Category Archives: Challenge

Guest Post: Governance, partnership and school improvement matters

This is a guest post by a governor and Chair at a small rural school. She is due to leave the governing body and is reflecting on how things were during her time there.

My journey into governance was at a time where my youngest child had just started school. I was beginning to feel the eagerness of wanting to learn, challenge myself and adapt. I worked part time at arts charity and had experience of working with disadvantaged children. With a little more time on my side it felt possible to delve into something new.

As a parent Governor at my first meeting I somehow became Vice-Chair. The first six months past in a bit of a blur – during this time myself and the Chair of Governors (CoG) at that time undertook the NCTL Chairs Development Course. It was during this time and alongside Governor meetings that it became apparent all was not what it seemed. Our external reported data was dipping year on year. Internally our data was showing progress and we were ‘on track’ to improve. The Governing body began to spilt – one side questioning and challenging, the other much less so. I found myself in a position where, following election I was Co-Chair with another Governor. I sought the advice of our local LA Governor support on more than one occasion.

When our Headteacher (HT) went on Maternity leave we temporarily entered a soft federation with a neighbouring primary school. During the first few weeks this HT highlighted all was not well. The data internally wasn’t accurate. The school wasn’t on track and Governors needed to act quickly. The Co-Chair resigned. The Local Authority reacted quickly. Following a application they released intervention funding to support urgent staff CPD, external moderation and crucially for us – a review of Governance. For me, as a new CoG the review was super. I had a lot of support, to enable us to set-up systems for effective monitoring, skills analysis and CPD for the Governing Body. Around this time Ofsted came in and graded the school RI. This was accurate; we needed to rapidly improve things. Governors monitoring timetables were developed by Governors – not the HT. The Vice-Chair took the lead in developing a template which correlated with the SDP priorities. Every Governor had a area of focus. Every Governor asked randomly selected safeguarding questions. Monitoring was triangulated with data, children’s views, parents and staff. The LA have since used our template as a model of good practice. Monitoring visits take no more than an hour. Governors monitored process, procedures and data trends. The timetable was bespoke every long term (populated by Governor meetings, or Governors themselves).

As a small school, we have maximised external resources, our NLG has continued to support us to ensure we are challenging effectively during meetings, he helps us interrogate data and continues to support even now. As a Church of England school we worked closely with the Diocese to access training for staff and Governors to help us improve and develop. The Local Authority supported with Governor Networks and online resources. We used it all, and moreover if we needed more help we asked for it.

During the time between the first HMI visit and second the school was subject to standards meetings with the Local Authority. During these meetings it was possible to access resources and expertise, for example; HR and Finance. We considered business models to sustain our school and the LA supported us in critiquing these models.

For a CoG this period of time was relentless, add into this another soft federation, an interim Headteacher and now permanent Headteacher it was tricky. However, both of the Vice Chairs I have been lucky to work alongside have been brilliant – without both of their expertise, challenge and practical help I would have failed. The recruitment day for our new Headteacher was a magnificent display of our unity, strength and community spirit.

At our recent inspection under the new framework Governors knew their role, could talk about the impact in their area of monitoring. Our safeguarding continued to be effective and progress was being made across all areas of the school. The process was robust and fair – the inspector took her time and was understanding of the work involved in our journey. Our judgement was fair and our improvement continues.

As I leave the Governing Body in the capable hands of the new CoG (previously excellent VCoG) I am exceptionally proud of the journey and the improvement in the school. Our Governors have worked hard – and we have secured some new members.

If you are contemplating a role in Governance, do it. You will not regret it, and learn far more about yourself than you thought possible.

Self evaluation matters

I have been reading a few posts on governance reviews. While I agree that an external review can be very useful, self reflection is also very important. While thinking about this I came up with few questions which I think trustees/governors should be able to answer. How many of these can you and you colleagues answer? Are there any you would add to the list?

Why should I be led by you?

