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Does your head think that you don't count?

Many feel governors only have a minor role when it comes to steering their school, writes Peter Earley

HOW does your headteacher view the governors' role? Our new research suggests his or her opinion of what governors should do is distinctly different from what governors themselves think.

Governing bodies are now expected to have a significant strategic leadership role. This point was reinforced by the title of the most recent Department for Education and Skills conference for governors: Steering or Rowing? As government regulations and advice make clear, and as stated in Jane Martin and Ann Holt's excellent new book Joined-up Governance (2002), "creating strategy is the essence of the governing body's role."

But how do governors and heads see this strategic role? Our DFES-funded research suggests an interesting mismatch of perceptions Heads have a limited concept of the role of governors. While just over a fifth of the sample agreed governing bodies should play a "major role" in strategic leadership, far fewer judged that their body actually did so (see chart, right).

A third of headteachers thought that their governing body actually played a minor role or no role at all. Special school heads were much less positive about their governors than secondary or primary heads.

So what did heads think governors did for them in their leadership role? About a quarter said governors gave them support and encouragement, with a further quarter mentioning them as a "critical friend" or a "sounding board". About a tenth made a negative remark about governors, citing lack of time, knowledge and skills.

Chairs of governors (from a different sample of schools) had a far more positive view. No governor said that their governing body played "no role at all" - although 15 per cent felt their actual role in strategic leadership was "minor". A third regarded their governing bodies' leadership role to be "very significant".

Governors saw their work largely in terms of providing direction, being supportive, acting as a sounding board and ensuring resources were well managed. Interestingly, several comments included notes of caution about what governors were unable or unwilling to do.

Some governors - notably the chairs - appeared to have a particularly strong influence on the leadership team. For instance, there was the suspicion that, in some schools, one or two influential governors, rather than the whole body, took important strategic decisions, such as whether the school should apply for beacon status or become a specialist college.

Our research suggests that, though heads have a rather limited concept of the role of their school's governing body, they do welcome governors and want them to collaborate in leadership.

It is also clear that there is a gap between what people want governors to do and what they actually do. Operating strategically is not easy. It is often said that governors feel more comfortable giving support and advice than in helping to decide the direction of a school.

Three key questions need to be asked:

* Is governor training focusing on the wrong things?

* Does more of it need to be centred on the whole body, including the head and other senior staff? or

* Are we simply expecting too much from a group of part-time, unpaid volunteers?

Peter Earley is reader in education management at London University's Institute of Education. He was co-director of the research. "Establishing the Current State of Leadership in English Schools", by P. Earley, J. Evans, A. Gold, P. Collarbone and D. Halpin. The paper can be found at www.dfes.govresearch

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