The Beating Heart of Education

Earlier this week I published a somewhat throwaway triple tweet about the potential impact, on teacher work-life balance, of building the depth of subject knowledge currently demanded by OFSTED, especially in the primary sector. Notwithstanding the fact that most educators are on holiday and hence have more time to trawl social media, the degree of traction my post received was somewhat enlightening. There was very little dissent to my concerns and my plea to the regulator to offer solutions and not criticism in this area. Clearly it resonated with the vast majority of teachers and school leaders. I have therefore been doing some thinking about teacher workload, staff retention and especially around the role of school governors in putting well-being and positive mental health at the forefront of our priorities, as we hopefully emerge from the great challenges of the Covid pandemic.

Firstly we should look at the pressures exerted by national policy, the Department for Education and OFSTED when it comes to the work-life balance of our committed but tired staff. Most educators would, I believe, accept the need for an independent body to ensure standards of education nationally meet the needs of our children and their families in the 2020s. Whether you believe OFSTED meets that brief well is, of course, a personal opinion. For what it’s worth I fear that the inspectorate is becoming increasingly aligned to the current government’s ideological approach to education and, as a result, is spending a disproportionate amount of its time telling schools and staff “how” to teach rather than judge “how well.” The effects of an adverse inspection judgement can be catastrophic with staff moving on, children being removed and a significant reduction in the finances available to effect the recovery needed.

My view is that we need a radical change in the nature of inspection. We need inspectors who do identify concerns within schools being prepared to work with that school in the medium term rather than consign it to the mire in the short term. We simply need the descriptors to be removed. We need the cliffhanger high-stakes outcome of the current system to be ditched immediately. At a stroke this would hugely and positively impact on our staff and leadership who spend far too much time worrying about compliance with an inspection framework rather than teaching children. Who spend far too much time worrying about two days every five year than could ever be proportionate. Who spend far too much time jumping through hoops for senior leadership teams terrified of the threat of being labelled as failures.

I apologise to my secondary colleagues for concentrating for a moment on primary schools, the sector with which I am most familiar. One of the biggest sources of worry to our staff and one of the biggest threats to the work-life balance of our teachers is the OFSTED obsession with deepening subject knowledge across the whole curriculum. There is no evidence I have seen that shows our current primary education workforce lacks the depth of subject knowledge necessary to give all children the broad grounding they need in all subjects. No. This is not a reaction to a glaring deficit but more an example of OFSTED kowtowing to the government’s current alignment to a model of regressive education that places all the emphasis on the accrual of arbitrary knowledge, but completely ignoring inculcating in children the skills and independence of thought to use that information wisely throughout their lives. My original tweet this week stemmed from me directly challenging an inspector on how teachers could be expected to develop this depth of expertise without adding to workload when such an increase would be contrary to their own inspection framework. She didn’t answer. She still hasn’t answered. I suspect OFSTED does not have an answer. It’s quite normal for primary teachers to be in class from 8am to 5pm. Beyond pure teaching they have to meet parents, deal with safeguarding issues without even mentioning the onerous daily marking and planning regimes that go beyond the level of preparation expected by most, if not all other professions. To then expect those drained men and women to go home, expect a meal to be prepared for them and deny their children some valuable bonding time just so they can read another book or journal is ridiculously unfair. To expect them to devote their weekends to learning about the nuances of the Franco-Prussian war to then teach history to six year-olds is utter madness.

It’s worth discussing here the issue of governance and politics and the uneasy relationship between both. Some governors whose views I wholly respect believe governors should never pass comment on national policy but simply ensure that schools are implementing the relevant legislation and guidance dutifully. My own view is slightly different. When commenting as a governor I will always have, front of mind, the fact that our children only have one chance. And put simply, that choice is us. If I reflect that elements of policy may not be conducive to positive outcomes for children, then I believe I have a duty to comment in the hope it might contribute to exerting a degree of pressure. However, that is being political, not party political. That is where the line should be drawn, in my view, when commenting professionally.

Secondly, we should consider the issue of the workload that is attributable to local decision making. This is a tricky area for governors. We delegate the operational running of the school to the Head and senior leaders and rightly so. It is simply not for us to discuss at our meetings how books are marked and how plans are submitted. However, we are often the employer and increasingly are promoting whole school well-being and positive mental health with great justification. Happy staff are productive staff. Happy children are attending and achieving children. It is right therefore that well-being should be on our agendas and even more importantly intrinsic to our vision. Appointing a Well-Being governor is a sign of intent. Ensuring our governors develop their awareness in this area through training and other means is equally critical. Having well-being on our meeting agendas concentrates minds accordingly. There is of course another area. Every year we update a whole raft of policies. I suspect in too many schools too many of these policies go through to a large degree “on the nod.” That is a reflection of congested agendas and limited timeframes. However, in doing so we miss an opportunity. For example, when considering the Teaching and Learning Policy there is no place for us to have an opinion on how work is marked or planned. But there is, however, a legitimate interest for us to explore whether or not any changes contribute adversely to work-life balance. We can go one step further and challenge our operational leadership to ensure that any increase in workload can be compensated for elsewhere. That relieving, where possible, the daily stresses and strains on our staff is always uppermost in their and our minds.

Finally in this lengthy ramble I want to explore the area of culture, where well-being fits within that and our values, and where governance needs to be situated. Put simply, well-being, irrespective of commitment and the number of initiatives proposed, can NEVER prosper in a toxic environment. Governors have an overriding duty to ensure we have a vision enshrined within a positive and healthy culture and ethos, where every member of the community lives the school values daily. That is the absolute bedrock of excellent education and we should leave no stone unturned in ensuring all of our schools model such conduct at all times. However, as part of that compassionate and caring culture we also need to ensure that we are actively encouraging our staff to look after themselves. Well-being is not exclusively the responsibility of governance but the responsibility of all of us. By ensuring there are plans and policies in place for staff to develop resilience and the ability to withstand pressure is vital. Stress is ultimately intrinsic and anything staff can learn to mitigate it will be to their ultimate benefit and that of the school.

The facts are stark. We have a retention crisis in education. Criminally, something like thirty per cent of staff leave within five years of qualification. Similarly, recruiting high quality leaders is proving increasingly difficult with some headteacher vacancies attracting no applicants. Something has to give. As governors we need to ratchet up the pressure on central government and the inspectorate to better understand the state sector and stop placing wholly unreasonable demands on our staff. We need to ensure that we are doing everything within our power locally not to add to that burden. And we need to empower staff to take ownership of their own work-life balance ensuring holidays are taken, and they are not working weekends and evenings habitually. But far more importantly than all of that we need to move heaven and earth to ensure that our schools are joyful places, filled with happy, safe and achieving children but equally satisfied, aspirational and professionally successful staff. It’s the right thing to do so let’s get on with it.

The End Of An ERG

Helping others can be too much effort | University of Oxford

Stalwart governor, Phil Anthropy, sat in his office at home and surveyed the street outside the window where an elderly lady shuffled along, pulling an overladen shopping trolley. Meanwhile children played happily, just as they had done for many years, but supplemented these days by a regular output of expletives and other words, which Phil felt were probably equally profane but was blissfully uncertain, knowing that he was simply out of touch.

Earlier that month Phil has resigned from his position as a school governor. Not just any other governor but in fact the Chair of Governors. He had held that role for a number of years, a tenure which he likened to a rollercoaster ride. He had thoroughly enjoyed immersing himself in the life of the school and only hoped others would see the impact he had made and the legacy he left in terms of a professional, functioning and highly able governing board. In addition to being the leader of the board, Phil had also enjoyed the privilege of being designated as a National Leader of Governance. He had never sought such a position but when he was persuaded several years ago to apply it was from a genuine desire to offer support to others, based on his longevity in office and the experience he had consequently accumulated. In the intervening years he had been a source of support for a number of troubled or inexperienced Chairs. He had worked with the local authority and Diocese offering support and advice around governance. He had supported boards with temporary issues that threatened their smooth running. And he had conducted a number of external reviews of governance where this had been recommended at inspection or where the boards themselves, or school support services, had identified such an exercise as being desirable. He was proud of the work he had done as an NLG. Yes, he had received an income for some of the time-consuming and sensitive reviews he had navigated but in fairness these had been a significant commitment. However,, he had offered far more of his time and wisdom completely free, from a sense of duty and altruism. He wanted to be known primarily as somebody a Chair, or governor in need, could phone, have a cup of tea with (even a virtual brew!) and feel reassured and more confident as a result of that chat. Nobody had ever told him as much, but Phil felt a quiet satisfaction that he had made a positive, if sometimes invisible difference.

