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Neither lapdogs nor footballs

Until recently, Terry Mahoney was responsible for support-ing governors. Now he questions the purpose of the entire institution in the first of a new series looking at their role.

Ten years ago, the Rt Hon Kenneth Baker swung his arms in a large circle at the Tory party conference, likening the education system to a wheel. He explained that the intention of the Great Education Reform Bill was to remove power from the hub - the local education authority - and redistribute it along the spokes to the rim, where the users were.

Schools were to be locally managed, governors given increased executive powers, headteachers were to have extra managerial responsibility and local authorities largely emasculated.

Has his vision worked out in reality? Not in the opinion of Patricia Leighton, a chair of governors and a professor of employment law, who recently wrote: "A visitor from Mars, especially one with a legal qualification, if examining the current structures, powers and duties of a school governing body would quickly conclude that the system is, at best, deeply flawed, at worst, unworkable, and potentially destructive - and that those who devised it were crazy."

With a new cohort of governors about to take their places and in the light of Kenneth Baker's recent admission in The TES (May 31, 1996) that many of his "reforms" were indeed ill-considered and pushed through by ignoring professional advice, perhaps now is the time to examine Patricia Leighton's assertions. Few seek a return to the early Eighties' conception of governors as largely ornamental. However, research increasingly focuses on the untenable position of governors.

Fundamentally, governors are volunteers whose main role is to be a local, accountable, lay body with a strategic, monitoring role. It should be for the governors to determine, with the headteacher, the lines on which "their" school is run. But as the state increasingly steers educational policy at a distance under the guise of local management, governors are placed, unwittingly, in the inappropriate role of overseers of government policy.

A host of rules and regulations compel governors to police Government policies such as making sure the national curriculum is implemented and that assessment results are provided for league tables, making sure that religious education and collective worship are provided, having to consider annually whether to ballot parents on GM status, ensuring health and safety standards.

They may be educationally or ideologically opposed to these matters or have little or no financial control over them because central government controls the financial rules within which local management operates.

The vast range of educational, legal, financial, personnel, health and safety and curriculum and assessment knowledge and understanding required is beyond the scope of most governing bodies and most of the 300,000 or more governors did not volunteer in order to collude in the demise of the local authorities or to be the Secretary of State's lapdog.

Nor ought they be used as political footballs as the National Association of Headteachers has attempted to do by exhorting governing bodies to break the law - however inappropriate it may be - by not passing on national curriculum test results.

Our Martian visitor would ask searching questions about composition of governing bodies: why do many schools have more governors than teachers, and a few, more governors than pupils? Why don't the teaching and non-teaching staff have equal representation with other groups? Why is it well-nigh impossible to get rid of maverick governors?

Why, if a school's key purpose is learning and teaching, such issues are rarely discussed by governors. Rather, governors busy themselves with trivial matters - squeaky school gates, smelly toilets, dog mess in playgrounds, or a whole range of other duties prescribed by law, but which ought to be the preserve of paid managers.

It is inappropriate for governors - many of whom are poorly paid or not in work - to have to carry out a performance review of heads and deputies as part of an annual pay review. This is a job of experienced, professional personnel managers. Few governing bodies can possess such well-honed skills.

And why, given the enormous structural problems facing teacher recruitment currently, is the Teacher Training Agency encouraging governing bodies "to nominate a governor to take a special interest in the work of school-based teacher training and foster links with the higher education institution"? It is unlikely to make any impact on a looming teacher recruitment crisis.

Meanwhile governors soldier on against all odds, making the best of a bad job for the sake of the pupils in their school, while many have resigned, objecting to their impossible role. In such a highly fragmented system such individual protests tend to be lost. But they are there.

Governing bodies are increasingly attracting the opprobrium of OFSTED, though there has been a gradual erosion of training and development money targeted at governing bodies over the past three years - and OFSTED itself reports that some heads do not allow governors to take their proper place. Moreover, there is little evidence that the expanded role of governors has had any impact on school effectiveness.

The accumulated mass of legislation over the past 10 years has failed both to delineate an appropriate role for governors and to provide them with the means to do the job. Their role should not be one of surveillance over the policies of others, nor being unpaid managers taking difficult decisions - like redundancy or exclusion - in whose management they have had little involvement.

The current attempts to create a Code of Practice for governors, while laudable, are a sideshow. What is needed is a sweeping Dearing-type review of their role, powers and purpose.

Terry Mahoney recently retired as Hertfordshire's manager for governor support and training

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