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Governors: so what's the alternative?

A wide variety of views have been expressed in the Role Call debate in The TES. But the one point on which almost every contributor has been agreed so far is that deciding heads' pay is not a job for governors.

Even before the Office for Standards in Education warned the school teachers' pay review body that governors were not capable of assessing heads' performance for salary purposes, contributors were making it clear the responsibility was unwelcome. Terry Mah-oney, a former governor trainer who launched the debate back in September, declared: "It is inappropriate for governors - many of whom are poorly paid or not in work - to have to carry out a performance review of heads and deputies as part of an annual pay review. This is the job of experienced professional personnel managers. Few governing bodies can possess such well-honed skills."

The TES's own columnist, Joan Sallis, did not agree that governors' powers are excessive. But if someone wanted to take the twin poisoned chalices of exclusions and headteachers' pay out of governors' hands, she said, "I don't think I'd get on my soap-box about it".

Ian Frost, a Manchester governor, urged governing bodies to resist calls for reform of their powers: "I would rather decisions were taken by governors with direct involvement in, knowledge of and commitment to the school rather than faceless council administrators."

But even he wondered if the requirement to review the performance of heads was beyond the reach of many governing bodies. And last week academics Rosemary Deem and Kevin Brehony, who have researched governors in several countries, were unequivocal: "Lay people have neither the time nor the necessary expertise to fix heads' pay or set budgets."

Governors, of course, have the remedy to hand. They can simply refuse to make such payments until they have been provided with the necessary training or criteria. Yet, despite their reservations, it seems that many governing bodies have made use of their discretion over heads' pay; indeed,the experience of doing so - sometimes under pressure from heads - may lie behind the wariness many now feel about it.

The Government and the pay review body show every sign of persisting with this duty none the less. This year's requirement that governors set performance criteria for heads and deputies is an acknowledgement of the need for a more systematic approach.

What is the alternative? Could remote local authorities make any more sensible judgments? Do they even have the personnel to do this any longer? A more systematic, professional approach would require clear criteria at a national or local authority level. These would invite challenge from unions or individuals. The whole process would end up in a massive bureaucratic exercise.

So the powers-that-be have little choice but to go on relying on lay governors if they want to encourage good performance through higher pay. Unless, of course, you know a better way?

Four out of five heads want the roles of governors more clearly defined and calls are growing for governing body powers to be reined in. If you have a view on the roles and responsibilities of school governors write to Bob Doe, The TES, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1 9XY

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