Of course when announcing his planned resignation at Easter, Phil knew he would automatically lose his designation as a NLG given the conditions in place. He had quietly seethed at this for several weeks. Indeed Phil had seethed regularly around his NLG role since being inducted five years previously. He could not understand how such a vital cog in the machine called school improvement was so haphazard. How there was no central co-ordination of the work that needed carrying out. That schools and governors had very little or no steer as to what NLGs could offer, who they were and where they were. It was in essence a bun fight. If you developed a reputation as an NLG worthy of the title you would tend to pick up work regularly by word of mouth. However, getting a foot in the door was very difficult and he reflected how it had taken him over a year to even speak to a governor at another school despite his shameless self-promotion in the intervening period. He concluded that this was reflective of the low esteem in which governance was held within the educational establishment and government. He quietly swore but resisted the temptation to use one of the new words he had recently learned from the local street urchins.

So it was with no little surprise that one Spring morning whilst sipping filtered coffee to the beautiful Baroque accompaniment of Albinoni’s Oboe Concerto, Phil unearthed an interesting development on social media. It appeared the Department for Education (Phil immediately visualised a dunce’s cap) was seeking to reform the NLG system and had nominated the National Governance Association (NGA) as the body to oversee the changes. He shrugged. At least it wasn’t under central control and the NGA was clearly appreciative of the importance of governance and the pivotal role that supporting Chairs and boards occupied. As the days and weeks passed Phil read more about the changes with increasing interest. This was most certainly not NLG 2.0. This was a complete revamp and constituted a change of direction. Firstly all existing NLGs were to lose their designation and would have to reapply. He reflected this was an appalling way to treat committed and professional people who had made such important contributions in the world of school governance. He further ruminated this was probably necessary because the previous system was so disorganised, nobody could actually quantify the work that NLGs had undertaken nor its impact. He seethed. It was also clear that the role specification was being changed. There was no place under the new system for mentoring and coaching new Chairs or those with local difficulties. No opportunity to pick up the phone for that reassuring chat or providing that ample shoulder on which any colleague could confidentially cry. No. The role of the NLG going forward was to simply conduct external review of governance, paid for by the Department of Dunces’ Caps, either at the behest of an increasingly politicised OFSTED, or perhaps local authorities or Dioceses.

Now Phil had long since viewed the Department of Dunces’ Caps with suspicion and derision. Led by a fireplace salesman, but in reality policy driven by an accountant who wanted to return education to 1968, he was appalled by their deliberate and systemic underfunding of state education for a decade. He knew from personal experience of the awful discussions in governing board meetings about which members of staff were to be made redundant. He had listened to headteachers sobbing from exhaustion having spent three full days and nights on safeguarding matters due to the absence of external support services whilst spending absolutely no time on teaching and learning and leadership. He couldn’t help thinking as maintained schools were starved of critical funding, how a small number of entitled and in some cases titled academy trust chief executives were raking in nearly half a million a year from the same public purse. He wondered why education ministers were singularly incapable of visiting any school outside the M25 and that wasn’t an academy.

Academies. Phil was relatively ambivalent. He knew of several excellent multi academy trusts and indeed standalone academies from early conversions, that shared best practice, always put their children first and treated them and the staff with respect. However he also knew of many maintained schools and colleges with the same culture and values that enjoyed similar excellent outcomes for children. He had long ago concluded that the type of school was largely irrelevant. What mattered was the name over the headteacher’s door, their leadership and how they inspired and nurtured their staff in a caring and supportive environment overseen by an effective and effiicent board.

It was at this point Phil Anthropy, contemptuous of the Department of Dunces’ Caps and peddler of conspiracy theories, suddenly realised what was happening here. The NLGs would go into the school, conduct an external review, find several things lacking and instantly recommend the school joined a multi-academy trust as the solution. A panacea. The answer to everything. He quietly swore (something akin to hollyhocks). He considered how the NGA, a body that had steadfastly in recent years refused to prefer one model of education over another, appeared to have had a Damascene conversion to full academisation and pondered whether thirty pieces of silver might still be the going rate. In fairness to Phil he did reflect on his own position. He did challenge his own stance. But he quickly remembered the clear policy position of the Department of Dunces’ Caps over universal academisation. He instantly recalled the ongoing “review” of teacher training that would doubtless lean heavily on the views of sycophants and stooges just as the earlier Sewell report’s denial of institutionalised racism. He brought to mind the Schools’ Minister increasingly telling teachers how to teach and what to teach and his appointment of a former nightclub bouncer as his behaviour guru. No this was part of a pattern. Another way for a right wing government to control education in this country to an unprecedented level. He ruminated that an incompetent education department was bad enough but that an incompetent department driven by a prescriptive and regressive ideology was positively dangerous for the sector to which he had devoted so much time and commitment.

And then a positively lovely thing happened. Thanks to the wonders of social media and thanks to the universal outrage felt by many “former” NLGs, conversations started from Northumberland to Norfolk, from Cumbria to Cornwall. These were people some of whom were, and are, government supporters. Some who were, and are, fierce proponents of the academy system. All drawn from different areas, from different backgrounds and different educational experiences. However, they were all united by one, much more powerful, thing. The greater good. The commitment to service before self. All united in bemoaning the sudden gaping chasm for that altruisitic commitment to offering our time and experience, free of charge, to those in need across our governing boards. People who had devoted thousands of hours mentoring and coaching Chairs and other governors, and who now saw how undervalued and unrecognised that vital work was. And it was from this very simple but powerful unifying factor that IgovS was born. A truly national group containing members with huge experience, expertise and wisdom. Already the group has helped colleagues in need. Already governors seeking advice have tapped into the collective expertise . Already group members have generously given of their time, at no cost, to help solve an urgent problem. Already there is greater co-ordination and better deployment of resources than was ever the case under the old NLG system. Out of adversity a quite amazing thing has developed.

So as Phil liberally spread sweet pickle on his corned beef baguette a smile spread across his haggard countenance. He had grudgingly accepted that with his retirement as Chair and hence the termination of his NLG status, his ability to help others would have ended. Suddenly, courtesy of the rapid emergence of IGovS, he now felt a renewed sense of purpose. A new lease of life where all of that priceless experience and expertise can be put to impactful use once again. How criminal the custodians of our education sector were so easily prepared to dispense with that collective reservoir of knowledge in its vain pursuit of their regressive ideology. Phil seethed one more time about the Department of Dunces’ Caps. But now he knew that there was finally an independent body, of which he was part, that was not beholden to politicians or vested interests, that is doing tangible good already in strengthening governance and upskilling Chair and other colleagues. Phil Anthropy lives on.

“And so I face the final curtain…”

Those famous words by Ol’ Blue Eyes, Frank Sinatra, are uppermost in my mind as I reach my final week as Chair of Governors and a governor at the primary school I have served for the last nineteen years. Indeed the last time I recall those lyrics occupying my attention was a few years ago when I had to stifle a grossly inappropriate chortle as the coffin of a distant elderly relative disappeared from view for the last time in the crematorium. And of course, as all good governors should, I have been in reflective mode in recent days looking back over my terms of office and assessing our impact, but also how things have changed during the intervening years.

Education itself remains a political football. Successive governments have rubbished and then sought to unpick the work of its predecessors meaning there is little continuity or time for the beleaguered teaching profession to embed reforms successfully. Several years ago I recall saying that the best thing any new Education Secretary could do upon being appointed to the position would be to go on holiday for five years. Leave teaching to the teachers. Leave leadership to our leaders. If anything the current Department for Education is the most ideologically driven of them all whilst, I would argue, being the least competent in living memory. Led by a fireplace salesman, they have presided over years of chronic underfunding, a sustained attack on the state maintained sector, the complete and utter shambolic handling of exams during Covid, and, most unforgivably of all, they have shown an abject failure to protect children and staff from the ravages of an appalling and deadly virus. Increasingly they want to tell teachers what to teach and how best to teach it, aided and abetted by a loud and sycophantic bunch on social media who presumably stand to make some future financial gain or be viewed kindly in New Year’s honours’ listings.

If there was a panacea for teaching, a silver bullet, a Utopian methodology, don’t we think it would have been discovered at some stage in the last hundred and fifty years? The truth is, the vast majority of teachers know that the most effective way to teach children is to use a variety of methods and strategies dependent on the children, the subject and the context. Most teachers deliver excellent results year on year doing exactly that. However they are still subject to attacks from the pedagogical puritans who are certain of their beliefs in the same way cult members worship the millionaire leader with seven wives to whom they have dedicated a life of poverty and celibacy. If their methods were so sure to succeed, then why do the same people have to adopt zero tolerance behaviour policies to force compliance to a level where subservient children can be filled with the white, middle class knowledge of their philanthropic benefactors? No. Government should be like governance. They, like us, should be judging schools on outcomes not on the paths they choose to deliver those outcomes. They, like us should be asking “how well” rather than “how.”

