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Extended services: governors must act now

Setting up extended services in their schools could give governing bodies the most exciting ride of their lives. On the other hand, it could be a frustrating crawl along roads they don't really want to go down that lead to places they don't want to go to. It all depends on how well you prepare, and when you start the route planning. For the latter, that time is now.

Last year, when details of the "core offer" that schools are supposed to provide were announced (8am to 6pm childcare, various activities, parenting support, speedy reference to specialist services and wider community access) the target dates seemed comfortingly distant: 2010 for all schools, and 2008 for the first half of primary schools and first third of secondaries. But as we hurtle towards Easter, 2008 is suddenly slightly more than five terms away, and there is much to do.

A guidance document is coming your way from the National Remodelling Team, endorsed by the National Governors' Association. It will hit the mat with a thud, and some governors might be put off by its sheer size. If so, that will be a pity because it contains much useful information and will be an essential manual over the next couple of years. But it is not a starter kit and you have to adapt it to your own needs.

Government wants schools to be the heart of determining what extended services are provided. Governing bodies have been specifically identified as having a critical role in consulting their local communities - especially but not only parents - so that the services provided are those that are really wanted and needed. Indeed, they have a statutory obligation under the Education Act 2002 to consult widely before extended services are provided.

At the same time, though, government has told local education authorities that they should plan the provision. LEAs are also seen to have a critical role in establishing an overview and allocating funding. A budget of pound;680 million between this year and 2008 has already started to flow to local authorities to support the setting up of extended services.

Fair enough so far, but there is a real danger that the whole process could turn from a bottom-up one, in which provision is in response to locally-stated needs, into a top-down one in which planning precedes consultation.

Action tends to happen where the money is. If governing bodies do not take positive steps soon, they will find that the plans have already been drawn up and they will be merely giving assent or chipping away at the edges.

Being amateurs working in their spare time, it is all too easy for governing bodies to get into this position. Yet the effects of failing to seize the opportunities could be far-reaching, taking the edge off the whole extended schools initiative. The challenge for governors is how they find out what parents and others in the community need. At the least, they are expected to consult with parents, staff, the local authority, and children where appropriate.

How much more significant will that be if the consultation is on the basis of "What do you want?" rather than "This is what is being proposed: what do you think?" And which question will get the enthusiasm and energetic backing of the people being asked, and of the governing body doing the asking?

Governors must find their own methods. A few governing bodies are now drawing up questionnaires to send to parents, but there are no official models that you can download from a website. This task is not as straightforward as you might suppose. You could ask, for example, whether the recipients would like a breakfast club, and you would probably get a sea of hands going up. But that does not say whether people would feel the same if those hands had to dig into their own pockets, or whether they would be more or less interested if the club were held on the school premises, or whether - given that schools are expected to join together in clusters - they would like it if they had to take their children to a different school a quarter of an hour's drive away.

Then think of parenting services. How do you ask parents whether they would like parenting classes without offending them?

There are ways - you just have to work them out. When you have done that, you can approach your local authority with your facts and conviction. But you need to get started now, or else it's your community that will be marching to someone else's tune.

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