The OFSTED reports for our fairly large comprehensive said that middle management displayed weaknesses in some areas of the curriculum. Is there anything we, as governors, can do to influence and remedy this situation? Is it our job anyway, given the head is responsible for the quality of teachers' work?
This is an extremely good question. I have often read that the quality of middle management may be the source of problems in schools. My conclusion from questions I am asked is that - at the very least - this is common. It applies, of course, not only to faculty heads in secondary schools but to curriculum leaders in primaries. Both are responsible for keeping abreast of new ideas in their subject areas, managing the resources allocated to them, planning the work in those areas as a whole and directing, motivating and monitoring teachers in their team.
It is not all that surprising that problems arise, since teaching in itself does not invariably develop the skills needed to direct the work of other adults. The increasing independence of schools in managing their own budgeting, purchasing, staff selection and personnel functions also makes those skills more important than ever.
Governors often refer to individuals as having been "over-promoted", but they rarely pin this down to their and the head's failure to identify those distinguishing qualities required for curriculum leadership.
Governors undoubtedly have a role. This is just the sort of problem which calls for strategic intervention and, in such intervention, governors and head must work together. Governors are involved because staff selection policies, the use of resources and in-service training come under scrutiny, and because it is fundamental to the effective conduct of the school. Governors don't have to - and shouldn't - attempt to solve problems themselves, but they need to ask the searching question, sometimes commission the right professional answer, and get to know the buttons and levers which operate strategic change in a school.
First, a school should look at its appointment processes. Often the procedure for appointing staff with key responsibilities differs hardly at all from that for ordinary class or subject teachers. If your practice is to have one governor, with head and a senior colleague or two, taking half a day to interview for any post below deputy head, you might now consider whether a curriculum leadership post should involve also an additional experienced governor, perhaps an LEA subject adviser, deeper questioning on management experience and approaches, and setting some sort of management exercise or presentation. Perhaps a two-stage process would be considered appropriate, getting closer to what we do for a deputy or head.
The task does not end with the appointment. Ensure that you, as governors, are aware of the school's professional development programme, and that the learning of management skills is not neglected. Ambitious staff might also be directed to some suitable LEA or national courses and conferences. More generally, it is just as important to support new middle management staff in their first year as it is newly-qualified teachers. Ensure also that curriculum leaders have sufficient non-contact time to keep abreast of developments.
Lest readers think it unbelievable that I need to say this, I recently had an enquiry involving a new head in a primary school who found every member of staff teaching one class full-time, and no space at all to develop their subject throughout the school - indeed no awareness that that was what their job descriptions and their extra allowances meant.
In a big school it is also important that the consultative processes recognise the need for curriculum leaders to exchange ideas and experiences. The pressures now are such that departments can easily become isolated.
Questions for Joan Sallis should be sent to Agenda, The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1 9XY. Fax: 0171-782 3200.