  • If I were to ask a child in your school, what is it like being a pupil in your school what would they say?
  • Would the answer given to me by a pupil with special education needs, a pupil premium/EAL child be the same?
  • If I asked your head about you what would they say?
  • If I asked your clerk about you, what would their response be?
  • If I asked staff about their working conditions/well-being what would I find out?
  • Do you ask parents for their opinions? Do you know if they would give me the same answer they would give you?
  • Do you know what are the strengths and weaknesses of your school?
  • What does your website tell me about the board?

Your roles and responsibilities:

  • Are you crystal clear about your role and function?
  • Do you know what powers you hold and how best to use them?
  • Have you read your governance document?
    • For those of you who govern a school in a multi-academy trust (MAT), do you know what has been delegated to you in the scheme of delegation (SoD)?
    • Do you audit what you do, your agendas and meetings against the SoD?
    • When was the last time the SoD was reviewed?
  • If I were to ask you the object of your charity, what would you tell me?
  • What is your school’s vision statement?
    • Does the work you do go some way in delivering your vision?
    • Are all stakeholders aware of the vision and buy into it?
  • Do you do a 360 review of the board?
  • If I asked governors about your chair what would I hear? Will I get a consistent response or are governors working in groups/cliques?

Your working practices:

  • Are you aware of all the laws that apply to you? (Ignorance is not a defence)
  • How do you deal with conflicts of interest?
  • What are the three major risks in your risk register and how do you plan to mitigate these?
  • How do you ensure that finances and other resources are used effectively?
  • Do you have someone on the board who can scrutinise and understand financial reports?
  • Do you use any benchmarking data?
  • How do you ensure your decisions are well informed and evidence based?
  • If later events/new information shows that your decision was wrong, how do you go about rectifying your error?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of your board?
  • Would your minutes show me that you challenge the school leadership?
  • Do you have access to and understand pupil performance data?
    • Do you triangulate information you get from the head and their teams? How do you do that?
  • If the board has concerns, then how do governors address them?
  • What drives your agendas?
  • Are they aligned with your school development plan (SDP)?
  • How do you monitor the SDP?
  • Do all governors come well prepared to the meetings?
  • Do your meetings generally run to time and do you use the time effectively?
  • How do you ensure that the appraisal process is fair, transparent and feeds into school improvement?
  • How may governors access training on a regular basis?
  • How do governors keep up to date with legislative changes, new policies and initiatives?

Future proofing:

  • What are you doing to ensure your school is sustainable in the long run?
  • Do you have a plan to deal with any vacancies on the board which any arise in the future?
  • Is there a succession plan in place for the chair and vice chair of the board?
  • Are you aware of any plans your head may have of moving on/retiring?
  • Have you made any plans to deal with the above?
  • Do you have plans to revisit your vision and see if it remains ft for purpose?
  • When did you last do a skills audit?
  • Do you regularly review of your governance/committee structure?
  • Do you have any plans to collaborate with other boards?

Leadership matters; an audience with Julie Jackson

 

On 4th October 2019 I had the privilege of attending an audience with Julie Jackson, President of Uncommon Schools. Uncommon Schools is a non-profit organization that starts and manages urban schools for low-income students. At the time of writing there are 54 public K-12 charter schools (20,000 students) in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York. The “schools are joyful and rigorous, full of love and learning, and fiercely dedicated to closing the achievement gap and changing history”. This was an event arranged by Ambition Institute.

Julie Jackson is the President of Uncommon Schools. She oversees all 54 schools as well as Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Julie has been in education for the last three decades and her strong leadership and commitment to improving public education have earned her several honours.

As much of what Julie said is applicable to governance too, I thought I would do a short blog about the things that really struck me in her address. She started by talking about her father (who was murdered when she was young) and the three principles he gave her.

