Nancy Wilkinson is the project manager for education policy at the Wellcome Trust. Her main areas of work are school governance, practical science and science education policy. In this guest post, she sets out the important role governors can play driving improvements in science and maths, and how the new website Questions for Governors has been developed to help meet this need.
Science and maths are core subjects and are compulsory for students in England until the age of 16. The Royal Society has gone further in its Vision report, saying that students should have to study science and maths until the age of 18. But aside from this, science and maths are incredibly important to open doors for further education and employment. Schools have an opportunity – and a responsibility – to offer students engaging and enjoyable science and maths education.
Governors are responsible for the strategic direction of a school, as well as holding the headteacher to account and overseeing the school’s finances. It can be difficult to see how individual subjects fit with these roles and responsibilities, and what governors can do to drive improvements. As well as this, with two-thirds of governors in paid employment, they do not always have time on their side. Governors need the support and tools to help them do the best job possible.
The Wellcome Trust has been working on improving school governance for several years now. In 2011 the Trust began a pilot of a recommended code of governance, which is due to end this month. The code is designed to be a framework for strategic planning, and is flexible, so 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. Together they act as a guide for establishing an effective governing body.
This year, the Trust also launched a new, completely free, online resource: Questions for Governors.
It’s a framework designed to aid discussions between governors and school leaders. As the Wellcome Trust is a scientific charity, this first version of the questions focuses on science and maths, helping governing bodies identify areas to celebrate or challenge so they can work with senior leaders to drive improvement.
As an example, one question is on the proportion of students progressing from GCSE to A-level in biology, chemistry, physics and maths who are female. The page presents evidence that explains why it’s important to understand gender differences at A-level, along with national benchmarks for schools to compare themselves against: for example, 21% of physics A-levels were taken by girls in 2013, compared with 58% of biology A-levels. There are then ideas for improvement, with relevant links, such as recommendations from Ofsted and organisations that work to make improvements in this area.
So far, the feedback we’ve had has been great. One governor said it was a very worthwhile initiative, which “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 which 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, to feed into future plans. Equally, senior staff could use the questions for self-evaluation or review.
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 by supporting information on why it is important, the national picture and ideas about how to improve. Although this version focuses on science and maths, it’s also easy to see how it could be adapted to many other areas of the school. We are also working on versions for primary schools, and schools in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.
Science and maths education is important; not only to give young people every opportunity for further education and employment, but also to make sure they leave school with the ability to make informed decisions on scientific issues. School governors have a role to play in this, and Questions for Governors can support them.
For more information, and to have your say on how we could improve the resource, please see questionsforgovernors.co.uk. Or, keep in touch via firstname.lastname@example.org and the Wellcome Trust Education Twitter feed.
Questions for Governors has not been developed alone. The Wellcome 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.