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Board work

Welsh governors are being helped to stand up for themselves. Laurence Pollock reports

Historically, Wales has had a reverential attitude to education. During cultural or economic oppression, for instance, learning seemed to offer advancement and self-fulfilment.

It is not surprising, therefore, that generations have regarded schools and schoolteachers with awe. That might be starting to change, however, if the experience of governors on a new training course is any guide: deference might start to give way to informed questions.

Last month the first governors to take part in the South East Wales Open College Network accredited training scheme received their certificates. It was a high-profile affair with Jane Davidson, the Welsh education minister, presenting the awards. The event also marked the launch of a Governors Wales website and a helpline staffed by experienced governors.

Two years ago Governors Wales, the national forum for governor associations, and three local education authorities (Vale of Glamorgan, Caerphilly and Merthyr Tydfil) formed a training consortium. Working with the Open College Network and non- profit education services provider CfBT, the consortium designed a pilot course for volunteer governors. It covered the roles and relationships of the governing body and the management of state-funded education.

All the 45 participants took part in some or all of the modules. For Wendy Simms, a grandmother from Merthyr Tydfil who taught herself how to use a computer ("because all my grandchildren were on them"), it was hard work but very worthwhile.

"It was a lot of work delving back into old minutes and using your own experience," she said.

Mrs Simms, an LEA nominee at Ynys Owen primary and co-opted to Greenfield special school, particularly valued the interaction with other governors as she came to the realisation of "how much I was benefiting my school".

Sabina Allen Kormylo also had a new self-awareness. A mother of young children who runs a musical instrument company with her husband, she has been a regular attender at LEA governor training. But she relished the new course's ability to talk about the role of governors in a broad sense and help her to "stand up for myself".

"In the valleys, things have been done slightly differently and politics is really serious. At the first few meetings I thought 'Are we at a party political broadcast?'" "I don't know if people stand up for themselves more in other areas. I hope that every new governor will be able to take this course. It needs a lot of people to change the whole system," she said.

Kormylo stresses that she has a good relationship with her head at Mount Pleasant primary in Merthyr Vale, where she is a parent governor. But she adds: "Heads sometimes do not realise the roles of governors. Some have been around for 30 years and they are not very excited when governors say, 'excuse me, this is our role'."

A spokeswoman for Governors Wales stressed that the aim was to provide skills as well as knowledge.

"Very little training is skills-based, helping governors to work within their strategic role - how to manage meetings, how to plan, to monitor, to evaluate. LEA training is more likely to be a course about, say, child protection," she said.

The pilot is due to be evaluated and the consortium hopes that the National Assembly will approve a full roll-out throughout Wales.

Early indications suggest that governors have benefited from the course. According to Governors Wales, two authorities say that governors who took part have been asking a lot more questions.

Nigel Gann, who wrote the course for CfBT, acknowledges it has drawn on previous models such as the BTEC in school governance and vocational qualifications. But it was designed specifically for Wales, with its pattern of unitary authorities. He portrays a culture where lay people need more confidence to oversee public services.

"There are a number of small LEAs with a small pool of governors to draw on. There is less experience of public affairs - especially meetings.

"We are giving governors the knowledge and confidence to sit down and work with experienced professional people. There has always been reverence for Welsh education but that does not have to be deference," he said.

Adoption of the model by the National Assembly would see rural issues being addressed. Many Welsh locations are remote and even with access to a car, getting to a training centre is hard.

The website, therefore, has the potential to offer distance-learning solutions to governors' training needs. The new course, in tackling knowledge, skills and social confidence, has the potential to go well beyond previous models in meeting local needs. And there could be a new breed of critical friend multiplying in the valleys.

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