The Strange Case of OFSTED and School Governors

March 17, 2013

The following was sent in by a reader who is also a school governor. (Thanks.)

Given your recent posts about Ofsted I thought I might bring to your attention that last week there was some twittering about the role of governors in teacher observations. I will try to bring together some of the threads and some of the issues raised.

In the recent OFSTED report for Etz Chaim Jewish Primary School, one of the reasons given for the school not being outstanding included:
Governors are beginning to visit lessons but have not had training on what good teaching and learning looks like.

It went on to state in the section regarding governors:

They have made a few visits to lessons but have not yet had training about what makes good quality teaching and learning. This is planned for next term.

This was highlighted on Twitter, at which point I, and a number of other governors, pointed out that it was quite specifically not the role of a governor to go into class and assess the quality of teaching. It is the role of the head and SLT to assess the quality of teaching and the role of the governors to ensure the proper processes are in place, This separation of responsibility is quite clear and is even laid out on the DfE’s website in a section on Operation of the governing body: Governor visits to the school:
The purpose of governor visits is not to assess the quality of teaching provision or to pursue issues that relate to the day-to-day management of the school, other than as agreed with the headteacher or senior management team.

Initially the suggestion was that this appears to be a one-off rogue OFSTED inspector. It was also felt it perhaps highlighted the lack of in-depth knowledge of governance within a new free school’s governing body (predictable and evident in other Free School OFSTEDs); indeed many existing governors on Twitter felt they would be well aware that it was not within their role and would point this out quite vociferously to any inspector.

At this point, someone highlighted another case where OFSTED praised governors for being trained to observe; the actual line being:

Governors know the quality of teaching in the school because they are trained to observe and evaluate it,

A recently OFSTEDed chair of governors then tweeted:
OFSTED raised this with us, wanted [governors] to be in on [observations], then can understand how judgement is made

All of this seems to indicate an unwanted and worrying shift from OFSTED in their expectations of governors. Requiring governors to become involved in observations and evaluating teaching is clearly overstepping the mark. Are they really expecting people with no teaching experience to be involved in assessing classroom competency? (I know some OFSTED inspectors themselves fall into this category.) It seems some inspectors are unable to conceive that governors are be able to set in place processes for Quality Assurance without standing in the back of a classroom?

This all raises a number of issues. As you highlighted in your last blog, there seems to be a rise in people offering up their expertise in meeting OFSTED expectations for a price. Clearly someone is promoting courses on observing the quality of teaching for governors and some schools are using them to “evidence” that they are meeting their obligations without realising that this is not actually their role. OFSTED seem complicit and its own inspectors increasingly have expectations about governor involvement which are contradictory.

This is a very steep slippery slope, one which good governors will understand and speak out against, but one that poor governors will exploit. I am sure all teachers and governors know unsuitable people who would love to go into class and assess teachers, but that is something good governors should steer clear from. My personal experience is based on the fact I regularly help in school, the teachers know I am there to help with specifics and not observe them in class. As a result they hopefully feel comfortable with seeing me about and dont alter the way they teach, In this way I get a good overall view of the school, something that would soon change if they all knew I might be judging them at some point.

There does seem to be a shift in OFSTED’s expectation of Governors (I fully accept we are not all perfect) with Sir Michael Wilshaw leading the charge in this scope creep, unsubtly poking into governance without seeming to understand what and why governors do what they do. As if to highlight this, Wilshaw recently stated: “We expect governors to be more proactive and use the pupil premium to hold the school to account”. How can anyone use pupil premium to hold the school to account? It is this kind of a nonsensical statement that has become commonplace.

OFSTED need to clarify their expectation and confirm their position. They are plainly wrong to be placing some of these responsibilities on governors. Inspectors need to understand there must be a clear demarcation between governance and the day-to-day management of a school. Of course, the elephant in the room behind all this – and what makes all this more serious in the minds of governors – is the possibility that a governing body can be removed due to a poor OFSTED report, perhaps one which might contain criticism for governors not observing classes or not using the Pupil Premium to hold the school to account. Fear of OFSTED, and a desire to comply with any whim Sir Michael might come up with, is impacting governance as well as teaching staff.

Update 10/4/2013: There has now been some clarification about this. Details can be found here.


  1. Let’s say you are a politician with an inherent distrust of a service operated primarily by professionals, particularly public sector professionals? Let’s say you want to shift the management and governance of such a service? How would you go about it….?

    We have seen in the national health service what happens when managers, rather than professionals, are given the lead role of controlling the operation of the service. Is it too big a stretch to suggest that the political ideologies that drove that movement could now be being targeted at education? And the concept of getting Governors to play a role in judging teaching and learning is not a million miles from getting NHS managers to make decisions affecting clinical practices?

    Health and Education have long been targets for those who wish to see a private sector model and ethos replace the much-loved public sector ethos with its trust in the professionals. This shift in governance could possibly be just another move in the same direction, particularly when one brings in the notion that the governors concerned could be employees of the academy chains to which the school now belongs.