If education is in an apparent state of constant flux, then governance has also changed markedly over my two decades in post. Back in 2002 I vividly remember being seated in the staff room on armchairs with no facility for note-taking. We would open the envelope of papers for the first time. We would sip from a cup of tea in a bone china cup, nibble on a Garibaldi, nod our heads in tacit agreement at the Headteacher’s report, belt out a rousing rendition of “Kumbayah” then go home, basking in the reflective glory of having done a good deed. Contrast that with 2021. Papers read days in advance. Lots of questions compiled and asked, respectfully but robustly. Perceptive supplementary questions posed for clarity or deeper insight. Data full understood and converted into key headline statements. Professional school visits conducted to see our strategy in action. Regular consultation with stakeholders to ensure inclusion, credibility and relevance. A thirst for learning and professional development. In twenty years the pay for governors has sadly not advanced much. However there can be no doubt that the responsibilities and expectations on us have grown considerably. Thankfully governors have collectively stepped up to the plate and met these challenges head-on.

When assessing where governance in England currently lies I would like to pick out four areas which I believe are vital and, if successfully addressed will lead to the sector being in very good shape to address the considerable challenges of post-Covid education. The first of these is training. It cannot be right that induction training for governors has not been made compulsory. The truth is simple. If a new governor is likely to be dissuaded from joining the board by having to attend ninety minutes of a virtual workshop then they are clearly not the right person for the job. However learning and development need to be culturally embedded right across the board and encompass not only formal training sessions, but social media groups, reading articles and books, and critically networking with colleagues both locally and nationally. Our children only get one chance at their education and it is us. We owe it to them and their families to be the absolutely the best governors we can be. Ignorance is inexcusable.

Whilst governance is a corporate function underpinned by collective responsibility, there is little doubt in my mind that the quality of the Chair is very often an accurate predictor of the quality of the school’s leadership. Chairing the board is a huge commitment and one that often carries a large personal burden. It can be a very lonely existence especially in challenging times. All Chairs need a sounding board or another set of ears who can listen in confidence and either reinforce the Chair’s instincts or perhaps act as a devil’s advocate. I am proud that in Lancashire we are piloting such a mentoring and advice programme currently. I am equally despairing that the proposed realignment of National Leaders of Governance under the NGA appears to attach no value whatsoever to this critical area of work. I for one am hugely disappointed that the NGA, an organisation I have supported for many years, appears now to be dancing to the government’s “academisation is the only answer” tune. Very disappointed. A line in the sand has been drawn and only time will tell what this will cost. I am heartened in recent discussions that other senior governors across the country really understand the value of supporting colleague Chairs and that they remain committed to this area of work whether under the umbrella of something official, or whether arranged and brokered informally.

There are, I believe, two distinct areas of governance where boards need to be stronger and more aware. The first of these is around vision and strategy. When conducting reviews of governance I often start by asking boards to articulate their vision. Commonly this is met with a shrug of shoulders, a glance at the Head, or I am directed to a lovely statement of intent or commitment on the website which is aspirationally sound but is not timed, specific and hence can never be measured. For governors a vision is a clearly defined set of objectives to be achieved by a certain time. The strategy is the journey. The plan to take the school from where it is now to where it wants to be. A collaborative, considered vision is vital as it unites the whole community behind a really clear focus for school improvement. Everybody is singing from the same hymn sheet, rowing in the same direction. It also helps ensure governors remain strategic rather than getting drawn into the day to day operational management of the school which can be so counter-productive. One of my greatest achievements in my role as a member of the local authority governor training team was creating and delivering face to face and online versions of a course on this very subject. Seeing delegate governors suddenly understand the importance of vision and strategy has been very gratifying.

The other area where I consider there needs to be renewed impetus is around evaluation and review. All top businesses are constantly seeking validation of their methods and strategies and asking if they could do things differently or better. It was Einstein who suggested only a fool would do the same thing over and over again and expect different results. Yet in the constantly changing world of governance we repeat things year on year never truly reflecting on the level of impact we make on outcomes for children. As with training and development, evaluation needs to be culturally embedded. Impact should be an agenda item at each meeting. Boards need to find a half day or day each year where, freed from the constraints of the termly agenda, they are able to scrutinise their own performance and hence equip themselves so much better to deal with future challenges. The vast majority of governors are hard working and committed. But without impact we run the risk of much of that work being in vain. It was Mary Myatt who perceptively pointed out the danger of mistaking activity for productivity.

“Regrets, I’ve had a few. But then again, too few to mention”

In terms of personal reflection there are things I would have done differently. I am inherently trusting and loyal and can now see there were times I should have been more decisive earlier. I allowed myself to be swayed on occasions rather than trust my own instincts especially around people. Perhaps most of all I unwittingly, for a time, lost sight of the true importance of culture, ethos and values and put the “what and how” before the “why.” The Peter Drucker quotation that “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” will never again be far from front of mind. There is no doubt in my mind that our very best schools put people and their well-being first. They are happy joyful places in which to work and learn. Everybody in them lives the school values rather than merely parading them dutifully in assemblies and to the outside world. And guess what? Staff love working there. Happy staff are more productive staff. Children love learning there. Happy children are successful children. In my new governance role I really want to focus on culture values and ethos, not just because its the right thing but also because it will deliver excellent academic and pastoral outcomes too.

“I’ve lived a life that’s full. I travelled each and every highway.”

It is for others to judge how successful my nineteen years in governance have been. It is for others to measure outcomes and to conclude whether this was ever sufficient. All I can say that however much I gave to governance, I received much more in return. Governance has deepened my understand of education. Governance has given me far more confidence to argue my case often in the face of concerted opposition. Governance has strengthened and honed my leadership qualities. Governance has allowed me to help other people both inside our school community but also further afield. Governance has allowed me the enormous privilege of working with some true education professionals and outstanding governance colleagues. Governance has allowed me to serve our families, parish and wider community. But perhaps most of all governance has allowed me to see successive cohorts of children develop, flourish and fly in our school. Their smiles, their comments and their achievements are indelibly etched in my mind as I say goodbye to the school for the last time on Thursday.

“For what is a man, what has he got? If not himself, then he has naught. To say the things he truly feels. And not the words of one who kneels. The record shows, I took the blows. And did it my way.”

Making Difficult Decisions

solomonIt was in the first book of the Kings in the Old Testament (3:16-28) where the Hebrew King Solomon had an impossible decision to make regarding conflicting maternal claims over the parentage of a baby. Having listened to both women, he called for a sword to cut the baby in half knowing that the real mother would rather hand over the child to the charlatan than see it killed. No school governor is currently facing decisions of such magnitude and complexity but many of us feel we need the wisdom of Solomon in navigating the gradual return to school of children, young people, and our staff.

In some ways the last few weeks have been easy for governors. Although helpless to prevent the closing down of national education at the end of March, we have largely been able to sit back and simply marvel at the ingenuity, dexterity and consummate professionalism of our leaders and teachers, who have adapted almost instantly to remote learning, constructed at all times against a backdrop of well-being and positive mental health. They have weathered the storm caused by a school meal voucher debacle whilst becoming immediately proficient in Zoom and Teams, and finding creative and innovative ways of engaging children and, indeed, their parents and carers. No it’s not been easy. No, it’s not been normal. But the gargantuan effort by already stressed, and undoubtedly worried, teachers and leaders is cause for national celebration. Certainly there should be no argument around school staff being applauded on Thursday nights just as much as any other key worker.

I need to be frank here. I don’t want to write an overtly politicised blog as it’s not helpful. However you cannot disentangle government decision-making and establishment of priorities from the situation schools are currently in. The fact is there was inevitably always going to be pressure on schools to re-open their gates once the sheer enormity of the financial crisis became apparent. Whether we like it or not schools are viewed by some as national child care providers to allow the workers to return to their factories and offices to jump start industry, business and commerce. I think many of us assumed that this would take place from September as the virus gradually evaporated into the hazy sunshine of summer. Once can only surmise that it is the sheer numbers of those who have been furloughed that has provoked the government to try and reintroduce in-school education for certain age groups from June 1st. Immediately, up and down the land, leaders and governors have been hastily convening streamed meetings and considering detailed risk assessments along with the obligatory tape measure.

Make no mistake every Headteacher, teacher, support staff, office staff and site staff I have spoken to or read are unequivocal in their desire to be back in school doing a job they love with children they cherish. BUT only if it is safe to do so. And here’s the conundrum we face. Irrespective of  political persuasion here are some facts. Britain has 0.8% of the world’s population. It has over 11% of world COVID deaths, the second highest death toll in the world. Yesterday (13th May) the equivalent of a jumbo-jet full of passengers died from this terrible illness. All loved. All with a name. Never just a number. May they rest in peace. Testing in this country is not at the same level as other nations and is missing targets. Government scientists appear uncertain, and issue conflicting messages around the possibility of child to child, and child to adult transmission.People are told to wear masks on public transport (having been told to avoid it) but school staff are told it is not necessary. Some reports say social distancing is critical for children. Others say less so. Nobody seems to really know.

