What should we do about Governors?

Being Sir Michael Wilshaw must be stressful. To be so all-knowing and so perfect is hard enough but when you’re surrounded by heads and teachers who aren’t up to the job and feckless parents who don’t care about their children it must be even harder. And now he’s found a new group who are conspiring to make sure that kids do badly in school – all those inadequate governing bodies. The ones that “would rather spend time looking at the quality of lunches and not enough on maths and English”.

The language is important here – “would rather” implies a deliberate decision to get things wrong. Wilshaw seems incapable of speaking any language but that of blame and threat. These are not people who need help to improve; they are people who have deliberately chosen to get things wrong – or perhaps are just too stupid to do better.  And for them “time is running out”. They need to be replaced by business experts parachuted into the school because, of course, business people understand data.

To help them Ofsted has produced a school report card. This apparently will enable governors “to know their school well enough”. This document in fact encapsulates all that is naïve and simplistic about Ofsted’s approach to schools. It gives us comparisons with all schools and similar schools (never defined) for:

  • 5+ A* to C GCSE’s
  • English, maths and science GCSE
  • Attendance
  • 3 levels of progress in English and maths
  • Comparison of the progress of advantaged and disadvantaged pupils (also undefined) in English and maths

And that’s it. All you need to know. No other subjects matter. Nor does anything about the ethos of the school, the quality of relationships or the range of opportunities offered in and out of lessons – all things incidentally that parent governors are likely to know a lot about.  Any decent governing body presented with this report card as a summation of the school’s achievements would dismiss it as totally inadequate.

In fact not only is the report card simplistic. It’s actually fundamentally misleading. On the Local Schools Network site, Henry Stewart has analysed in detail the massive flaws in the “3 levels of progress” measure demonstrating that is fundamentally meaningless and likely to favour schools with advantaged intakes.  The detailed analysis can be found at http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2013/02/ofsted-dashboard-uses-the-wrong-data/ and at http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2013/02/making-expected-progress-a-deeply-flawed-measure/.

So if Ofsted have nothing useful to offer governing bodies, who has? By coincidence the Select Committee was conducting hearings about school governance at the same time as Wilshaw’s speech. Much public attention has focussed around the issue of payment for governors. Wilshaw favours it as part of the mission to recruit more professional governors. All the witnesses at the select committee opposed the idea.

What the select committee did begin to come to terms with is the need governors have for independent advice. There was a time when local authorities were represented at all governing bodies and could advise both on procedure and on how well the school was doing from an independent perspective. Then government took away the right of as local authority to attend governing bodies and the resources that made it possible. Then there were School Improvement Partners – not usually so well informed but at least providing some independent perspective. And also of course got rid of by Gove.

The key question is “how can governing bodies hold schools to account if the headteacher is their only source of information and guidance?” That is the situation we’ve created in the name of school autonomy. And interestingly it’s not something that the big academy chains allow to happen in their schools.

Putting this right would not be massively complicated. Every school should be required to appoint an independent clerk, trained and responsible to the chair not to the headteacher. The job would be to ensure that governors do understand their role and that meetings do address the issues they should. Then the “middle tier” authority should report to governing bodies their assessment of the strengths, weaknesses and progress of the school – in a more sophisticated way than Ofsted are capable of doing.

Expecting 300,000 governors to all get it right without any back up is unrealistic. But to take away the local and parental focus to governance would be to lose a vital ingredient that helps to bind a school into its community. The answer is to professionalise governor support not governors.

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2 Comments on “What should we do about Governors?”

  1. Paul Martin says:

    I agree entirely about the importance of governors getting professional advice, not of getting paid.

  2. Margaret Morris says:

    Dear John, I’ve just realised that this is the article that Trevor was thinking about. I enjoyed it immensely as an attack on Wilshaw and I agree with your concluding sentence -very much so. What I was thinking of writing was more an insider piece about being a Governor. Best wishes, Margaret Date: Thu, 28 Feb 2013 12:49:33 +0000 To: mmmorris@msn.com