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Governors like a little local help

Jane Martin outlines the minimum education's volunteers need if they are to function effectively without neglecting school, pupils, or themselves

No less than chief inspector Chris Woodhead, in his last annual report, confirmed that governors' training is "often haphazard" and governors are "shortsightedly reluctant to spend money on their own development". This only reinforces what those of us concerned with supporting these volunteers have known for some time - that the case for adequate training cannot be too strongly emphasised.

Many of these lay volunteers find the professional jargon and practice of education alien. And yet they are being asked to get involved in an unprecedented exercise in public accountability. If it is to stand a chance of helping to raise standards in our schools, governors need to be well informed, confident and assertive.

As has clearly become apparent to the Office for Standards in Education, however, the induction and training of governors has developed in an ad hoc way and varies across the country. While Action for Governor Information and Training has supported the development of good practice we know that some areas of the country and some parts of the service are not well served. Moreover the attitude to training of governing bodies and headteachers varies - some are more positive then others - and clerking arrangements which should provide advice and support can often be less than adequate.

After the initial jolt experienced by some education professionals faced by the first cohort of enthusiastic volunteers eager to take up their newly won authority, many governing bodies have developed cosy relationships with headteachers, staff and local authority officers. Such "tame" bodies can be prevented by training up well-informed and confident governors.

Governors are also tempted to neglect their own needs by the tightness of school budgets. Funding for their training is now delegated to schools and, in keeping with local management principles, is no longer "earmarked". Governors put children and schools first in their deliberations which is as it should be, but effective governors are also in the interests of those same children.

Pressure on local authority budgets, particularly in the new unitary authorities, may result in a further squeeze on governor training. The role of many local authority governor training co-ordinators is already under threat and their extinction would signal the end of locally-provided training in many parts of the country. That local support has proved a lifeline for many governing bodies.

At the national level too, the prospect of a new government should be considered. Whatever else they may not have done, successive Conservative governments have funded governor training - it was after all a reform they initiated. Thus far the Labour party has done little to reassure us of its commitment to governors - we wait and see.

In the light of these concerns AGIT has cooperated with other governor training groups to propose minimum levels of support. This is aimed at raising awareness among governors, headteachers and trainers and is based on current good practice - the agreed statement on behalf of AGIT, Institution of School and College Governors (ISCG) and the National Association of Governors and Managers (NAGM) indicates minimum levels of information, training and support which governors need at school, local and national level.

We believe it sets out, for the first time, the conditions which governors need to enable them to make an effective contribution. They all need basic information about their school and its governing body. This should include the last school development plan and annual report to parents; a list of governors and how to contact them; the articles of government and other documents detailing conduct of business. Clearly bombarding new governors with too much information needs to be avoided and a reference section in school for policy documents is probably a good idea.

Governors should have opportunities to become involved in the life of the school - and there are many examples of good practice such as "Governor of the Month" to encourage their presence. Governors should also be aware of the budget available for their training and development. At least once a year they should discuss their development needs and identify appropriate support - often LEA training co-ordinators will help with this.

The importance of local support for governors is clear. Most often but not always provided by LEA governor training units, accessible professional advice and information, including clerking services, is essential. Collaboration is often more sensible than everyone reinventing the wheel and the development of local associations highlights the opportunities governing bodies should have to be involved in education decision-making locally. Many of these associations have already developed a dialogue with local authority members.

While national and regional training events have their place, for the majority of governors it is the training provided locally which is the most accessible. Increasingly there is support for induction training as a pre-requisite for all new governors - which needs to be free - with the accent on responsibilities and relationships for effective governance rather than didactic information-giving exercises. A balance must be struck, however, and we recommend somewhere between six and 12 hours.

At a national level, the Government must continue to supply governors with information on the legal requirements of their role and easily digested information on educational change and good practice. Funding must continue to take into account the cost of supporting governors. The "job" of training these volunteers is not "done" and ministers should not expect it to be achieved at no additional cost.

The work that has been done to bring governors closer to the policy-making process must continue as of right, for the mobilisation of public support for our state education system must not be allowed to wither away - even if it proves to be politically uncomfortable from time to time.

Jane Martin is chairman of Action for Governor Information and Training. For a copy of Guidance on a Minimum Entitlement for School Governors please contact AGIT, Lyng Hall, Blackberry Lane, Coventry CV2 3JS or telephone 012O3 638679

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