Completing a risk assessment in normal circumstances is easy. Identify the risk, put resources or actions in place to mitigate the risk, and hence reduce or remove it. COVID, and a return to schools, take risk assessment to an unprecedented level. How do you mitigate against death? How do you put things in place to reduce the risk when there is no scientific consensus around the level of risk . How do you prevent a potential epidemic within a school? At what point do you conclude you may be fighting a losing battle and shut down again?

It is against this backdrop of uncertainty and yes, fear that some vocal parents have stated they will keep children at home. School staff supported by, for once, a unified union voice, have challenged government to guarantee reasonable levels of safety before advising a return to their memberships. And of course governance with its employment and duty of care responsibilities is wrestling with the “cost v benefit” analysis of children filing back into class. I have a view that we may see mass dissent, and only a drip-feed of children going back after the half term holiday. There are teachers with health issues, and indeed justifiable anxiety, who will feel unable to return. They need supportive and caring employers as opposed to the orchestrated right wing media cacophony already tarring the profession as a bunch of lazy, politicised malcontents. Given the heroism, and I choose that word wisely, of our schools’ staff since shutdown I say this to those sneering voices. Shut up. Or walk a mile in the shoes of those you disparage before spouting your grossly unhelpful bile. Teachers care about people especially little people, before profits. You would do well to learn from them.

I’m sat here nine days (excluding half term) from our school potentially reopening. Tonight governors meet online with the Head to go through his plans and to see if, and how we can facilitate a phased return. We have already made a pledge that we will not compromise health and well-being, and this will be front of mind when coming to conclusions. We are already stretched in terms of staff thanks to sustained underfunding. We already have areas of our site inaccessible due to sustained underfunding. Our school field is wholly reliant on good weather due to sustained underfunding. All of these are real factors that we have to wrestle with on the ground, whilst ministers and advisors make up policy on a fag packet having not visited a state school outside the M25 since, well…probably since the M25 was built.

I think come June 1st, or a date close to that, we may have some children in school. Nowhere near all and spread out so much it negates any social benefits of return. Teachers will lead face to face lessons whilst colleagues address remotely educating those still at home. No hugs for Miss. No fist bumps for Sir. A surreal, eerie and quite unnatural environment. Beyond that I suspect there will be no further cohorts returning. There simply isn’t the space on a school footprint to socially distance two hundred primary, or thirteen hundred secondary students. This sporadic, even haphazard arrangement will actually defeat its intended aim. A parent with a child in Year One (in school) and one in Year Three (at home) cannot return to work. The mother of a Year Six pupil might be able to work mornings, but may need to finish at lunch to accommodate the staggered teaching of the class. Like much of the last two months it very much resembles to me a tin of Pedigree Chum at 8am.

The government should not assume governors and trustees will meekly follow their advice. We are normally a compliant bunch given our professionalism and understanding of the importance of children being in school. However, these are strange times and might lead to strange outcomes. Most boards I have ever met are led overwhelmingly by ethical considerations, putting values and culture before operational and performance considerations. I fully expect that any board, without sufficient certainty around risk and mitigation will refuse to reopen. They will refrain from challenging dissenting parents and staff, and quite rightly. They will only admit children to the premise if as sure as is possible that their health and well-being will not be compromised. We are not pushovers. We are not lapdogs. And the government can turn its media storm-troopers on the education sector to divert its own culpability, but we will not be diverted from our chosen path. We govern for our school. Not for our government. If you are a governor or trustee battling all of these questions this week I wish you all the luck in the world. And the wisdom of Solomon.

 

A Journey Into The Unknown

face maskIn fifty-six unspectacular years on this earth I can never remember a time like it. Those of an even more mature vintage concur that this is a global crisis we have not seen the likes of since the Second World War. What started as a minor news item in a Chinese outpost now poses the greatest risk to public health in generations. All of us are rapidly coming to terms with the gravity of the situation, a difficult task given the speed with which things are moving. And sadly of course some people behave utterly irresponsibly displaying a flagrant “I’m alright Jack” approach whilst the vulnerable and key workers struggle to buy essential items.

Whilst the behaviour of society during this growing crisis merits a blog of its own, I wish to concentrate on the effects of COVID 19 on the English education system. The initial incomprehensible government response to the crisis to use school children to infect wider society to create herd immunity was quickly shifted when it became apparent we were the only nation on earth pursuing such a policy. Still, as Michael Gove infamously pronounced “The British public has had enough of experts.” That is of course until millions of us faced death hence suddenly the expertise of virologists and public health managers concentrated our collective attention. The change of policy led us to last Friday when nurseries, schools, colleges and universities effectively closed down remaining available only to vulnerable children and those whose parents were identified as key workers in ensuring the wheels of the nation continued to turn.

Of course this creates an immediate issue for governance. In many English schools we are the employer and thus have an overriding duty of care to our staff. How do we square the strong government advice for social distancing whilst expecting our staff to put their lives on the line to look after those children previously referenced. Whilst you might legitimately ask what value the government places on its teachers and school staff, we are where we are and we have to work around the current situation. As ever the operational organisation of that childcare is at the behest of the Headteacher and many will currently be wrestling with rotas and attempting to minimise exposure to potential carriers of the virus. They will be looking at how children can be kept occupied possibly with different peer groups being taught together. They will also be battling to ensure the more vulnerable children are properly fed and hydrated. As governors our job at this stage is restricted to offering our support and making explicitly clear our admiration for their utter professionalism. I also think it is important to clarify expectations. At present our schools should be seen as childcare centres rather than educational establishments. We must reinforce this message to already pressurised school leaders by emphasising that our priority at present is existence rather than excellence. We do not expect attainment or progress as we might in normal times. We do not expect the curriculum to be delivered in all its minutiae. We do not expect beleaguered teachers to be responding to governance demands for data and subject leader reports. The message must be clear. Just look after them.

For me the challenges for governance will come as we emerge from the depths of the darkness in which we currently find ourselves. Already we know that all national examinations scheduled for spring and summer have been cancelled. What will the impact of that be on those children? How can we reassure them? How can we ensure that the grades they eventually receive are as accurate a representation as possible of their likely attainment. Of course it’s not just Years Six, Eleven and Thirteen we need to consider. What about children in Years Five, Ten and Twelve who potentially will have lost access to over a third of this year’s teaching? One can only hope twelve months from now that national expectations will have been adjusted accordingly. I can also see no reason why those grades cannot be awarded by the end of June to allow an extended period for students to ensure they have time to select and access sixth form and university provision.

However, what I have discussed to now is what we know. What is certain. We must also accept that this crisis may be protracted beyond current expectations. It may affect greater number than currently projected or even feared. It may potentially mean that even by September 1st we will not be in a position to say it is business as usual. And that of course poses a number of challenges for governors. How do we manage our new intakes without the ability to meet with parents, partners in transition and relevant professionals? If we are recruiting for senior posts or others how do we orchestrate that process without being able to meet face to face. Of course we can use technology but how do operational leads observe teachers in action? How do we shortlist and interview recruits remotely? It’s about this time of year we start planning for the next academic year and possibly, in primary at least, looking at moving people around. How does this work in the current situation? And of course there’s our governor meetings? If we are to utilise technology to have online meetings is this accessible to all governors and the clerk?

I have no doubt that COVID 19 will mark a see change in how society operates in so many ways. So many conventions and norms will be challenged. Education is no different.Governors will need to be flexible, agile and responsive in our approach. But it is entirely feasible that both education in general and governance may emerge from this crisis significantly different to how it entered the current period. Those boards who have plodded along year after year may experience a reality check as those previous practices are consigned to education history. We are in a bleak even desperate predicament. But we need to be ready. Ready to hit the ground running and ensure that when things return to what passes for normal we are all on top of our brief. As for outside influences this might see a change in testing and examinations. If w can successfully transition children this summer without the stress of examinations might that not be a more kind model for future consideration? And what about inspection? If we rightly start to see the role that school plays in the lives of our families far beyond the classroom in such times of adversity then perhaps we re-calibrate what we value as a society from our leaders and teachers?

So many uncertainties. So many doubts. Nobody really knows when and how we will emerge from this desperate situation and how schools, children and staff may have been affected. What is certain is that the sector will be heavily reliant on governors and trustees to leading us strategically into a new era of education. We have to be strong. We have to be ready. And more than ever we have to be willing. Our children need us.

