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Empty seats at the table;Live issues;Governors;Briefing

Some 30,000 new governors are needed in England and Wales, research

suggests. So what are local councils doing about it? Hilary Wilce reports FOUR months into the school year tens of thousands of governor places are standing empty, with little prospect of being filled.

Long-standing recruitment problems have been made worse by new legislation. There are now more governing bodies and more places on existing ones. On top of this the new arrangements have thrown schools' timetables for many elections of parent and staff governors into disarray.

While the Department for Education and Employment has "no idea" how many governorships are vacant, new research from the Local Government Association suggests that schools in England and Wales are short of at least 27,000 governors - out of an estimated 340,000 in 24,500 schools.

Primary schools are worst hit, with 9 per cent of places unfilled nationally. Some schools are missing a quarter of governors.

In some secondary schools 20 per cent of places are unfilled while the national figure stands at 8 per cent. The problem is worst in London.

High vacancy rates can have serious consequences, affecting the board's ability to meet its statutory duties and work effectively - as well as meaning extra work for remaining governors.

Some city authorities are facing a crisis. Birmingham's schools are missing 350 local authority governors - a quarter of the total in this category. Nearly one in five (300) co-opted places is also empty, along with one in 10 (around 120) parent places.

In the Medway towns of Kent a major publicity campaign is trying to attract governors - even before this summer's reorganisation, 16 per cent of places were empty. Since then, the number of governing bodies in the authority has gone up from 92 to 102, and the number of governors needed by a third, from 1,296 to 1,730.

In Plymouth, around 15 per cent of 1,515 places are vacant, and reorganisation has created 197 new places. As elsewhere, the problem is acute in the city's deprived areas. In response, the authority has taken to the streets with a governors' recruitment roadshow, complete with balloons and stickers. The council also keeps a "lonely hearts" register, to try to match schools with willing volunteers, and is talking to local employers about governorship.

Rural areas, such as Wiltshire, report fewer problems, but can have difficulty getting the right mix. Some authorities have many willing retired volunteers, but struggle to recruit younger, more active people; others find it hard to recruit a range of governors which accurately reflects the local population.

"We find it particularly hard to recruit ethnic-minority governors, who are very much under-represented," says Birmingham spokeswoman Carol Austin.

Despite frequent complaints from governors and teachers that education authorities are slow to fill their own vacancies, the LGA research suggests that the biggest shortage is for co-opted governors.

Nonetheless, councils themselves say filling their vacancies is tricky. This is leading many to drop their requirement that their candidates be politically affiliated to the local ruling party.

Newcastle, a relatively small authority, is missing 45 out of around 400 local authority governors, and is having to throw its net ever wider. "I'd say that although we do still vet people politically, almost anyone who is not totally against the authority and its education policies would tend to get the nod," says Nick Sanders, manager of the city's governors' agency. The council is also telling schools that they should try to come up with their own nominees for local authority candidates, if they still have vacancies.

Newspaper advertisements

listing the specific schools which have vacancies have proved successful in the London borough of Southwark. It now finds itself in an "improving" situation, with a vacancy level of just 6 per cent. "Education authority governor places have always been hardest to fill. In many ways it's all rather an old fashioned idea. But the representatives of each party are now reviewing the options to open it up," says spokeswoman Madeline Joinson.

Everyone has a different solution to tackling the crisis. Ministers have backed the often-announced "one-stop shop" for recruiting business people to co-opted vacancies in inner cities. Thay have also supported a leaflet targeting ethnic minorities produced with the National Governors' Council and are taking a close look at the quality of training available to governors.

Graham Lane, the LGA's education chairman, believes governing bodies should be smaller, and the number of co-opted places reduced. He also feels people are put off by the burgeoning responsibilities.

John Adams, chairman of the National Association of Governors and Managers, wants governors to claim expenses from a "ring-fenced" budget held separately from school cash; otherwise, he says, it will continue to be difficult to recruit single parents and lower earners.

A simple pat on the back might help. Mary McIntyre, of Plymouth's governor support office, said: "I have a tremendous respect for governors. It constantly amazes me that people will give their time like this, and I think it's vital we find ways of giving them the prestige, importance and kudos they deserve."


Primary-school governor

vacancies are running at 9 per cent, and secondaries at 8.

Across both sectors, vacancies

are highest for co-opted

governors, followed by local authority governors.

Most authorities (88 per cent) still take political affiliation into account when appointing their governors.

A fifth of authorities say they find it difficult to recruit governors.

Less than half of authorities monitor the ethnic origin of

governors, and even fewer

monitor gender and disability.

Nearly half monitor governor attendance.

Most authorities (82 per cent) have been asked to intervene in governor-headteacher relations.

Source:Local Government Association

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