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Bit-part players with a huge burden

The Government has great expectations of governors but it needs to give them a freer hand, says Andy Borthwick

Responsibility for the education of the country's children is shared by 350,000 governors. So says the Department for Education and Skills in its Governing the School of the Future document.

Governors are volunteers who need high-level skills in understanding complicated personnel, finance, curriculum, building and socialcommunity issues to perform their duties.

The roles and responsibilities of governing bodies are set out over 22 chapters and 150 pages in the DfES guide to the law, yet this publication and recent ministerial statements suggest that the Government does not understand them itself.

The new Education Secretary Ruth Kelly has said: "Heads have the right to exclude pupils." During a recent budget, Chancellor Gordon Brown said that he was giving "additional money to headteachers". But the DfES guide says governing bodies are responsible for budgets and for exclusion.

To strengthen governance and "deliver the schools of the future" the Government needs to focus on some key areas.

Most important is the need to publicise and apply the law. Any pronouncements or new policies affecting schools should involve governors to at least the same extent as any other stakeholder. Advice and guidance from government and local education authorities should clearly identify governor responsibility. The famous legal "grey areas" - so well known to any practising governor - will need to be clarified.

Better selection and make-up of governing bodies is needed. The current "key stakeholder" model confuses accountability with representation. The complex balance of teachers, parents, LEA representatives and so on makes it extremely difficult to ensure the right level of skills, availability and commitment of membership.

The requirement for governing bodies to review and adjust their membership is a "rearranging the deckchairs" exercise. While parental involvement is clearly desirable, the faith that the Government puts in parent governors is often misplaced. Governors should be free to choose the right person for the job, not remain locked into a spurious representational straitjacket.

Accountability to parents for the standards and performance of the school can be achieved in other ways - perhaps through a parent council.

Better community and business involvement is needed, as is acknowledged in the document. Schools are often key to the financial and social health of their local community. Not only would greater involvement of senior business and commercial personnel be a good source of the type of skills required, but managers might also get to know a bit more about education and training issues. Not a bad thing given the Government's wider policies related to workforce development.

There is also the question of training. Governors serve approximately four years. This means more than 85,000 new governors are needed every year. To achieve the required skill level among so many people without a clear recruitment policy is simply not an economic or efficient use of resources.

We need a clear statement of national standards of competence, supported by local training provided by independent trainers. Too often it is left to local education authorities to organise training and it is driven by their ideas of roles and responsibilities.This can be like putting the fox in charge of the hen house.

Governing bodies have been introducing the new regulations relating to workforce remodelling in schools, as they are responsible for this under their personnel and finance duties. Perhaps the Government would have more success with raising standards if the governing bodies were remodelled.

Only then would governors be able to play their full statutory role instead of being the bit-part players they too often are now.

Andy Borthwick is chair of governors at Dartmouth community college. He has served on governing bodies as a professional educator, a senior LEA officer and co-opted governor for the past 20 years. He is currently chairman of the board of TLO Ltd, the specialist education and training company

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