I read a really interesting line in an Ofsted report this week. It says “Governors have confused asking questions with exercising challenge”. The reason I think this is interesting is that I have a long-held belief that Ofsted *sometimes* does exactly that: confuses governors asking questions with governors exercising challenge. To the point that governing bodies are asking their clerks to highlight governors’ questions in red or put them in italics or in bold. Don’t pretend you don’t do this. I read lots of minutes. I know. I even came across minutes recently where the clerk regularly wrote “a governor challenged…” – even though what followed often didn’t constitute challenge at all, in my view.
Why are governing bodies doing this? Because they’re desperate to demonstrate to Ofsted that they’re bringing challenge. Because comments in Ofsted reports so often start with statements such as “Governors have not asked searching questions…” or “Minutes of meetings of the governing body reflect a lack of discussion or challenge…”.
A headteacher whose school had gone into ‘requires improvement’ and whose governing body had been criticised for not bringing challenge, described her governing body meetings to me by saying this: ‘now governors seem to feel that they have to keep asking me questions until they catch me out. Once they’ve caught me out about something and got it minuted, they think they’ve done their job. It’s making meetings very uncomfortable.’. Hmm – probably not the kind of meetings we and our heads are aspiring to…
So, if challenge isn’t about asking questions, what is it about? These are my top tips to governing bodies genuinely wanting to bring effective challenge.
#1 take control of agendas
Too often I find headteachers still set governing body agendas. Or alternatively the local authority standard agenda being used without deviation. Governors can’t bring challenge unless they determine what’s being discussed. An integral part of bringing challenge is determining the issues for discussion and making sure they’re (literally) kept at the top of the agenda. Very recently I’ve seen minutes where 30 local authority items were addressed and then all the specific school business came up under AOB at the end of a long meeting. Part of the role of governance is to “keep the most important thing the most important thing”, and we do that by getting our agendas right in the first place.
#2 take control over the paperwork governors receive
I’ve written at length about headteachers’ reports and how they are the responsibility of the governing body not the headteacher (See: whose report is it anyway? and ten ways to improve your headteachers’ report). Agree with your head and other key staff what information governors need and when they need it by, and then make sure they get it at the agreed time. It sounds simple – but it isn’t always in practice, since paperwork for governors’ meetings isn’t always the most important job on the headteacher’s desk at any one time.
#3 know the school well
We can’t bring challenge from a point of ignorance. We can’t keep the most important thing the most important thing unless we know what the most important thing is did you follow me there…?). We have to know our schools for ourselves, including having a good understanding of the self-evaluation and the school development plan, to be able to know what issues we need to be discussing and what we should be being ‘challenging’ about.
#4 be persistent
The first three have to be in place but this is the important one for me. When I’m undertaking governance reviews and reading through a year’s worth of minutes I look for golden threads. Where an issue has been raised I look on to the next meeting: Has the action been taken? Has the issue been followed through? What impact has this had? Too often key questions appear to go unanswered and then are not picked up again. The phrase “a dog with a bone” tends to have negative connotations, but I want that to be me. I want to be the broken record governor. Not because I pick up on my “pet” theme every meeting, but because I don’t let things go. Because I’m the one saying “These children still aren’t achieving. What else can we do? What impact would we expect that to have? Let’s discuss it again at the next meeting.”
#5 ask the right questions
I know. I started by saying questions and challenge aren’t the same thing. And they’re not. But questions do have a place, of course, once we’ve got the other things right. Numbers 7 and 8 of the National Governance Association’s eight elements of effective governance are: “Committed to asking challenging questions” and “Confident to have courageous conversations in the interests of the children and young people”. Once we’ve got the right issues on the agenda, and we’ve got the right information about these issues both from the meeting paperwork and our own knowledge of the school, then we can start asking questions that will contribute to bringing effective challenge. And I believe some of the best questions are things like: “Why are we doing that?” “What impact has it had?” “How do we know?” “If we keep doing this what impact would we expect by the end of the year?” “How will we know if it’s worked?” “Are we focusing our resources around the most important priorities?”…
But we’re not asking in order to demonstrate anything to Ofsted, we’re doing it to help our schools do the best for our pupils. And when Ofsted come in they’ll catch us doing it right.
As Ofsted’s Sean Harford says: “Don’t ask yourself: ‘What do I need to do to get a good Ofsted judgement?’ Rather, think about what you need to do to ensure that every child in your school gets a decent education.”