  • Welcome challenge, learn from defeat
  • Never let your first defeat be your second
  • Always have a high bar of excellence. Don’t let anyone else set you bar

As governors there will be times when we would be faced with challenges and some of these would be quite tough ones which don’t pan out how we thought they would. In such cases, we need to work out why things happened the way they did and try and learn some lessons from the experience. Setting a high bar of excellence for ourselves is important too. This is true of individual governors and of the board. Have a high bar of excellence for the way you perform your governance task at an individual level. Make sure that the board as a whole have set a high bar of excellence for the whole board and for the school. Don’t let anyone say that children under your care can’t perform well because, for example, their background. As a board set a high, aspirational bar for every child and that bar is your excellence bar which you and not anyone else have set.

Julie talked about putting “kids always first”. This is not something that only executive leaders should be doing. The whole board should look at everything they do through this lens too. She also talked about the need for “humble leadership” and the importance of leaders being good at developing their team, resourcing good practice and dissecting it and applying it. Again, this is everything a good board should be doing. When most of us join boards we come with our specific skills, we do need to learn to apply these skills to governance and learn to govern. Good board leaders (chairs) will help their team members do just this. The board should be researching and studying good practice and bringing it back to their board.

Julie talked about what makes excellent leadership. Excellent leaders will be working to make their curriculum “joyful” and excellent. Writing the curriculum, deciding what to study and when is a job for the executive leaders. Excellent board leadership happens when the board holds the executive to account for the curriculum. This holding to account, this challenge, if done correctly will lead to an excellent curriculum. Julie wanted school leaders to ask themselves, “Do parents like to send their children to our school?” This is a hugely important question for governors to be asking too. Ask this question and follow it up with

  • How do we know this?
  • If the answer is yes then how do we ensure this continues to be the case in the future and we don’t become complacent?
  • If the answer is no then what are we doing to change it to a yes?

Julie talked about CPD and developing teachers. She said

  • Organisations should value their trainees
  • Training should be ongoing
  • Observations are not a “I got you” observations but a developmental process
  • If a gap is present throughout the region then that is not a teaching gap but a curriculum gap and that is then addressed

Julie also explained how they decide on what their non-negotiables are. As everyone is involved in developing these, there is buy in from everyone.

As governors we should be asking questions around staff CPD as well as the observation culture. Well supported staff who have access to good CPD feel valued. Ongoing training is another thing we should be aware of. We should ensure that this happens for our staff and we should also ensure that the governors are also accessing courses on a regular basis.

When Julie talked about the need for the culture not to be one of “I got you” that made me think of the board/head relationship. The role of the board is to challenge the executive leaders and hold them to account. The board must be careful that they don’t come across as trying to catch the head out. The reason we ask challenging questions must always be to ensure a good education for the children. This can happen best in a culture of mutual respect between the board and the executive.

Julie also talked about the three things which happen at Uncommon Schools which make them the successful schools that they are. These are

  • Putting children first
  • Humble leadership
  • Good professional development for all

I think these are three things which any school and any trust can and should adopt. This has nothing to do with no excuses policies (Julie had made the point that it’s actually no excuses for adults not to do the best for the children under their care), traditional or progressive philosophies, pedagogical methods or governance structures.

Tom Rees (Executive Director – School Leadership, Ambition Institute) asked Julie what drives system generosity. Julie said that she believes that Uncomon Schools are successful because they understand that their job is to increase their impact, that good teaching is good teaching and that what they do is for “kids, and kids are kids everywhere”. Again, these are simple rules and are applicable everywhere there are schools.

Julie also took part in a panel discussion. Joining her on the panel were Dame Rachel de Souza (CEO, Inspiration Trust), Leora Cruddas (CEO, Confederation of School Trusts), and Sir Kevan Collins (Chief Executive, Education Endowment Foundation). The panel was chaired by Tom. Rather than try and capture the entire panel discussion, I will write about the one or two things which each panel member said which I thought were very interesting/important.

