Yesterday Ofsted published a report on the challenges of governance. The more we pondered it the more its tone seemed wrong, even counterproductive.
We recognise the picture of weak governance painted in this report, and we are not complacent about it: NGA’s day job is helping governing boards improve. However, we were disappointed by the lack of care taken by Ofsted to distinguish between the characteristics of weak governing boards and challenges faced by good boards. In making its case, the report flits too casually between findings drawn from routine HMI monitoring visits, the main call for evidence, which collected well over 2000 respondents, and 24 survey schools in poor areas that had recently improved their overall effectiveness by two grades.
The main author of the report in person emphasises the privilege it was to visit that group of improved survey schools, but the report itself fails to mention the impressive contributions made by many of those who govern. Rather, the report claims that ‘many’ governors lack the expertise needed in an increasingly complex education system to hold school leaders to account. For today I’m not going to be drawn into a detailed response on whether it was a fair conclusion, even though that word ‘many’ has been picked up by both our education journals – Schools Week and TES.
Instead, I am worrying away at why there is so little appreciation shown by the sector for the immense contribution of the approximately 300,000 school governors and trustees across England? As we have known for some time, it can be a challenge in many parts of the country to recruit volunteers. Giving the general impression that school governance is weak does not help that task. Nor does it help the morale of the governance community.
We know from our annual joint survey with TES that the majority of those governing are not happy with the current situation facing our schools, and that budgets are now their number one concern. Governing is a phenomenally challenging task – having experience of both, I argue non-executive leadership tends to be harder than the executive one.
Over the New Year, people may reflect, including on their contributions to school life. We don’t want capable and dedicated volunteers to walk away because the cuts required to balance budgets are just too dispiriting. The most soul destroying task I had to do as a school governor years ago was to chair a panel to confirm the redundancy of a teacher I admired; they were devastated at having to leave the school. I held it together during the panel but once home I wept. This is not what I expected to have to do when I volunteered. I am pleased to say the teacher was snapped up by another school.
Whenever speakers address our conferences – whether Sir David Carter last month, the Secretary of State last year or Sir Michael Wilshaw three years ago - they make sure they thank the governors and trustees sitting in front of them for what they do. This appreciation, however, is missing from government reports or communications, press releases or reporting of school governance, and from the general discourse around school leadership. Perhaps like Ebenezer Scrooge and the ghosts in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the sight of the people actually donating their time and skills is needed as a reminder of those who are so generous.
I have been musing on the importance of generosity. Earlier this week I had the pleasure of visiting Broadway Academy in Perry Bar, Birmingham, which is not that far from our office. I listened to some impressive members of their student council speaking about how religious education is fundamental, not just as part of the curriculum but also to the life of the school. Their values of ‘integrity, respect, optimism, responsibility, appreciation, aspiration, generosity and inclusivity’ did indeed appear to underpin the actions of those we met. While we are used to seeing respect and aspiration as part of schools’ values, I was struck by the words optimism, appreciation and, particularly, generosity. And I am now going to take my lead from those young people, and not hector in response to Ofsted.
A generous reaction seems especially pertinent as schools break up for Christmas holidays, described by Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, as a “kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely”. Although written in Victorian England, it surely still resonates now, particularly given the divisions we have seen across our country in 2016. Let’s celebrate the hugely important and often overlooked role that schools play in extending understanding in diverse and different local communities, as was so evident at Broadway Academy.
From everyone at GovernorHQ, our staff and our trustees, we do thoroughly appreciate the generosity of spirit that permeates the school governance community. We know you give up a lot of your time and that you volunteer because you want to make a difference to the lives of children. As you visited your schools for Christmas performances or other celebration events this month, we hope that the joy and good cheer of the children was a reminder of why you do what you do. Despite all the challenges, we must be optimistic for 2017.
It is an important thing you do: thank you so very very much.