Wednesday, 8 June 2011

First impressions

Thoughts on being a new governor

Having waited months to hear anything from the Local Authority about my application to be a school governor I came back from holiday to find a congratulatory letter and an invitation to attend my first meeting that same day.  Am still bemused by this because there was no selection or vetting process - I am a local authority representative but they have never met me and there is no mechanism apparently for our maintaining contact.  Nevertheless although I can't congratulate myself on being appointed I am very interested in education and training, believe that the school is lucky to have me with my research background in this area and am very determined to make a difference.  It's a secondary school in a fairly rural area - currently graded satisfactory after going through rocky times under a previous head but now under new leadership and going in the right direction with a re-grading as 'good' probably in the offing next year. 

My first impression is that the governing body has a lot of power but is this real rather than apparent?  For example the chair of the Finance committee had to sign off urgent invoices during the holidays but this was really just a matter of protocol - a formality.  During discussion about the school's success in  curbing expenditure and turning a deficit budget into one that was in the black one of the governors did ask about the consequences of reducing expenditure.  The response to this was that performance, that is pupil achievement and attainment, was improving in spite of this so it hadn't had a detrimental effect - there's only one measure of success in schools these days. However what we didn't get were examples of the types of expenditure that had been curtailed and their potential negative impact.  It might also be the case that performance could have improved even more haven't been for these reductions.
I noticed that on on the question of whether to approve expenditure on new toilets (which had been planned for several years) the head was keen to ensure that the governors made this decision and that they understood the implications in terms of its knock-on effect on the availability of future funding for capital expenditure. A way of ensuring that the buck did indeed stop with the governing body.  The personnel committee considered a request from the head's PA for re-grading and a pay rise which the head clearly supported.  In spite of this governors did not hesitate to ask pertinent questions about whether there had been any increase in the level of demand or complexity of work.  As usual everything is on hold while advice is sought from the local authority.
The key question is really whether we are given enough information to make the important decisions and whether this is received before the decision is made rather than after, for example, in relation to the five year curriculum plan.  What is the internal mechanism from approving this within the School and should it have gone to the curriculum committee before it went to personnel?   I have previously serviced advisory committees operating in the public sector and indeed at one point had a boss who prided himself on 'managing' his committee through withholding information or being economical with the truth in order to get the decisions that he wanted.  A good illustration of this sort of relationship at work was provided by the head who reported that his predecessor had managed to conceal the growing budget deficit both internally and from governors and also from the local authority.  The current head clearly understands the importance of ensuring that governors are given the information they need to do their job but being only human he is bound to think that life would sometimes be simpler if he didn't have to give us the complete picture!

The school's relationship with the local authority appears to be very strange indeed. The latter pays and employs all the staff but doesn't appear to have any say over their appointment or grading .  It sometimes will offer a view on grading but invariably ends up saying: 'Its up to you, governors!'  The local authority itself doesn't allocate the budget that it receives from central government to individual schools - this is done according to a national formula.   However LAs do have a right to automatically top slice from their allocation, I think it's about 15% from each school's individual budgets for this LA - the amount will vary.  The schools don't appear to be able to do much about this although there were some signs of rebellion brewing - this school clearly doesn't think it gets value for money.  A report that each school would have to fork out about £500 to pay for a  performance management adviser for the head was presented as a requirement of the recent White Paper so would be charged for as an extra.  The LA also has control over a capital budget in terms of being able to divide this up between schools although the actual amount is of course set by the national government.
There appears to be an expectation that the LA will have to be consulted about almost everything yet they seem unable or unwilling to give clear guidance.   My husband made the interesting point that since I am technically a local authority representative on the board I should be supporting their positions at meetings or at least  not overtly criticising it.  However  this is difficult when I don't really understand where they are coming from on most things and when everybody else, including an ex-member of LA staff, appears critical of them or at best sceptical about the value of their input. 
The other main thing that comes through in these early stages is the heavy emphasis on targets: it all seems to be about getting the best examination results possible and this in turn is all to do with enhancing the school's reputation as well as avoiding a poor inspection report from OFSTED.   When I asked the head if there was a specific reward for doing well he showed me a copy of the letter inviting him to a dinner in London to celebrate the success of his school alongside others which had done exceptionally well.  He didn't plan to attend!  I couldn't help wondering whether all this was a bit academic given the sort of catchment area that the school has -  it would be interesting to know how many other schools are nearby and whether parents in the catchment area often choose its competitors for their children. Conversely does this school attract children from further afield? Competition was surely designed more for the cities than more rural areas which can only support one good school.   I guess a good report and performance in the school league tables is not just about falling enrolment but also about avoiding a vicious circle whereby a poor inspection report impacts on teacher recruitment and possibly retention. It seems to me that there is not enough discussion about these issues in the national press.
A separate meeting with the head lent support to the  view that generous resources are neither a necessary or sufficient condition for developing successful schools.  I fear that I am becoming a Tory!  Under his predecessor small classes had not in fact resulted in high student achievement.  We discussed some the reasons for progress being poor in the first year of the sixth form.  He attributed this partly to a culture of resits with everybody thinking they could coast because they could resit their AS levels the following yearat the same time as they were studying for their A levels.  The school was tackling this by not allowing resits except for genuine reasons.  The other problem was lack of practice at writing extended essays which they planned to tackle before students entered the 6th form. 
During my tour of the school I was struck by the pupils addressing teachers as 'Sir' or 'Miss'.  This sounds very antiquated to me -- I suppose it's because I‘ve got used to adult education settings - but this school has been working hard on improving behaviour as well as standards.  School uniform is compulsory and classrooms seemed quiet with everyone working away.  The other thing that struck me was that, with one exception, it seemed to be all whole class teaching with the traditional question and answer approach.  The other thing that strikes me is that as a result of attending a few governors' meetings I already know much more about how schools operate than when my own children were attending them or when such background information would have been very helpful in my work as a researcher.  Granted that most of the latter was in the field of Further Education and work-based Iearning, colleges and private or voluntary workbased learning providers, but it did cover young people aged over 16 in sixth form colleges, for example.  Having an i-ndepth understanding of  the context is something that is perhaps undervalued nowadays in a whole range of settings not just research.  For example, I have got first hand insight into how the school 'sets' or divides pupils by level of ability: they have three groups based on achievement in standard tests (at junior school, for example), one of which is special needs.  I also now understand that there is nearly always an incentive to promote internally because the promoted staff member can be replaced with someone  bring in from outside at the lower end of the scale.
It looks like there will be lots of opportunities for me to get involved in terms of linking up with departments, participating in their weekly curriculum planning sessions and also with year groups where the focus is on identifying pupils who are performing poorly and discussing strategies for helping them improve.

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