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Editorial - We've spent too much time making governance local and not enough making it effective

Vindictive, interfering, amateurish, crass, ignorant busybodies. Other people call them school governors, but a significant minority of headteachers would be less polite. In a recent survey, while a fifth of heads said their governors were outstanding, an equal amount said they were poor.

Meanwhile, governors complain that although they commit their time freely, heads do not listen, and inform when they should consult. Most governors and heads enjoy a far more amicable and productive relationship than those caricatures suggest. But what price harmony? As much damage can be done by unchallenging governors who are on friendly terms with complacent school leaders as by those who are at loggerheads.

But the issue isn't really personality clashes or alliances. We talk people when we should be talking structure. As the burden of governor accountability has risen, the lines of responsibility have blurred. The traditional mantra is that governors are there to support and challenge school heads. But support and challenge when and how? Its vagueness allows determined heads to bamboozle supine governors and deluded governors to pretend that they run the school and not the professionals in the classroom.

It isn't clear that we have a governance system that can cope now, let alone with the changes coursing through the education system. Half of all schools report that it's difficult to recruit governors, with vacancies most common in disadvantaged areas that need help most. Over 10 per cent of posts remain unfilled nationally. This at a time when local authority power has never been weaker, the financial prospects for schools gloomier, or the need for oversight of increasingly autonomous schools greater.

All of which prompts a more fundamental question: is a system of school governance that relies exclusively on the services of unpaid local volunteers effective or desirable?

Most governors are undeniably committed - otherwise they wouldn't bother. But commitment is not the same as excellence. It is asking a lot of a body of lay people to be the final arbiters of budgets, exclusions, curriculum strategies, staff, behavioural and umpteen other policies. The lack of specialist knowledge is particularly acute when it comes to appointing the head. Governors tend to hire what they know and not what is needed.

If governing bodies are to be more effective, their composition has to change. It would make sense to professionalise the role of chair and pay them. It would be better to recruit more retired teachers and those with relevant professional experience, and appoint fewer local authority stooges. A governing body can reflect the community and function well. But far too much attention has been paid to making governors representative and not nearly enough to making them effective.

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