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Backspace or Enter? Governors & a school’s website

Keyboard crash by Mikhail Kryshen - licensed under CC-BY 2.0

Backspace or Enter? Governors & a school’s website

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What should a school governing body’s role be in the increasingly important area of what is published on a school’s website? Are governors expected to bring any professional technology skills to bear on this area – and if not, how much interest should they take in this apparently operational task?

In early October St Benedict’s School in Bury St Edmunds made some (educational) headlines for reasons which it wouldn’t have wished. The report of the school’s no-notice Ofsted inspection carried out on the 11th and 12th of September was then published by the school on its website – and subsequent headlines focused on the spectre of the ‘Trojan Horse’ affair in Birmingham, with Ofsted’s report observing that younger pupils at St Benedict’s “show less awareness of the dangers of extremism and radicalisation” and that the school did not do enough to prepare pupils “for life and work in modern Britain”.

The report – which rated the school as ‘Requiring Improvement’ when it had been described as ‘Good’ in June – was published on the school’s website, Ofsted then ordering its withdrawal after what were described as ‘quality assurance issues’. As the Trojan Horse affair was still very current, most media attention was on Trojan Horse-related issues – namely a Suffolk Catholic school being described in terms which had previously only been applied to schools serving a predominantly Muslim area of Birmingham. There was also some focus on the withdrawal of the Ofsted report, which had echoes of a similar pattern of events at Oldfield School in Bath the previous year.

It may turn out that these concerns are misplaced, or the report may appear to have some foundation – but at the time of writing the school’s Ofsted page has a definite Timehop feel to it, with the September 2014 report nowhere to be seen.

Keyboard crash by Mikhail Kryshen

Keyboard crash by Mikhail Kryshen – licensed under CC-BY 2.0

Whatever the outcome, the element of this saga which may be of most interest to senior leaders and governing bodies in most maintained schools is the reason for the no-notice inspection. The Guardian reported that (emphasis added):

The report was the result of a no-notice inspection of St Benedict’s by Ofsted last month, only a few days into the start of the school year, because the school website failed to include details of its citizenship teaching.

It’s possible that schools’ own web sites saw a rise in traffic in the following days, possibly from their own senior leaders:

The Government is clear about what maintained schools in England should publish on their websites – this is taken from the The School Information (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2012, which list the information to be included on a maintained school’s website by the governing body.

The maintenance of a school’s website may seem to be an operational measure – and therefore be beyond the scope of a governing body whose focus should be on the strategic aspects of a school’s journey and life. However, the Regulations are clear that the website is effectively published on behalf of the governing body, so it is important that the governing body – or at least the Chair and a governor nominated to take responsibility for keeping an eye on this aspect of the governing body’s responsibilities – should engage with this process, possibly reporting back to full governing body meetings where appropriate.

Within the regulations are several vague areas and plenty of gaps, leaving governors and senior leaders to guess at what would count as sufficient detail in many areas:

In the same week as St Benedict’s was asked to remove the Ofsted report, Academies Week reported that Watchsted data showed an increase in the mentions of ‘website’ in Ofsted reports:

Ofsted featuring Section 5 reports featuring "website"

Mentions of ‘website’ in Ofsted reports – reproduced with permission from Academies Week.

With the prospect of a no-notice inspection being triggered by an inadequate website, and increasing interest by Ofsted in the content & function of a school’s website, what should governors’ role be in this area? One of the main reasons for publishing detailed information on the website was to give inspectors pre-inspection access to some data and information and (some would say) give another reason to perform a short- or no-notice inspection of a school. Governors are often asked to contribute to the direction of a school’s website, and sometimes those who “work in IT” might be asked to take on the management of the site. This is an operational role and would make it difficult for the governor in question to be objective in assessing how the website measures up to what is required. If the website didn’t meet the Government requirements then there could also be some awkward dynamics in governing body meetings. The NGA’s (free) Governing Body Skills Audit has in its introduction a helpful paragraph in this area (emphasis added):

When considering the skills listed [in the audit], it is important to understand that governance is a ‘thinking’ not a ‘doing’ role. This means that the skills and knowledge sought are those which enable governors to ask the right questions, analyse data and have focussed discussions which create robust accountability for school leaders. For example, a governor might work in the construction industry, but it would not be appropriate for him/her to carry out a health and safety check at the school. Similarly, a lawyer should not be asked to give free legal advice. Governance is a strategic role and governors must not be tempted to do the staff’s job: management must be left to the school leadership team.

So the role of  governors is to ask good questions about what is on a school’s website and explore why certain information is published or withheld and think about how the website can support the school’s strategic direction. This could be by:

  • speaking with governing bodies from other local schools where a school’s website was indicated as a positive feature or an area for improvement in an inspection report;
  • examining the websites of those schools – using the Internet Archive to see available older versions if they have changed significantly post-inspection;
  • reading Ofsted reports – or search usinga service like Watchsted for schools where website or online is mentioned (Watchsted currently only shows recent reports);
  • withholding some professional opinions on design, colour – after all governors are generally not the main audience for a school’s website.

It is understandable why St Benedict’s might have chosen to put the Ofsted report on its website as soon as possible. Since the reason for the no-notice inspection was a lack of information on the school’s website, and point 3 of schedule 4 of the School Information Regulations as linked to above states that (emphasis added):

Specified information to be published on a school’s website includes:

3.
  Information as to where and by what means parents may access the most recent report about the school published by her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills.

this may have prompted the school to rush to publish the report as soon as it was sent to the school. Ofsted states there will be a five-day delay between the school receiving an inspection report and the report appearing on the Ofsted site, and even encourages parents to contact the school directly for the report if they would like a copy before Ofsted itself publishes it:

Ofsted FAQs on reports & web sites

Taken from screen capture of the Ofsted FAQ page – captured 05/11/2014

There is often a delay greater than 5 days in publishing inspection reports on the Ofsted website – so many schools choose to publish a PDF file on their own site, as St Benedict’s did here. Judging by the information from the Ofsted FAQ the school did not publish the document inappropriately and the order to withdraw it appears to be concerned with the content of the report. Whatever the outcome, the school took events head on – even reproducing the front pages of local papers on its website, though it’s not clear whether Ofsted’s view on this would be.

Ten years ago, the role of building and maintaining a school’s website was sometimes given to a member of staff to do in whatever spare time they had. At the time this contrasted with schools’ views of their prestigious and high-profile printed brochure or prospectus. Nowadays schools take websites far more seriously – almost certainly due to their role in inspection, although any school keen to engage with its community would have always taken its website seriously  – and, if they haven’t already, as governors we need to be aware of the process for how a site is maintained and structured – and take the oft-cited critical friend‘s thoughtful, encouraging & questioning role as seriously in this area as we do across the rest of our remit.

Questions for governing bodies

  • If school governance is indeed a thinking role, rather than a doing role, what thinking did our governing body do before our latest school website was published?
  • How might our thinking – about oversight, roles within the school and accountability – change in response to the experience of St Benedict’s School?
  • Is someone on our governing body tasked with liaising with the headteacher on the overall website? Is their role one concerned with compliance or a culture of communication?
  • Does our governing body use the website to communicate about its processes with the school community – or are we happy with a list of names, accompanied by what type of governor an individual is? Have we considered pictures? Has anyone ever suggested making a video introducing the governors?

We’d love to see examples of governors using their school website to break down barriers, communicate and raise awareness around what the school’s governing body does. If you have a good example, please link to it in a comment and we’ll publish it as soon as possible…


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