Mo Laycock, Headteacher, Firth Park Community Arts College describes the effective model of governance which has contributed to three Ofsted results of ‘outstanding’ leadership at the school

When I arrived at Firth Park in September 1995, there were three to four governors who ran the governors’ meetings and agenda. The other governors felt disenfranchised and marginalised. Often they did not turn up to meetings or if they did, they contributed little to the discussions. I had to work hard with the local education authority (LEA) to remove these governors and to start again in relation to the new vision of the school, which is that ‘Firth Park is Fantastic’ and it is our job to enable students to believe in themselves, their potential and to aim high with confidence and determination. I went on the ‘Common Purpose’ leadership programme, a national professional development programme, organised at regional levels to engage senior leaders in their city in working together to encourage joined-up strategies for city-wide change (see: www.common Most big cities in the UK run the programmes, which select leaders who will help to influence and participate in such strategies, bringing together annually approximately 30 leaders from the public, private and voluntary sectors. Through Common Purpose I met some inspirational leaders, and we were able to recruit three governors via the programme. I continue to have strong links with the 1996/97 participants at a local and national level. This was, perhaps, the best professional training programme I have ever been involved in. I also joined the Chamber of Commerce, attended LEA governors meetings, networked with local businesses and both Sheffield Universities as well as the old boys of Firth Park Grammar School 1917–1969. In this way, I attained support for sign up to our new governing body, but this was hard work and much of this was outside school hours. We need to recruit influential business and industry personnel, who are short on the ground in our local community. Ensuring such personnel was important for us to put Firth Park on the map and so that we better understood city-wide strategies and opportunities that the school could benefit from. Since then the school’s reputation has grown at a local, regional and national level and it is now much easier to encourage governors from across the board to join in and support our school. We have had three Ofsted inspections of Firth Park since 1995. In all three, leadership and governance has been stated as being excellent/outstanding; in 2001 it was stated as being ‘inspirational’.

Governing body make-up and structure

It is difficult in many schools to ensure effective and committed governor representatives. In inner-city schools this is even more challenging, as we do not have local businesses and industries to draw on. Neither do we have many professional, confident parents who willingly volunteer into this role. In our early years, it was very difficult to ensure a full governing body. It is much easier nowadays.

Governing body make-up

  • We now have six parent governors, our full complement, including two business-link governors.
  • Our chairperson is Pro-Vice Chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, which is immensely helpful in relation to city-wide developments, and his involvement with the Sheffield City Education Strategy is pivotal to our work and progressing a school in relation to the ECM agenda.
  • One local authority governor works within the 14–19 aspect of the authority, which helps with this aspect of our school development.
  • The deputy principal of Longley Park Sixth Form College is the chair of the ECM sub-group.
  • The chair of the arts/extended schools sub-group is the director of
  • GB Eye, a prestigious and successful poster company in Sheffield, and his contribution enhances our arts specialism, securing new networks and links for the school.
  • The full governing body comprises:
    • 5 co-opted governors
    • 4 local authority governors
    • 2 community governors
    • 2 staff governors
    • 6 parent governors
    • 2 business link governors.
  • The headteacher is an ‘ex-officio’ member. Other members of the leadership team also attend governors meetings as do key staff in relation to agenda items.

The full governing body of 21 meet on a half-termly basis. Our own agenda meetings often follow up LEA items, for example, on new policies such as the ‘disability policy’. We also cover topics that are important to the school, such as plans for curriculum changes, reviewing the teaching and learning structure and so on. We run the following sub-groups:

  • finance and personnel
  • Every Child Matters (ECM) (curriculum and student support)
  • health and safety at work and premises
  • arts specialism and extended school.

Each sub-group has five to six governors and a governor as the chairperson, with a link member of the senior leadership team (SLT) working with them on the agenda and the school focus. They meet at least on a half-termly basis and often more than this, dependant on the issues they are focusing on. Finance personnel will regularly meet on a three-weekly basis during the budget-setting period, matching this with school priorities and resources. Meetings tend to last one hour. Representatives from sub-groups come to the full governing body at our half-termly meetings to give feedback. Our meetings last just one and a half hours and are tightly chaired and managed.