Rachel made the point that Inspiration Trust has a brilliant CPD programme across the trust with mentoring and support available all the way through. Rachel said the trust works as a family and as people feel valued they tend not to move. This is why there are very few vacancies across the trust. She would like teachers to be leading research. Rachel mentioned development needs for trustees and governors (that made me very happy).

Leora said that we need to develop civic leadership. School leaders must not make decisions which will harm other schools in their locality. She also said that she prefers the term agency to autonomy.

Sir Collins said that though there are great things happening in the sector we need to be able to scale excellence and “we need to become the best in the word at getting better”.

I really enjoyed listening to Julie’s speech and hearing the others on the panel. I’m really grateful to Ambition Institute for giving me the chance to hear Julie speak. It was a privilege. I’ll end by quoting something she said.

“Keep doing the work. We have an obligation to teach kids.”

Governors, keep doing the work. We have an obligation too.

Read Tom Rees’  blog about the event.

Governance matters in Festival of Education Part 2

This year’s Festival of Education had sessions which would have been of interest to governors. I have previously written about my session with National Schools Commissioner, Dominic Herrington. Below is a short account of some other sessions I was able to attend.

Ruth Agnew’s session was on “Effective Governor Challenge”. Ruth started by making the point that welcoming and enabling effective challenge is an aspiration and asked how if people welcome challenge. Good, professional relationships are important in schools. Too much trust and friendly relationship can hinder challenge. Ruth then talked about why and how schools start to decline. She said that problems start when processes to ensure accountability start to falter (lack of skills and training, too trusting a relationship, misplaced loyalty, too reliant on head for information, governors not acting strategically, etc). Ruth said that she had not found a better resource of what effective governors do than the “Learning from the Best” Ofsted report. Ruth said none of the things mentioned in the report are rocket science! Ruth mentioned that sometimes heads model the questions governors should be asking. She thought this isn’t necessarily a problem but it must not become the default. Ruth also encouraged us to think how we frame our questions. “How did we do in SATs this year” is better if it’s framed as “What do these results tell us about us meeting our objectives for this cohort”. Ruth said challenge isn’t lobbing questions like tennis balls at the school leaders. We shouldn’t be using checklists. Instead, we need to look at things with fresh eyes and then if we find an issue Ruth wants us to be like a dog with a bone!

Dr Kate Chhatwal spoke about accountability and peer reviews. According to Kate, the advantages of a peer review system are:

  • We don’t need permission to take part in peer reviews
  • It works with top performing schools as well as those needing support
  • It allows identification and sharing of excellence

Kate talked about how Challenge Partners conduct peer review. The important point is that this is “doing with and not doing to”. Challenge Partners are also doing MAT reviews but they don’t have a strict framework for this as MATs are still in their infancy. They start with a simple question, “What is the MAT doing to ensure the children it serves achieve better than they might otherwise, and is it working?”. This was a very interesting session and I think as time passes peer reviews may become more important. I completely agreed with Kate when she said that you are a system leader only if you care for the children beyond your own institution.

The session by Katie Paxton-Dogget and Tara Paxton-Dogget was titled “Matchmaking for academies”. Katie started by saying that more and more schools are joining or forming multi-academy trusts (MATs). As Labour hasn’t said they will return schools to local authority control, even if there is an election and we have new inhabitants in Sanctuary Building, finding a good MAT will be important for many schools. Katie explained the difference between academies and maintained schools. She said when people say autonomy is lost upon joining a MAT, they should be asked about the level of autonomy maintained schools have. Katie went on to the discussions governors should have when they are considering joining a MAT.

  • Revisit your vision and ethos. You should be looking at MATs which share your ethos
  • Consider what type of MAT you want to join
  • Think about geographical location of your school and other schools in the MAT

Tara made the point that as in human relationships, even if partners have differences as long as they share values the relationship can thrive. Tara’s school had recently become part of a MAT. She said that as far as students were concerned they hadn’t noticed any striking changes. There was more contact between students now which she thought was a good thing to have come out of being part of the MAT. It was good to hear from a student too, especially one as articulate as Tara.

