Kept out of the loop

Why is vital information about how well schools are doing being withheld from governors? Karen Thornton reports

ADVISERS from local education authorities are frequent visitors in schools. They will often give vital insights into how schools are performing. But how often do governors get to see what they had to say?

Not very, according to a new survey of LEA support for governors.

The study carried out by Ten, an independent policy research and information organisation, in conjunction with COGS, the national body representing those who support and train governors, found that only three in five authorities circulate advisers' reports on schools to chairs of boards.

Fewer than one in six copied them to all a school's governors, according to returns from 60 per cent of English authorities.

Pressure from headteachers leads to governors being kept in the dark, says the report, titled Governance Matters and published today.

The report also highlights low take-up of induction training by new members, continuing problems recruiting ethnic-minority governors and the many vacancies on boards across the country.

It suggests that governors, despite their legal duty to promote high standards of education and to manage the performance of the head (an assessment which affects the head's pay), are being cut out of a vital information loop.

One unitary authority told Ten: "There is great sensitivity about sharing information directly with governors although some heads will share visitor notes."

Report author Simon Bird said the Government's emphasis on heads' autonomy undermined governors and was partly to blame for local authorities not handing over adviser reports to them.

"There has been a major transfer of power and responsibility from LEAs to schools, reflected in the fact that schools now manage around 87 per cent of the money compared to 5 per cent just over a decade ago," he said.

"In practice, more autonomy for schools usually means more autonomy for headteachers.

"Measures in the new Education Act giving headteachers more control over exclusions, staff appointments and dismissals, are chief examples of this approach.

"The Government needs to recognise that it is giving mixed messages which are creating tensions in its drive to raise education standards.

"Increasing the autonomy of heads at the expense of the governing body and LEA sometimes undermines governing bodies' and LEAs' legal duty to promote high standards of education and reduces the local accountability of schools."

According to Governance Matters, LEAs are also guilty of failing to make the most of the expertise of their governor support staff. Governor services staff had no input into nearly half of LEAs' education development plans and more than a third of LEAs' work in schools causing concern.

The wide-ranging report also found almost half of new governors did not attend induction training - significantly lower than the 85 per cent cited by ministers. Ten is calling for induction courses to be compulsory for all new recruits, a move ministers have so far resisted on the grounds that governors are volunteers. The Government launched a national training programme for recruits last year.

The report also highlighted concerns about ethnic-minority representation. One in three authorities was unable to supply data on ethnic-minority governors, who were significantly under-represented across all types of authority.

Even in London, minority groups were under-represented. However, the capital's councils were more likely to have policies to support recruitment of minority governors (two-thirds of them did compared to a third of unitary authorities). Two-fifths of counties claimed to have strategies yet only three out of 25 were able to supply data.

New laws requiring authorities to promote equal opportunities mean they must take action. The views of one metropolitan council which had "not found the need for a specific minority ethnic governor strategy" were "not sustainable", said the report.

The number of local councillors serving on governing bodies ranged from just over half in London to more than two-thirds in metropolitan boroughs.

More than three-fifths of authority appointments in London were party political but that figure dropped to 21 per cent in unitaries, and 43-48 per cent elsewhere.

Contrary to popular belief, authority vacancies were not the hardest to fill on governing bodies.

The highest number of empty seats was for co-opted governors, with a 17 per cent vacancy rate, compared to 12 per cent for LEA appointments, and an average 11 per cent.

For a copy of 'Governance Matters' email info@ten.info or ring 020 7554 2810. Minister Cathy Ashton and chief inspector David Bell will be among the speakers discussing the report at a conference in London on Tuesday, September 17

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