The new governance section in the School Inspection Handbook is more helpful and realistic for governors than it is for inspectors

Over the summer Ofsted has helpfully modified the section of its School Inspection Handbook dealing with governance, clarifying and extending its draft version in response to feedback.

While this is commendable, a major question needs answering: “How helpful and realistic is the material?” As a chair of governors and a former HMI, my answer, paradoxically, is that it is more helpful and realistic for governors than it is for inspectors.

It’s far more helpful as a self-review summary

Paragraph 143 states: “Inspectors will seek evidence of the impact of those responsible for governance.” That’s fair enough as far as it goes. Paragraph 145 sets out the nine aspects of the work of governors about which evidence is to be collected.

These include:

– working with school leaders to communicate vision, ethos and strategic direction;

– providing a balance of challenge and support;

– understanding the school’s strengths and areas needing improvement;

– understanding salary progression and performance management;

– understanding the impact of teaching, learning and assessment on pupil progress and outcomes;

– monitoring financial management and use of pupil premium; and

– providing transparency and accountability in decision making.

Filled out as they are in the handbook, they provide a valuable checklist to governors about their important functions.

But how realistic are they in informing the inspection process itself?

Two brief contextual comments are needed before answering that question. First, the inspection handbook now requires inspectors to make several complex judgments, all of which require the collection and analysis of evidence. They must make seven overall school judgements; 29 on leadership and management (including governance); 33 related on teaching, learning and assessment; 14 on personal development, behaviour and welfare; and, finally, 19 on outcomes.

That’s 102 judgments in all (many of them requiring a number of sub-judgments). All to be made in less than two full days for a typically sized primary school.

Idealistically this is verging on the impossible. Realistically it is impossible.

Second, I have been through four Ofsted inspections and, in each case, discussion between my fellow governors and an inspector took less than an hour. I can’t know how much time was spent scrutinising governor documentation but I suspect it was not much. I have no complaints to make on that score, given the multitude of complex judgments they are required to make. How could inspectors realistically spend much more time on school governance?

And yet the current handbook expects inspectors to gather evidence on all nine aspects of governance in preparation for evaluating “the impact of those responsible for governance”. To inform a publicly available report, that evidence needs to be credible, and to be credible it needs to be collected in sufficient volume, and to be analysed carefully, preferably by more than one inspector.

How can this possibly be done credibly within the very short time (an hour, perhaps two at most) that is available within a 100-odd judgment-dominated inspection?

It can’t — which is why I think the new governance section is far more helpful to governors as a self-review summary than it is as a realistic set of expectations for inspectors.