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From Good to Excellent – one school’s story

Elfed High School in Flintshire has served many different communities in Buckley and beyond since 1954. In its early history, pupils were bussed in from districts further away, but as new schools were built or extended and the Local Authority withdrew its support for transport, numbers declined and a building designed for 1100 pupils has never been full.

Pupils backgrounds and needs are diverse, but the school has always prided itself on being a place where everyone is made welcome. Pupil achievement and attainment were only average in the early 2000s and nothing made the school stand out from the crowd. In 2006 a new headteacher arrived, Mrs Rosemary Jones, who set about reviewing the staffing and school operations. In 2008, I became chair of governors and started to review the way the governing body went about its business.

We began by looking at the skills and experience of governors compared with what we agreed would constitute a high performing team. Governors discussed papers that described what ‘good’ looked like and what made an excellent community school. The training and development programme was tailored to enhance experience and the ‘skills matrix’ assisted recruitment of the ‘right’ people. All of this was in place in the autumn of 2010 when Estyn inspected the school using what was then a new framework.

Against a background of falling pupil numbers and staff redundancies year-on-year, the inspection outcomes were ‘ok’: thirteen elements ‘good’ with ‘adequate’ for Teaching and Improving Quality.

The work already completed and plans already made gave confidence that this could be significantly improved. Indeed, it was a clear aspiration of the governing body and school leadership team to be ‘excellent in everything’ the school did.

So, what about the governors’ role? No different to any other governing body in Wales:

  • agreeing the strategic direction and ethos of the school;
  • all the policies, statutory or otherwise, are ratified and ‘owned’ by governors;
  • the strategic plan, otherwise known as the School Development Plan, is a key document which encompasses the priorities for school improvement. The headteacher and others may do the hard work in producing the draft document, but it is the governing body that must edit and adopt it as its own;
  • the review of the Plan and evaluation of progress is orchestrated through the governing body committee structure. All committees have clear, agreed Terms of Reference;
  • governors have a Code of Conduct which sets expectations for behaviour and performance;
  • link governors, including English and Literacy, and Maths and Numeracy report to the full governing body. The role of link governor can be seen described in the Governors Wales website;
  • governors review the School Self-Evaluation Report (SER) and consider the surveys of staff, pupils and parents. When we have the right skills and experience amongst governors, the job of balancing support with asking challenging questions is ‘easier’, but that’s another topic in itself!

In all of this we must never lose sight of the most important thing: the quality of teaching and learning in the classroom is a fundamental prerequisite for children to ‘achieve’. Good teachers create a safe environment with order and routine which inspires children to perform well. Strong leaders ensure that teachers are part of the decision making and management processes. Everything else is part of the support mechanisms to enable this to happen, starting with strong leadership from the governors and school management. It is no accident that all the quality frameworks, such as Estyn and the European Excellence Model, are sharply focused on leadership, management and strategic direction. A highly effective governing body ensures all the building blocks are in place to support excellent teaching practice.

In February 2015, Estyn returned to Elfed High School. Pupil numbers were still on the decline and staff redundancy still an issue. Never-the-less, the school was judged to be ‘excellent’ for both current performance and prospects for improvement, supported by a further seven ‘excellent’ judgements. Subsequent annual school self-evaluation saw the judgements vary and move according to changing circumstances, but always identified what actions were needed to sustain ‘excellence’. The School Development Plan was updated to include the agreed improvement actions.

The school has continued to receive recognition at regional and national level and has been categorised ‘green’ by the Regional Consortium GwE for three years in a row. Elfed High School students took part in the 2015 PISA testing and the school subsequently received its own customised report, which showed results significantly above the Welsh average and on a par with the best in Europe. This was no surprise as pupil outcomes have been considerably better than those predicted for them by FFT in recent years. The headteacher, Mrs Rosemary Jones, was awarded an OBE in the New Year’s Honours List for services to education.

In late 2016, after a rigorous assessment by the Wales Quality Centre, the school won the Wales Quality Award, an accolade afforded to the very few organisations from across all business and education sectors, private and public, who have proven themselves to be excellent in their field and have strong evidence to suggest that excellence can be sustained. The criteria used for this is the same as that for the European Excellence Award. Elfed High School is only the second school in Wales to have been recognised in this way (Ysgol Bryn Elian in Colwyn Bay being the first) and the first to have won it at the first attempt.

