September 2013


  • The purpose of education
    Everyone has an opinion about what our schools and colleges should be striving to achieve and how they should go about it. For the sake of young people, it’s time to build a consensus. More
  • Inside knowledge
    Understanding leadership styles is not just beneficial for senior leaders, says John Bennett. It can be helpful for teachers early in their careers too, in order to help them realise their full potential. More
  • In the driving seat
    As chair of the Education Select Committee, Graham Stuart has been one of Michael Gove’s fiercest critics, despite being a fellow Tory. He talks to Liz Lightfoot about system reform, the latest curriculum controversy and why he’s backing ASCL’s Great Education Debate. More
  • Time to get grounded
    Schools can do even more with parent power if they harness it to improve teaching and learning in a real and credible way, says Jim Fuller. More
  • A wider vision
    A new Recommended Code of Governance for Schools, devised by the Wellcome Trust and education bodies, aims to fill the gaps in governors’ understanding of their strategic role. Dorothy Lepkowska reports. More
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A new Recommended Code of Governance for Schools, devised by the Wellcome Trust and education bodies, aims to fill the gaps in governors’ understanding of their strategic role. Dorothy Lepkowska reports.

A wider vision

Rob Williams has seen some changes in recent months in the way that the governing body at his school works. Governors are now far more willing and able to challenge him and the senior leadership team (SLT) on the direction that the school is taking and on the rate of progress.

“We have a much sharper focus in terms of accountability,” says Rob, head of Malton School in North Yorkshire. “That trail is much stronger in the way that governors hold me and the senior team to account, and the manner in which they expect us to cascade that level of accountability down to middle leaders and beyond.

“At the same time it has defined more clearly the demarcation between the role of governors and the senior leadership team, meaning that everyone has a clearer idea of what their roles and responsibilities are.”

The school is one of 21 around the country piloting a new code of governance, drawn up by charity the Wellcome Trust, in conjunction with the Department for Education (DfE), the National Governors’ Association (NGA), Ofsted and the National College for Teaching and Leadership (NCTL).

The code aims to focus governing bodies on their role as leaders and, perhaps most importantly, to help them to set a strategic vision for their schools – an aspect of their work that is often lacking, says Sir John Holman, senior fellow for education at the trust.

“When a school is under constant pressure to achieve and looking over its shoulder because an Ofsted inspection is looming, there may be no time to ask the important questions – such as ‘Are the teachers inspiring pupils to learn?’ or ‘Are exciting experiments taking place in science?’,” he says. “A governor’s job is to ask, as another example, whether teachers’ knowledge is up to date. These are important matters for pupils and parents.”

Sir John says that the Wellcome Trust was “a catalyst” in taking the initiative on drafting the code. “As a biomedical research organisation we appreciate that you cannot produce the next generation of scientists without good education, and this is achieved through good leadership. Our interest is really that simple.”

Three key elements

Version 1 of the code, published in October 2012, contains three main elements. Element A focuses on the importance of a shared vision and strategic planning in a school, and on building an understanding of the different roles of the governing body and senior leaders. It lists governors’ main responsibilities, such as recruitment, retention and training of staff, performance management, delegated financial responsibility, and behaviour policy. Element B sets out the framework of how the governing body should function, what skills it needs to demonstrate and the role of the chair. It features a modified version of the 20 questions from All-Party Parliamentary Group on School Governance and Leadership– a sort of checklist – that governing bodies need to ask themselves about how they function, including: Do we have the right skills on the governing body? Does the school have a clear strategy? Do we hold the school leaders to account? Does our chair show strong and effective leadership? Are we having an impact on outcomes for pupils?

The pilot version of Element C, meanwhile, suggests that schools examine the effectiveness of their use of high-level performance indicators, such as the distribution of GCSEs or the proportion of young people applying to university. It also covers reporting back to parents, and having a good grasp of the data and information available to enable both governors and staff to measure progress and set targets for performance.

Lucy Legard, chair of governors at Malton School, was one of the pioneers of the code. She attracted the trust’s attention after Ofsted praised the school’s governance and she was invited to participate in workshops, contributing to the discussion about what the code should contain and how understanding data could improve governance.

“When I became chairman three years ago I was not entirely sure what we should be doing and I felt that, as a governing body, we were reactive rather than actually leading the school. So I read everything that was relevant on the DfE website and what Ofsted expected and decided to approach successful governing bodies around the country to find out how they did it,” Lucy says.

“It was clear that if you bring a disparate group of people together then, unless you have a collective vision, any decisions that are undertaken can only be by reference to your personal view and experience.”

Governors need to make sure that the school’s vision is being delivered, and this means knowing where the line is between governing and management, she adds.

“Challenging the head works most positively when everyone is pulling in the same direction, but you do have to have a clear understanding of where the school is and where the school is going in order to do this.”

Focus on school life

This area of challenging the headteacher and senior leaders is a difficulty in many schools. Paula Ghinn, chair of governors at The Beacon School in Banstead, Surrey, says that while the school’s governing body was already very pro-active, implementation of the code has encouraged it to focus more on strategic planning.

“We are asking the head and the senior leadership team much more what the school’s objectives are, and how these are being met,” Paula says.

“We now know what staff are doing on a day-to-day basis and when governors visit the school, they can ask the right questions or observe an aspect they are particularly interested in, rather than just watching a maths lesson for the sake of it. We feel we have a more direct focus on the life of the school.”

An emphasis on Element C of the code h has enabled governors to look beyond raw results at GCSE and to consider pupil progress earlier. They are now far more focused on Key Stage 3, understanding what skills and knowledge Year 7s possess when they arrive, and predicting how they may perform in Years 11 and 13. They are also studying more closely the progress of children who receive free school meals (FSM) and the gifted and talented.

“Our governing body now has a far more professional feel about it because we are so much better informed and involved,” Paula says.

At Melksham Oak Community School in Wiltshire, a review of the governing body’s role in setting the vision, ethos and strategy was carried out by Keith Clover, one of its governors and a National Leader of Governance (NLG). One of the changes he made, while piloting the code, was to create a standards committee that was distinct from teaching and learning.

“This made us more focused on holding the school to account,” Keith says. “One of the challenges for us was that governors did not always understand that this was their role. It wasn’t that there was a barrier between the governors and staff but they didn’t feel comfortable about asking challenging questions. Now we have a more business-like approach, and governors have become more strategic rather than reactive.

“It is refreshing to be able to ask the head, for example, why this proportion of children gained five or more top GCSE grades when better results were expected. The code has enabled us to examine the data more closely and understand it better. This is also supporting the head, who is an inspirational leader but who was aware that governors were not really focused on monitoring achievement and progress.”

For Rob Williams, the impact on the school of the implementation of the code has been marked.

“We have created our own formative version of the data dashboard which allows governors more easily to track and monitor progress and how well we are meeting our targets,” he says.

“This means that governors now have a much clearer understanding of data and are far more involved in planning.

“Crucially, the code offers consistency in conduct and I would urge schools to consider using it.”

Results from the Wellcome Trust’s pilot, evaluating the Recommended Code of Governance in schools, will be published in 2014 following the completion of the two-year study.

  • Dorothy Lepkowska is a freelance education writer