Improving governance is identified as one of three core factors which will help a ‘stuck’ school out of a cycle of poor educational performance regardless of persistent issues, according to a new report from Ofsted.

‘Fight or flight? How ‘stuck’ schools are overcoming isolation’, establishes that schools suffering a combination of geographical isolation, poor parental motivation and unstable pupil populations are able to lift themselves to become Ofsted-rated Good or better if they can get three factors in place – high academic standards, getting behaviour right and improving governance.

The research explores why some “consistently weak” schools have been able to improve whilst others have not, and is based on interviews with staff and those governing at 20 schools identified as currently or previously ‘stuck’. Ofsted have identified 415 schools that fall into the definition of a ‘stuck’ school – those that have not been judged Good or better since September 2006, and have had at least four full inspections during that time. These schools serve 210,000 pupils and have “left two whole cohorts of children without a good education” according to the report.

Ofsted sought information on two questions – the perceived impact of school improvement initiatives on ‘stuck’ schools and the strategies employed by ‘unstuck’ schools to improve education.

However, the resulting section on governance illustrates a misunderstanding both at system and school level about the role of governance and provides no insight on what good practice looks like. The interviews found that “the only schools that thought they were being held effectively to account were ‘unstuck’ schools in MATs” but in these cases “it was the executive team, rather than the local governing body” fulfilling this duty. This represents confusion about the separate roles of executive oversight and governance. ‘Stuck’ schools also commented on a “lack of scrutiny, support and challenge” from those governing which was often put down to “a lack of skills” and the inability to recruit “good governors in these areas”. NGA encourages boards to invest in training and development to ensure those governing are confident and effective in their role.

Some of the other governance-related findings include:

  • The culture of ‘stuck’ schools are “chaotic and change fatigued” or “resistant and embedded” – NGA reminds boards of their first core function which is to establish and model the culture within their school
  • Some leaders, staff and governors/trustees had been involved in a ‘stuck’ school for a long time and therefore their “ability to fully evaluate their school’s position may be weak” – NGA reminds those governing of the recommended time limit of serving no more than two four-year terms on a board, and encourages schools to be outward looking in seeking evaluation
  • Many interviewees “bemoaned the lack of support they received” immediately post inspection
  • Leaders and those governing believed that the introduction of initiatives like job sharing had “helped them retain good teachers and leaders in an otherwise difficult job market”
  • Of those ‘unstuck’ schools that were in a MAT, the majority considered the MAT “crucial to their success” especially “sharing knowledge and expertise” and “using the scale of the trust” – NGA emphasises that this can be more effective in geographically condensed trusts
  • Although there are enough school improvement initiatives available, there is a lack of signposting and lack of tailored services useful to the school’s own context.

Ofsted also described ‘stuck’ schools as being “inundated with improvement initiatives from central and local government over the years, few of which have proved successful”. “What the remaining stuck schools need is tailored, specific and pragmatic advice that suits their circumstances – not a carousel of consultants” concluded HM Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman. NGA will continue to raise its view that governance is not properly recognised in the current school improvement offer with the Department for Education.

Emma Knights, chief executive of the National Governance Association said: “Organisations with good governance do not fail, but too often – as this report shows – governance in schools is invisible until it is held responsible for low educational performance or other failings. Whilst NGA welcomes that improving governance is cited as one of the three key factors to turn around ‘stuck’ schools, it is disappointing that there are examples of poor practice but no practical information for these ‘stuck’ schools about how they can improve. Several of the examples cited can be resolved by going back to the basics of effective governance – having the right people around the table, having an understanding of roles and responsibilities, knowing your school, and being committed to asking challenging questions. It is important that schools and trusts look outwards for external support in improving their practice, and there are tailored and accessible options which can help boards working in challenging circumstances. Schools looking for support in recruiting volunteers to join their governing board can use the Department for Education funded Inspiring Governance service. Boards are also responsible for setting and modelling the culture of a school: in ascribing some of the challenges in ‘stuck’ schools to ‘lacking a stable culture’ and culture being ‘resistant and embedded’ it must be acknowledged that this can only begin to change by improving governance.”

Sam Henson, Director of Policy and Information at the National Governance Association said “All children, regardless of their background, have the right to a good education that enables them to fulfil their potential. Whilst NGA welcomes the focus on helping consistently underperforming schools to overcome their ingrained challenges, the report shows that although it takes a lot of capacity and resource to turn around schools with poor academic performance, the initiatives are not well targeted or well signposted. Governance has the power to make or break an organisation: the findings of this research supports this. Yet it is disappointing that the sector continues to miss opportunities to deepen its understanding and knowledge of governance, neglecting to raise expectations through sharing good governance practice. Blurred lines of responsibility are a longstanding challenge particularly in multi academy trusts, and it must be recognised that it is the governing board, not the executive tier, that holds responsibility as the accountable body. There needs to be clear separation between the executive and governance level.”

Maggi Bull, chair of the National Governance Association, who has governed in a series of challenging schools, said “The report describes governors in stuck schools not being allowed to govern by leaders not wanting to be held to account. The best leaders share the good and the bad, understanding that both support and challenge is necessary for school improvement.”

Dominic Judge, Director of Governance Programmes at Education and Employers said: “This report shows that getting the right people into school governance plays a crucial part in providing the capacity and drive for any school to improve. Inspiring Governance is a DfE funded online recruitment service, working across the country to place skilled volunteers in schools. Schools in every area will always need the support and challenge from people in their own communities and we encourage people with the commitment, time and skills – especially those that can support schools in disadvantaged and rural communities - to step forward. It is a great opportunity to use your skills, develop new ones and make a positive difference to children’s life chances. Please register your interest at www.inspiringgovernance.org.”

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