Visibility And Governance

VisibilityOn Friday I received a message from the National Governance Association asking if I would be prepared to promote the #VisibleGovernance initiative they were launching the same morning. I was delighted to accept the invitation. It is absolutely right that we all do our utmost to put school governance in the brightest spotlight possible. School governance when good will almost certainly lead to the best possible outcomes for children. Children who only get one chance. That chance is us. Although mere volunteers we bring a myriad of skills, expertise and experiences to the table in order to hold the executive to account and ensure our schools are also wholly accountable to the public whose money we spend. When we add to that eclectic mix of individuals a collective willingness to embrace training and development along with a steely determination to be our best, then the effective board of governors is indeed a considerable force within school.

From a personal perspective my seventeen years of governance have enriched and upskilled me considerably. I have developed the confidence to challenge. I have learned how to dig beneath the superficiality and be forensic in analysis. I have acquired the ability to see issues in advance and have a plan to deal with them. And hopefully my capacity to lead and be inspirational in that role has been acutely honed. Governance has made me better in my paid job. Governance has made me better in so many other ways. I owe governance a huge debt of gratitude. If telling this story attracts just one more person to join their local school board then it is a worthwhile exercise. I am proud of the work I have done for my school. Only the passage of time will tell how successful I was.

But the issue of visibility got me thinking. As school governors we need to be visible not a distant, almost mystical body. We are an integral part of the school community. We are leadership and management. And whilst many of us balance our governance duties with full time employment and hence find getting into school during the day a real challenge, we appreciate the need for our staff, children and families to know who we are and the critical role we fulfil in the life of the school. It is probably important to say that the governor who cannot get into school is not ineffective purely by that measure. We are a corporate and collective body and it is quite acceptable for those retired governors or those with greater flexibility to take up much of the heavy lifting when it comes to visits. Working governors can compensate in other areas. After all our job ostensibly is a thinking one. In my own school reflecting back governors had become too distant from our stakeholders. We were doing what we thought was best but had become detached from the lives of those we served and could not accurately judge the temperature of our community. Over the last few months we have made a concerted effort to rectify this and there was no more pleasurable outcome of our recent inspection report than the opening phrase that succinctly places the school “at the heart of its community.”

Clearly with visibility and a greater presence can come some challenges. It is easy for governors in school more regularly to become involved in operational considerations rather than having a more detached and more strategic outlook as is our remit. Whilst governors helping out with reading and accompanying children on trips is laudable it is also important to divorce those activities from our core work although they can of course inform governance too. More importantly is the need for us to stay away from gossip and being seen as a “shoulder to cry on” by concerned or disgruntled staff. Governors who are drawn too easily into staffroom tittle tattle can all too quickly find themselves compromised or tainted and hence are not sufficiently detached to play any future role in any grievance, disciplinary matter or complaint that may require governor scrutiny.

Sometimes visibility means other things. It can mean standing up to be counted rather than take the easier route of disappearing into the background meekly. It can mean having those courageous conversations referenced in the Governance Handbook which can be uncomfortable but we know we have to conduct in the best interests of our children. Remember again. Children only have once chance at education. And that chance is us. It can also mean challenging leadership if operational actions appear at odds with the school’s culture, values and ethos. It means being prepared to remind people that the “why” we lead our school is always more important than the “how and what.” I have thought of this in recent days when considering the comments of the Education Secretary when he clearly aligned silent corridors  and strict behavioural policies with academic achievement. Clearly influenced by his Schools Minister who is a proud advocate of 1960s education within the M25, he failed to point out the many thousands of schools up and down the country who develop and nurture well-adjusted and independent young people who take responsibility for their actions maturely and sensibly.  Of course he was heartily supported by the narrow band of sycophants including those in receipt of ten million pounds to sort out the epidemic of extreme violence and sexual assaults apparently endemic in state education.

For me this links seamlessly into how you see your school, how you view education, and most importantly how you think of children. If you see them as an enemy to be overcome, a force for harm and a barrier to your teaching then I assume you have no problem with zero tolerance. If you see children as a source of great joy who, yes, need boundaries and structure but fundamentally are a force for good and a source of joy, then such practices and philosophies are anathema, totally at odds with your core beliefs and values. I can only assume that in schools where these practices are embedded (often multi academy trusts with a brand image to protect) governors are aware and are largely supportive. I wonder how many don’t know about the methods employed but have been sold the line that good behaviour promotes high standards of attainment. However there is a clear need for governor visibility here. If you govern in one of those schools and are uneasy around this discourse then you must stand up and speak out. Not publicly but within the confidential confines of your boardroom. And of course if you are unsuccessful in persuading a rethink of these operational methods then resignation is the only option. But one you must take if you are true to your principles. There have been clearly documented allegations of zero tolerance being taken too far. “Flattening the grass” by emotionally abusing children was allegedly de rigeur in at least one trust. Off-rolling ill-disciplined children or more unforgivably those with special educational needs in the name of exam results is reprehensible to most of us. But where were the governors when these things happened? Where the people of principle prepared to draw a line in the sand and say “Not on my watch?”

I can very confidently say that no school where I was Chair of Governors would ever see children as the enemy. No school where I was Chair of Governors would demand silence  around the school from inquisitive and curious children. No school where I was Chair of Governors would give a detention to an autistic child who failed to make eye contact with a class teacher. No school where I was Chair of Governors would allow staff to publicly scream at children in the name of forced compliance. No school where I was Chair of Governors would ever get rid of difficult children or make us inhospitable to the most vulnerable. If it ever tried I would be very visible and very vocal. If I failed I would resign. And before any of you have the temerity to challenge me on standards don’t you dare. No school where I was Chair of Governors would ever have anything but the highest expectations of children and an ambitious vision for our school. It was the American businessman Thomas Watson Jr who said “If you stand up and be counted, from time to time you may get yourself knocked down. But remember this: A man flattened by an opponent can get up again. A man flattened by conformity stays down for good.” Be visible. Do the right thing. Be a force for good.

Can Staff Thrive In A Deep Dive?

workload

From Berwick to Bournemouth, from Blackpool to Bury St Edmunds much of the discourse in staff rooms and governing boards this term has inevitably focused on the 2019 OFSTED Inspection framework. From the consultation early in 2019 it was evident that the regulator was looking at a slightly different approach in how it judged the successful provision of education in schools and academies. Whilst there were minor tweaks as a result of that consultation with the sector, much of what was originally suggested remains in place. In a nutshell there was to be less of a focus on narrow attainment and progress data but much more emphasis on the overall quality of education. The general concern was that some schools may have been narrowing their curricular offer in pursuit of external examination success thereby restricting the knowledge base and educational experience of our children. By changing the focus the aim was to ensure all schools offered a wide curriculum and extra curricular activities that engaged all children, that knitted together in a logical and sequential way different core subjects, and that developed the “cultural capital” of pupils and students. Of course this concept is hugely popular with the traditional wing and their pin-up boy Nick Gibb, the Schools’ Minister since 1746. What constitutes cultural capital is highly subjective and worthy of a blog and certainly a debate of its own.

The new framework therefore introduced a new discrete heading of the Quality of Education. Now I am absolutely sure that the vast majority of schools have for many years offered children broad and balanced curricular provision that engaged children and developed both their knowledge but also the skills to apply and nurture that knowledge to their advantage. However this hasn’t stopped schools from undertaking huge revamps of the subjects and topics they teach. In fairness this has unleashed huge creativity in some areas and the innovative use of natural resources, people in the local community, and more traditional sources of information is very exciting.

The OFSTED grade descriptors are very interesting. Effectively to be “Outstanding” there is the assumption that the curriculum is already finely honed, stimulating, and challenges all children. This perhaps unrealistic  expectation so early in the cycle may explain whey nationally so few schools have either achieved or maintained that grading during the September and October inspections. Inevitably most schools are still working up their curricula offer having consulted with staff, parents, and children to ensure that what is being taught meets the needs of the children in that unique setting. Staff rooms that were used to hearing discussion around the three “Rs” now reverberate to the sound of the three “Is.” What is the Intent of the curriculum. What is its purpose? How relevant is it to our children and the world in which they are growing up? Then there is the Implementation. How will the curriculum be delivered? Will it be accessible to all children? And what will be the Impact? Will it ensure children have a secure depth of knowledge across all subject areas thereby boosting their cultural capital and theoretically improving their prospects of social mobility and higher workplace achievement?