The other session I attended was by Andy Guest on, “Is our model of school governance broken?” Andy started by asking posing the question, “If you started with a blank page, would you design what we currently have?” Andy also made the case for simplifying things by

  • Committing to either academisation or reverting to LA as having both isn’t working
  • Creating a simpler quality/compliance/value for money framework
  • Committing to a capability model across the system and be honest about the role of stakeholder engagement

Andy was of the opinion that governance has to change if we want an equitable and sustainable school system

There was a lot to think about in this session and I’m sure these conversations will continue.

Links to Wakelets (collated tweets) from some of the sessions I attended are given below;

What if we were accountable to each other? Unlocking the power of school and MAT peer review (Dr Kate Chhatwal)

How can we balance trust, autonomy and accountability in the system? Panel discussion at Festival of Education 2019 (Becky Allen, Ben Newmark, Carolyn Roberts, Sean Harford, Naureen Khalid)

Lord Agnew’s Keynote at Festival of Education 2019

Keynote by Amanda Spielman HMCI at Festival of Education 2019

Ofsted’s new Education Inspection Framework (Sean Harford, Matthew Purves and Paul Joyce)

Doug Lemov at Festival of Education 2019

Driver Youth Trust at Festival of Education 2019

I would recommend governors attend the Festival in 2020. I am sure the organisers will have sessions around governance again. Other sessions are useful too as they are on various other aspects of education which governors may want to know more about. Dates for 2020 have been announced (18th -10th June 2020). The organisers are offering a 40% launch discount and there is a special rate for governors (£45 for a day ticket, £59 for both days).

 

Governance matters at Festival of Education. Part 1

Picture credit: Steve Penny

One of the most awaited educational events, The Festival of Education, took place on 20th and 21st June 2019. This year was the 10th anniversary of the Festival. We were treated to two days of inspirational speakers who presented on a whole range of topics. I’m delighted that governance was represented too, for which the organisers deserve our thanks.

I was very happy that my application to hold a governance session was successful. I’m also very grateful to Dominic Herrington, National Schools Commissioner (NSC), who accepted my invitation and joined me for a chat on the first day of the festival. Below is a short account of what we discussed in the 40 minutes available to us. Where I have added post-event comments, I have done so in pink.

Dominic started by thanking governors for their time and commitment to governance of our schools. He talked a bit about his role. As NSC, Dominic, working with Regional School Commissioners (RSC) and other educational leaders and

  • Helps develops multi-academy trust (MAT) improvement strategies
  • Supports MATs so that they are sustainable and strong, via constructive assistance and challenge
  • Encourages regional teams to share best practice and learn from one another to encourage closer

I started our discussion by asking Dominic what, in his opinion, is good governance and why is it important. Dominic replied that governance has vital role in our schools, particularly due to the degree of autonomy in English education system as compared to the rest of world. We need good governance because governance performance three important functions:

  • It act as a stimulus for improvement
  • It provides an ‘Insurance’ policy for school leaders
  • It is responsible for ensuring clarity of vision and strategic direction

We discussed features of effective governance. Dominic referred to the three core functions which, when performed well, lead to effective governance. These are:

  • Overseeing the financial performance of the school and making sure its money is well spent
  • Holding the headteacher to account for the educational performance of the school and its pupils
  • Ensuring clarity of vision, ethos and strategic direction

We went on to talk about the relationship between the executive leaders and governors. Dominic said that if there is strong executive leadership then we can usually assume that governance is strong too. There is a strong correlation between effective governance and strong executive leadership. This is why Ofsted consider governance under Leadership and Management (L&M). Ineffective governance invariably leads to ineffective leadership and this is not just education sector specific. [There is discussion in governance circles if governance should be considered under L&M. I personally think that it should. We are part of the Leadership and it’s only right that when Ofsted judge L&M, they comment on the effectiveness of governance.]

