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Governing coasting schools? How will we know?

Governing coasting schools? How will we know?

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Unless any half-term travels or other changes of routine have kept you away from the internet, newspapers or other sources of information, you can’t have failed to notice the proposed education bill in the Queen’s Speech this week. The full text of the Queen’s Speech is available elsewhere, but if you’re a governor then the 31 words you might be most interested in are here (click for a video of the Secretary of State agreeing with the Queen):

“Legislation will be brought forward to improve schools and give every child the best start in life, with new powers to take over failing and coasting schools and create more academies.”

The educational c-word is now the main focus for anyone trying to second guess the next wave of changes to be brought upon the school system in England. What we know, or at least think we do, is that coasting is the watchword for school leaders. A precise definition is as-yet elusive, so triangulating statements and hints about what sources of information would lead to a judgement of ‘coasting’ is worthwhile yet difficult at the moment. Page 41 of the briefing notes accompanying the Queen’s Speech put a few strands of flesh on the bones – as well as highlighting the current vague definition of how a school fits this definition:

“It would make schools that meet a new coasting definition, having shown a prolonged period of mediocre performance and insufficient pupil progress, eligible for academisation.

“A coasting definition will be set out in due course according to a number of factors.”

As far back as 2011 the Prime Minister was threatening to ‘shame’ coasting schools which muddle through – seemingly through “new league tables [which would] smash the complacency present in much of the education system” and prior to this had had singled out schools in his constituency’s LA of Oxfordshire (and Michael Gove’s constituency’s Surrey LA) as coasting. It may have been a coincidence that around the same time, Sir Michael Wilshaw, the-then head of the Mossbourne Academy and education director of the ARK academy chain, was using similar language in an interview which anticipated his appointment as HMCI. Within a year, and after Wilshaw’s appointment, Ofsted was stating that over a million children were ‘stuck in coasting schools‘ – so it’s clear that the educational mood music was being mixed long before this week’s tumble of speculation around coasting, pedalling, or just getting off and pushing – with ‘coasting’ schools having been identified by the previous Labour administration as those “at risk of failure” before 2010. Elsewhere on the Modern Governor blog you can read a helpful explainer on the background to the c-word.

What might this mean for governors?

Nicky Morgan’s Andrew Marr Show appearance on the weekend before the Queen’s Speech gave an indication that, where it was apparent that school leaders have the capacity, by working with their governors, to improve a school then “we want to give them time to do that”:

The length of time described here is deliberately unclear and Mrs Morgan appears to imply that it’s not only schools in the Requires Improvement (RI) category who run the risk of being tarred with the ‘coasting’ brush. She also mentions the reaction to the proposals, which were trailed by Mrs Morgan’s Daily Telegraph article. Even before the digital ink was dry on the pages of the Telegraph web site, and possibly before any copies of the physical newspaper had been handled by school leaders, there were a series of questions about the capacity of the system to clear out heads from schools with one hand and then drop in the oft-cited super-heads – often imagined by politicians as the Special Forces of educational improvement – in an environment where recruitment of senior leaders is beyond challenging for some. Laura McInerney summarises the challenges around this and referred to the government data showing that the difference between schools graded RI and Good is often not that significant anyway. Meanwhile, in his first interview since being away from work after an operation, Michael Wilshaw alluded to the “consistently rated less than good” definition and gave his “unequivocal backing” to the plans.

Mrs Morgan wrote that Regional School Commissioners would be able to bring in new leadership immediately and makes a link between becoming an academy and the speed at which new leadership can be appointed. This process highlights how important the nature of the relationship between a governing board and head teacher is in turning a school around. In some cases governors have been removed en masse or possibly given false information about the options for academisation. Don’t forget that if you’re a Modern Governor subscriber then you and your fellow-governors can access the Helping headteachers get the best out of their governing body module to give you a shared understanding of this critical responsibility.

The opening screen of Modern Governor's Helping headteachers get the best out of their governing body module

The opening screen of Modern Governor’s Helping headteachers get the best out of their governing body module

In such a climate, the issue of governor recruitment becomes even more apparent. Despite efforts by SGOSS, Inspiring Governors and the NGA, governor recruitment is challenging. Such a proposed turnover of school leaders, bringing as it could some collateral damage as associated volunteers are removed from some governing boards, is likely to make this harder. “We’ve just removed these volunteers because they didn’t implement government policy well enough, who would like to step forward to sit in their still-warm seats?” is not an offer which many people would anticipate would solicit a rush of applicants. Ironically, among many governors, there is often the sense that being on a local governing body (LGB) in an academy is not being a ‘real’ governor – could this perceived lower profile make it easier to recruit LGB members, or would the lack of responsibility deter some?

Some governing boards will see academisation as an opportunity for more autonomy and freedom, while others might see the prospect of an academy order as a shadow looming over what they would prefer to keep as a maintained or community school. As intimated in the Marr interview above, a good, productive and functional relationship between the operational (senior leaders) and strategic (governors) leaders within a school appears to be one of the characteristics which enables schools to retain control over their own destiny – whether their preferred destiny is not becoming an academy or academisation at a time of their choosing. Understanding data – and being able to articulate what this means in the event of inspection – is a critical skill and will allow governors to recognise  when a school is likely to be classed as ‘coasting’ in terms of pupil progress and overall performance and work with staff to plot a journey to improvement – whether that is with the support of a local authority, other schools or external consultancy. Policy Exchange – who had the ear of government on free schools despite their much-criticised report on the programme almost certainly have it in this area, what with their head of education appearing with Nicky Morgan in her SchoolsWeek webinar. They have a clear idea about which groups of schools which they might “expect to be of real interest to government” and so understanding where our schools fit in this data-rich environment is a critical skill for all governing bodies. At Modern Governor we have a new data module in development to help governors get to grips with the basics of educational data to help with the dual responsibilities of challenge and support held by all governors.

Ultimately, the main issues for governors around this new watchword is to know thy school – understand the sum of the pressures and factors which make the school and its data the way they are. The importance of data can cause many governors’ hearts to sink, but in the current climate it is critical, since it will be the foundation of many judgements about the school which don’t come from speaking with pupils, engaging with staff, listening to parents or even visiting the school. It may feel that every school is suddenly “at risk”, since there are a number of hints that schools in any Ofsted category could be deemed to be coasting, but as governors one of our key roles is to champion and challenge our schools, and doing that effectively is done through deepening and improving both our working relationships and working knowledge & understanding. If you became a governor for the professional challenge, then it looks like more of that is on its way.


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