Carol Sutton looks back on a very challenging journey
In October 2013 Ofsted found our school ‘requiring improvement’. This was followed by a monitoring visit that found we were ‘not taking effective action’.
"A shock to the whole school community."
For any governing board, this outcome is very difficult to digest and a shock to the whole school community. The Ofsted judgment provided the wake-up call that governors needed. Following the appointment of a new chair and vice chair, our first task was to develop a strategy for improvement that set out what we wanted to achieve, our principles and values, and the key areas for improvement.
There was feedback from both Ofsted inspections and also from the redefined school development plan. An external review of governance carried out by an experienced National Leader of Governance identified areas of development. Governors worked together both formally in committee meetings and in more informal ‘development’ meetings to draw up a comprehensive action plan. This was traffic lighted and work began on turning the many red actions to orange and then green.
A skills audit identified the wealth of skills and experience that we already had in our governing board. We set out to utilise these most effectively and to make our committee structure support better working practices. Our committees became stronger and focused on key school priorities. Full governing board and committee meetings were all clerked professionally and challenges made by governors recorded in the minutes.
Governors got to know the school better by visiting classes following a newly agreed protocol and reporting findings in a more co-ordinated way. We had training in understanding data so we would be in a better position to challenge school leaders. We attended training and conferences and visited another school to share their good practice, so that we were clearer about our role and responsibilities.
The school was making great progress through improved quality of teaching, stronger leadership and external validations. It also made significant changes following the constructive challenge of our more confident and competent governors. In autumn 2014, a further Ofsted monitoring visit found that the school was ‘taking effective action’ – we were heading in the right direction but there was still more to do.
"An annual away day for governors has been essential to evaluate the effectiveness of the governing board and for further team development."
We introduced an annual review where the chair meets each governor individually. It gives an opportunity to talk through how things are going, what training is required, what roles they would be suited for in the future (succession planning) and sets individual key areas for action. The chair undertook the new NGA 360 degree feedback, which offered a comprehensive report on how colleagues viewed her performance.
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An annual away day for governors has been essential to evaluate the effectiveness of the governing board and for further team development. It has also offered the opportunity to work with senior leaders on the school’s strategic direction. Joint staff and governor training and workshops have helped governors understand school priorities and challenges and build stronger relationships.
As we reviewed our progress after two years of considerable commitment and, at times, plain hard work we knew that we were a very different governing board. Our action plan, version 16, was now almost totally green. We were working with senior leaders, being knowledgeable and not afraid of challenge. Our school was performing well and the children, including those in our resource provision for children with autism, were making amazing progress from, in some cases, very low starting points.
Governors had taken steps to be more visible to the staff, pupils and parents, to engage better with them and to be viewed as approachable and an active part of the school community. So we were not really surprised when in September 2015 Ofsted judged our school to be ‘good’. This outcome reassured us that the approach we have taken as a governing board has led to the improvements that were necessary.
Carol Sutton is chair of governors at Frodsham Weaver Vale Primary School, Cheshire