One would have hoped that with the pressure of success in external examinations being eased, schools would take a much more relaxed and collaborative approach to the new inspection framework. Sadly this is proving not to be so in too many cases. The competition to top a league table is now a competition to design a world-beating curriculum. The apparent need to reinvent the wheel is prevalent rather than a much more sensible approach of tweaking existing models to suit your local circumstances and context. In the process a huge amount of work has been carried out. Already one is hearing stories of teachers having spent much of their summer holiday creating new subject curricula and in the case of primary teachers their whole annual teaching plan. So instead of hours hothousing children for tests, we now have teachers hothousing themselves in order to create a magic curriculum that will bewitch any visiting inspector.

It is possible to point the finger here at senior leaders who have switched ridiculously high expectations from exam cramming to curriculum cramming. It is arguable one should ask teachers why in heaven’s name they are complicit in this rat race. But the most powerful force at work here is OFSTED itself. The new inspection framework is absolutely explicit in its expectation that teachers will develop a greater depth of subject knowledge. In the areas they lead it is expected they will cascade this knowledge to colleagues. In other subject areas they are expected to embrace additional training to upskill themselves right across the curriculum. There is a school of thought of course that if we are to deliver the enhanced cultural capital demanded in the framework then teachers must have developed their own mastery of each subject. However, three months into the new framework a significant and glaring challenge is presenting itself.

In many schools, especially primary, the time allocated for subject development is scant. Anecdotally around half a day per term appears to be commonplace. And often of course those precious hours are eroded by behaviour management issues, and other urgent non-teaching considerations. Which then begs the question when are we expecting our hard working teachers to find the significant number of hours required to attend training, read up on their subject, and map and design a challenging and stimulating curriculum across all age groups? Most teachers spend literally every minute of the day teaching other than their PPA designated time, which again is often lost or moved at short notice. Which means we are inevitably expecting our teachers to develop their knowledge either in the evening or at weekend. Which hurtles us headlong into a real conundrum. Elsewhere in the new framework there are clear references to the duty of employers and senior leaders to consider carefully the workload of their staff. There is an explicit threat that in Good schools where workload is onerous and staff feel bullied or intimidated the Section 8 inspection will be immediately converted to a deeper Section 5 analysis with the potential for a requires improvement or even inadequate outcome.

Already this term subject leaders at schools who have been inspected are reporting a forensic examination of their subject knowledge and curriculum implementation and impact. The so-called “Deep Dives.” OFSTED will doubtless justify this on the grounds of it being essential to ensure the quality of education is high. However it is, superficially at least, simply incompatible with the responsibilities to manage workload and well-being sensitively. All of which clearly gives a huge challenge to senior leadership and governors. This needs to be on the agenda of all governance meetings. Governors need to ensure that any requirement by the school for teachers to deepen their knowledge can be wholly accommodated within the school day. If not work-life balance is inevitably compromised. But then of course we meet another problem. Under the continued shameless underfunding of state education, few schools have the luxury of idle staff who can be parachuted into classrooms to cover for teachers busy on subject development. Some schools have virtually no teaching assistants left and we know supply cover can be extremely expensive and increasingly impossible to sanction under deficit budgets.

So my friends we have to make some tough choices here. If we are obsessed with receiving an Outstanding inspection judgement we will probably turn a blind eye as leadership turns the screw inexorably on staff already working up to sixty hours per week. However there are other choices. And in most cases they can be traced back to culture. The “why” you exist rather than the “what” or “how.” If your culture is robust, empathetic, and compassionate you can make different choices. You can draw your line in the sand on well-being and refuse to demand any extra hours or even minutes from staff. You can instead accept that the curriculum development and subject depth is a journey but not one that can be completed in hours. It may take months. Even years. Yes, the school down the road may publish an all-singing, all-dancing curriculum statement boasting of teachers with great subject expertise. But when those staff are exhausted and go off sick who will teach their children? And what will their governors say to them?

No, this isn’t easy. It takes courage. It takes a united board to stand up at the inspection and say we put whole school well-being before ANY other considerations. Look the inspector in the eye and say you cannot achieve instant depth of subject knowledge whilst protecting workload at a time of financial crisis. Tell them that your culture and ethos is clear. We value people before paper. Prosperity before progress. And tell them your firm belief that actually, if we do treat people properly then success will inevitably follow. Happy, contented staff deliver high standards. Stressed, overworked and undervalued staff deliver absences. So we have questions to ask of our leadership at our meetings. How do we expect staff to enhance their subject appreciation? How can this be arranged without an impact on workload? What are the resource implications for the school? Ultimately these and other related questions lead to a final and fundamental question. What sort of school are we?

 

 

 

Black and White or Shades of Grey?

shades of grey

Mr Lowry was the affable Marketing Director. He and his board colleagues had their offices located on the upper floor at the front of the building. My desk was located in the sales office, also on the upper floor but at the rear of the building, the two office blocks flanking a large warehouse of engineering products. A bridge across the warehouse linked the front and rear upper floors. It was very rare for the directors to honour us with their presence but even less so Jim Lowry whose brief gave him no plausible reason to visit either the sales or adjacent purchasing offices. One morning we were advised that Mr Lowry was escorting an important visitor around the building and that we should ensure the office was clean, and that we “looked busy.” Right on cue in walked the rotund director with an unassuming but cheery visitor. Our tactic was simple. We all dialled each other’s extensions and conducted fake conversations to give the appearance of inward orders being processed. Jim pointed at a couple of things, answered a question, then took his guest next door to Purchasing. Five minutes later we were tipped off that our distinguished guests were on their way back through. Jim pointed out a couple more things then courteously opened the door and escorted his visitor…..into the broom cupboard. The more professional of my colleagues managed to retain their composure. Sadly I, in common with the majority were forced to crawl under our desks all stifling the hugest of chortles. That day Jim Lowry passed into company folk lore whilst us mere minions pontificated that if the board were more regular visitors to our side of the building then his bemused visitor would not have faced the ignominy of making the acquaintance of a wet mop.

Thirty years later having retold that humorous tale for the umpteenth time, and now a Chair of Governors I reconsidered the criticism we heaped upon poor Jim all those years ago. Why should the directors have been regular departmental visitors? They knew we were a profitable and growing company. They knew the branch network we were supporting reported positively on our work. They had no reason to know HOW we did our work provided we were doing  it well. Quite rightly their minds were occupied in their plush front-facing offices considering product diversification, the threats posed by our competition, and the opportunities offered by a new Far East manufacturing plant.  Their job was to scan the horizon of the next three years rather than be preoccupied by operational considerations.

Of course school governance has a great deal of synergy with the scenario just articulated. We delegate the day to day running  of the school to the Headteacher or CEO along with their senior leadership team. Our priorities are to ensure that they have sufficient resources to deliver the outcomes we have agreed and the impact against which we are measured externally. As with the company directors we should be on deck looking out for icebergs. The moment we descend into the bowels of the ship to start rowing among the staff, we have strayed into areas where we have no remit. There is clear blue water between our respective roles. A specific delineation of responsibilities. Indeed much of the new governor induction and subsequent training programme we offer colleagues regularly reminds us all of our strategic rather than operational bias.

I believe when schools are working to optimum capacity in every way, then it is relatively simple to keep this separation in place. When children are progressing well, staff are happy and energised, parents are advocates for the school, and finances are healthy, governors can afford to take a step back conducting the orchestra rather than tuning the violins. That doesn’t mean of course that we can ever totally rely on the reports from the Head exclusively. There are several ways in which we can and do validate the information received from senior leadership. Firstly we have access to data both in terms of external measurement and also internal tracking. There will always be a core of governors comfortable with extrapolating the headline messages from this data and disseminating this in meaningful soundbites to their colleagues. There is an expectation that governors will be familiar faces during the school day so they can see at first hand the impact of their strategies on the daily life of the school. We have access to independent reports from the school adviser, from OFSTED, and in some cases from a Diocesan inspection. All of these sources, and others, offer governors ample opportunity to triangulate the information received regularly from senior leadership. And of course it goes without saying that for this partnership between operational and strategic to function at its best, it has to be founded on the rock of mutual trust. One where all concerned are comfortable with challenging questions and occasionally courageous conversations, safe in the knowledge that we are all pulling in the same direction and are members of the same team.

Sadly this cosy, idyllic scenario is not always evident in all our schools and academies. I guess if it were we would not have inadequate inspection judgements or schools requiring improvement. The reasons we have schools in such categories are plentiful, often complex, but occasionally entirely local and unique. In this blog I want to look specifically at inspection reports where leadership and management have been criticised or given cause for concern. Most of us, if not all would agree that there is an absolutely inextricable link between effective leadership and positive outcomes. So when this is labelled as problematic where and how has this gone wrong?

