Governor gamble

It is not entirely surprising to find the Department for Education and Employment reflecting on the success or otherwise of the great governor gamble (page l). It was a huge and controversial step from the general principle that the professionals who ran schools should be made more accountable to those they served to the idea that lay governing bodies should replace most of the management functions of local education authorities. So it is high time for a proper review of the results of this bold experiment.

That review has been a long time starting; delayed, no doubt, because all government policy in the last decade has hinged on the assumption that self-governing schools were not only desirable, but essential to the idea of a schools' market. Any doubts have been stifled.

The fact that their efficacy can now be discussed by officials at all, albeit within the closed precincts of a DFEE and Standing Conference of Chief Education Officers seminar, suggests they are no longer sacrosanct. Whatever governors' shortcomings, the Government apparently considers they have sufficiently proven themselves to put the broad continuation of their role and responsibilities beyond doubt. "There is no rowing back on the general principles of governance which have been developing in the last decade, " the department's policy appraisal asserts. Such a reversion would be a "slap in the face" for 300,000 volunteers and their employers (not to mention the egg on the face of successive ministers).

Governors are also key players in the new policy imperative, school improvement. Where higher standards are frustrated by poor leadership or teaching, governors have to be willing and able to act, or so the theory goes. But it is alleged - notably by the chief inspector of schools - that some governors are unwilling or ill-equipped to bite these particular bullets. "A minority of governing bodies are either not tackling underperformance by heads or try to deal with it inappropriately, bypassing appropriate procedures, " the DFEE paper worries. That leaves aside the question of whether the majority are dealing appropriately with underperforming heads or simply do not have them. Indeed, it leaves aside a great deal more because "OFSTED inspections do not touch routinely on the work of governing bodies". Schools are not the only ones guilty of failing to evaluate the outcomes of their policies.

Had the DFEE done so more thoroughly, it might have found that governors are often frustrated in their efforts to raise expectations and hold teachers to account by lack of comparable performance figures. The league tables are useless for such management purposes though OFSTED and local authorities often hold information to put them into context.

Then there is the paucity and prevarication of local authority personnel advice; after all, one of the reasons governors were given powers of dismissal was because local authorities often lacked the will to act decisively in staff disciplinary and competence cases. Nor was their record in raising standards particularly outstanding. And yet when it finally decides to break its silence on the problems posed by and for governors, the department turns not to those with first-hand experience but to chief education officers.

Many will see in this a clear message. Whatever the rhetoric about partnership, governors and heads are seen as subjects for management by the professionals who really expect to run the service. Governors, with their awkward tendency not to do what they do not agree with, are seen as part of the problem rather than the solution. That will not be a welcome message to the many keen and dedicated governors turning out for the current series of TES training conferences. But they could bear eloquent witness if a proper, consultative review of their role and responsibilities were to take place under a new Government.

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