TWENTY YEARS ago, the role of governing bodies was largely ceremonial. But today, their responsibilities go right to the heart of promoting educational standards.
Their hugely enhanced role could either be a great support or a great burden to headteachers. That's why our report, which focused on the red-tape burden on headteachers, looked closely at how the work of governing bodies impacts on heads.
When we spoke to schools, representative bodies and, of course, governors, we found that the Government's agenda for raising standards in schools is widely respected. But there is a deeply held view that an accompanying increase in red tape is acting as a distraction - this view is particularly strongly held in small schools and schools serving deprived communities.
Those we spoke to praised the role that many governing bodies play. But our research indicated that the exhaustive list of responsibilities of governing bodies, coupled with a cautious approach to interpreting the law and difficulties in recruiting governors, was leading some to under-perform.
We therefore looked at practical ways of freeing up governing bodies to focus on their primary objectives.
(1) Size of governing bodies.
It is clear that, for many schools, the requirement to broaden representation has led to governing bodies becoming overlarge and unwieldy. It has also created problems in filling some 350,000 school governor places.
We believe that the way to address excessive bureaucracy is to reduce the size and to focus the responsibilites of governing bodies. We are convinced this can be done while leaving room both for experienced strategic decision-makers and those representing parents and other key stakeholder groups.
(2) Responsibilities of governing bodies
Statutory responsibilities include: appointing all staff; writing a detailed annual report to parents; dealing with arrangements for individual pupils; keeping an attendance register and many other operational matters.
Little wonder, therefore, that in many cases much of the work of governing bodies falls to the headteacher.
We think much of this work could usefully be simplified, in order to allow governors to concentrate on the overall performance of the school rather than its day-to-day running.
Current legislation focuses governors' attention on how the school is managed rather than on what they and the school need to achieve. This is compounded by the Department for Education and Employment guidance.
The guidance, which explains governors' duties, provides an exhaustive interpretation of the law. It runs o more than 100 pages. Its length and language seem to us to encourage governors to take a cautious approach to interpreting their responsibilities.
The volume and degree of detail of other DFEE guidance material and circulars seem to us likely to reinforce the tendency of governors to be involved in detailed operational decision-making.
We have asked the Government to reduce the burden on headteachers by reducing governor involvement in detailed operational matters (as far as possible), and by explaining remaining responsibilities in a concise, user-friendly manner. This will require some changes to the law.
(3) Recruiting governors.
Recruiting committed and expert governors is not a big problem for schools in affluent areas. But schools in deprived areas face much greater problems.
The DFEE has recognised the difficulty of recruiting governors from the business community who can complement the role of parents.
Through its Excellence in Cities initiative the department has created pilot "one-stop-shops" for the recruitment of such governors. We would like to see this extended - although it will not solve the problem on its own.
One other option to attract governors would be financial incentives, paid either to governors or to employers for their time.
Other options include some form of "honours" scheme and greater flexibility in the timing of meetings.
The experience of training and enterprise councils and further education colleges suggests that redefining the governor role - particularly by encouraging governors to address the needs of deprived communities - and raising its profile may itself create a powerful incentive. We believe the Government should explore incentives which help to promote governors' importance.
(4) Changing the role of governing bodies.
All this points to the need for a clear, realistic definition of the role of governors.
We like the model of a private company's board of non-executive directors, which approves the appointment of the chief executive, monitors his or her progress, endorses the firm's broad strategies and policies but does not involve itself in its day-to-day operations.
Ensuring that the school is being competently led by the headteacher is a particularly important responsibility. It is vital that nothing distracts them from this. Governors can play a very constructive role in achieving this.
Copies of "Red Tape Affecting Headteachers", from the Better Regulation Task Force, are available at http:www.cabinet-office.gov.ukregulationindextask.htm or by telephoning 0207 270 6014.
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