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More chairs for the girls

Despite changing attitudes in society it seems that male power still rules on governing bodies, says Diana Hinds

Sexist attitudes may be more diluted than they once were. But a new report by the Education Network (Ten) suggests that they still operate at a deep level when it comes to men and women occupying positions of power.

The report, Do the right thing!, looked at governor accountability, and found that while there are 9 per cent more female than male school governors in England, women account for only around one-third of chairs of governors. They are also significantly under-represented as vice-chairs of governors.

Despite a higher proportion of women governors in the North, they are less likely to be chairs. This is most marked in the North-west, where they are three times less likely than men to hold the position.

These findings echo similar divisions within institutions such as local councils or company boardrooms, says Simon Bird, policy officer at Ten.

But Blackburn with Darwen education authority has considered governor accountability a sufficiently serious enough problem to launch a recruitment, representation and retention (3Rs) strategy. This aims to make governing bodies more representative of their local communities.

When the new LEA was formed in 1998, there were only 31 Asian governors serving on local bodies - although almost a third of pupils came from ethnic-minority groups - most of whom were men. The 3Rs strategy was launched the next year and by summer 2000 the number of Asian governors had increased to 103, almost half of them women.

There are now 269 Asian governors, and one in four chairs is female. But there is still more to do, says Sean Rogers, principal governor services officer.

Cultural attitudes have contributed to male domination, he says. But progress has been made by encouraging heads, parents and governors to work together more closely, encouraging heads to talent spot potential candidates and invite them in, providing school-based training, and making the role as interesting as possible.

"The challenge is to break down the status quo," says Mr Bird. Part of the responsibility for this lies with the local authority, but it also resides with the governing body itself, he argues. "Governing bodies can get new governors off to a positive start, for example, by providing induction training even before they take up their post."

What often happens is that an outgoing chair informally passes the baton to the vice-chair, in many cases perpetuating the male line of succession. But if the vice-chair is female, a new order is created.

Karen Lovelady became the first female chair of governors at a primary school in Halifax after four years as vice-chair.

"When I step down, there are quite a lot of women on our governing body who would be very capable of stepping in," she says.

Stephen Adamson, acting chair of the National Association of Governors and Managers, believes that the gender balance will slowly change to include more women chairs. But he agrees that more training could help to speed things up. The Department for Education and Skills is in the process of producing a new national development programme for chairs and heads to help experienced, new and aspiring chairs and headteachers.

But some believe that while many women with families may find the time to be a parent governor for a few years, only a minority will be able to put in the extra hours needed to hold the post of chair.

"The work commitment is heavy," says Susan Marsh, who has been a school governor since the 1970s and is now chair at two schools in Tameside, Manchester. "They have more paperwork, more committees and need to have regular meetings with the head."

"If you are a working mother, as I am, then it is one more thing to worry about," says Sarah Cook, who became the first female chair of governors at a primary in Somerset. "But so far the workload hasn't been as heavy as I had anticipated, and I am extremely well supported by the clerk and the head."

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