August 15, 2014

Ofsted Expects: that we understand the boundaries

boundaries cartoon

Thanks to the brilliant @sdupp on twitter for permission to use this image

The first bullet point of the new School Inspection Handbook’s section on inspecting governance tells inspectors that they must consider whether governors “carry out their statutory duties, such as safeguarding, and understand the boundaries of their role as governors”.

This worries me. Not, I would hasten to add, because I don’t think it’s important. The National Governors’ Association (NGA) is strident in its advice to governors that they must understand that their role is strategic rather than operational, and rightly so. It’s one of the most important things new governors need to learn. To steal an NGA phrase: ‘governance is a thinking role not a doing role’. And in my opinion Ofsted too often rewards bad behaviour here. For example, too many reports praise governors for visiting school regularly, without commenting on whether they get in the way, whether there is a clear, strategic focus for visits, and whether they are having any impact.

But my worry is that that’s not how this will be interpreted. I’ve come across too many headteachers over the years who want to keep governors at arm’s length, who are uncomfortable with legitimate challenge, who want governors to get back in their box; on one appalling occasion this was overtly supported by an Ofsted inspector (to be fair, Ofsted later acknowledged that the inspector’s advice had been wrong).

This brings me to another change in the new guidance for inspectors. There was a whole section on governor visits in the former subsidiary guidance (replaced by the new School Inspection Handbook). It talked about the purpose of them and referred inspectors to the excellent Ofsted good practice guide: School Governance, Learning from the Best. I stand to be corrected but I don’t think this has been replicated in the new guidance anywhere, and that worries me also. Incidentally, Jackie Krafft HMI, the author of that document and former national Ofsted lead for governance, has now left that role due to a promotion, and has not, to my knowledge been replaced.

I know this is a bit of a rant, but I hope you can see my concerns. All these things, combined with the emphasis on more headteachers being involved in conducting inspections, without there being any role for governors in this, makes me worry that legitimate, proactive, effective governance might be mistaken for governors ‘not understanding the boundaries of their role’. I don’t think it’s helpful either that this is the first bullet point, as if the most important thing about governance is that governors understand the boundaries of their role, or, as it could be interpreted, that they should know their place.

So this is my plea to Ofsted, that they will ensure that their inspector training includes a thorough and clear outline of the role of governors, including examples of what good and bad governance looks like, so that this phrase can’t be used to inhibit the legitimate challenge of school leaders, which is an inherent, and often uncomfortable, but crucial part of the governors’ role.

You can find my comments on other aspects of the updated guidance here: Ofsted Expects – the new School Inspection Handbook July 2014

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