MANY of the roles previously played by educational professionals in county and town halls are now in the hands of governors.
The gradual transfer of power from education authorities to schools and central government has increased the responsibilities laid upon governors. Recent additions include setting targets for pupils, performance management of staff, and headteacher appraisal.
But as governors are given more power, the question arises of just how much it is reasonable to expect unpaid volunteers, often with minimal administrative support and training, to accept. The Government's better regulation task force (see TES, April 7) had its own view on the way forward - cutting the size of boards and reducing their responsibilities. Last week, ministers announced their own proposals (see opposite page).
The new Office for Standards in Education's inspection framework is very specific about what governing bodies are expected to do. They are to:
provide a sense of direction for the work of the school;
act as a critical friend;
hold the school to account for its standards and quality of education.
These roles are, however, problematic. Thinking strategically demands high levels of skill, knowledge and confidence on the part of governors. While most are supportive, there is evidence that they are often not sufficiently "critical", and some are still doing little more than rubber-stamping the head's decisions. Despite growing evidence that governing bodies do make a difference, some heads do not welcome governor involvement.
The difficulties which governors have in fully adopting these three roles may be due to a lack of confidence about their own knowledge of the school and teaching; a lack of clarity about their role and a reluctance to upset staff.
The nature of the relationship between governors and staff, especially the headteacher, may be called into question if governors offer too much of a challenge without, at the same time, offering a high level of support. As the responsibilities of school governors continue to be extended, they may be perceived as "mini-inspectors" and their role is seen by the teachers as one of surveillance.
However, governors' involvement in monitoring the standards of education is an important link in the chain of accountability between the school and the community. The community, after all, is funding the school through taxation. Last year's Commons' select committee report on governors said the school's line of accountability should be clear, "ensuring that the particular interests of the local community are understood by the school".
Nigel Gann (a governor consultant now working for the Centre for British Teachers) suggests that governors as lay people contribute in several ways. As members of the community, they have an understanding of its expectations, and can offer staff support and understanding, interpreting the school to the community. They can also provide a way for the community to exercise its ownership of the school.
A governing body is composed of individuals who bring different perspectives to the school and prevent the school from becoming insular. Having a group of people with a variety of skills and experience is an extra resource for headteachers which can make their jobs easier.
We believe strongly that governing bodies should continue to be drawn from lay members of the school's local community, that they should continue to bring to their schools what TES columnist Joan Sallis has called "the blessed light of ordinariness". Governors should be professional in their approach but they are not, nor should they become, "educational professionals".
The lay perspective may need to be re-emphasised. Teachers, who educate the community's children on its behalf, should continue to be directly accountable through a governing body which is truly representative of that community. There is a need for a greater acceptance among teachers, and especially some heads, of the significance of that accountability and of the value which a representative and effective governing body can add to a school.
Efforts to recruit governors from every part of society should continue and increase, and there should be a greater public recognition of the key role played by governors in our education system.
Peter Earley, of London University's Institute of Education, and Michael Creese of Cambridge University, have researched and written widely on