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Fundamental to whether your school is doing well is whether the quality of teaching is good. So how do governors assess whether the quality of teaching in their school is good (or better) – indeed what does good look like and do all your teaching staff have the same understanding of what it is? And why is it important?
It matters because the quality of teaching and the quality of learning are intrinsically linked. Governors have a number of legal responsibilities, but our first and foremost duty is to provide the best possible education for the children and young people in our schools. The best possible education is dependent on having high quality teaching.
The following from a real Ofsted report is a prime example of what not to do: “They [Governors] make regular visits to the school to check on the quality of teaching.”
Governors have no business going into school to check or assess the quality of teaching. The governing board has appointed a lead professional – commonly known as the headteacher – to ensure that is being done properly. If there are question marks about the quality of teaching then the governing board needs to address that with the headteacher – and if over time the board is not satisfied with the response then it needs to be dealt with formally through the performance management of the headteacher.
In reality, no-one, including the head, should be judging the quality of teaching based solely on lesson observations. Even fantastic teachers have off days and not every lesson can be outstanding – the corollary is that a teacher who perhaps would be better off pursuing an alternative career can probably pull off the odd masterpiece with notice while being ineffective for the vast majority of the time.
But to come back to one of the original questions – what does good look like? The best headteacher in the world will struggle to improve a school if s/he does not have effective teaching staff. So if children are not making progress there must be a question mark over the quality of teaching.
Observation of individual lessons will not on its own provide this information. Indeed Ofsted has ceased to grade lesson observations during inspection because it has recognised that in 20-minute slots inspectors are not in a position to state that any individual is inadequate, indifferent or incredible – a teacher may have a bad 20 minutes, but that does not make them a terrible teacher overall or there simply may not be enough to observe.
Ofsted is much more interested in progress over time – does the children’s work show evidence of progress throughout the year? The Ofsted ‘outstanding’ grade descriptor for the quality of teaching states: “Much teaching over time in all key stages and most subjects is outstanding and never less than consistently good. As a result, almost all pupils currently on roll in the school, including disabled pupils, those who have special educational needs, disadvantaged pupils and the most able, are making sustained progress that leads to outstanding achievement.”
In setting its vision and strategy for the school and holding the senior leaders to account this is what the governing board should be ultimately aiming for – all children to make sustained progress in order to achieve their full potential. This is true whether you are governing in a grammar school with academically gifted children or in a special school with children with profound and multiple learning difficulties. What sustained progress looks like may be very different but, regardless of setting, it should be happening.
The governing board needs to receive sufficient data for it to be confident about how the children in the school are doing. This means that the board needs to know where the children started – not at the individual level of named pupils – but at class or year group level and by subject. In some schools there will be two starting points: the official published starting point and the school’s own starting point.
The official starting point will always be the relevant key stage test but most schools carry out benchmarking exercises when children arrive. Yes, this is partly because schools (particularly junior schools – see my blog on the NGA website) often think that the official results paint a rosy picture of children’s actual level, but equally the impact of transition from one school to another and fallback during the school holidays all mean that a large number of children may not arrive in their new school at quite the same level they left the old school.
Teachers need to be able to assess children’s progress from when they arrived in their classroom – primarily because that is the only way they can help them to move forwards. It is no good setting work for a student that their key stage 2 results say they should be able to manage if in reality the student isn’t confident about the subject. And it is also important for teachers’ performance management; they should be judged against the impact they have had – not against some arbitrary level.
Governors should receive progress data against both figures – i.e. the results of the key stage at which pupils came to the school and the results of the school’s own benchmarking data. Progress against these starting points should be reported at least termly. If your head is doing a good job this data will already be in school and easily reportable – if the data isn’t available the governing board needs to ask some serious questions about how the headteacher knows how the school is doing in relation to its priorities.
The vast majority of headteachers will be providing this information as a matter of course and will not need to be asked – but if you don’t get this information you cannot as a board be fulfilling one of your core functions “to hold the headteacher to account”.
If you are having difficulties then it is worth referring to the DfE’s Governors’ Handbook which states: “It is the headteacher’s job (and in maintained schools it is their legal duty) to give governing bodies all the information they need to do their job well … Governing bodies, not the headteachers, should determine the scope and format of the headteacher’s termly reports. This will mean that they receive the information they need in a format that enables them to stay focused on their core strategic functions and not get distracted or overwhelmed by information of secondary importance.”
This does not mean you should overwhelm your headteacher with constant requests for trivial information, but that you should ensure you have access to critical progress data.
Governors need to ask questions about the accuracy of internal assessments – what training and development have staff received to ensure their benchmarking and assessments are robust and consistent? Are the results moderated across classes and subjects and indeed across other local schools? It is not much use having termly data about progress if the data itself is of poor quality.
If the in-year data the governing board receives tells it that 50% of students are on course to achieve at least a C grade in GCSE maths and only 35% actually do, then again the governing board will need to ask some hard questions about the quality of assessments.
Does this mean that governors should never visit their schools? Of course not – going into school, being visible, explaining to students (and sometimes staff) the role of the governing board is really important. Equally going into school to meet the subject lead, the senior leader responsible for data, or the Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator (SENCO) to monitor progress in individual subjects or for a particular group of pupils is important. But you have no licence to inspect – regardless of your professional background.
The governing board also needs to seek external verification – not only because Ofsted will not accept ‘because the headteacher told us’ as an answer and not because you do not trust your headteacher. But just as financial procedures are in place to both mitigate against fraud and ensure that individuals are not put in a position where they can be accused of a fraud because no controls were in place, external verification provides a validation for both headteachers and governors. So the fact that your benchmarking of children is moderated across a group of schools can give you confidence that the school’s assessment is accurate.
Or you could commission an external school improvement professional to carry out a review to give you a clear picture of the school. This could be especially useful in schools which have not seen Ofsted for a few years – are you still as good as you were? Likewise the governing board doesn’t need to wait for an Ofsted inspection to undertake an external review of governance – you can do it any time. External verification works for the governors as well as the governed.
Published: 03/09/2018, by Tom Fellows
Last Updated: 27/02/2019, by Kirstie Ebbs