It didn’t begin as a project about managing workload. It was about effective governance. Having recently been appointed as chair of governors at Hiltingbury Junior School, a three-form entry school in Hampshire, one of my first tasks was to manage the extensive action plan we had following a rigorous governing body self-evaluation.
A guiding principle and the key to my approach was that we should not be producing or doing anything ‘just for the governors’. Holding school leaders to account for the educational performance of the pupils is a critical part of our role and this is where we began.
Having come through ‘life after levels’ and successfully embedded our ‘Learning Ladders’ assessment system, it was the right time to refine how we would monitor performance as governors.
We needed to be strategic with enough detail to be effective, but not so much that we strayed to an operational level. I believed that the questions we should be asking about pupil performance would be the same ones the senior leadership team would ask. If that held true then we would be able to define a common set of data that meets the needs of both.
To achieve this, I met with the assistant headteacher and data lead for the school. Together we worked out what the high-level data could look like to meet both our needs.
We agreed what would make sense at a cohort level and how we could split that data to monitor vulnerable groups. We discussed the frequency of data collection and co-ordinated that with the schedule of governor meetings throughout the year. We also designed the data format so that it can be produced in more detail for different users – e.g. a year group/subject leader, or class teacher.
It has also been very important to establish a common language. We all know exactly what is meant if a child is in ‘shark infested waters’ - they are not making expected progress in relation to their starting point with the school and we can discuss the interventions being put in place to help!
Refining our approach
To complement our pupil performance monitoring, we recently introduced ‘cohort governors’. These have replaced traditional subject link governors and follow a cohort throughout their time at our school. The governors will build a deep understanding of year group characteristics and use this to bring our data analysis to life.
Following our guiding principle of ‘not producing anything just for governors’, I met with the leadership team and heads of year to discuss both the role description and the data that would be shared at cohort governor meetings.
Having a common data format and understanding already established means that this has been well received as a positive, supportive initiative with clear objectives and a reduced overall workload compared to individual subject meetings.
The headteacher report
Another key area we looked at was the headteacher report. Historically, this had been presented at each of the six Full Governing Body (FGB) meetings and in a variety of formats depending on current topics.
As a governing body, we decided what we considered to be the key pieces of information and performance indicators along with the frequency that we would like to receive them. We then worked with the headteacher to agree how this information could most efficiently be collected and presented.
We now have a report in a standard format that: meets the needs of governors, is produced three rather than six times a year, and includes information that is also used by the headteacher to monitor school performance.
This has reduced workload for the headteacher, both in terms of frequency, time of preparation and ability to delegate. It has also resulted in more effective FGB meetings, as the focus is on asking questions about relevant information rather than receiving an all-encompassing detailed report.
We assume all is well unless the data tells us otherwise, and so the headteacher can report ‘by exception’, which cuts down on time while allowing us to focus on the most necessary issues.
Given the headteacher report became standardised, it became increasingly important that we had an effective agenda planning process. Our work to ensure this began by being clear on our statutory responsibilities as governors and understanding the strategic planning cycle of the school.
With this information, we developed an annual plan of work for the governing body including expected agenda items for all FGB and sub-committee meetings. The calendar of meetings was agreed in advance to fit with key statutory and school specific dates.
Understandably, there are always unexpected agenda items and re-prioritisation decisions to be made. To ensure this happens in an effective way, we have introduced an agenda planning meeting once each term.
The agenda planning meetings are attended by the headteacher, myself as chair of governors and the two subcommittee chairs. As well as ensuring a coordinated approach and best use of governors’ time, this has reduced workload for the headteacher who previously attended three separate agenda meetings each term.
With our new governance processes in place, we moved on to a significant piece of work updating the school vision and developing a three year strategic plan. This was a truly collaborative process involving staff, parents, pupils and governors. When completed, it was important that, as governors, we could monitor strategic progress against the plan.
To do this, we created a monitoring programme which is fully integrated with the school’s own monitoring plan. As an example, the school had planned to complete a staff wellbeing survey to monitor a particular priority. Knowing when this would happen enabled us to build a review of those results into our annual plan of work.
Again, this removes any production of information ‘just for the governors’ and enables us to review relevant and timely information.
What we have achieved
We have been running these changes for a year now. They are working well, and the clear understanding of what is expected each term, along with not producing different data just for governors, has had a positive impact on staff workload.
Governors have become more confident with the data and quickly understand what is being presented to them. This in turn enables us to focus on asking the relevant questions of the headteacher and improves the effectiveness of governance.
The way that we produce and use data as a school will continue to evolve, but the principles we have established provide an effective framework within which this can happen.
We continue to develop: one of our latest initiatives has been to look at governance of school policies. This can be a time-consuming area, and we have appointed a policy governor to work with the school to consider how we both set policies and monitor their effectiveness.
It is early days, but we have already identified some policies that can be combined, and whenever we are approving a policy we discuss how impact on staff workload has been considered.
What makes it all work?
A key reason as to why we have been successful in making these changes is the high level of trust and respect between the leadership team and the governing body. We are all proud of this partnership, rooted in reducing workload, improving governance and putting our pupils at the heart of all that we do.