As well as Ofsted, Church of England and Methodist schools are subject to Statutory Inspection of Anglican and Methodist Schools (SIAMS) inspections at least every eight years, which provides a unique method to scrutinise a school’s culture.
Becoming a parent governor at our small village primary school, and later a trust governor when the school joined Bradford Diocesan Academies Trust (BDAT), my initial scepticism of faith schools was questioned. I learned how the Church of England challenges and supports schools to grow and thrive and how the faith element (or as we call it ‘Christian character) drives a school’s vision and provides an uplifting and holistic teaching and learning environment.
The Bradford Diocesan Academies Trust (BDAT) model of governance is for its trustees to delegate specific responsibilities to local governors who act as custodians of a school’s local character, budgets and policies. As governors and in light of other inspection frameworks such as Ofsted, it’s easy to become focused on results, compliance and finance and overlook other responsibilities. But that’s precisely where SIAMS helps. It re-centres our local governors to their calling role: looking at the vision and culture of the school.
By examining Christian character, SIAMS inspectors are privy to the inner details of the vision, mission and culture of a school and the pastoral welfare of its pupils. They therefore provide an independent verification of the pieces that sit behind process and policy.
In looking at how our local governing board (LGB) prepare for SIAMS, it’s been beneficial to weave the school vision and ethos into governance practice while modelling the challenge and spiritual rigour we (and SIAMS inspectors) expect to see from leadership.
Recently, our little school achieved an ‘Excellent’ in all areas of its SIAMS inspection, maintaining the high standard we achieved in 2016. The report described the school’s religious studies provision as ‘inspirational’ and the pupils as ‘future agents of change in the community’.
But it was more than that for governors. It was an assurance that the vision and culture we’d embraced and worked with leadership to deliver was prevalent throughout our school community.
To prepare for SIAMS we:
- Ensured the vision was collaborative from the start: governors worked with staff and parents to create the key principles before developing a deliverable and measurable vision alongside the leadership team.
- Incorporated key elements into governor roles: rather than linking roles based on subjects or year groups, we linked them to strategic areas, ensuring that inclusion, community links, welfare and Christian character were all included across the governors.
- Embedded reflection into our LGB meetings: we asked the Religious Studies Lead to write a prayer to begin our meetings, based on the school’s learning theme. This helped us to reflect on how the vision correlated to our agenda in each meeting, applying scrutiny to ensure we were continually embodying our vision.
- Prioritised visibility: we utilised our newsletters to parents to showcase the impact our governance structure was having and how our processes worked. We became visible custodians, holding the school’s character and place in the community to account.
Being part of a faith-based trust is beneficial, even to those academies that aren’t affiliated with the church. While they might not directly benefit from SIAMS, they are positively impacted by the expertise the trust draws from the process, meaning that the positive character and pastoral provision, while not mandated, are present in all trust schools. For us, that guidance was key in developing a school that had a positive community as well as education outcomes.
When school leaders explained our vision of love, growth and community to SIAMS inspectors, they could back it up by practically showing its presence in the paperwork, classrooms, displays, language and ethos of the school and governing body. The culture promoted by SIAMS brought the school together and the inspection provided a positive evaluation rather than a pressured expectation.
While a faith-based education may not be everyone’s preference, there are clear lessons we can take from the way SIAMS evaluates a school. Indeed, by looking beyond just results our schools and governing bodies can seek to further develop our provision and support our young people to thrive holistically in the world.