Role and input of governors

All of our governors are passionate about our school and believe in our vision and purpose. They are also critical professional friends and regularly take us out of our comfort zones, as is only right and proper. Each chairperson of sub-groups, with their link SLT, has a menu of topics and strategies, set and agreed by both personnel but the governor leads on this. Topics and strategies tend to follow whole-school priorities and the school development plan as well as updating policies to pursue on an annual basis, with feedback to full governors. In this way, we hope that the big picture for the school is understood by governors and that they effectively contribute to this picture. There are various times where there is contact between the school and the governors.

Let’s meet: school time with governors

  • As the headteacher, I have a 45-minute breakfast meeting with the chair of governors every fortnight. This tends to consist of a ‘nuts-and-bolts’ agenda and information sharing on both parts. For example, we will discuss relevant staffing issues, long-term absences, issues concerning underperformance of staff and strategies to help them. We will also discuss city-wide educational issues in relation to Firth Park and agree how we will present this to full governors meetings. There can be difficulties in relation to our separate perspectives on some of these issues and our individual views on priorities. So it is important that the chair and I meet regularly to share, reflect and eventually agree on a joined-up approach to issues. Currently, we are debating the place of Firth Park in the ‘Sheffield Secondary Strategy’, which focuses on the 2006 Education Act and increased diversity of educational provision in Sheffield.
  • SLT link members meet with chairs of the sub-groups prior to planning the agenda for meetings.
  • In relation to performance management procedures, three governors and the school improvement partner (SIP) meet with me annually to discuss targets and progress. The three governors also meet with myself and the two deputy heads for the same rigorous process. The governors consider PM targets for the three of us in conjunction with the priorities and the big picture for the school in the current academic year. They will then chunk down three targets for the executive leadership team that will help to fulfil these priorities and that will line up together.
  • Governors meet in groups of two or three with each of the 10 heads of faculty and five year tutors annually in February/March to review their discrete action planning and subject/year group school evaluation forms. To use time effectively, governors see two to three heads/year tutors officially in one session for 30–40 minutes each. The outcomes of these meetings and action points are presented to the full governing body at the next scheduled meeting. Governor input into these sessions is increasingly rigorous. For example, if targets in academic performance have not been met, they will question middle leaders on why. They will ask how targets will be met in the current academic year. They will ask questions relating to leadership skills and training. They will also congratulate middle leaders who are doing well in relation to school standards.
  • The chair of governors/vice-chair also link with myself and the two deputies for feedback on internal school reviews in relation to each faculty. We do five of these per year on a rolling programme using RAISEonline data to inform these discussions. These have had a positive effect on school improvement, given their focus on the accountability and the leadership skills of middle leaders.
  • We have link governors for gifted and talented, SEN, CPLT and BME students who see middle leaders/SLT in relation to these targeted groups. For example, we are part of the DfES Black Pupils Attainment Programme (BPAP) 2005–2007. This innovative programme targets able but underperforming BME students, approximately 15–20 per year group. The link governor meeting with myself and the leader of the BPAP strategy focuses on reviewing strategies and student data to ensure progression in this programme. This is fed back to the ECM sub-group and full governors meeting. Other link area governors follow the same approach.
  • Governors also give up their time for after-school meetings with very challenging and/or vulnerable students and their parents. These meetings are to highlight to parents and the student that the school is exhausting strategies to support them. At this stage, a school- governors-family contract is agreed and signed with targets and a review date set. Governors in these cases agree to meet the parent and student with myself two to three times further on a three-weekly basis to oversee progress. For example, we have recently had a Year 11 boy leave us after GCSEs who in October 2006 was close to a permanent exclusion. He and his mother were involved in a school-governors-family contract at this stage. The boy finally saw the light and with consistent mentoring and monitoring has improved, and is set to attain seven GCSE passes.
  • Governors attend as many of our meeting. Other link area governors follow the same approach.
  • Governors try to visit the school twice per year during the school day, dependent on work schedules, to see the school operating normally, to visit classrooms, meet staff at break, lunchtimes and so on.
  • Governors meet student council representatives, the head boy and head girl twice per year to discuss student issues.
  • In recent years, the chair of governors has attended school on GCSE results day when we give out student envelopes and celebrate their successes.

