Ofsted introduced external reviews of governance into the inspection framework in autumn 2012. The September 2015 School Inspection Handbook requires inspectors to recommend a review in any school where in their judgement ‘governance is weak’, so we’re likely to see more, not fewer, taking place in forthcoming terms.
I was among the first to be trained and to train others in how to undertake these reviews, and have recently been involved in updating the national guidance. Since September 2012 I’ve undertaken 41 reviews in a wide range of contexts and here are my top tips on how to avoid having a review imposed on your governing body:
#1 have the best possible chair
The importance of having the right chair in place gets overlooked too often, in my view. This is a key leadership role, and I come across too many reluctant chairs, too many untrained chairs and too many chairs who’ve been in post too long. We need to think and plan for proper leadership development and succession in our governing bodies.
I’ve written more about this in the blog post: How long is too long?
#2 don’t rely on your headteacher
Too often I see headteachers determining how many governing body committees there are, when they meet, what the clerking arrangements are, setting the agendas and deciding what information the governing body has access to. This is usually done with the best of intentions, but potentially undermines the governing body’s ability to ‘hold the headteacher to account’ – one of our core functions.
Over-reliance on information from the headteacher is one of Ofsted’s most consistent criticisms of governing bodies.
Read more in Don’t rely on your headteacher.
#3 be proactive
This is a related point. Many of us rely too heavily on the local authority and/or the school to determine our agendas. LA model agendas are intended as a helpful starting point not a straightjacket, and we need to take responsibility for organising ourselves and determining what information we need from the school in order to probably fulfil our responsibilities.
#4 get your structure right
There are very few requirements around which committees we must have and none around governor link roles. We need to keep our structures regularly under review to make sure they’re fit for purpose, avoiding overlap and properly enabling us to fulfil our responsibilities.
Find out more about this here: Get your structure right.
#5 keep the most important thing the most important thing
One of the most important roles a governing body plays, in my opinion, is ensuring a relentless focus on the things that really matter, the things that have the greatest impact on outcomes and life chances for our children and young people. My experience suggests we spend too much time talking about parking and school uniform and not enough about the breadth of the curriculum and the quality of teaching and learning.
#6 have an excellent clerk
In this era of school autonomy it’s more important than ever that we have proper legal advisers, not just minute-takers in this role. This is likely to impact on what we pay our clerks, their professional development and their performance management, but getting these things right is a very worthwhile investment in my view.
And with the introduction of short inspections for good schools it becomes increasingly likely that governors won’t be meeting inspectors face to face, so the audit trail produced by our clerks will become even more important.
#7 make sure the governing body is visible
Governing bodies are often criticised for not being visible, or accessible. Academies are required to publish significant amounts of information about their trustees, and the new statutory guidance for maintained school governing bodies increases the requirements on maintained schools in line with this. In any case, regardless of ‘requirements’, the website is our shop window, and it’s the place that Ofsted inspectors form their first impressions of governing bodies.
For more information on what needs to be on your website see Clerk to Governors’ comprehensive guidance on school websites.
It’s good for all governing bodies to be reflecting on these issues, and getting it right in these areas will play a significant role in convincing inspectors that we’re competent and fulfilling our core roles. But not all schools are trying to avoid external reviews of governance. Increasingly schools are being proactive, and commissioning external reviews themselves, before Ofsted gets the opportunity to make a recommendation. We can all benefit from a fresh pair of eyes, and I believe external reviews are playing an important role in spreading and sharing good practice around the system.
I should declare an interest there of course! If we can help in any way please get in touch.
More about external reviews of governance.