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School Governors – Acting as critical friends and the impact of governor training


This report was written following a request from the Minister for Education in his 2022 remit letter to Estyn. We interviewed headteachers and governors in 41 nursery, primary, secondary, all-age and special schools. We also sent an online survey to governing bodies in 250 schools and received 363 responses. We consulted with a range of stakeholders, including school improvement services and local authority officers and representatives from other organisations who work with and support governing bodies in Wales.

Our recommendations

Governing bodies and schools should:

  1. Improve governors’ ability to challenge senior leaders about all aspects of the school’s work
  2. Ensure that governors have regular and worthwhile opportunities to observe first-hand the progress that their school is making towards meeting its priorities
  3. Undertake regular self-evaluation of the work of the governing body to identify strengths and areas to improve
  4. Evaluate the impact of governor training on their role as effective strategic leaders and identify future training requirements

Local authorities and school improvement services should:

  1. Evaluate the quality of their governor training more rigorously to make improvements where needed
  2. Collaborate to ensure greater coherence and consistency in high-quality training opportunities between different parts of the country
  3. Provide more effective support and advice to governing bodies to help them in their role as effective strategic leaders

Welsh Government should:

  1. Update the guidance for local authorities on what to include in training for school governors on understanding the role of data in supporting self-evaluation and improvement in schools in line with national changes to assessment practices
  2. Produce information on the important role of parent governors to help encourage parents, particularly those from different ethnic minority backgrounds, to apply to become a parent governor
  3. Create a competency framework to assist governing bodies improve their effectiveness

What our thematic review said

From the evidence that we gathered, we found that most governors are enthusiastic and passionate about their responsibilities. They are highly committed to the role that they play in their school. Many governors talk knowledgably about the communities that their schools serve, and they often understand the needs of those communities. However, the majority of governing bodies do not reflect the diverse make up of their local community well enough.

Getting the right balance of challenge and support for senior leaders is an important aspect of a governing body’s role. This is often called being an effective critical friend. In most schools, governors work productively with the senior leaders and are supportive of their work. However, we found that, in a majority of schools, governors do not hold leaders to account for educational performance well enough. In addition, they do not have a wide enough understanding of their role in ensuring high expectations in all aspects of the school’s work. This is because they do not challenge senior leaders sufficiently well.

In many schools, governors have an overview of their school’s priorities for improvement and have a broad understanding of how they have been identified through self-evaluation. Governors keep up to date with the progress that the school is making towards meeting their priorities through regular information that leaders provide for them. In most schools, following the restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, governors have resumed their visits. However, in too many cases, governors do not use their school visits purposefully to gather first-hand evidence to inform their evaluations of the work of the school.

Although whole-school self-evaluation is usually embedded in schools, only a minority of governing bodies have recently undertaken any self-evaluation of their own work. The majority of governing bodies recognise that this is an area that needs to improve. In addition, only a minority of governing bodies undertake a regular audit of their members’ skills so that they have a current picture of their range of skills and experiences.

High quality training is important to ensure that governors are aware of the latest developments in education. Most governors receive training from school staff and from external providers, usually local authorities and school improvement services. There are mandatory training courses that governors have to attend as well as optional sessions. The availability and quality of training vary greatly between different parts of Wales. Some local authorities and school improvement services offer governors a rich variety of beneficial training sessions each term, whereas in other parts of the country there are far fewer sessions available. Importantly, the mandatory data training that all governors must attend is outdated and does not help governors understand current assessment practice. Only a minority of governors evaluate the training that they receive and its impact on improving their role as effective governors.

In most schools, governors feel that they have had sufficient information to ensure that they have a sound understanding of important educational matters such as Curriculum for Wales and the changes needed to address the Additional Learning Needs Education Tribunal Act (ALNET).

Governors have important statutory obligations. In most schools, governors understand their role in safeguarding pupils. However, they do not have sufficient understanding of all their obligations, for example with regard to healthy eating and drinking.

Full report