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Questions for Governors

28 May, 2014

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Good governance is essential for providing a good education. But how can school governors know the right questions to ask school leaders, let alone what answers should be challenged or celebrated? Nancy Wilkinson from Wellcome Trust’s Education and Learning team introduces a new resource, “Questions for Governors”, that the Trust has helped to develop…

Starting as a school governor can be a daunting task. School governors have a huge responsibility and increasingly are being recognised by Ofsted and the government for the important role they play.

This month the government and industry partners launched Inspiring Governors, a new initiative to increase the number of employers who support their staff to volunteer as school governors. It recognises the crucial role governors play and, in particular, the importance of recruiting governors with the right skills for the job.

image-5However, having the right skills isn’t the only factor that makes someone a good governor. The three main roles of a governing body are to oversee their school’s finances, hold its headteacher to account and set the school’s strategic direction. To carry out these tasks well, governors also need the right tools.

The Wellcome Trust has been working on improving school governance for a few years now. In 2011 we began a pilot of the Recommended Code of Governance, which is due to end in September 2014. The Code is designed to be a framework for strategic planning, and is flexible so that schools can adapt it to their own needs. It has three sections – a guide to setting a strategic plan for the school, a framework for good governance, and high-level performance indicators – which together act as a guide for establishing an effective governing body.

A new resource

Individual governors often need support in order to understand their role and decide on the challenging questions that need to be asked. With two-thirds of governors in paid employment, time is not always on their side, so the Trust began developing a new resource to support them.

image-1Questions for Governors is a framework designed to facilitate discussions between governors and school leaders. Its questions can help governing bodies identify areas to celebrate or challenge in science and maths, enabling governors to work with senior leaders to drive improvement. So far the feedback we’ve had has been great – one governor said: “[Questions for Governors] is a very worthwhile initiative. I will be passing it on to our school.” Another was “bowled over” by the resource. It’s a new way for governors to access information, and hopefully the range of content available is easy to access, use and understand, and gives governors the right level of detail.

The intention is that governors will use the questions in whatever way is most useful for them and will bring about the most productive change in their school. Some schools may like to focus their questions on one area at a time. The questions are designed to give governors the information, and confidence, to have an informed conversation with teachers about science and maths and then make any necessary improvements. Equally, senior staff could use the questions for self-evaluation or review.

An unintentional benefit of Questions for Governors has been having a wealth of information about science and maths education at the click of a button. It’s obviously aimed at schools, but organisations that work to improve science education will also find it valuable as a quick way to find data and resources – the education team at the Trust has definitely appreciated the new tool!

The site aims to cover the key areas that make up a great education –teaching, choices, results, facilities and enrichment –and every question is accompanied byevidence of why it is important, national benchmarks and ideas for improvement.

image-4As an example, one question asks about the gender difference among students progressing from GCSE to A level in biology, chemistry, physics and maths. It gives evidence that explains why it is important to understand any gender differences at A level, as well as national benchmarks for schools to compare themselves against: for example, 21 per cent of physics A levels were taken by girls in 2013, compared with 58 per cent of biology A levels. There are then links to ideas for improvement, such as recommendations from Ofsted and organisations that work to make improvements in this area.

The focus of the current set of questions is on secondary science and maths, with most of the data drawn from English schools. But it is easy to see how the questions could be reframed for different subject areas. We also plan to produce different versions for primary schools, and for schools in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.

Questions for Governors is still in its pilot phase; we are looking for feedback from schools to allow us to adapt and improve the site. We really need input from a range of schools and governors to find out how it is being used, so that we can use these ideas to develop the site further. We want this resource to be useful to governing bodies, and we can’t make sure that’s true without listening to school governors.

For more information, and to have your say on how we could improve Questions for Governors, please see Or, keep in touch via and the Wellcome Trust Education Twitter feed.

Questions for Governors has not been developed alone. The Trust worked with many collaborators, including the Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education, the Association for Science Education, the Campaign for Science and Engineering, the Education Endowment Foundation, the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, the Institute of Physics, the National Governors’ Association, the National Science Learning Centre and the Royal Society of Chemistry, as well as headteachers and school governors. 

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