and use rigorously clear and relevant performance indicators to help them make justifiable decisions about the salary of the headteacher."

Under the new grading system, grade 2 is supposed to indicate that the roles of governors and senior staff are clearly defined and that governors are highly influential in setting aims and targets, identifying priorities and monitoring progress.

Grade 6 suggests that the roles of governors and senior staff are poorly defined, with governors playing little part in setting and reviewing targets for school improvement. These grades will not be published in inspection reports, but according to OFSTED, inspectors' comments in the text of the reports should reflect the grades they have awarded governors.

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