On holiday in France last summer, I tried to explain to two friends, both teachers in a college near Paris, what governors do in the British school system. There was a pause as I finished. Then one of them asked: "But when do you have dinner?" I persisted in an effort to describe something of the tradition of voluntarism in several sectors of civil society here, but the more I said, the more I mystified.
Nigel Gann's book is for those of us who sometimes have to miss dinner. It gives a brief history of how our system of school governance came into being and takes a closer look at the big increases in governors' powers and responsibilities brought about by the Education Acts of the Eighties.
But the book is mainly concerned to promote the vision of the active, strategic, supportive yet critical governing body which the author sees as an essential working part of a participating democracy as applied to education. Such an admirable intention, spelled out in model policy statements and checklists of good practice, runs the risk of daunting that great majority of governors, including myself, who hastily read papers for the evening's meeting as they rush from work.
None the less, the book is a valuable statement of something to aim at overall and is a source of inspiration, for example, in the lead-up to an OFSTED inspection or the preparation of an achievement and behaviour policy. Much of the advice is an elaboration of common sense.
There are thorough chapters on the relations of governing bodies with teachers, inspectors and local authorities, and briefer treatments of governors' relations with government and with local communities, especially parents.
At the heart of the book, Gann details what he sums up as governors' opportunity to "catch the vision of their own power". That's what makes it worth reading.
When all is said and done, the exquisite complexity of checks and balances, as between the powers and duties of teaching professionals, local government, national government and governing bodies, and the way that complexity has changed over the years, doesn't interest most governors. The good ones are there because the exercise of power to improve children's lives and life chances gives them pleasure.
For most of them - for me - helping to govern a school is the only opportunity they will have to exercise constitutional power. They will exercise that power imperfectly, and their energy will come in fits and starts, but there will be enough moments when they will say to themselves "I did a bit of good there" for them to give our peculiar system of school governance the benefit of the doubt.
* The writer is chair of governors at Brecknock Primary School, Camden, north London