This level of success brings its own challenges, not least of which is a 30% increase in pupil numbers in the last eighteen months (with a similar increase in staffing). The percentage of pupils with Additional Learning Needs and those entitled to free school meals have also increased as the school’s reputation for supporting them has grown. Flintshire Local Authority have been very supportive in granting a deficit budget (via a designated plan) until the finances ‘catch up’ with pupil numbers.

For those about to start their journey towards excellence or for those already on the road who want to take stock of progress, there are questions that need to be asked:

  • Where are we now?
  • Where are we aiming to be? By when?
  • What are the school’s priorities? How do we know?
  • Who will do what? By when?
  • How will we monitor and evaluate progress?
  • How will we know when and if we’ve succeeded?

In determining what action to take, the governing body must ask, “If we do this, what will be improved?” “How will we know for certain?”

School Self-Evaluation must:

  • be evidence based;
  • be regularly updated;
  • be an honest appraisal of progress;
  • be an accurate reflection of what an Estyn Inspection Report would look like;
  • contain judgements that provoke questions and help to move the school from ‘good’ to ‘excellent’.

Another very important ingredient for success is governing body development and self-evaluation, as follows:

Becoming a high-performing team and self-evaluation
There is a stark truth which we governors must face: a school can perform well with an under-performing governing body, but a failing school will not have a good governing body. In the first instance, the school will have a good headteacher and staff who do the right things well, despite the governing body. In the second instance, a good governing body will address any issues that threaten the integrity of the school or the education and wellbeing of pupils. A good governing body will not allow a school to fail.

No governor, including the headteacher, has all the skills, knowledge or experience needed to function at the highest level over long periods of time. For the greatest success, we need a great team. Everyone brings something to the table and everyone contributes. Strong leaders recognise their weaknesses and ensure the team compensates for them.

The qualities of a high-performing team:

  • There is a good range of skills, knowledge and experience amongst team members that they are willing to share;
  • Individual and team knowledge and skills are continually updated through training and information sharing. Specialist knowledge is developed so that it isn’t lost when people move on;
  • Workload is shared and different people take a leadership role when their particular skill and expertise warrants it; the elected leader encourages and supports this;
  • The team systematically reviews its own effectiveness and efficiency: “Did we do the right things?” Did we do the right things well?” “What do we need to change to do better?”

This review of effectiveness and efficiency is vitally important to improvement. The first time the Elfed High School governing body carried out a self-evaluation of its effectiveness it brought up some very interesting differences of views and the resulting discussion highlighted a lack of knowledge about some aspects of school performance and, interestingly, different perspectives of what ‘good’ looked like.

What makes the difference between a good organisation and an excellent one? There is one critical factor. Most good organisations are proficient at ‘Planning’ and ‘Doing’, but the excellent ones are superb at the ‘Review’ stage. That is, they ask about results and outcomes for sure, but they also ask, What did we learn from that? How will that help us improve? Are we still doing the right things? And no matter how good they become, they want to know, What do we need to do next? History is littered with organisations that were once world-leading, but failed because they didn’t ask those questions – or didn’t act on the answers!

With that in mind the National Governing Body Self-Evaluation Template has been introduced to help governors identify their strengths and areas for improvement. It’s not a quick fix. Like the School Self Evaluation Report, it takes time and effort to do it well and, if appropriately resourced, it will encourage the governing body to become a high-performing team.

It will help governors fulfil their ‘critical friend’ role as any lack of information or data will be pin-pointed and prompt the appropriate questions. It will also help governing bodies prepare for any kind of external assessment or inspection, including Estyn.

Self-evaluation in and of itself is useless if it does not lead to actions for improvement and the National Governing Body Self Evaluation Template will highlight what we must do, as governors, to help our school improve.

Why? Governors should always be focused on providing the best possible education for learners and how they can help raise standards of achievement.

Critical Points

  • Nothing should happen by accident – comprehensive planning is crucial.
  • Monitoring and evaluation must be rigorous.
  • To move a group of people from a working party to a high performing team takes time and focused effort from the leader of the group.
  • No matter how good a school is, an excellent school will always want to be better.

Elfed High School recognises that ‘excellence’ isn’t a destination, it’s a journey; a journey that makes great demands of governors’ time and expertise and along the way asks us to continually strive for the best outcomes for all learners, whoever they are and whatever their perceived ability. There is no escaping the fact that being a school governor involves hard work and, at times, stress, but for Elfed governors and most of the other 20,000-plus unpaid volunteers, it’s a labour of love.

An online version of the Self Evaluation Template for governing bodies is now ready to use; details of how to access it are on the Governors Wales website

Ray Wells, Chair of Governors