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Governor school visits: your how-to guide
Find out what to do before, during and after your school visits, including if you're doing a remote visit during coronavirus. Be clear on what's expected of you with our dos and don’ts, and use our template reports to take notes on your monitoring visits and learning walks.
24 March 2021: a note on school visits during coronavirus and school reopening
Although school visits may be possible when COVID-19 protective measures are in place, advice from the Department for Education (DfE) hasn't changed since July. The DfE continues to say that where school visits can happen outside of school hours, they should.
Schools will need to consider their own risk assessments when thinking about how to organise governor/trustee visits - and they may decide to conduct these virtually. Read more detail on how to do this below.
Either way, take your lead from your headteacher and chair about what's feasible and safe.
Steps to take before the visit
Notify the headteacher and the chair
Do this before a time is agreed, even if the headteacher will not be involved in the visit. Make sure they're aware as a matter of courtesy.
Schedule an appointment with relevant members of staff
This is essential to avoid unnecessary friction between you and staff.
During the school day, staff have numerous demands on their time, so you'll want to be sensitive to this. Someone usually acts as the go-between when arranging visits, for example a member of administrative staff, so they should be able to help you.
Find a mutually convenient time
Generally, governor visits are more productive when conducted during a school day, although this can be difficult if you have a full-time job. Note also that while coronavirus-related protective measures are in place, you need to consider how to do this safely - see more in the section below.
Read our advice on school governors' right to time off work for more information about this.
Clarify the purpose of the visit in advance
Do this with your chair, the headteacher or relevant member of staff ahead of the visit.
This could be, for example, watching a specific lesson where a new approach is being developed (although you mustn't be involved in formal lesson observation) or seeing the range of extra-curricular activities available during the lunch break.
Send questions in advance
If you have specific questions or things you want to look at on the visit, send these to the staff member so you can both feel more prepared.
Check whether your school has a policy
If your school has a governor school visits policy or guidance pack, these should help you understand what's expected.
If you're the chair, take a look at our chair’s guide to governor school visits.
Carrying out visits remotely during COVID-19
It's important to keep up your monitoring duties even if you can't visit your school in person. Your chair should work with the headteacher to plan how best to monitor your school. Two of our associate governance experts, Jeremy Bird and Julia Skinner, gave us the following advice:
Be clear on the purpose of your visit
Talk to your chair about what you want to get out of a school visit. Then work with them and the school to find a way to get this information remotely. For example:
- Ask to have paperwork shared with you over a video call or by email (depending on GDPR requirements)
- Check if the documents you want to see are available on the school's website
- Arrange meetings with members of staff over the phone or using video call software
- Ask the school to film a learning walk for you, or see if they'll take you on a walk using video call software
- Arrange a group video call with pupils if you want their opinions
- Ask the school to scan / take photos of pupils' work to share with you
- Ask for a login to see the school's remote learning platform or have a member of staff run you through it (e.g. on Office365 or G-Suite)
Be accommodating and work together with your school
It's even more important than usual not to over-burden staff. Your chair should work closely with the headteacher and other members of staff to agree what'll be monitored and how.
If you're arranging a virtual meeting with staff, send through your questions ahead of time so they have plenty of time to prepare.
Let your school take the lead on what they can and can't offer - don't demand videos if the school isn't set up for this, or can't provide them easily.
Be aware of safeguarding issues
The safety of staff and pupils must come first. Don't ask staff to do anything which will go against their COVID risk assessment, e.g. a learning walk that crosses multiple bubbles.
If your school wants to film learning walks or send you any other videos of pupils, they'll need to make sure they have permission to do so.
Download our visit templates
We created 2 templates to reflect the most common types of school visit that you'll go on:
- Formal monitoring visits are where you discuss the progress of the school in a particular area with the relevant staff member
- Learning walks are where you'll go around the school with the relevant staff member to get a feel for a particular area. You're likely to talk to a range of staff members and pupils
Use these to structure your visits, and as reminders of what to look for and what to ask. They'll also help you write up your findings to share with your board. We'll explain more about writing a visit report later.
Questions to ask
Use this list to help you come up with more specific questions yourself. If you're using one of our template reports above, include the questions in the report.
It's good practice to send any questions in advance to the staff member you're visiting, so that they can prepare.
Use the questions in this article if you're planning to speak to pupils during your visit.
