With the new Ofsted Common Inspection Framework coming into effect in September 2015, the need for governors to work with Heads and leadership teams to develop and share a strategic vision for their school has never been greater. Martin Hodgson explains how the strategic vision links to the new framework and what governors should do to ensure their role supports this vital part of school governance.
The new inspection framework
The Common Inspection Framework is intended to provide consistency and comparability in Ofsted’s inspection of all education provision.
From September 2015, schools that were judged “good” at their most recent inspection will have a shortened inspection cycle — approximately every three years. Inspections will start from the assumption that the school or provider remains “good”. Inspectors will test this assumption through "constructive and challenging" professional dialogue with leaders and governors.
Inspectors will require evidence that school leaders, managers and governors have the “capacity and ability” to drive ongoing improvement and to develop and sustain an "ambitious culture and vision" in the school. Governors must have “high expectations” of what all pupils can achieve. In addition, they must:
actively promote equality and diversity
tackle bullying and discrimination
narrow any gaps in achievement between different groups of pupils and learners, while at the same time, actively promoting “British values”.
Governors are required to take strategic responsibility for the development and improvement of the school and ensure clarity of vision, ethos and strategic direction.
The Department for Education’s Governors’ Handbook: For Governors in Maintained Schools, Academies and Free Schools describes governing bodies as “key strategic decision makers and vision setters”.
It describes their core functions as:
ensuring clarity of vision, ethos and strategic direction
holding the Head to account for the educational performance of the school
overseeing the school’s financial performance.
Strategic vision is, therefore, solidly promoted as of vital importance in the role of governors. Indeed, in the Foreword to the Governors’ Handbook, governing bodies are urged to “focus ruthlessly” on their “core strategic functions” and to avoid “getting distracted” by matters that are more peripheral.
It must always be remembered that governors do not “manage” a school. That is the role of the Head and their senior leadership team. However, governors are responsible for setting and influencing the strategic direction and vision and for supporting the Head and their staff in achieving that vision.
What is meant by strategic vision?
All schools should have a clear vision of:
where they want to get to
how they mean to achieve their goals
what type of organisation they want to be.
This includes a vision of the ethos of the school, its beliefs and its values.
It is one of the fundamental roles of the governing body to provide strategic leadership and steer the school firmly, according to an agreed vision. In order to do this, the governing body needs to know where it wants the school to go and have an established set of values by which the governing body itself operates.
The vision needs to be clear and simple, and be stated in plain language. Only then can pupils, parents and staff understand and relate to it. It should set a school ethos of high expectations of everyone in the school community. This includes high expectations of the behaviour, progress and attainment of all pupils in the school, and the conduct and professionalism of staff and governors.
Developing and sharing the vision
It is for the governors, in collaboration with the Head and the senior leadership team, to develop and articulate the vision in collaboration with all stakeholders.
The vision must be a medium- to long-term one. It should be based on shared values and beliefs, and should link together the various targets that a school sets itself. These must all fit together in a coherent strategic plan, underpinned by agreed values.
The Governors’ Handbook states that the strategy should address the following fundamental questions.
Where are we now?
Where do we want to be?
How are we going to get there?
It includes considering the type of school that would offer the best opportunities for achieving future aims.
It is important to involve pupils, parents and staff, so that the vision is "owned" by everyone. Where strategy is concerned, the more stakeholders sign up to it, the better.
As the new Common Inspection Framework states, the vision also has to be aspirational and about what a school aims to be. It must be forward-looking and must not merely describe what the school does currently. For most schools, this includes helping pupils to be aspirational themselves and to achieve the very best they can.
According to the Governors’ Handbook, every effort should be made to ensure the school’s ethos promotes the fundamental British values of:
the rule of law
mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.
Achieving the vision
Governors spend much of their time attending meetings at their school, many of which will involve establishing a strategic planning cycle. Most schools include dedicated strategy meetings in the schedule of the governing body. These are usually attended by the senior leadership team and other important stakeholders, and allow people to focus on strategic vision.
At each meeting, governors should question how the school’s vision is reflected in the material being discussed, whether this is policies and procedures, development or improvement plans, targets or goals. Progress and achievement should be carefully monitored and barriers or blocks to improvement identified.
The Governors’ Handbook underlines the importance of governors understanding their strategic role and building a “productive and supportive relationship” with the Head, while at the same time holding them to account for school performance and the achievement of the vision.
It also describes governors as having to take “hard strategic decisions” in the light of objective data on performance.
This further reflects the need for governors to take a step back from the day-to-day functions of the school and ensure that the Head keeps the school on its strategic course. Ofsted inspectors will be interested to know whether or not a governing body is effective in doing this and will determine the extent of its influence by looking at the records of meetings and talking to governors, staff and pupils. It is important that everyone on the governing body knows what the vision is and can share it with inspectors.
The governing body should complete a skills audit to ensure that it and any prospective governors have the required range of skills to drive the school on and to achieve excellence. There are no specific qualifications or skills for the ability to set or contribute to strategic development. Many of the strategy-setting tasks that governors are required to undertake just require general business knowledge and most strategies will only benefit from the inclusive nature that a wide range of experience within the governing body can bring.
Governors must have the ability to speak up at meetings and make a positive contribution, including during strategy-planning and review meetings. Meetings probably represent the bulk of governors’ work. Most governors, in addition to sitting on the main governing body where the strategy may be frequently discussed, attend the meetings of at least one of its constituent committees, all of which make a contribution to the strategic direction of the school.
Perhaps the most important attribute of any school governor is to have a passion for education and a keen interest in the development of children and young people. In an effective school, the teaching staff will share a vision of what they are trying to achieve and this will be focused on the achievements of their pupils and the success of the school. Governors need to be able to share and articulate this vision to all staff and stakeholders, especially parents.