Managing governance

Upon starting, our governors attend the local authority’s  induction programme, and they access its briefings for governors on a termly basis. These tend to be generic training opportunities and so do not focus on the work of our school. So we run an annual training evening for all governors, sometimes with local authority or other consultancy support on such issues as how to carry out Fisher Family Trust/Reporting and Analysis for Improvement through School Self-Evaluation (RAISE) online data assessment, which is challenging stuff for non-education personnel. We also run two governors/SLT conferences per year, in September/October and June. Each event lasts three to four hours and is held at an offsite venue. The purpose is to:

  • consider priorities for the forthcoming academic year
  • review KS3–4 results and set further targets and strategies to improve these
  • consider any staffing issues
  • consider important agenda items for the forthcoming year for governors.

The review conference in June focuses on how we have done as a school in the above areas. We also begin to look at the new academic year at this meeting. For example, for 2007-08, given Firth Park is part of BSF Phase 1, attaining a new sports hall, dance studio, three new classrooms, and extra office space, we will need to effectively plan the management of such a building project while also ensuring the school continues to run normally. This all requires careful discussion and management of pressure points, and these conferences provide an opportunity for such discussions to take place. The autumn term conference is the focus for reviewing KS3–4 results from the summer. We also agree targets for the following year. We review support for new staff, discuss any staffing issues, school priorities and so on. Sub-group chairs also agree the main foci for their meetings during the forthcoming academic year. All of the above demands considerable time of governors. We do not always get the full board to these sessions. This can be problematic in ensuring that all governors are up to speed and that we do not waste time in meetings. If governors are unable to attend, they receive minutes/action points from these meetings. They are also encouraged to meet with myself or the link senior leadership team member for further clarification and discussions if necessary. We are also a ‘picture smart/visually aware’ school with displays of our aims, vision, posters, pupils’ work on all corridors and in all classrooms. Governors’ photos are also displayed in the school, so that everyone is aware of who is part of the governing body and to give profile to their role.

Governors’ involvement in curriculum innovation

At Firth Park, we see the management of innovation and change as a three-year big picture chunked down to manageable annual step changes. Governors are always involved in this process. For example, in September 2005, we agreed to instigate radical curriculum changes at Key Stage 3 to further improve school outcomes. Governors set performance management targets for myself and the two deputy heads for 2005/06 in relation to this research with a clear evidence trail.

Performance targets set by governors for KS3 curriculum change

During 2005/06, the senior leadership team took on the following:

  • In twos and threes, we visited schools in Bristol, London, Liverpool, Newcastle and Scarborough, to observe best practice.
  • With SLT/middle leaders, and then all staff, we began to plan a new KS3 model for implementation September 2007.
  • From September 2006, we established a working group of volunteer staff to build up materials for this vital strategy.
  • Key staff also visited John Cabot CTC, Bristol, to observe use of RSA Opening Minds ‘competencies curriculum’.
  • During 06/07, staff have been preparing for implementing our version of the ‘competencies curriculum’, with the support of John Cabot CTC.
  • We have appointed five primary teachers from September 2007 to help us with this development and to teach at Key Stage 3 only.
  • During the past two years, as we have carefully prepared for this innovation, ensuring we win the hearts and minds of all staff, governors have appraised developments at every stage.
  • This development is also resource heavy as we are moving from 10 form groups of 28 in Year 7, to 13 groups of 21/22. The governing body working with the SLT has had to ensure budget resources and school spaces allowed for this change.

In 2005/06, after we had completed our visits to schools and shared our findings as an SLT. we took this important strategy to a full governors meeting. We presented a report on our work and our preferred KS3 model. This was a one-agenda-item meeting as this necessitated considerable debate and for governors to sign up to the initiative, as the model is a radical one. Governors did put us through our paces in respect of this work, as they too, need to be assured of the model in relation to their overall accountability. They agreed to these changes and since then have had regular updates and involvement with the working group in relation to planning. A couple of the governors have helped with some of the competencies themes, such as ‘Sheffield in the global world’, by identifying local personnel who could visit the school and have an input into this work.

Handling curriculum and staffing problems

In a school ‘facing challenging circumstances’, governors are acutely aware for the need for us to improve year on year. In this way, our governors are now quite sophisticated and rigorous in ensuring accountability of all staff via their regular meetings. In relation to staffing issues, there are 92 staff at Firth Park and I have appointed 70 of these since 1995. Governors have regularly been involved in:

  • capability procedures and targets/reviews
  • disciplinary procedures
  • long-term absence issues.

