School visits: getting it right

Governor visits to schools can be enormously useful, but it is essential that governors and those they are visiting are clear at the outset what the purpose is.

As members you will be familiar with NGA’s eight elements of effective governance, one of which is knowing your school. While you can make some progress towards this in meetings outside the school day, if none of your governors ever visit during school hours you cannot truly say that you know it.

This also goes to the heart of the three core functions of the governing board as set out in the Department for Education’s (DfE) Governance Handbook:

  • Ensuring clarity of vision, ethos and strategic direction
  • Holding executive leaders to account for the educational performance of the organisation and its pupils, and the performance management of staff
  • Overseeing the financial performance of the organisation and making sure its money is well spent

The second two, holding the lead executives to account for the performance of the school and financial scrutiny, can to a certain extent be dealt with at arm’s length in meetings, but how do you set the ethos and values and how do you monitor and evaluate their success if you have never set foot in the place when it is alive with activity?

But first and foremost there is the question of what schools are for and why we become governors. As I have said in a previous column, although strategic thinking and planning are important I have yet to meet a governor who became a governor simply because of a passion for strategic thinking – the vast majority take up the role because they care and want to make a difference for children and young people.

It is difficult to see how we can assess that difference – or even get a handle on what the governing board may need to do to make a difference – if we have never seen and met the pupils going about their daily school life.

Checklist

- be very clear about the purpose of the visit and what you want to get from it

- arrange it in advance and ensure all those you are meeting know that you are coming and the purpose

- make sure governors and staff are clear about the governors’ role during the visit

- report on your visit

- if as result of your visit there are questions/things that need to be addressed make sure these are taken forward and placed on the governing board/relevant committee agenda

- send a note to thank all those who contributed to the success of the visit

Useful tool

School visits are a useful tool in the governing board’s box for all sorts of reasons, but like any tool it needs to be applied at the right time for the right job. Visiting the school allows governors to: see policies in action; increase their understanding of the school, the pupils and their needs; and subsequently ask questions based on first-hand knowledge of the school.

They also have less obvious benefits, such as getting a feel for the people and the place. All organisations have their own culture which cannot be ignored. Being visible also helps to build positive relationships with staff and demonstrates commitment to the school. Of course, there are some obvious wrong jobs such as that old chestnut, assessing the quality of teaching. Governors do need to have a good understanding of the quality of teaching in their school, but this is not and should not be assessed by governors visiting classrooms.

Better understanding

You may, however, gain a better understanding of maths if a governor comes to school and visits the head of maths/maths lead. A structured visit in which you can ask questions about the curriculum, assessment methods and progress of the children will help the governors to gain a better understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the school. It may also trigger a discussion about resources and whether the budget is set appropriately.

For a new governor the purpose of the visit may simply be to see the school in action and be introduced to the staff – a visit doesn’t always have to have to be attached to the governors’ responsibilities for holding to the school to account and be some sort of monitoring visit for it to be valid. There will also be the performances and celebration occasions to which governors will be invited.

While I don’t wholly subscribe to the view that you can tell a good school as soon as you walk through the door, you can get a sense of whether it is an ordered, happy place by visiting in a way that no report can ever provide.

Governors may have a regular slot on the school/pupil council where you come and listen to pupils and hear their views. Or you may have a random selection of pupils to talk to about what they think about school, their lessons and surroundings – and indeed whether they know who the governors are and what they do.

The special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) link governor will almost certainly find it useful to come into school and talk to the special educational needs co-ordinator (SENCO) about the support provided for pupils with SEND and the impact that is having. This will be particularly important over the coming year as a result of the new SEND code of practice.

Don’t wear out your welcome

It is clearly easier for some governors to visit than others but NGA thinks it is helpful if every governor can visit during the school day once or twice a year. Equally, don’t wear out your welcome: unless your school is facing particularly challenging circumstances, it is unlikely that any individual governor needs to carry out a school-day visit more than once a term.

‘It is helpful if every governor can visit during the school day once or twice a year’.

This is where clarity of purpose comes in. Ask yourself: “What is the question to which visiting school is the answer?” and be clear about the purpose of the visit, whether that is a general insight into the daily life of the school, or a better understanding of maths. Visits should generally be aligned to the school-specific strategic priorities and the core functions of the governing board. Arrange the visit in advance, via the headteacher, and make sure that any staff you will be meeting have been informed and will be expecting you.

NGA recommends that all governing boards have a visits protocol, linked to your code of conduct. This should set out how visits should be arranged and the dos and don’ts while you are in the school. The governing board should also make sure that the protocol has been shared with staff, not just as a random piece of paper stuck on a noticeboard but actually brought to their attention. Good practice is to consult staff before finalising such a protocol.

This is so that all can be clear about why governors are in school and what they are there to do. The governor is not there to ‘inspect’ the work of individual members of staff and neither is it the role of individual governors to deal with staff complaints. A protocol should make clear that any issues staff have are part of the day to day management of the school and should be raised with line management or the senior leadership team, not with governors during a visit.

If you do see something which concerns you, or a member of staff raises an issue, bring it to the attention of the headteacher and/or the chair of governors. Do not be tempted to try to deal with it alone – you will likely get yourself into hot water and you almost certainly won’t have all the information.

Make a report of your visit. The visit will be of no use to the governing board if it never hears about it. As part of the protocol you should have a standard report form so that it is easy for governors to see what should be reported. And finally – enjoy it!

Published: 03/09/2018, by Tom Fellows
Last Updated: 03/09/2018, by Tom Fellows

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