Governors: let's pay them to do a better job

Sue Sutton

I love being a primary school governor, and feel it is a privilege to be so involved in the running of a school, especially when I don't have expertise in the education field.

And there lies the problem. After several years, I still don't feel as though I am equipped to do the job. I am told that we all bring our own skills and strengths to the table. But is that enough? I presently feel like a jack of all trades and master of none.

Increasingly, I feel the role is becoming too big for someone who works full-time, with or without a family to look after. Even for those who don't work, the job requires a lot of time to do it justice.

You need time to develop relationships, trust and mutual respect. You need to spend time in the school and not just attend the governors' meetings. You need to get a feel for what is going on. You also need time to keep up with developments and initiatives coming from the Assembly government and local authority.

In recent years, there have been huge changes in education, for example, the development of the foundation phase and the new curriculum. You need to do a lot of reading or have good, knowledgeable contacts in education to keep up with it all.

While the governance and running of a school has become more complicated, there does not seem to be a corresponding questioning of the role of the governing body. But is it still a relevant model with the ability to do the job required?

Last year, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published the findings of a study into how governors in England meet the challenge to ensure their schools are run effectively. One of the conclusions made by the researchers was the need for widespread debate on the precise role of governing bodies. I, for one, would welcome this debate in Wales.

The report raised a few key points. First, governing bodies can make a valuable contribution to schools if they have an adequate supply of governors with time, commitment and expertise. However, the report noted that even professional and experienced governors found the challenges daunting, while some parent governors were overwhelmed by them.

Governors are expected to act as "critical friends" to headteachers and as strategic leaders. In practice, governors in the Rowntree study felt happier offering support rather than challenge, and relied on the head to set any strategic direction.

Governing bodies face complex tasks, but external - national or local authority - policy frameworks constrain their freedom of action. Although governors did not accept these frameworks uncritically, they were in no position to challenge them, the report noted.

I can't help wondering if we governors make much of a difference. One head in the study said: "If the school secretary, caretaker or any of the class teachers were taken away, it would have a huge impact. And although governing bodies can be highly effective, and full of very good people, if they didn't exist, you might not notice."

I apologise for appearing so negative, but I do believe there should be change. The Rowntree study identified several options for change but the one I like best is replacing bodies with a core of skilled, committed, paid governors to lead groups of schools, with school-specific governors added for particular purposes.

The report concluded that there was an opportunity to debate what sort of school governance is wanted and for what purpose. If there is a debate, please can Wales join in?

Sue Sutton is a pseudonym. She is a primary school governor in south Wales.

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Sue Sutton

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