As we were discussing ineffective governance, I asked Dominic about the role played by NSC and RSC when ineffective governance is identified. Dominic started by emphasising that occurrences of inadequate governance are rare and that the vast majority of schools are not failing [This was good to hear]. We do, however, have to deal swiftly and proportionally where this has been identified. Inadequate governance doesn’t take long to be identified (via Education and Skills Funding agency, RSCs, LAs or parental complaints). Dominic said that prevention is always better than cure so it is important that we identify cases where governance isn’t as good as it could be and offer support before it becomes ineffective. He said he was interested in how we can best enable system leadership. The multi-academy trust model gives school leaders the flexibility to share resources across a number of schools. Dominic said we have seen best outcomes for children being delivered where there are school leaders working across several schools to support weaker schools. We have some excellent examples of where academy sponsorship has had a transformative impact on schools. We do need to ensure that schools are matched with a sponsor who fits the school and has the capacity to raise standards.

Dominic also stressed the importance of recruiting good people and mentioned Academy Ambassadors and Inspiring Governors who can help boards find suitable people. This led us to talk about governor CPD and I asked if training should be made mandatory. Dominic agreed that his was always a hot topic. Personally, he was not very keen on making it mandatory. He said he would be worried about the quality of CPD and would rather that we work from bottom up and offer support. He mentioned that there is training available, including Department for Education funded training. [My personal thoughts on this are that GBs/trusts should make it mandatory for their members to keep up to date and commit to CPD. They should also make induction training available to all new appointees and the expectation should be that this would be done within a reasonable time after appointment.]

I was interested in getting Dominic’s opinion on whether MAT governance was complex. Dominic’s view was that it is not; rather it can be an opportunity as Local Governing Bodies and Trust Boards give us the option of different forms of governance. Dominic emphasised that most MATs are local MATs formed of six or less schools. He did stress the importance of Schemes of Delegation (SoD). Dominic said that SoD need to be clear and these must be explained to everyone. The lines of accountability need to be clearly defined too. We need to ensure that people understand their respective roles. [This is an important point. Good, clearly defined SoD, which are understood by all, are crucial. National Governance Association (NGA) has done some work on this which should help trustees who are reviewing their SoD.]

I was also interested in hearing Dominic’s opinions on how to increase governance literacy across the sector. Dominic started by saying that being a governor is a noble contribution to our communities. He said that governance has a higher profile now than it did five years ago when it was hardly talked about. We need to continue raising the profile of governance and encourage teachers, headteachers, retired teachers, and people from other sectors to join governing bodies. We should talk up governance which is why he was happy to come to the Festival and discuss governance with us. [I think that it is important that we talk up governance and do what we can to raise awareness of what governance is and its importance. Attending and presenting governance sessions at various events in one of the ways we can raise awareness. Taking part in twitter chats and blogging is another. Julia Skinner has been trying to get more of us blogging. If you are a blogger and write about governance, please do let Julia know and she may review your blog for Schools Week.]

Dominic is a governor too and my next question was related to this. I asked him if he was a governor on a governing body (GB) where governance wasn’t as effective as it could be, then what options were open to him. In other words, how could individual governors challenge an ineffective GB? Dominic said that the best course would be to try and find an ally in the GB, perhaps the chair and discuss concerns with them. If that doesn’t work then get in touch with the LA, RSC, etc. Dominic hoped that if ever a governor was faced with this situation, they wouldn’t give up and leave but try and change the GB practice so it does become effective.

The session also included questions from twitter and the floor.

