Guy Davies describes how this school went from 'requires improvement' to the cusp of 'outstanding' in just two years.
We were never a good school. At least according to Ofsted. From the time they first inspected us we were judged ‘satisfactory’ in old money or ‘requires improvement’ as it is now.
When they visited in February 2013 the inspectors picked up on a number of weaknesses and identifiied governance as part of the problem. The governing board was often too busy firefighting in a struggling school to concentrate on purely strategic matters. Our headteacher had taken early retirement and an interim head was in place in the wake of an unsuccessful recruitment process.
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We didn’t even have a settled chair so the local authority parachuted in a recently retired headteacher to fill the gap on a temporary basis. Things slowly began to take shape. We commissioned an external review of governance and started implementing its recommendations. We appointed a substantive head and, having settled the ship, the temporary chair managed to persuade me to stand as her successor.
In February 2015 Ofsted came to call once more. For the very first time we were judged ‘good’, with many outstanding features. As far as governance was concerned the weaknesses highlighted in 2013 had been rectified. The 2015 report noted that “the governing body now provides good strategic direction for the school” and “governors accurately monitor the work of the school and hold senior leaders to account well”. The inspectors acknowledged our commitment to training and that new members were appointed according to their skills.
The arrival of our new headteacher had a lot to do with it. As both he and I were new to post we worked hard to forge a constructive working relationship. Together we ensured that senior managers and governors shared a common vision and strategy that was communicated to stakeholders.
No one is forced to join the board, but those who do should be prepared to commit themselves fully in order to secure the best possible outcomes for our students.
A culture of open dialogue was fostered between school leaders and governors concerning the challenges we faced in turning the school around. Expectations were raised of what it means to be a governor. We have a saying that “governors are not conscripts, but volunteers”. No one is forced to join the board, but those who do should be prepared to commit themselves fully in order to secure the best possible outcomes for our students. The clerk is now subject to annual appraisal against a set of professional standards criteria to help ensure that the board is supported by efficient clerking.
There had been a tendency on the part of governors to be overly concerned about operational matters. But now we were clear that it was not our role to run the school, but to tell the school where to run by setting its vision and strategy, and making sure we were on track to get there by holding the headteacher to account.
Each year we agree a fresh set of key performance indicators and review the school’s performance against targets for pupil achievement, improvements in the quality of teaching, and so on. Our headteacher performance management goals are aligned with our strategic priorities.
Pupil outcomes have improved significantly and the school is a vibrant centre of teaching and learning at the heart of the local community. Our students have heightened aspirations for themselves, signalled by their request for a blazer and tie-based school uniform.
"Expertise without passion will lack motivation. Passion without expertise will lack direction."
Governance-wise this has been achieved by a board comprised of local stakeholders: parents, staff and members of the community. However it seems that this model of governance is currently out of favour with the education establishment. Both Ofsted and the DfE have signalled that they would like parent governor posts phased out. Skills-based governing boards are the order of the day.
But we are living proof that you can have the best of both worlds. We have a team of skilled-up stakeholders who are committed to sharpening the expertise of the board through ongoing training and development. We are also fired up about providing our school with the strategic leadership required to help ensure it offers the outstanding education our students deserve. Expertise without passion will lack motivation. Passion without expertise will lack direction. We need governing boards with both fire and skill. That’s what makes a difference.
Guy Davis is chair of governors at Matravers School, Westbury, Wiltshire.