August 15, 2014

Ofsted Expects – the new School Inspection Handbook July 2014

It won’t be news to most of you that Ofsted has updated its guidance to inspectors recently. The updated guidance has been long anticipated and is the most significant update since the current framework was introduced in September 2012. The former subsidiary guidance for inspectors is no more, but the main aspects of it have been helpfully incorporated into a new single guidance document – the revised School Inspection Handbook.

This blog isn’t intended to highlight every change but focuses on the guidance to inspectors in relation to inspecting governance. Ofsted have long been saying that all governors should read the whole of the Inspection Handbook and that’s probably more important than ever now (for ease of reference, though, I’ve extracted the leadership and management section and the grade descriptors for leadership and management here).

I’m grateful for the work already undertaken by Shena Lewington and Heather Leatt on identifying the major changes in the new guidance (see Clerk to Governors website and Eden Education website).

In commenting on the changes it’s impossible to ignore the influence of the recent Trojan Horse investigations in Birmingham. Having not yet had time to read all the reports in detail I’m not going to comment on that investigation, but I will just say:

  1. The new guidance followed so quickly on the publication of the reports there must be some danger of knee-jerk reaction.
  2. One of Peter Clarke’s concluding comments in his investigation report is this: “I have seen no evidence to suggest that there is a problem with governance generally; however, there appears to be a problem with certain governors in some Birmingham schools.” (p. 90) and we must be careful not to extrapolate too far, from problems with certain governors in some schools.

So – what’s new?

Firstly the section on leadership and management has been moved so it is now the first of the four main sections after ‘overall effectiveness’ rather than the last. That won’t be accidental!

There are now 14 bullet points on governance replacing the 9 in earlier versions of the handbook. Some of that is the result of the consolidation of the different guidance documents, but some of it’s new.

The first bullet is about how governors “carry out their statutory duties, such as safeguarding, and understand the boundaries of their role as governors”. Carrying out statutory duties isn’t new, but understanding the boundaries is. And this worries me. So much so that I’ve devoted a separate blog to it. Understanding the boundaries of the role is important of course, but we need to have a clear shared understanding of the what the role is and what its boundaries are. And when I say ‘we’ I mean governors, headteachers and inspectors. The new training for inspectors has a key role to play here.

Bullet point 2 is entirely new and states that inspectors should consider whether governors: “ensure that they and the school promote tolerance of and respect for people of all faiths (or those of no faith), cultures and lifestyles; and support and help, through their words, actions and influence within the school and more widely in the community, to prepare children and young people positively for life in modern Britain”.

Well, of course. But again the phrase – used a number of times in the new handbook – “modern Britain” needs to be universally understood. The former Secretary of State’s comments about British values in schools led to much discussion and controversy (and mockery, the #britishvalues hashtag on twitter is worth a look) and we need to have a clear understanding as governors about what preparing our young people for life in modern Britain actually means and looks like. This is, and should always have been, part of our role in setting the strategic direction of the school, of course.

This bullet also usefully emphasis the role governors have to play in setting the ethos of the school. Our words, actions and influence as leaders within the school, the way that we deal with each other and with the staff, as well as the children and parents, will play its part in setting the tone for the way staff interact with each other and with the pupils, and the way we conduct ourselves in and out of school will influence the standing of the school in the community.

Bullet 3 adds to the former expectation that we ensure clarity of vision, ethos and strategic direction an expectation that we ensure ‘long-term planning (for example, succession)’, but doesn’t specify whether it means succession planning for school leaders or for the governing body (and chair), or both. Presumably both.

The other bullet points include a number of slight re-phrasings, amalgamations of points made across the two sets of guidance previously and one further entirely new bullet point, bullet 6, an expectation that governors: “assure themselves of the rigour of the assessment process”. This is an important issue but difficult in practice for non-education-professionals. For me it underlines the importance of governors having high quality external advice. I say more about this in my earlier blog: Don’t rely on your headteacher.

One further comment. The bullet point which used to read: “[inspectors should consider whether governors] are providing support for an effective headteacher, or whether they are hindering school improvement by failing to tackle key concerns” (Subsidiary Guidance, April 2014) now reads “…are providing support for an effective headteacher”. The phrase “or whether they hinder school improvement by failing to tackle key concerns” has been incorporated into a different point about governors’ wider understanding of the school. I always read that point in its original phrasing as ‘failing to tackle key concerns’ about the headteacher – I think that was its clear implication.

I think its removal from that context is interesting and it takes me back to my earlier points, because I think I see a Birmingham influence here (though I accept I might be reading too much into it). One of the issues in Birmingham was that some headteachers were forced out of their schools by their governing bodies. I am not making any judgements about the rights and wrongs of those specific cases, or defending those governors in any way. But please let’s not forget that sometimes this is necessary. Facilitating the exit of a headteacher is sometimes the best thing for the school and for the children. Thankfully that’s rare, but when it is the case it is the hardest thing any governor is ever called upon to do. Many years of havoc have been wrought in schools where the governing body couldn’t or wouldn’t grasp this particular nettle.

I won’t finish on that grim note, I will end by saying that I think the consolidation of the guidance is a positive and helpful thing and that I’m glad to see the role of governors still so prominent, but in my view it’s never been more important that governors, headteachers and inspectors have a clear and agreed understanding of the role of the governing body and what good practice actually looks like, and we need to be careful that recent events in Birmingham don’t undermine effective governance practice elsewhere.

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