  • In reply to a question about parent governors, Dominic said he was very keen on GBs having parent governors. He is one! At the same time he also emphasised the need to have a diverse board.
  • Asked why the Headteachers Boards are called that and why are there no places for governors on it, Dominic replied that the system allowed for co-option of someone with governance experience and he had co-opted members in the South East. The system is evolving and may change in the future.
  • The next question was about the options open to an academy committee (local governance) if they are unhappy with the MAT. Dominic said that he hoped that it could be solved at the local level but if the situation can’t be resolved then they should contact their RSC. He also made the point that this is not very usual and he had had dealt with only a few cases in his time as RSC.
  • The CEO of a MAT referenced research from NGA and asked if the time being put into governance by chairs was sustainable. Dominic said that some people put in a lot of time because they enjoy the role. The system is still young and developing and further down the line chairs may not need to put in as much time as they do now (MATs are growing slowly now. MATs are joining other MATs which is less demanding than setting up a new MAT).
  • A governor made the point that she worries that she can’t get into school and spend as much time there as she would like. Dominic replied that spending time in school isn’t the only way a governor adds value to their GB. Dominic said he cannot spend time in his school either. He adds value via other contributions. [This is an important point. A good board works as a team. Not everyone has to do everything and every contribution is valuable irrespective of the nature of the contribution.]
  • There was a question about mixed MATs/church schools. Dominic said that Church of England has been running schools for years and have a significant place in the educational landscape. Dominic reported that he had not come across any real issues with mixed MATs as yet.
  • In response to another question Dominic said that there are no plans at the present time to inspect MAT boards.

I am grateful to Dominic for taking time out of his busy schedule to come and talk to governors. I’m also grateful to everyone who attended the session. Dates for the 2020 Festival of Education have been announced (18th -10th June 2020). The organisers are offering a 40% launch discount and there is a special rate for governors (£45 for a day ticket, £59 for both days). I will be attending the Festival and hopefully will see many of you there.

Understanding what is meant by critical friend matters

Critical friend is a term which you may often see being used to describe governors. If you are new to governance you may wonder what the term actually means. I’ve been asked questions about being a critical friend and have tried to explain this many times but I’m never sure if I’ve managed to get my point across and explain the term well. The other day I read a blog by Michael Salter which I thought was helpful. Michael is an Australian teacher whose blog Pocket Quintilian I absolutely adore! Michael’s interests are in the field of linguistics and classics and in many of his blogs he examines the etymology of words which makes his blog unique. In his latest post he looked at the etymology of “critic, critical and criticism”. Michael writes,

Critic, critical and criticism (as well as crisis) come from the Greek krínein, to judge. This in turn comes from a Proto-Indo-European root meaning sieve – an instrument for sifting, or separating, different things. This same archaic root was the origin of the Latin crimen, which gives us discriminate…a word which, sadly, is hardly ever used now in its positive sense. And this is not unconnected with what I have to say next.

Art, music and literary critics are tasked with making judgements based on their knowledge of the art form in question. And why are they entrusted with this task? Presumably, one would hope, because they possess a rich store of knowledge in their chosen turf.

When I read the above passage, I paused and thought that I should use what Micheal has written to explain the concept of being a critical friend. The “friend” bit of the phrase is easy but some people may misinterpret “critical” bit of the phrase and think that our role is to be one who is “inclined to find fault”. Our role is not to find fault; our role is to sieve information, separate different things which are provided to us and then make a judgement on how well the school is fulfilling its duty to our pupils. To do this well we need to arm ourselves with knowledge first. This is where CPD comes in. We need to equip ourselves with knowledge relating to the curriculum, assessment systems, progress data, finances, cohort characteristics, how various groups of pupils are performing etc. Once the board, as a whole, has this body of knowledge we can ask informed question and make judgements. In other words be the critical friend it is our job to be.

Governors and curriculum matters

On 11th June 2019 governors (Jo Penn, Jane Owens,  Fee Stagg and I) attended “Curriculum Thinking: Three Masterclasses which had presentations from Mary Myatt, Tom Sherrington and John Tomsett. I would like to thank Mary, Tom and John for inviting us. As we self-fund most of our CPD, this generous invitation was greatly appreciated. I am going to write about those parts of the day which I think will be of interest to governors.

