Emma Knights

Author: Emma Knights

04/09/2017 14:32:46

As we head back for a new term I am worried about a disjuncture in the rhetoric used by all of us in school leadership and what we actually decide to do.

Three years ago the former HMCI Sir Michael Wilshaw in his blog on school governance said “good will and good intentions will only go so far”.  Given that at the time I was rather miffed by the churlish tone of his piece, I realise I am in danger of coming across in the same way.

But actually I am perplexed. I like to think that the vast majority of us involved have the best interests of the pupils at the heart of what we do, so why do we seem so unable to put them into practice in so many cases which are hitting the press at present? As poor ethical behaviour of school leaders is exposed, where are their governing boards?

NGA has been trying to highlight the issue of disappearing pupils for a while now, and Vic Goddard wrote an article for us on covert selection at the beginning of the year,  but sadly the current St. Olave’s scandal has highlighted it in a way which NGA could never have achieved.  Actually perhaps it is fortuitous – as it will cause all in the schools sector to pause and contemplate whether this chasing of results has gone too far.  

As we return to thoroughly analyse those summer results, we need to shake off that fear of the performance tables, and make sure we have evidence from all sorts of other angles too.  Have you remembered that you have a statutory duty to promote the welfare of pupils?  What are you trying to achieve for your pupils? If you are a secondary school governor, has your board looked to see how many pupils left the school each year, and why, particularly during KS4 and 5? Do we consider how the decisions we take impacts on pupils across the whole community, not just the ones who remain in our schools?

Of course we are constrained to a certain extent by the Government’s performance measures, but there is more freedom for governing boards, alongside senior leadership, to set their own vision, priorities and measures than is commonly supposed.  But all the talk of ‘high stakes’ and ‘football manager syndrome’ adds heat, rather than light to the situation. Research this year shows the vast majority of heads continue to serve year on year.  

But above all we need to truly embrace the Nolan Principles.  We know almost all of your governing boards have a code of conduct, and most will make reference to the Nolan Principles. We need to question those decisions which are being made to shore up positions in the league tables.  That is why we have governing boards.

NGA has been writing and training governing boards about setting their own strategies with their own measures for some years, and in 2015 we published with Welcome Trust an introduction to developing strategies: turning vision into reality. Schools have generally found the third part of the process – setting intelligent measures – difficult.  We are now reviewing that guidance with particular attention to that vexed question of measuring progress. If you want to contribute, please contact Shelby.roberts@nga.org.uk

So, as hard as it may be, do not be intimidated by the tyranny of numbers imposed from above. Governing boards need to actually carry out their core function: you – together with the wider community – decide what your school values and is going to measure in the coming years.  Stand up and be counted in the interests of pupils.

As always, not all is doom and gloom, far from it. Tomorrow we celebrate our biennial Outstanding Governance Awards at the House of Commons and there will be a new award for vision and strategy: watch this space.

PS This time last year I talked about the governing board’s role in school culture, staff morale and workload , and Gillian Allcroft wrote more recently in Governing Matters on the same topic. But our 2017 annual governance survey shows fewer than half of governing boards (46.5%, down from 51.3%) undertook a staff survey last year. It’s an easy resolution to carry one out in this new school year.

Also few of you (21.5%) are receiving summary reports of staff exit interviews.  It’s actually down from 26.1% in 2016.  Do your senior leaders even conduct exit interviews?  This should be common HR practice.

Ofsted inspectors will be asking headteachers what they have been doing to reduce teacher workload. Why oh why do we have to wait until Ofsted tell us to?!  Governing boards need to ask this question regularly.

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