Learn to love your governors

Joan Sallis explains why the managers of every sensible school need the advice of busy-bodies.

TWO seemingly unrelated news stories recently in The TES could contain the greatest threat for 25 years to schools' accountability.

One was the survey by the National Association of Head Teachers into members' workload and frustrations. There was also a smaller survey confined to Leicestershire. The other was the report of the Haskins task force on red tape. Any onslaught on duplication and unnecessary form-filling in schools must be welcomed, but both reports also seem to want a restriction of governors' influence.

There are 300,000 people from all walks of life who owe their opportunity to play a part in schools to the report of the

Taylor Committee, set up by a Labour government exactly 25 years ago. The committee's task was to reform a system which had become moribund, and its work could easily have fallen prey to territorial warfare with heads and teachers. Indeed, it very nearly did. There were cries of "busy-bodies' charter" when it was published. They continue.

These 300,000 governors have acquired experience of schools and of responsibility which guarantee that they will never be the same again. To put the clock back would be political dynamite among such influential members of their communities. The present Government spelled out less than two years ago governors' responsibility for academic standards, and boosted numbers. So why fear for their future?

The Haskins report suggests governing bodies be smaller, and meet less. Obligation to meet parents annually should be abolished. They should go in for "light touch" governance, not involving themselves much in the school but keeping an eye on the weather and perhaps doing a bit of "come on, old chap" trouble-shooting when necessary. That is a picture of the discredited system which the Taylor Committee was set up to reform.

And the headteachers' survey? I've been criticised for saying that a professional association should celebrate its star, helping but not publicising those who are struggling. Some 3,200 responded to the NAHT survey (but there are 25,000 state schools) and among calls for less form-filling there is a familiar cry. Yes, "busy-bodies' charter". Get LEAs and parents off our backs. Above all, get governors off our backs.

Where are the heads who have responded with enthusiasm to the stimulus of the self-managing school? Too busy or contented to respond to surveys? They work with representatives of school communities, value governors as a sounding board for ideas, messengers on how their community will react and ambassadors for school policies. Many wise heads know that life without the "busy-bodies" could be dangerous.

What did the organisers of this survey hope for? If you ask a large number of people whether they've ever had a hairy journey on the M25 or a nasty experience with an automated customer answering system, you'll get a lot of replies. So there would be heads who said governors were more trouble than pupils and plenty who thought them out of their depth or power-mad. Of course there would. But no important service in society is run without professional accountability to a lay body. The education service needs it used by

everybody, paid for by everybody, vital to public well-being and touching the lives of ordinary families.

The Taylor Committee, representing every part of this service, said it wanted schools to be more accountable. Yet, in those days, schools made very few important management decisions on their own. An all-powerful LEA was paymaster, site manager, personnel officer and trouble-shooter.

In a decade, schools were managing their budgets, their personnel, their buildings and grounds, planning their own development, buying services of all kinds and monitoring their own standards. LEAs have become a shadow of what they were, and the process of switching accountability to the individual school continues.

This would be frightening if we did not have strong and effective school governors.

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