The first presentation was by the wonderful Mary. She started by saying that wrong priorities and focusing on SATs had resulted in a narrow curriculum. I would urge governors to ask questions around the curriculum offer. Are you sure your school is offering broad and balanced curriculum? All children deserve to be taught a rich, broad and balanced curriculum and governors can ensure this by asking questions of our school leaders. As governors are you certain that the school has high expectations for all the students? How do you know this?

Mary went on to talk about high challenge and low threat. She said that we don’t mind being challenged or put under pressure as long as there are no threats and we aren’t made to look stupid. We are a challenge seeking species. She also stressed the need to separate the person from their work and making a judgement on the work and not on the person. This was in relation to students and their teachers but I think this relates to our work too. Our role as governors is to hold the school leaders to account. Do ask challenging questions but frame them in such a way that the senior leaders don’t feel threatened. If they do feel threatened then the chances are you may not get the information you want and need as they may be scared to give it to you. Don’t forget that we are supposed to challenge and support and act as critical friends where being a friend is very important too. Mary also talked about data collection and the uselessness of populating endless spreadsheets. As governors, we need to be very aware of this too. Are we asking for too much data and hence adding to teacher workload? Is the data we’ve asked for/are getting actually useful?

Mary was followed by Tom Sherrington. He started by saying that the curriculum defines your school. This is very important from governance point of view. Our first core function is to ensure clarity of vision and ethos. Do we know if our curriculum matches the vision we have of our school? Does our curriculum ties in with the ethos of our school? Some of the other questions Tom wants school leaders to ask while looking at the curriculum are the questions we should be asking in our governing body meetings too. Questions such as:

  • Do we understand the context of our school?
  • Is the curriculum a good fit for our context? Tom gave examples of teaching about Islam in Spain, Benjamin Zephaniah which would show that thought has been put into what to teach and why
  • What do we want our school to do that we can be proud of?
  • This is especially for primary school governors. How do our school leaders/we support our teachers who may not be subject specialists to get the support they need to design and develop the curriculum?
  • Does the curriculum allow excellence to develop?
  • What does a broad and balanced curriculum mean in practice?
  • Do you as governors understand why the number of options a student is allowed take is what it is? (More options mean there is greater breadth, fewer means there is greater depth)
  • Are the Ebaac and Progress 8 choices for the benefit of the school or the student?

The last speaker of the day was John Tomsett. He too made the point that our core purpose, our vision and our values should shape our curriculum. John quoted Christine Counsell.

As governors are we sure our curriculum helps our disadvantaged pupils to “gain the powers of the powerful”? Some more questions posed by John which governors can adapt.

John then showed us an extract from his school’s Ofsted report.

The curriculum reflects leaders’ integrity, because it is designed to match pupils’ needs and aspirations regardless of performance table measures

Do we as governors, have the confidence that this is true of our school also? This links back to what Tom had said about asking ourselves if the Ebaac/Progress 8 choices for the school or the pupils.

The day ended with a panel session with Mary, Tom and John taking questions from the audience. Someone wanted to know how to manage the curriculum in a school where there is a high degree of pupil movement. Mary mentioned MOD schools and that it may be an idea to have links with them. This is a question governors (who should know if their school falls into this category) can ask of their leaders. Jo asked who owns the curriculum and what is the role of governors in this? Tom said that it should belong to the stakeholders. John talked about the importance of governors hearing directly from subject leads and being prepared to ask critical questions. Governors absolutely have a role to play here. This is why I am grateful to Mary, Tom and John for inviting us. It was a great opportunity to hear from three people who have done so much work on curriculum design and development and hopefully this blog would have given you a flavor of the day and given you some questions to ponder on and to ask of your school leaders.

Tweets from the day have been collated here.