There is no doubt that some boards have failed to understand their core function and have all too easily succumbed to the temptation to become operational. There are a number of Heads who have confided in their advisers their concern about operational input from governors. Why might this happen? Firstly perhaps a collective failure to access training and therefore a lack of of clarity around their role. Secondly it might be that they have always strayed into the “doing” and have failed to keep pace with the changing priorities of governance. Thirdly it might well be that the balance of challenge and support is not in equilibrium and that governors are attempting to exert too much control in a micro-management way.

But are there occasions when the opposite situation exists? Where the Head keeps governors deliberately at arm’s length seeing them as a necessary evil to be tolerated and carefully managed to minimise their influence. Recently a vice chair contacted me to query whether an annual review and strategic planning session was advisable. He was seeking my counsel because the Head had been forthright in asserting this was not the done thing and that the board would get anything it needed to know from him. You could justifiably point out that this particular board should have a much greater awareness of tails wagging dogs than it clearly does but I have been struck when working with boards this year just how often when I ask a question there is a universal deferment to the Head to answer it. This suggests an over-reliance on the Head which of course can also be dangerous.

Several weeks ago I became aware of a school that was inspected and found to require improvement. Not an  unusual outcome in itself but one that was very interesting once you started to read the report under the different descriptors. The most damning criticism came under leadership and management where it appeared there was a breakdown in the relationship between staff and the Head but that governors were blissfully unaware having been constantly reassured everything was rosy in the garden. Local intelligence has subsequently informed me that the Head is a charismatic figure, hugely popular with parents and presides over a school where the data does not indicate any underlying issues. Yet here is an experienced inspector highlighting this situation as a clear breakdown in leadership, especially governance. The report is quite unequivocal in stating that governors should have been aware of the prevailing mood between the adults in the school. Of course it’s very easy for us to adopt a judgemental position here and look down our noses at the governors in question. But for me it creates a really interesting debate about the limitations of a simply strategic focus.

Let’s consider how this might work. Unhappy staff have correct channels through which to articulate their concerns. This is right and proper and common to other sectors although inevitably in a small school community governors often find it difficult not to hear the bush telegraph. You might argue that the staff governor has a role to play here. Why didn’t he or she speak out? We will never know the answer. Perhaps fear of upsetting their line manager might be a genuine obstacle? Perhaps they didn’t subscribe to the wider staff mood? Perhaps he or she DID raise those staff concerns either publicly at a meeting or in private to the Chair? For one moment let’s imagine the latter happened. What would governors do in such circumstances? Presumably they would ask the Head if staff concerns were present and whether there was any validity. If the Head denies there is an issue and refutes any specific points raised where do governors go next? They could theoretically approach staff to validate the Head’s assertions but in doing so would they then be straying into operational waters? What would it say about the degree of trust in the Head by the board if it went behind his or her back arguably saying “we don’t believe you?” You might think there may be other factors evident that would suggest staff discontent. Is there a disproportionate turnover of staff? If so governors are entitled to ask why but if a plausible reason is given for each departure then typically governors would be expected to trust in the senior leadership’s version of events. Similarly if specific concerns raised are seen as the workings of a trouble-maker or the excuses of an under-performing teacher then it is difficult for the board to delve any deeper.

Normally when I write a blog I do so to make a point. In this case I genuinely don’t have an answer. I do subscribe enthusiastically to the theory of the strategic v operational divide as it gives a clear remit to both board and senior leadership. However, I believe it can only work harmoniously when mutual trust and integrity are evident. If the board is dabbling in matters that are not within its remit without due cause, this is a recipe for disaster. Similarly if the Head is keeping governors at arms’s length and using the “don’t get operational” mantra as a method to keep them in the dark then this is potentially fatal too. Ultimately my feeling is that when things are not right then the lines may need to become a little blurred. Governors may need to be resolute in their commitment to really know what is going on rather than being easily put off. Governors may need to ask for more evidence if concerns remain. This is not to say they don’t trust the senior leadership but given in some cases they are the employer, they have a clearly defined responsibility to their staff, children, parents and wider community. Governors may very well need to become more “hands on” for a period to assure those stakeholders that they are there for them, have their fingers on the pulse of the school, and are ensuring the values and ethics of the school are being lived daily by all concerned. If we ignore the warning signs simply because we might stray over an arbitrary line once in a while we run the very real risk of finishing up in Jim Lowry’s broom cupboard. What do you think?

The Right People Round The Fable

victorian meeting

It’s that time of year when many governing boards and trusts are finalising their structures and arrangements for the next academic year. Amidst the all too familiar cries of “Where did the year go?” we look at our likely priorities and how we can ensure close governor oversight of these key areas. But before we even begin to apportion roles to individuals it is also a great time to ensure we are relevant. Fit for purpose. And critically aligned to the constituencies we represent and the stakeholders of our school. Coincidentally therefore I have seen a few related issues discussed this week that have stimulated my curiosity and led me to jot down some ramblings on paper.

The first little Twitter exchange that got me thinking wasn’t actually around governance but about the speaker list at an educational event. Questions were raised about the diversity of those who would be publicly contributing whilst others in the exchange strongly stated their belief that the demographic identity of the speaker was less important than their ability to engage an audience and make a positive contribution to the event. To be fair this is a sensitive issue which always carries a range of impassioned views and one to which I don’t have sufficient knowledge to contribute. However, it did get me thinking about the membership of our governing boards and their relevance locally. Should our board be representative of our local school family? Most would say yes and hence we should see different races, nationalities and cultures represented, both genders, people living with disabilities, and volunteers from across the age spectrum? Or, where local communities like mine are 99% white British is this a cop-out and should we be pioneering in ensuring an even broader church on the board? I know there have been initiatives in recent times to persuade governors to look at the make-up of the board and target missing characteristics when recruiting. I wonder how successful that has been? How many boards have governors under the age of thirty? Perhaps more controversially how many boards have sought to include the gobby single mother from the council estate (stereotype I know) when it’s so much easier to work with the doctor’s wife who lives in the big house down the affluent lane on the other side of the village?

The second story that attracted my attention was the leaked letter from a county council education portfolio holder to the Secretary of State in which she asked him to reconsider the decision to place a failing school in the hands of a multi academy trust due to apparent widespread opposition from parents. The letter suggested the strict disciplinary regime allegedly favoured by the trust  was not in keeping with their wishes. Since the news broke the trust has somewhat predictably made noises about legal action but it begs the question around culture, ethos, vision, and values. I have long since advocated that these key elements, the very soul of a school, the “why” it exists in the first place, cannot ever be imposed by a Headteacher or board of governors. It might be well-written, plausible, even attractive to the outside world, but if it doesn’t carry the full support of the school community it fails its most basic of stress tests. For local authority schools this is something very much within their own control. Schools choosing to join a MAT can spend many hours of due diligence ensuring their new “host family” is a good fit. However, those schools which are forced to academise as the result of being deemed failing have no such latitude under current arrangements. The report published today by the National Governance Association looks at this and related issues and poses the question as to whether due consideration has been given to the scope of governance as the sector has expanded under clear ideological impetus from the government. It simply cannot be right that the parents and carers of our children have no say in the choice of trust into which their schools are parachuted or equally importantly have no ongoing voice in the direction of travel of their children’s education.

That rather well-worn phrase “the right people around the table” has been aired again today in the discussion around the report. My view is that whilst this is clearly aspirational it fails to take into account the reality for many of our governing boards. The government has, not unusually,  a detached and somewhat romanticised view of school governance. A model where the global Financial Director of Glaxo Smith Kline kindly volunteers to join the board of St Hilda’s Primary, saves the a fortune in budget efficiencies, and is rewarded with a bottle of Veuve Cliquot from the parody formerly known as Lord Agnew. There are few dissenting voices anywhere to the claim that the responsibilities of governance have increased significantly in recent years. At the same time people are working longer hours and hence have less time to volunteer and benefit philanthropic causes. So whilst we would all accept that a broad balance of skills and expertise is ideal, the reality I find on my travels is that most boards are running under full capacity. We are seeing parent governor elections becoming less common. I have worked with schools where they cannot find a staff governor such is the current workload being imposed on our people. Recruitment and to some degree retention of governors are real issues within English education and ones I believe require some new thinking.

Let me tell you about my own board of governors. We currently have a vacancy for a foundation governor appointed by the Bishop to protect the Diocesan interest in the school. Until recently we had two spaces but we have managed to persuade a teacher from another school to join us for next term. The criteria imposed by the church to recruit are absolutely understandable from its perspective but the reality is it narrows the reservoir of potential talent to something approaching a Saharan water-hole in the middle of a drought. The fact is weekly church attendance across all denominations is decreasing to the extent where few families can be seen among the scattered, predominantly aged congregation. Our constitution allows us to have two parent governors and we are blessed to have those positions filled by two wonderful professionals. However we have received an expression of interest from a parent who is an expert in construction at a time when we are considering the perimeter of the school, and the potential development of a nursery. Yes we can look at co-opting or affording associate status but this impacts on the necessary foundation majority on the board.