    Would that we could have a genuine political and open public debate about such moves and concepts, instead of the attritional shifts that we tend to see in both health and education sectors when the privateers are in power.

    • The trouble with discussing education on the basis of elaborate hidden agendas is that you usually end up with untestable hypotheses where no possible action by a particular politician (short of their immediate resignation and suicide) can be interpreted as anything other than further evidence of the “true” agenda.

      I published this because it’s interesting stuff. No reason to think there is any agenda behind it other than the usual inability of OFSTED to trust teachers or understand how a school should work. In an environment where the nonsense of “student voice” has been accepted, this, while unwelcome, is hardly unprecedented.

      • I plead guilty on this occasion to being a conspiracy theorist :) But as Yossarian says, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”
        Given your question ‘Are they really expecting people with no teaching experience to be involved in assessing classroom competency? And as ‘the nonsense of “student voice”‘ is your bugbear, perhaps instead I should write about the 15 year old Student Digital Leader I met recently. Her role was to observe other classes’ lessons and feedback on the teaching and learning taking place. She had, of course, minimal teaching experience, but her feedback was seen as welcome, expert and useful by those staff who had the good fortune to have her observing their lessons.
        The best appraisal and feedback I ever had when teaching was from my own class in a written report. The next term the headteacher banned classes writing reports on their teachers. When i challenged him privately, he said ‘My job is the management of this school … and I know that 25% of the staff at least could not bear to hear what their students think of them. I cannot afford to lose those staff’.
        Perhaps student voice is only nonsense when it confined to issues such as uniform and menus?

  2. Just to say I’ve been a head, a governor, a chair of governors and a governor trainer. And I’ve always been clear that governors can, and should visit classes (by appointment, not on a ‘drop in’ basis) because they can’t effectively be governors if they don’t. But equally clear that they are visitors, and are not there to judge the lesson. They are there to understand what’s going on, so that they carry on informed discussion in meetings. They can, and should, talk to teachers — again by arrangement, and feel free to ask questions about the lesson — how it fits into the scheme, why this or that happened and so on.
    I’ve always found that, when it’s done properly, teachers appreciate this and make governors welcome, because they want to feel that their governors understand what’s happening in the classroom and are not debating from ignorance. The moment there’s any element of judgment, that appreciation, and valuable trust, will disappear.
    Couple of other points —
    Governor classroom visits should be covered by a policy and a schedule drawn up and applied by the governing body as a whole (including the head of course)
    Just to emphasise — no ‘dropping in’. It has to be done to an approved schedule, by appointment, with the teacher’s agreement.
    If Ofsted don’t think this applies any more, they need to think again, because they are wrong.

  3. NB The link to the extract from the Subsidiary Guidance on the inspection of governance is now here: http://www.clerktogovernors.co.uk/ofsted/ofsted-expectations-of-governance/ (I have been updating the C2G site)

    The wording (Sept 2013) is: “Governors are not expected to undertake lesson observations, unless the school has clear protocols for visits so their purposes are understood by school staff and governors alike” – still not as clear as one would like ….

  4. I am a Governor at a school being forced to academy under a sponsor. The school is a good school that has had some problems but they are not endemic failures but an issue of poor leadership by LA officials planted on the Board. Governors have removed the LA chair once only to have our board flooded with LA Governors to re-instate him. Key for Governors have advised the process to re-instate him was probably not legal. The LA refuse to let the parents have a say, stating “If the parents don’t like the school as an academy they can take their children to another school!”

    The problem is Governors who are trying hard to make sure their is good Governance have found that the LA are prepared to use dirty tricks to keep us in the dark. Examples of this are:

    Withholding the Ofsted Inspection from us
    Holding Illegal Academy Votes
    Loading the Governing Body with “Additional Governors with a political agenda”
    Trying to mark all meetings and every aspect of content as confidential
    Refusing to hold parent meetings and or write to parents to inform them of where we are
    Refusal to consider the Equality Act implications on a school with 17% special needs of a 2nd Academy Resolution
    A Head Teacher who says Teachers are more important than pupils
    A LA so scared that they will do anything they can to block a parent Governor becoming the Chair of Governors.

    So for my point of view the main enemy to school improvement is an LA that has pecuniary interests in the conversion, IE they are in special measures too.

    However, many now believe the forced conversion has more to do with a cover up because of an Discrimination Case being heard at a tribunal in London looking at the conduct of the LA and the LA Chair in the manner in which they treated a SEN pupil. The cynic in me thinks that if they convert the school before the decision then compensation will be limited.

    I cannot mention the school but good research from anyone should be able to find it, and the LA it has been covered by a number of press articles of late in the local press. PS this school is way above floor standards, and has twice the LA average on 11+ exam passes.

    The school of thought it this we know 30% of the teaching staff will leave the school if it becomes an academy, these are the best staff so how can academy be the only route to secure improvement???

    But I guess it is ok, after all the parents can just move their kids with special needs and PD issues to one of the two other schools able to accommodate them… just means a five or six mile journey every day!!!! hmmmmmmm

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