No organisation can operate effectively without good quality information, provided in good time. Governors need the right sort of information, provided in an accessible format, to play their full part in effective governance. Martin Pounce reports

The headteacher will be the source of much – but not all – of this information; governing body committees and individual governors with delegated powers, and working parties, have a responsibility to report clearly to the full governing body. And governors have a major responsibility for requesting and using information to the greatest effect.

This article will suggest that the headteacher’s report should be not so much a routine document with the same tired old headings, rather it should be a report on the issues that the governing body has specifically asked for. And governing bodies should be more proactive in deciding – with the advice of their headteacher – what they need to know, and actively use that information to make strategic decisions, celebrate successes, understand areas for further development and evaluate the impact of their decisions.

Who owns the headteacher’s report?
The possessive apostrophe may give a misleading impression of who owns the report. The report is provided for and at the behest of the governing body.

If the governing body has planned ahead for the year and decided which aspects are going to make the greatest difference to the school’s effectiveness and when in the year they will be tackled, many of the reports will spring from that. Headteachers can focus their reporting on the issues that the governing body has agreed are most important and can expect, therefore, that governors will make the best use of the information they have asked for.

If governors use reports well, the effort required to produce information will be seen to be a worthwhile investment. Here commences the virtuous circle which brings better reports, more effective governors and higher performance all round.

Governors have a responsibility for quality reporting too
If governors expect headteachers to take care over the production of their reports they have an obligation to be conscientious in exercising their own more limited responsibilities for reporting to the governing body. The most obvious of these are reports arising from the work of governing body committees which will draw heavily on the information and advice provided by the head but need to reflect the discussion and decisions made by the committee.

Clarifying the purpose of reports
There are five main purposes behind reporting:

  • Reporting what has been done using delegated power.
  • Providing information needed for making strategic decisions.
  • Providing monitoring information – what decisions, policies and plans have been implemented?
  • Providing evaluation information – have they worked as the headteacher and governing body expected?
  • Giving background information – information that is not covered by any other category but is explicitly relevant to future governing body decisions.

There is a further category of information that comes to governors: that is Everything Else. This often swamps the really important information in headteacher reports. Governors do not know what to do with it. The Canadian trainer John Carver has described it as ‘a thousand answers looking for a question’!

If governors and headteachers can be proactive and work together to determine what the governing body needs, they can reduce this unfocused and wasteful material. In providing information to the governing body – whether as headteacher, chair or other governor – it is helpful to ask: ‘Has the governing body requested this information (and what does it want to do with it)?’ If the answer is ‘no’, the next question to ask is: ‘What do I want the governing body to do with this information?’ If the answer is ‘I don’t know’, leave it out!

Reporting any use of delegated powers
Governing bodies are encouraged to delegate many of the less strategic tasks to their headteacher, to individual governors or to committees. This clears the decks for the governing body to concentrate on the key strategic tasks which will really make a difference to the school.

But remember, the governing body remains responsible for actions using delegated powers and these must be reported at the earliest opportunity. Actions by the head will be included in the headteacher’s report; decisions made by committees must be reported in their minutes; if an action has been taken by an individual governor with delegated powers, an opportunity to report this should be clearly indicated in the agenda. These items will usually be for information only.

Decision-making information
If governing bodies are to do more than rubber stamp a headteacher’s decision, governors need to receive a brief description of the issue, problem or opportunity; they need to be offered a number of different options in response and to see the pros and cons of each option. They will then be in a position to discuss the head’s recommendation with real understanding and either agree with or modify it.

Monitoring information
Governing bodies need to know that their decisions have been implemented, or to be told if some obstacle has got in the way. The headteacher’s report or committee minutes might contain that information, if necessary, with a highlighted ‘Where do we go from here?’ statement or recommendation. That is monitoring information.

Monitoring information provides the ammunition for governors to say ‘Well done’ and ‘Thank you’ – the under-used pat on the back that can help propel a school forwards.

Evaluation information
Governing bodies also need to know whether a decision or policy is working in the way that they intended and, more generally, what are the strengths of the school and what still needs to be improved.

Governors will usually focus their evaluation on the effect of strategic decisions taken in earlier School Development Plans. While monitoring is relatively short term, evaluation takes place at the end of, and in some cases considerably later than, the implementation phase.

The best way to judge whether a decision is working in the way that you intended is to go back to the decision information you considered earlier. In many cases it should include a statement about the likely impact. ‘If we carry on as we are (with current pupils moving through the school) we can expect X% of pupils to attain level Y in 200X; if we were to adopt this option, we would expect attainment to rise (or fall) to Z% level Y in 200X.’

This gives a clue to when the evaluation information on this particular decision should be provided. In autumn 200X the percentage of pupils gaining level Y will be known and should be compared with the prediction.

It would be simplistic to suppose that there will not be other factors operating on those pupils over a long period of time and these might affect the eventual outcome. However, that statement of anticipated impact can both help to focus discussion at the decision-making stage and the learning of lessons when headteacher and governors come to evaluate it.

Preparing a reporting schedule
A well-organised governing body will include a timetable for monitoring and evaluation within its schedule of work. Some monitoring – SEN, safeguarding children, racial harassment – is required by law.

There will also be issues you have identified as a priority for your school. By agreeing this timetable at the start of the year you can ensure a manageable spread of work, give plenty of notice for relevant people to produce it and ensure that the governing body will know what to do with it when it arrives!

Some of the reporting will be direct to the full governing body, some will be better directed to a specific committee where there should be time for more detailed questioning and discussion.

A Guide to the Law for School Governors states:
‘A good headteacher will discuss all the main aspects of school life with the governing body and will expect the governing body to both challenge and support the school to do better. … Governors should not be deterred from questioning proposals and seeking further information to enable them to make sound decisions …

Headteachers should give the governing body enough information to enable the governing body to feel confident that the headteacher as well as the governing body is fulfilling his or her statutory responsibilities.

To assist the governing body in carrying out its functions, the headteacher has a duty to provide the governing body with such reports in connection with his or her functions, as the governing body requires.’

Monitoring the quality of teaching and learning
The quality of teaching and learning is central to a school’s effectiveness and governors know that they are not inspectors and do not have the professional competence or the jurisdiction to make judgements in this area, but they know that this cannot justify collective ignorance. This means that it is particularly important for heads to keep governors informed about the leadership team’s monitoring of teaching and learning.

Governors need to know that there is a robust system for monitoring quality and that it is being implemented. They will be concerned to know what the overall quality of teaching and learning is judged to be – and how it has changed over recent years. They will not be allowed to discuss individual members of staff since issues of capability need to be addressed by headteacher and senior colleagues without interference from governors. A list of strengths and areas for development can demonstrate the level of analysis undertaken by the leadership team and provide information about some issues that have shown improvement and how the school proposes to effect further development.

Martin Pounce is an experienced governor and governor trainer. This article is based on a chapter from his book, Headteachers and Governing Bodies: a practical guide to making the partnership work, which has recently been published by Adamson Books (01603 623336).

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