March 30, 2014

Lessons Learnt from Ofsted’s external reviews of governance and how to avoid having one…

It’s been such a busy term I haven’t had time for much blogging, so it’s with a sigh of relief the end of term is in sight, work is calming down and I have a bit of space to reflect over possibly my busiest term ever. And what is it that’s kept me so busy? Well, largely it’s been conducting external reviews of governance, twelve this term, twenty five in total since they were introduced by Ofsted in September 2012.

If you haven’t yet come across external reviews of governance you can find an explanation of their purpose and what the process entails, including an indication of cost, on the Government website.

Now Ofsted have often been criticised for cutting and pasting reports and I have been trying very hard not to produce carbon copies, but sometimes this is a challenge, because there are threads running through the governance of the governing bodies I’ve been reviewing – not all of these in every school of course, but these are the top ones. I share them here, not to embarrass any of the governors I’ve come into contact with this term who, almost without exception have been committed and enthusiastic people, genuinely wanting to do their best for their schools, but in the hope that we all might learn some valuable lessons so that perhaps, when Ofsted come knocking, we won’t be recommended to have an external review ourselves.

And yes, I do mean all. It’s easier to go into other people’s schools and tell them where they could make changes than it is to ensure everything’s perfect in my own school. I wonder what you’d think if you came and scrutinised our practices. I’ve just set up a self-evaluation party to work towards getting the Governor Mark – I’ll keep you posted! But also, as Professor Chris James from Bath University likes to say: “they are many more outstanding bits of schools than there are outstanding schools”, and there are pockets of good practice in lots of places, and I keep learning and picking up useful ideas and practices to share, as I go round more and more schools.

Anyway, here are my top six:

  1. This is by far the top criticism I see in Ofsted reports. The governing body is too reliant on the headteacher for the information it receives (and therefore unable to hold the headteacher to account);
  2. This is related: The governing body does not take responsibility for setting its own agendas and organising its own work;
  3. The governing body’s structure isn’t fit for purpose;
  4. The governing body’s work isn’t consistently focused on strategic priorities;
  5. The quality of clerking just isn’t high enough;
  6. The governing body isn’t visible to stakeholders.

When writing this blog I started to unpack each of these, but it soon became clear that this would be far too much for one blog, so this is the start of a series, and I’ll take them one at a time.

The title of this blog is facetious of course. I don’t think you should avoid having a review. A number of the schools I’ve reviewed haven’t been under pressure from Ofsted but have just been seeking to improve practice or seeking to retain their ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ status. We can all learn from a fresh pair of eyes (at this point I should probably declare an interest…). But Sir Michael Wilshaw’s been quite critical of external reviews (check out question 156 onwards of his recent oral evidence to the Education Select Committee). Do make sure if you’re commissioning something it meets the standards laid down by the National College, and the reviewer has relevant training and experience.

I was incredibly impressed with one governing body I reviewed recently which has transformed its practices and, while the new regime was still bedding in at the time of the review, the difference this was making was already very clear. The leader in this transformation was the new headteacher. Hang on – haven’t I said GBs shouldn’t rely on their heads? This head impressed me enormously, because he understood and valued genuinely effective governance, and he had led his governing body to become independent of him. He had modelled good practice to them and supported their development so that they were genuinely able to hold him and his leadership team to account and, although this sometimes means they now bring uncomfortable challenge, he knows that this will help to improve the school.

So the start of my series is: how can a headteacher support effective governance (and why should they)?

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