Fifty Stockport governors responded to the invitation to name the three main challenges they face today via the GOVAS web-site.. The responses identified nearly 150 challenges!
By a long way governors' main challenge is funding which was mentioned more than twice as often as any other. One perception is that schools in 'leafy suburbs' are being 'penalised' in comparison with those in deprived areas, although a governor in a deprived area of the borough also declared that 'I just do not understand the sense of cutting the budget for a school in a deprived area.' The operation of the pupil premium was seen as a source of the problem by many. For example, this governor wrote despairingly 'As a single form entry primary school with a very small pupil premium, how do we cope with the ever increasing financial pressures caused by Government initiatives which assume a large budget that can absorb them?' For 15 of the fifty respondents finance was the first main challenge and 32 in total mentioned finances and related matters like the pupil premium.
The second most often cited challenge was curriculum change driven by government policies and inspection regimes. The challenge was identified as 'coping with changes to curriculum', 'dealing with the quick sand that is government policy on the curriculum', 'all the changes to the curriculum.' As one governor said, 'Government doesn't appear to be able to leave things alone'. 18 governors mentioned changes to the curriculum as a challenge and for 6 it was their first main challenge.
Three areas of governors' concerns ranked equally - dealing with parents, staffing issues and challenges relating to students. This was closely followed by concerns over OFSTED, buildings and governors.
The perception of some governors is that 'parents are not supportive of the rules and regulations of the school', and the challenge is 'getting parents to take responsibility.' Some saw the issue as 'satisfying some fairly demanding parents' while others saw as an issue of 'effectively engaging with parents.' Specific issues mentioned included taking holidays
in term time and children's attendance.
The concerns with teaching staff ranged over a number of issues - 'low morale/workload', recruitment and keeping good teachers. One suggested that 'it's getting more difficult to get good Maths and English Teachers', and some claimed that maintaining staffing levels within the school's budget was increasingly a challenge. A recurring theme was school improvement strategies and the challenge of moving good teachers to 'outstanding'.
Three themes emerged from the comments about pupils. The first was the impact of children with low attainment often from deprived back grounds. This challenge was described by one governor as 'The poverty and chaotic family life some of our children face' . Secondly, governors spoke about the challenge of children with emotional and behavioural difficulties and their impact on the school, for example in this comment:
'We have noticed an increase in the number of children with SEN requiring specialised behavioural support and are concerned how this is impacting on other children and the progress they are able to make when lessons are being constantly interrupted'.
The third challenge relates to students achieving the expected levels of progress, which connects with another recurring theme - the impact of OFSTED, rising expectations and a culture of meeting targets. One governor considered that 'OFSTED's regime' was one of 'fear, intimidation and unfeasible demands' and that this was 'akin to a bullying manager in corporate business and is completely incompatible with good quality educational practices.' Several spoke of 'target driven education' and 'pressures on management' as challenges along with the constant demand to produce 'the necessary paperwork' and 'evidencing progress.' One felt the school was focusing too much on OFSTED' and another spoke of 'doing everything with an eye on what OFSTED wants.' The challenge of 'closing the gap' between pupil premium students and the rest was mentioned several times. Several felt governors struggled with understanding the data used by OFSTED and that there was insufficient support for school improvement.
Another important area of challenges concerned the physical environment of the school, particularly in popular school where admission pressures were creating problems within existing buildings. One spoke of 'pressure of student numbers', another of 'an imminent shortage of school places' and another said that 'with expanding school numbers there is an urgent need for some new buildings.' There was criticism of the council for being 'short-sighted in its plans for provision' and for the lack of capital funding.
Governors themselves were seen as a challenge by a dozen respondents. The two areas of concern centred around the role of governors and the difficulties in recruiting and keeping governors. Some felt that governors came from a narrow range of backgrounds and too often thought their job was to run the school. One person saw the challenge in these terms 'Governor's who interfere too much in the running of the school. Too often chair's refer to ""my school"". It is not their school. Their role should primarily be to support the headteacher whilst being their critical friend.' Another thought that 'the possibility of parent governors meaningfully challenging the decisions of the Head is frankly unrealistic'.
Recruiting governors 'with the necessary skills' and capable of 'strong leadership' was a seen as a challenge, while the increasing time burden and raised expectations of governors was making the job more difficult. Getting governors on training courses and participating in development was also perceived as challenging.
There was a long list of concerns mentioned by just one or two governors. These include worries over school meals provision, accommodating staff for flexible working, performance related pay, air pollution from traffic, road safety, keeping children happy, and, in a special school, the transition to adult care.
The exercise was designed to find out what was really concerning governors so that the local governors' association (GOVAS) could respond to their challenges. The exercise has been successful in revealing the challenges, but finding ways of helping governors meet these challenges is ...well...a challenge!