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Kitting out the volunteer army

Gerald Haigh looks at the best features of Cambridgeshire's acclaimed support services

If you want to be a school governor, best be one in Cambridgeshire.

Earlier this year inspectors gave the authority top marks for helpfulness, saying: "The head of the governor support service gives high-quality leadership.The service has a thorough and detailed knowledge of strengths and weaknesses in governance across the authority and regularly evaluates the training needs of governors and responds accordingly."

No small accolade, as governor support and training is not the easiest LEA duty. The very raison d'etre of a governing body rests in its status as a group of lay people, bringing to the system their own experiences and skills. In a roomful of governors on a local authority training session you can almost read the thought bubbles.

"Nobody told me I'd got to learn all this!"

"All I really want to know is who to phone up when there's a problem."

Philip Hodgson, who chairs the governing body at a Cambridgeshire primary, says: "Governors make up the biggest volunteer army in the country, and you get varying degrees of involvement, commitment and interest."

Yet these volunteers have serious and far-reaching statutory duties and it is not fair nor good practice for them to rely on the head for everything.

As Susie Hall, head of governor effectiveness in Cambridgeshire, says: "If the governing body is to be involved in school improvement, some governors need to get their heads round the performance data."

People like Ms Hall help governors to realise what sort of support they need, and then train them to use their considerable independent powers confidently.

The county's approach makes a clear link between governor support and school improvement. Governor services are part of the schools quality assurance team, which means that Susie Hall, her team, and the governors are in close contact with authority inspectors.

"All training and development focuses on school improvement," says Ms Hall, "And we plan and deliver our service with inspectors and advisers."

The annual review that each school undergoes is an example of this. The review meeting comprises the head, the school's assigned inspector and the chair of governors. The agenda is set by the authority's evaluation criteria. The assigned inspector brings to the meeting a governing body profile provided by the governor service. This comprises:

* Details of governing body membership.

* A copy of the governing body's self-evaluation, which uses a Cambridgeshire self-audit checklist.

* Any governance issues from the school's most recent Ofsted report.

* Details of training received by the governing body.

* Action plans that have arisen from whole-governing body training sessions.

* Reports of issues and queries raised with the governor service.

This process demonstrates the training and development needs of each body.

This is important, because governing bodies don't necessarily find it easy, unprompted, to articulate their own needs.

Cambridgeshire provides a menu of training and support for governors and clerks - courses, phone helpline, termly briefings, a website. What marks this out is the emphasis on "in-house" sessions - training for whole governing bodies in their own schools.

Philip Hodgson, whose rural primary has had several of these, believes that they are valuable for team-building, and particularly for getting across the message that a range of skills and backgrounds is an advantage. "Some governors are less confident at individual training sessions. The whole-governing body training is more effective in underlining that everybody has a contribution to make."

At St Neots community college, head Joe Pajak adds:"We have a well-trained and committed group of governors with a wide range of skills and experiences, and the excellent services that Cambridgeshire provides make sure that we're focused and kept up to date on key issues."


* A range of courses and quick-response for governors and clerks.

* Training delivered where possible by school improvement staff (inspectors and advisers).

* An entitlement to in-house, whole-governing body training.

* Local inspectors aware of, and responsive to, governance issues.

* An informative, up-to-date website.

* Regular briefing on emerging issues.

* Groupings of governors (local "patch" groups, andor whole authority committees).

* A requirement and framework, for governing body self-evaluation.

* Support for governor recruitment at school level.

* Support that refers to Ofsted school judgements, and targeted support when schools are preparing for inspection.

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