Langford Primary School is in a deprived area of London, sandwiched between very affluent areas. Five years ago, the school was Inadequate. At the end of last year, Ofsted visited and judged the school Outstanding. We asked Chair of Governors, Dominic McGonigal, to give us the inside story.

How has the journey been from Inadequate to Outstanding?

Tough! When a school is Inadequate, there are things that are fundamentally wrong. The outward signs are seen in the children – poor attainment, poor progress and an environment that is not conducive to learning. In one year, only 18% of our Year 6 achieved expected level in Reading. But behind that are more fundamental issues – a perception among many parents and staff that this school would never be any good and that the children wouldn’t achieve much.

The journey for us was Inadequate (2013), Requires Improvement (2014), United Learning taking the school into the MAT (2016), Outstanding Ofsted (2018).

From the moment we took responsibility for the school, we set out to be Outstanding, step by step, starting with the learning environment for children (including safeguarding) and quality of teaching and learning. That meant structural changes. Absolutely critical to this was the new Head, Seamus Gibbons. He drove through the changes and never gave up. We enjoyed an effective working relationship between the Board of Governors and the Head, ensuring clarity of purpose, transparency and continued improvement.

What principles guide the work you do as a Governing Board at Langford?

Our guiding principle has been to be outstanding across the board, not just according to Ofsted’s definition. United Learning has a clear ethos, with seven learning principles and a commitment to every child (‘The Best in Everyone’).

We have paid particular attention to progress. Data is valuable as are the excellent dashboards we receive which reveal the progress of each sub-group – Pupil Premium, EAL, SEND etc. Behind that are individual children and their own story.  When we ask about progress, it is clear that the teachers know each child individually and, more importantly, know how they learn.

Our style is that of critical friend. We work closely with the Head and the staff with a collegiate and supportive approach, challenging inside the boardroom to be sure that we are achieving our ambitions and that we have the best approach.

How is the GB at Langford set up? How often do you meet? What committees do you have?

We established the LGB from scratch in 2016 when the school became part of United Learning. We actually created our own Terms of Reference and Governance Model so we could establish good ways of working from the start. They encompass a scheme of delegation from the Trust, reporting lines, roles and responsibilities, composition of the LGB, terms of office and appointments, code of conduct, skills audit, outline agenda plan for the year, induction and CPD.

We have chosen to keep our LGB small. At the moment we have 10 members, including the Head, one staff member and one parent governor and we meet 3-5 times a year. In addition, each Governor is expected to make a focused visit once a term.

We chose not to have any committees. Instead, we have a portfolio structure where each Governor is responsible for one or more portfolios. These include SEND, finance, community links, health & safety, curriculum and progress and attainment. The portfolio Governor is responsible for their area, making targeted visits to the school and liaising with the relevant member of staff. We find this is an effective way to build up in-depth knowledge of key areas while keeping all Governors informed across the board.

How has the role/work of the Governing Board changed during the past 5 years? Has it?

5 years ago, Langford was a local authority school. I don’t know how it operated then. Since 2016, the board has evolved as we have been able to graduate from crisis management mode into being able to look more closely at specific aspects of the school and expand the offering in terms of enrichment, arts, sport and wellbeing. We are also being asked to support other schools.

What is the benefit of having 75% of your governors under 35? Was this a conscious decision?

It wasn’t a conscious decision to have 75% of our governors under 35, but we were keen to have a diverse board which reflects the local community and gives us the full range of skills we need. In particular, we need skills in the portfolio roles so we can fully support the school in those areas and discharge our responsibilities. We have a comprehensive skills audit covering all the portfolio areas as well as the generic skills we need as governors. We score well on that, with at least two governors having good or expert experience in all areas.

What have been the benefits of working with GfS to appoint some governors during this process?

We have used Governors for Schools for 5 appointments so far. Indeed, I was approached to be Chair through Governors for Schools. For us it has been very effective as we can specify the skills we want and we have always matched those. Many of our young governors have not been a governor before so it has been a good way to get them on board, give them opportunities to train (through CPD as well as alongside more experienced governors) and, I hope, start them on many years of valuable service to education.

Why would you recommend our service?

As Chair, my principal portfolio responsibility is governance, including recruitment and appointment of new governors. Governors for Schools makes my life easier as I can specify what we want and normally will receive one or two suitable candidates within a day or two.

What would be your top 5 pointers for a school in a similar position to Langford 5 years ago?

  • Get a good Headteacher
  • Have a clear objective (e.g. be outstanding)
  • Take a step by step approach
  • Support the Head in the difficult decisions
  • Notice and acknowledge achievements along the way (as well as the critique towards the next goal)

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