If you're monitoring behaviour see this article for further questions to ask on a school visit.
For further questions to ask, use the 'search' box at the top of the page to look for specific topics.
Dos and don'ts during the visit
- Ask open questions beginning with ‘what’, ‘how’, ‘when’, ‘how often’, ‘why’, ‘who’ and ‘where’
- Ask to see evidence, or ask what evidence they've used to make a judgement, for the information you're told by staff
- Clarify any terms or acronyms you’re not familiar with
- Stay observational; you’re not there to pass judgement on staff or inspect them
- If you're going to spend time in a classroom, all parties need to be very clear about why you're there
- Check with teachers before asking pupils questions
- Tell staff you'll pass on any concerns they raise with the relevant people. This helps build trust and demonstrates that you're there to support them
- Remember that you're representing the governors. Be friendly but professional, and dress appropriately, bearing in mind the standards of dress you set for teachers and pupils
- Pass comment on classroom practice or any specific incidents that happen. You're not there to inspect the school, and it's not your role to judge teaching methods, assess the quality of teaching, or comment on the extent of learning
- Interfere with the day-to-day running of the school. You're not school managers
- Sit at the back of the classroom with a clipboard. This'll be intimidating and make you look like an inspector. Be friendly, engaging and interactive
- Raise concerns in the moment. If you have concerns about anything you've seen, note them down and raise them with the chair of governors or headteacher later
The above information is based on the purpose of visits set out in the Governance Handbook (page 31), and advice from our experts Nicky Odgers and Jackie Beard.
In practice: example visit format from a school
The vice-chair of governors at Kaizen Primary School in London went on a visit to monitor reading, with a particular focus on a reciprocal reading initiative that the school was trialling.
The visit lasted an hour and included:
- A welcome from 2 of the school’s senior leaders, including a discussion of the initiative and its context (10 minutes)
- A learning walk around 2 classrooms to see the initiative in action (15 minutes)
- A follow-up discussion with the senior leaders (5 minutes)
- Discussion with a teacher on his experience and thoughts on the new initiative (15 minutes)
- A discussion with 2 pupils on their thoughts about the initiative (10 minutes)
- A final follow-up (5 minutes)
The vice-chair found the structure of the visit allowed him to hear about the progress of the school’s initiative from multiple perspectives, highlighting how both teachers and pupils felt it was working. He also felt more confident in his knowledge of what's happening in the school.
Reporting back to the board
Check your board's expectations first before reporting back. Ask your chair:
- What format should I report back in - in writing or in person?
- What should the report include?
- Who do I need to send the report to, and by when?
- Will the report be presented at a full governing board or committee meeting?
Use our templates above to structure your report (unless this contradicts your school's policy or preferred method).
Tips for writing the report
To write a constructive report that remains within governors' strategic remit, our expert Nicky Odgers, gave us her advice.
- Use neutral language at all times
- Remain observational, and describe only what you see
- Focus closely on the agreed reasons for the visit, and its strategic role
- Send your report to an experienced governor for feedback, if you're new to the role
- Send reports to the relevant staff member to check for accuracy, and as a courtesy
- Make qualitative judgements, particularly about any incidents you see or when observing teaching and learning practice
- Name any individual teachers and pupils
- Get distracted and talk about other issues that aren't related to the focus of the visit
In practice: reports from schools
- Barnabas Oley CofE Primary School in Bedfordshire publishes governor visit reports for various subjects, including Computing, PSHE, and foreign languages
- View visit reports from Brookvale Groby Learning Campus, a secondary school in Lancashire. Visits focused on areas such as special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), English, and disadvantaged pupils
Bill Dennison is a national leader of governance. He is currently chair of governors of a large secondary school and a governor of a large sponsor-led secondary academy. He was previously head of the education department at a Russell Group university.
Nicky Odgers is a governance consultant and national leader of governance. She has carried out research on the strategic role of governors.
Jackie Beard is a governance consultant and former national leader of governance. She also sits on an independent appeal panel for exclusions and admissions for a local authority.
Jeremy Bird has extensive experience of primary headship. He has also worked with local authorities and published guidance for new and aspiring headteachers and senior leaders.
Julia Skinner is a leader of governance and a former headteacher. She has chaired boards in a multi-academy trust, a federation of special schools and numerous maintained schools.
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