Imagine the scene. It's 1995. At a special school in a south-coast town, one of the first schools to fail an Ofsted inspection, the entire governing body (except the head, who is too busy to attend) plus an education consultant specialising in working with governors are meeting to discuss how to turn the school around. The school failed because it was not meeting legal requirements in delivering the national curriculum.
"Let's go around the table," suggests the consultant. "How did you feel when you learnt that the school had failed?" Someone says: "Surprised."
The consultant - somewhat naively - suggests that the governors would have known that failure was inevitable under the circumstances.
"No," says the chair of governors. "We thought everything was all right. That's what the head told us."
Now it's 1999 and at a large London secondary school on special measures the entire governing body (except the head, who is too busy to attend) and the same education consultant are meeting to discuss how to turn the school around.
"Let's go around the table," says the consultant. "How did you feel when you learnt that the school had been put on special measures?" The governors variously say: "Shocked." "Angry." "Astonished." "Let down." "Disappointed." Until the chair says, at last: "Guilty - responsible."
In the four years that have elapsed between these two events, some 1,000 schools have failed their inspections, while more have had "serious weaknesses" identified. The most serious weaknesses, according to the chief inspector's annual report, are frequently in planning, monitoring and evaluating.
While about 3 per cent of schools "fail", we are told that about 25 per cent of governing bodies are doing an inadequate job. So where is the literature on "failing" governing bodies?
The market for research and publications on failing schools is apparently infinite, but where governors are concerned there is only a black hole. Where are the strategies for turning around a governing body?
As the ultimate authority within the school, if the governing body runs right, everything else ought to follow. Yet, "those schools which face the greatest challenges and where the need to raise standards is highest, are the most likely to lack the strategic support they need", says the chief inspector's report.
Throughout the past four years, I have worked as an educational consultant with dozens of governing bodies, some of them in schools in trouble, others who just want to make things better. I believe we can now identify a four-stage process through which governors have to pass in order to be in a position to improve their school.
First, they should acknowledge and accept their collective responsibility for the school's performance. They can do this by discussing and agreeing these four statements:
* The governing body is not as effective as it might be.
* You don't have to be doing poorly to do better.
* The governing body can make a difference to the management of the school.
* This governing body wants to make a difference to the school.
Second, they should understand their strategic role. This means planning the school's development, monitoring that the school is carrying out agreed plans, and evaluating achievements.
Third, they should use targets to define the priorities of the school, but also going beyond this to set targets for all the processes, outputs and outcomes that the school values. These might be talked about as promises or guarantees, and form part of the home-school agreement. They are the explicit commitments of the school to its customers.
Finally, they should oversee the continuing progress and achievements of the school, agreeing success criteria, performance indicators, quality standards - whatever method of evaluation suits them.
If governing bodies were encouraged - indeed, if they were allowed to get on with these fundamental tasks - we could see the critical role they have in school improvement, instead of being distracted by ever more executive tasks, ever more "business" such as reconstitution, fair funding, performance-related pay.
Currently, the "improvement" agenda is being driven hard by the Office for Standards in Education and the Department for Education and Employment, who have created vested interests in a particular kind of achievement for schools which can be measured. Thus success for schools will mean success for the profession of education.
What we need instead is a recognition that success for the educational world should mean success for each individual school - each one being given the right to define what it wants to achieve for its pupils within a national framework. It is the role of the governing body to develop, through its membership and identification with the community, through consultation and through partnership with its staff, its own definition of a "successful" school.
Auto-improvement can be applied by any governing body that wants to do its jobs better, not just to schools in trouble. It should establish the governing body's rightful place at the heart of school effectiveness.
Nigel Gann is an education consultant and works principally in senior management and governing body development. He is author of Improving School Governance: How better governors make better schools and Targets for Tomorrow's Schools: A guide to whole-school target-setting for governors and headteachers (both Falmer Press)