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Fretful volunteers told to grow up

Inspectors say governors are too dependent on support from local education authorities. Karen Thornton reports.

Reports from the Office for Standards in Education rarely go unpublicised, and its recent expose on education authority support for school improvement was no exception.

The headlines focused on whether the report - co-authored by financial watchdog the Audit Commission - made a case for the abolition of education authorities. Governors, in the middle of their own furore over the Department for Education and Employment's consultations on their roles and responsibilities, may have missed what it had to say about them.

Based on evidence from 91 inspections of authorities since 1996, it raised concerns about a "culture of dependency" in some schools. Heads, but particularly governors, "often seemed to have an unrealistic and unhealthy view of what the modern authority could offer, and a correspondingly reduced notion of their own role".

This sometimes "anxious" dependency is leaving a leadership gap in schools, suggests the report.

Education authorities must bear some responsibility for school improvement, but governors must also both challenge as well as support to managers.

"'Challenge' to the management of schools is properly a function of the authority, but on a day-to-day basis it is also, and more usually, a function of effective governance. Often it appeared not to be well-performed," it says.

Despite its criticisms, the report has been welcomed by the two main governor organisations. Both feel it takes a strategic look at governors' roles within the education system as a whole - something that is lacking in the DFEE's document on roles and responsibilities.

Jane Phillips, vice-chair of the National Association of Governors and Managers, said she had some concern about the soundness of OFSTED evidence on governing bodies. "Inspectors still don't have sufficient understanding of governance." But she added: "The question must be posed, 'If you ask volunteers to perform high-levelmanagement tasks, can you expect 100 per cent success?' "We very much welcome the 'systems approach' taken by these two organisations - an approach so manifestly lacking in the DFEE consultation on governing bodies. Governors have heavy responsibilities but little power." With national shortages of both headteachers and governors, now is a time for more local support of schools, not less, she warned.

Chris Gale, chairwoman of the National Governors' Council, also repeated her calls for a proper, independent inquiry into members' roles.

"Many heads simply see governors as a threat or, at best, the leaders in the supporters' club." she said.

"Governors are waving in the wind - they WANT to help - but frequently do not know how. Training - the right training, training for whole governing bodies - is simply not getting through.

"We need some really good whole governing body input - by other professionals who have managed it or suitably-trained inspectors. Otherwise there will be more difficult times ahead for governors."

The OFSTEDAudit Commission report does acknowledge that much is asked of governors, and questions whether they are always able to exercise "their very considerable powers" despite copious information, training and support from education authorities.

"To exercise, challenge and support requires a great deal from a governor: both the time to be effective, and a grasp of technical issues such as data analysis, target-setting and the monitoring of standards that only a minority possess. Governors are volunteers, who give their time as a matter of public duty," it says.

"Arguably, too much is asked of them. Recruitment of governors had become more difficult in many of the education authorities inspected. How governors with the right skills and experience can be provided for all schools is an issue which needs to be addressed nationally."

'Local Education Authority Support for School Improvement', price pound;12.95, is available from the Stationery Office, tel: 0870 600 5522.

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