The reason that governors have become involved in some of these issues is to ensure that all staff are effective and able to ensure high quality teaching and learning experiences for students. To do less than this is to reduce their educational opportunities, their aspirations and outcomes. In relation to human resources management our governors have considerable experience. There have, in the past, been some issues in managing curriculum and staffing problems. These have included staff in capability procedures being absent for long periods of time during the informal and formal three-stage capability and disciplinary process. Such procedures can be stressful for headteachers and governors. As the headteacher, you need quality human resources support, and this can come in part from your governors — you need competent, committed, articulate governors who can see all sides of the process. It is also important that governors are fully briefed on the issues leading to and following through any procedure and that they receive all records. At Firth Park we have five to six key governors who are confident and comfortable in performing this difficult role.

Benefits to school

An effective and committed governing body is an asset to any school. This is an onerous and time-demanding role for mostly non-educationists, but at Firth Park, we have been lucky to attain governors who share our passion for the school. The demands of time for the head and other members of SLT are considerable. In having a large senior leadership team of nine, we can share some of this work, which is important to take account of our own work-life balance. Yet, it is the case that much of this pressure comes down on the headteacher and the two deputies by dint of experience and seniority. We very much benefit from the vast array of experience and talents of our governors who come from different walks of life. I cannot underestimate either, the views of parents and local community governors, as to the external perceptions of the school. Key to our success is giving governors quality time, and seeking out governors who will help with school development.

Future plans for governors

We launch our new Key Stage 3 model in September 2007. We plan for an afternoon during school time to review this work in October/ November 2007. Governors are keen to observe some competencies lessons and hear the views of students, staff and parents. Parents from each group will be invited into school to give their views. We will carry out a similar review in March 2008 and use the results of this to modify our planning. Longer term, via the Student Voice/ Student Council in 2008/09, we are working towards a training day with key governors, staff and students to hear the views of students on how they best learn. We use Kirkland Rowell, a company that helps schools with self-review processes, every two years, involving staff, parents, students and community groups (you can contact Kirkland Rowell on 0191 2708270). This feedback gives us good information on the views of stakeholders about our school. Yet we realise that pupils are the recipients of our planning and are keen to hear more indepth feedback on the most enjoyable, motivating and effective learning. So in 2008/09, we will invest considerable time into the student council leading on this training day. This may be challenging for staff and governors, but with sound preparations and quality time given to all, hopefully the feedback and outcomes will help us with a further step change in high quality learning at Firth Park.

Top tips

  • Be prepared as the headteacher to be taken outside of your comfort zones by governors
  • Be transparent and honest in these relationships — governors will only continue with their involvement if they feel valued and able to contribute in an honest dialogue
  • Involve them, whenever possible, in the life and routines of the school

School context Firth Park Community Arts College is an 11–16 comprehensive school with 1,400 students in Sheffield, situated in the sixth most deprived political ward in the country, an area of 95% council housing with second- and third-generation unemployment and the associated low aspirations and parochial views. We have 280 students entering the school in Year 7, mostly from our four main feeder primary schools. One-third of these students enter Year 7 with attainment below Level 3 at Key Stage 2 standard assessment tests (SATs) and many students are very much below Level 3 with complex learning and/or emotional and behaviour problems and poor social skills. Some 47% are on the special educational needs (SEN) register for learning and/or emotional/behavioural problems. We have a 27% black and minority ethnic (BME) intake, many of whom are asylum-seekers/refugees. When I became headteacher in 1995, the previous Ofsted inspection painted a poor picture of the school: falling rolls, low community and school aspirations, a deficit budget and 77% attendance, not helped by the school being a split site, with students and staff travelling the 1.5 miles between the sites two to three times daily. We became a single school site via new buildings and refurbishments in September 2000. We are part of a Building Schools for the Future (BSF) Phase 1 project in Sheffield, which will help us to complete our building programme. In 1996, we attained 12% 5+ A*–C results; by 2006 this had risen to 41%. Our target for August 2007 is 45%. We have improved at Key Stage 4 over the last 11 years via a rigorous focus on teaching and learning standards, monitoring and intervention, and an increased focus on vocational courses, backed by our specialism as a Performing Arts School. From this September, we move to the RSA Opening Minds ‘competencies curriculum’ for eight lessons a week for Year 7 students. In 1995, only 25% of school leavers from Firth Park went on to further education. In 2006, this was 72% and we are now ensuring with Longley Park Sixth Form College, our local college, built on our old school site and opened in 2004, that more students access university.

Mo Laycock, Headteacher, Firth Park Community Arts College, Sheffield