So where is this tortuous ramble going? I guess there are few people involved in education who wouldn’t agree that excellent governance is essential to the future healthy status of English state education. So it is critical therefore that we have vibrant, dynamic, innovative boards full to capacity and serving the needs of their school communities with which they are closely aligned. But for the reasons cited in this blog we are struggling in some cases. We know that our boards should be representative of the stakeholder groups we serve in terms of demographics. We know we should be seeking those with finely-honed commercial and professional skills and knowledge. We know we should be in tune with the beating heart of our communities. Yet we have to achieve these things often handcuffed by mandatory structures that arguably have not kept pace with recent developments both in governance but also the social fabric of the country. I truly believe the churches who still have a huge vested interest in our schools need to be more realistic about the governors they appoint to represent their financial and ethical interests. By insisting on weekly church attendance they immediately virtually dash any hope of wider community representation.  It must be within the grasp of clever people to agree an appointments process where ALL governors in church schools sign a commitment to uphold the Diocesan interests at all times thereby hugely increasing the potential to fill vacancies. I would go further and say relax the constraints on boards to have a designated number of governors from a particular constituency. For example if you can’t recruit a staff governor but have an additional parent who can add significant strength to the collective then why not? A good board can seek the views of staff with regards to its strategic work in other ways than direct representation.

Why can’t boards effectively decide who joins them at any given time? I can almost hear the warning shots being fired across my bows referring to Trojan Horses but these things happened anyway under the existing protocols. If the government truly wants us to be more professional then it needs to trust us to develop our boards in the way we think best suits our community and most importantly delivers for our children. We need all interested parties to ensure that governors, senior leaders, teachers, and support staff are the best they can be given our children only get that one chance. However we also need to ensure that our stakeholders, especially our parents and carers come with us on the journey. We have to end the current practice of a regional schools commissioner, often sat in an office miles away, recommending the attachment of a “failing” school to an academy perhaps geographically but certainly ideologically distant.

At a time when are schools are under unprecedented threat from central government underfunding, we more desperately then ever need innovative, dynamic, and forward thinking professional governors to work with teachers and leaders to develop the highest standards of education. But we must do so in partnership with all of our stakeholders so that our efforts are united, and our ownership collective. Indeed my next job after this blog is to write to our staff asking them for creative ways in which our school can better market our unique selling points. We will make similar representations to parents. And if we are to do these things to the best of our ability we have to work under a system sufficiently flexible to meet the rapidly shifting priorities our schools face. Let’s get the right people around the table. Let it cease to be a fable.

Broad and Balanced

seesawThe Headteacher of Ravenswood Primary School, Philomena Keating, sat back in the uncomfortable Year Four chair with her arms folded. That bloody twenty eight page report had taken two evenings to write, one of which had necessitated missing Morris dancing rehearsals in the Beaver and Dam. Now these confounded amateurs, tenuously masquerading as school governors, had the absolute gall to ask questions. Why? The data looks good. The school adviser, despite being an old crow, wasn’t as miserable as she might have been. Parent complaints have gone down. Most of the staff have come back from their stress absences. What else in God’s name could they want? Thankfully as her blood pressure rose betrayed by blotches on her rounded face, Sarah Smithers, Chair of Governors came to her rescue. “Guys, it’s getting late. Mrs Keating’s report is detailed and shouldn’t require further explanation. The figures are ok apart from Year Three and we know most of them are thick anyway. Attendance is back over eighty per cent and it’s two months since I’ve been accosted in the playground.” Local authority governor Marjorie Barnard, meek at the best of times, knew this was going nowhere and immediately decided to shelve her proposed questions about the school’s curriculum offer in light of the imminent changes to the inspection framework. Her concerns had been raised by her niece Kitty who said school was boring and that all she knew about were fronted adverbials and improper fractions. But Sarah was formidable and this was not a battle Marjorie was prepared to wage in front of her colleagues. Through the corner of her eye Marjorie could have sworn she saw the Head smile triumphantly as the line of inquiry was halted before it started.

Those of us, like me, who spend far too much time on eduTwitter will probably testify that much of the discourse revolves around how children are taught rather than what they are taught. I ascribe this obsession to a battle of egos around which pedgaogy and methodology works best when in truth the vast majority of teachers I have ever spoken to change their method or approach to fit the subject or context. Now it would appear OFSTED has raised the stakes. The 2019 inspection framework will now require inspectors to look at the quality of education rather than mere progress and attainment data, important though they remain. It is suggested that those at the helm are concerned that some schools may be concentrating far too heavily on those subjects which are tested to the detriment of others. We have all seen creased copies of a Year Six timetable consisting almost exclusively of English and Maths lessons, the only concession being to those subjects that require mandatory inclusion in the school week. The obsession with “hitting the figures” and the undoubted high-stakes accountability has sadly led to some senior leaders trying to play the system to the clear disadvantage of their children. And whilst that might be unforgivable it is to some extent understandable given the pressures to achieve.

Hence the announcement of a much clearer focus on what is being taught has been welcomed almost universally. Education is far more than the forced imposition of facts to be absorbed by young minds. Education is far more than memorisation of times tables and the ability to recite a Kipling poem in the dinner hall to order. Education is about exposing children to the beauty of learning. Education is about offering the broadest variety of subjects and topics possible to draw our children in, engage their interest, and in the process develop that lifelong love of learning in all its forms to which most of us aspire. Education is about instilling in children a responsibility for the environment and the world in which they live. Education plays a critical part in preparing our children for adulthood. And we must never forget our children only have once chance at that education.

The requirement to develop a curriculum that meets the minutiae of the new framework but more importantly the needs of our children will be integral to governance from this point onwards. Whilst we have been warned off straying into the operational aspects of school leadership, and rightly so, such is the importance of this renewed curriculum concentration that we must have clear oversight of what our school is delivering. Yes we must avoid asking “How” subjects are being taught but we absolutely have a duty to ask “What” is being delivered in our classrooms. And we need to ensure that our offer is clear, finalised, and in place from September of this year. In other words as governors we cannot wait until the new academic year before we start to explore this issue with senior leadership. The intent, implementation, and impact of what children are learning must be explicit in the minds of all governors and teachers before we depart for Tuscany or Tenby in mid July.

For governors there are a number of questions or even threads which we need to start asking with immediate effect. With regards to the intent, what is the rationale behind the school’s curriculum and do all subject leaders have sufficient expertise and understand what is being taught in that subject through the school and why? Do we have a governance structure that offers us a clear insight into what is being taught and a method of both scrutinising and challenging or do we need to amend how we operate? Are we ensuring that we are not adding to staff workload and if there are additional challenges, are we trying to compensate in other areas? If inspection does not seek to validate internal data what information should governors be receiving from school leaders and how often, especially when considering the excellent “Making Data Work” paper by Professor Becky Allen? Are we developing vocabulary and reading skills effectively in the Early Years and is reading pivotal across the broader curriculum? How does our curriculum promote personal development, well-being of both children and staff, and take into account our responsibilities as global citizens in a precious but threatened environment? Are there any immediate or longer term training and development needs for both staff and governors to ensure we have sufficient depth of knowledge in future? And perhaps most importantly of all, is our curriculum accessible to every child in the school irrespective of perceived ability, or whether they live with disability?

There will be  large number of schools inspected in the autumn term and curriculum cannot be viewed as a long term project or work in progress. It has to be in place, being effectively implemented, and be able to demonstrate impact right from the start of the Autumn term. If your school is awaiting “the call” then are you having these discussions with leadership NOW? If you don’t have a Curriculum Committee have you considered structural change? Are you currently reviewing your nominated governor roles to ensure they meet the revised priorities of the school? Will you ensure your website accurately represents what is being taught to each year group from the beginning of term? And are you asking the questions in the previous paragraph with particular emphasis I suggest on the quality of subject leadership?

By and large I believe this new direction of travel will be largely welcomed by those of us who love to witness and read about the joy of education. The careful intertwining of subjects around a theme that promotes the key educational skills of reading, writing, and numeracy but hooks children in via the wonder of experiment, exploration, and collaboration. It is a long awaited opportunity to bust the myth of having to teach to the test and to prepare our children fully for life in our changing world. From a governance perspective we are pivotal in shaping what we teach our children in 2019-20 and we must be absolutely involved in developing and tweaking the content without getting involved in just how that is delivered on a daily basis. Yet another challenge for hard-pressed volunteers and as always the remuneration remains unchanged. However we are not driven by materialistic gain but by the knowledge that children are thriving and maturing every day in the safe, welcoming, exciting, and developmental environment we  help to provide. What a legacy that will be when we hang up our highlighter pens!