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The death of an ideal?;Governors;Briefing

Are we killing the goose that lays the golden egg when asking hard-pressed governors to deliver the undeliverable, asks Geoff Hand.

Do you have long-standing vacancies on your governing body? Is the turnover rate up over the past few years? Answer yes, and you are not alone - which should worry the Department for Education and Employment, which is increasingly looking to governing bodies to help ensure that schools meet new national targets.

It's hard now to believe that once a sub-committee of a local authority's education committee could act as the governing body for all its schools. We have all developed coping strategies for overload - now, though, this is exacerbated by a change in governors' responsibilities.

The financial responsibilities that came along with local management increased the workload, but at least governing bodies then felt they were making a contribution to the running of the school. Governors with business experience found themselves especially welcomed - while accountants were positively cosseted!

With the introduction of the national curriculum and the development of assessment, however, governors have found themselves no longer complementing the available experience in the school. Instead, we have moved to the heart of what the professionals are about. This is no bad thing in itself: in this country the lay person has long played a significant part in governance.

Some governors, however, are now starting to feel that instead of representing the parents and the community they are expected instead to see that Government policy is enforced. What is more, they do not want to be part of what they see as silly, unworkable exercises. They may, for example, accept that target-setting can lead to improved performance, but they also know that the difference in year groups means that steady year-on-year improvement is undeliverable.

It doesn't stop there. The possibility of being expected to implement performance-related pay threatens the mutual trust between teaching staff and governors which is essential to the success of any governing body.

It is not as if the Government doesn't recognise the importance of governing bodies. In the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, it empowers them to "do anything which appears to them to be necessary or expedient for the purposes of, or in connection with, the conduct of the school."

So what does it need to do to ensure that there are still enough governors in post to carry out these responsibilities? A start might be to carry out a national survey to establish what governors find satisfying or dissatisfying about the job. From this the DFEE might be able to determine the effect of cumulative additional workload on school governors and to establish the kinds and levels of responsibilities it is reasonable to expect from lay volunteers.

Is this call alarmist and a waste of money when on the surface the system still seems to work?

At present, no one knows the scale of the problem nationwide, but we all know it's getting harder to fill vacancies and that fewer governors are willing to seek re-election. The Government's decision (in the School Standards and Framework Act) to increase the number of governors needed, by requiring separate governing bodies for infant and junior schools on the same site, suggests that it remains oblivious.

Even so, it is small comfort to the golden goose to know its death was manslaughter, not murder.

Joan Sallis returns on March 19

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