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Summer term welcome

Happy Summer term to all those of you governing and leading schools and trusts.

vision of flying a kite

Happy Summer term to all those of you governing and leading schools and trusts. Sadly, I think we are in a time when trust and respect in the policy makers, the regulators and the inspectorate by the school/trust sector in England is at its lowest ebb during NGA’s 17-year history. What we all face today is dissatisfaction and in some cases downright anger at a wide range of issues.

There was considerable anxiety in 2017 and 2018 as a funding crisis developed before the worst aspects were averted by an injection of cash after the last general election. Likewise, last autumn’s statement announcement on additional school funding has helped reduce some of the financial concerns of governing boards who oversee trust and school budgets. But by no means all; the financial situation plays out differently in different contexts, and many are holding their collective breath to see what happens with energy prices and pay.

This week we gave oral evidence to the STRB (the school teachers' review body on teachers' and leaders' pay), and I repeated the point I had made in last term's blog: that the review body was being wrongly limited by being asked by the DfE to consider "the cost pressures that schools are already facing and may face over the year". Affordability is exceptionally important, but levels of school funding are very much a political decision. STRB's expertise on what pay and conditions are required to ensure there are enough teachers and leaders to educate our children should not be hampered by this.

Year in, year out consultees, including NGA, make the point that the way in which pay and conditions are decided is not fit for purpose – it means over the summer holidays, senior staff, often alongside chairs of board and finance committees, are reworking budgets to take into account the announced pay rise. We all know this is not sustainable, but no change is made. Boards quite rightly are expected to plan medium term, but the way in which the Government operates does not even allow sensible short-term budgeting. This is not the only part of school funding which is confirmed very late in the day. Throwing your hands up and ignoring very sensible requests for timely financial information is unacceptable.

It is very clear that schools are also often picking up the pieces because of rising family poverty, rising health needs, the continuing impacts of the pandemic and especially other diminishing services. Again this is said so often, but nothing is in the offing to change this. Schools need to be able to concentrate primarily on teaching and learning. Fantastic work is being done across the country with struggling families and their children, but this all takes much time, thought, staff development and financing – as well as lots of hard graft and emotional resilience. Rather than schools becoming a broader community and social services, NGA members would like to see those other public services funded well so that they can carry out their expert roles.

And this is all laid over by the debate over Ofsted’s fitness for purpose, heightened by the tragic death of headteacher Ruth Perry. Thanks to all those NGA members who contacted us after our newsletter item before Easter. Our annual surveys repeatedly show that only a few governors and trustees believe that their latest Ofsted did not give a fair and accurate picture of their school. In 2021 we also asked whether the inspection system has a positive impact on the school system and that gives a slightly different complexion, with 46% agreeing and 34% disagreeing. 

A year ago, just under half (48%) of respondents to the annual governance survey agreed that the return of graded school inspections was welcome and a valued measure of school improvement and performance. Although 43% of governors and trustees surveyed had no view on whether ungraded school visits were a better way to inspect schools, 40% felt that they were, while 17% disagreed. 

While under a fifth (18%) of respondents felt that the introduction of the current education inspection framework had reduced the workload and stress for teachers and leaders, just over half (52%) disagreed. I have lost count of the number of times NGA has urged governing boards not to let the fear of Ofsted pervade this setting’s culture – not to do things because you think it is what Ofsted wants it but to do what you think is right for your school and its pupils. That is also a feature of so many panels I have sat on over the years. Governing boards need to give a strong steer about the proportionate role Ofsted plays or should play. However, over the years, if anything, the culture of fear has grown. This needs to be tackled directly and holistically. There is clearly something wrong and it needs to be examined. What better time to do this than in the period when a new Chief Inspector is being recruited, and Ofsted’s own culture and practice can then be reset?

While NGA continues to support the principle of an independent inspection regime, we have urged DfE to commission a truly independent review of inspection. It would need to address both how inspection can be a more effective tool for school improvement and changes that would help remove the culture of fear that exists around Ofsted inspections. We want the effect of the inspection process on schools in disadvantaged communities to be part of its remit. There are also two other issues which are of great importance to our members: how the role and responsibilities of governing boards can be given greater coverage and how to make inspection reports more informative and useful to a wider audience, including governors and trustees.

While we welcome Minister Gibb’s and Amanda Spielman’s statements yesterday with consideration of changes to the limiting judgments, this will not on its own be anywhere near enough to change that culture which grips the profession. HMCI has added to this today, saying, “School improvement is the role of schools themselves, and school trusts, facilitated and supported by government”. Of course, that is the case: those who govern schools and trusts couldn’t be more aware of that. However, Ofsted states it “aims to improve lives by raising standards in education and children’s social care”, and the way they do that is by “publishing reports of our findings so they can be used to improve the overall quality of education and training”. In other words, they exist to aid school improvement. If their inspection does not achieve that, it is not fulfilling its objective. That needs to be examined urgently and well, and not by Ofsted itself.

With the background of potential industrial action, the DfE needs to be extremely careful who is involved in work to really thoroughly and thoughtfully explore the problems. Trust and mutual respect need to be restored, and currently, this is a huge mountain to climb. It will not be achieved by HMCI saying again that she wishes to work constructively with the profession.

With apologies for a bleak welcome back. Of course, as leaders, we need to spread optimism – not naively but by reminding ourselves of our important mission in schools. I know that seeing the work of schools with children and young people gives the volunteer governance community their drive to continue with the significant and time consuming responsibility. Getting together with peers is another way of replenishing the energy and so I am pleased to be able to invite all NGA members to our summer conference taking place on 1 July in Salford. It will be opened with an enthusiastic keynote presentation by Diana Osagie on courageous leadership as well as workshops on key aspects of good governance.

I look forward to seeing you all there. Although it would be wonderful if, by then, we had some good news on issues facing the sector as a whole, I know that in the meantime, you and your staff will continue to do the absolute best you can for the pupils in your communities.

Emma Knights OBE
Emma Knights OBE

Co-Chief Executive

As NGA’s Co-Chief Executive, Emma promotes the interests of the school governance community nationally with legislators, policy makers, education sector organisations and the media. Emma is an accomplished writer and speaker on a range of school governance policy and practice topics.