April 20, 2014

Lessons Learnt: Lesson 1 – Don't Rely on Your Headteacher

This is part of a series which started here: Lessons Learnt from Ofsted’s Reviews of Governance – and how to avoid having one. After a short meander into how headteachers can support good governance, we’re onto lesson one – don’t rely on your headteacher.

What I mean is, of course, don’t ONLY rely on your headteacher for the information that the governing body receives. I don’t often find people arguing with this principle (though I have to say I’ve come across a few headteachers who are resistant to the concept). In principle it’s obvious isn’t it? One of the governing body’s core functions is “Holding the headteacher to account for the educational performance of the school and its pupils” (Governors’ Handbook page 6). How can we do that if the only source of information we have is the headteacher themselves and we have no way of cross referencing what they tell us?

The headteacher has a statutory responsibility (in maintained schools) to provide the governing body “such reports in connection with the discharge of his functions as the governing body … may require (either on a regular basis or from time to time) for the purposes of the exercise of any of their functions.” (Education Act 2002, S30). As I’ve noted elsewhere this has implications for the headteacher’s report, but it also means that the headteacher is required to provide the governing body with other information that they request to enable them to fulfil their functions – one of which is to hold the headteacher to account.

It might be obvious in principle, but the practice is often an entirely different matter. Even in ‘good’ governing bodies it’s not unusual to find the headteacher determining how many committees there are, when they meet, what the clerking arrangements are (including minuting them themselves sometimes – nb this is unlawful in maintained schools!), setting the agendas and deciding what information the governing body has access to.

And if this is happening in our school, whose responsibility is it? Well, of course the headteacher has to accept some of it, but basically the responsibility lies with us. Have another look at that quote from the Education Act above. It says “such reports … as the governing body … may require”, that puts the responsibility firmly on us, to ensure that we’re ‘requiring’ the right information.

So, what should we be requesting to enable us to properly hold the headteacher to account? There’s no point me creating my own list here, because there are two others to draw on that come from much more authoritative sources.

School Governance – Learning from the Best, Ofsted’s most recent (2011) good practice guide on governance states:

“All the governing bodies in the schools that were visited sought a range of good quality, regular information from a variety of sources to ensure that they had an accurate understanding of the school’s strengths and areas for development. This information included:

  • concise, focused reports from the headteacher, heads of departments and subject leaders
  • external reports, for example from the school improvement partner, consultants and accrediting bodies
  • presentations from school staff, pupils and external experts
  • internal performance monitoring information
  • internal and external analyses of national tests using both benchmarking and comparative information
  • school self-evaluation reports
  • formal and informal visits to the school
  • questionnaires
  • discussions with parents, pupils and staff.”

I’ve probably said enough about headteachers’ reports, though it’s interesting that Ofsted suggests we should be getting reports from other members of staff also. And, for me, some of the other things listed come into the same category – things that are internally generated. I’m including in that: presentations from school staff, internal performance monitoring information, internal analyses of national tests and school self-evaluation reports. These are all incredibly important, but we need to be able to cross reference them. What with?

Well that leaves us with: external reports, presentations from external experts, external analyses of national tests, visits to the school, questionnaires and discussions with parents, pupils and staff. I’m going to leave the last three for another blog on governor visits and governor visibility. So what’s included in the first three?

External reports include things we would formerly have known as (and perhaps still do) School Improvement Partner reports, or records of visit. Most schools will still have people who fulfil a role like this – or it might be more than one person – despite the removal of the statutory requirement. When we’re commissioning the services of these people we should be including a requirement to produce a report for the governing body and also (in my view) the requirement to meet governors face to face on occasions so that they can bring their external expert viewpoint to the governors and share their view of the school and any points of difference between their view and that of the headteacher.

External reports also include things like quality mark assessments (eg Artsmark, Basic Skills Quality Mark), Investors in People assessments etc. If your school is involved in something that generates a report about it then that report ought to be coming to governors, as a matter of course. And I don’t mean just to the chair, I mean it should form part of a meeting agenda, and be sent out in advance as one of the meeting papers.

External data is the other thing, and it has surprised me how many governing bodies don’t have built into their annual work plans access to the national data sets.

When Ofsted talk about external data they are basically referring to their own data sources: RAISEonline and the data dashboard. RAISE is confidential to the school (this includes the governing body by the way!), though governors can have their own account that gives access to the summary report. If they haven’t got their own accounts they should be receiving a copy of the summary report as a pdf, or colour print out (the colours are important!) and it should be an agenda item at a relevant committee meeting. Two versions of RAISE are published each year, the unvalidated data in the autumn term (usually October for key stages 1 and 2 and November for key stage 4) and the validated data in the spring term (usually March for key stages 1 and 2 and April for key stage 4). Once the validated data is available the data dashboards are updated, and these have recently been expanded to include special schools. The data dashboard is published in the public domain so you can find your school’s by visiting the website.

A health warning comes with RAISE. It’s not necessarily the easiest document to find your way around until you get used to it. You might need some training, and/or some assistance. But you do need at least some of the governing body to be engaging with the full document, and given the opportunity to raise questions from it, before the headteacher ‘tells them’ what it says. Getting a few pages in a powerpoint or headteacher’s report along with an explanation is NOT THE SAME!

The other external data source which I think all governing bodies ought to be seeing is the new Fischer Family Trust governor dashboard. This is published in September, based on the same (unvalidated) data set as RAISE online, and it’s been developed in conjunction with the National Governors’ Association to be particularly useful for governors. There’s no need for me to try to explain it here because there’s an excellent overview on the FFT website and also an e-learning tool website that does just that.

Observant readers will have noticed that I mentioned ‘two authoritative sources’ on this issue, and so far I’ve only referred to one. The other is the Governors’ handbook, from page 9 onwards. Happy reading…

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