This is, of course, the first responsibility of the governing body listed in The School Governors' Guide to the Law. However, governors do not always find it easy to engage with the core business of school, that is, teaching and learning. They are, in Joan Sallis's phrase, "happier looking into lavatories than into learning". It is a salutary test for any group of governors to ask themselves what percentage of their time at their meeting was spent in discussion of curricular matters.
Research aimed at finding out how governors, in a variety of situations, have helped their schools to improve and have contributed to developing a climate which encourages improvement. Our conclusions are based on data gathered during two projects, one based at the School of Education, Cambridge University, and the other at the Institute of Education, University of London, in which the work of the governing bodies of 23 schools of all types was studied over a two-year period.
Governing bodies, when they are operating well, are capable of making a difference to a school and can be invaluable to the headteacher. In all 23 schools, the governors and staff believed that the governing body made a significant contribution to the school, seeing it as an important resource, offering support and encouragement, acting as a sounding board and providing non-educational skills and perspectives. They were all characterised by commitment, co-operation and professionalism.
All of the governing bodies organised themselves in such a way as to reflect their priorities and all delegated much of their work to sub-groups. Each committee or working party often had very specific roles, some short-term, others continuous. Often they included teachers and so helped to foster good relationships between staff and governors.
Another source of strength was that the governors were representative of the local communities and felt accountable to those communities.
All the headteachers agreed that there were many benefits in having an effective governing body and that the advantages outweighed any extra work for the staff that was generated as a result of governors' increased responsibilities. Heads said that they were now having to explain things more fully to lay people, translate the jargon of education and fill in background details so that governors could make informed decisions. But they appreciated the support - often personal as well as professional - that they received from them.
School improvement is high on both political and educational agendas. The role of governors in this was first highlighted in Improving Schools (OFSTED, 1999), and the 1998 Education Act states clearly that the purpose of governing bodies is to help to provide the best possible education for the pupils in their schools. At present, however, the evidence from inspection reports suggests that not all governing bodies are operating at the level which enables them to contribute fully to improvement in their schools.
As one primary school governor said: "We need to be better at targeting the really big issues and giving ourselves time to discuss them." He argued that his governing body needed to plan ahead in order to meet coming changes and that the governors needed to be thinking now about how they were going to address the issues.
The demands made upon schools and their governing bodies will almost certainly increase in the future. Only those governing bodies that are well-organised and well led are likely to be able to meet the new challenges.