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No apron strings attached

Governors who do not pull their weight must be given more responsibility or they will never grow up, writes Alison Shepherd

CONGRATULATIONS, you have achieved the near miraculous and can hang the "no vacancies" sign on the door of your governors' meeting room. But what if only a handful of your colleagues actually want to do anything other than turn up once in six months to avoid being voted off? Who do you turn to if, as chair, you realise that only you and the head attended every meeting in one year, and although quorate, you feel as if you are starting from scratch each time an agenda is opened?

And what do you do when you find yourself frantically trying to achieve two deadlined tasks in one morning, which you had been led to believe were being dealt with over the previous six months by other members?

If you had any sense you would probably throw it all in and stomp off to find someone who appreciated you and maybe even pay for all the energy you have expended. But in common with the vast majority of governors you are more likely to struggle on, hoping things will change and daydreaming of the day you are given the power that would go with your responsibilities in the real world.

It need not be like this though, according to governance guru Nigel Gann. His mission for the past two decades has been to improve school governing bodies, to make them efficient management machines that have a real impact on the lives of their pupils.

"This sort of situation can only be tackled with a complete change in the culture of the governing body. If the chair and head have always taken on the tasks, the others will continue to let them," he says. "Just as a teenager needs to be given the confidence to take on responsibility and mature, so does a governing body. An immature board will be completely dependent on the head and chair who need to cut those apron strings."

So, as ever, it is mother's fault. But it can be remedied, if not overnight.

The 10-point plan prescribed by Mr Gann, who is a successful chair of governors, could take years to come to fruition. At its root is ensuring that each governor can see exactly how they fit into the whole.

* In your eagerness to attract people, do not tell prospective governors that the role is easy and only takes a couple of hours a term. Tell them instead what a vitally important role it is and how it is a commitment that can take over their lives if they let it. They are more likely to take it seriously.

* Jettison the usual business of board meetings for a term or two.

* Use meeting time to have wide-ranging sessions on identifying what governors want to achieve, the steps they need to take, and the resources they need to reach their goals. The annual school performance review is the best arena for identifying and achieving consensus on all the good things the school has done - and what needs to be done better next year.

* Ensure that every governor has a recognised monitoring responsibility on which they have to report at each meeting. These do not have to be limited to the statutory "link" roles of numeracy, literacy, ethnic minority, special educational needs, and so on. They can include anything that concerns the school community, such as lice, bullying, and playground equipment. People are more likely to attend meetings if they have a direct contribution to make.

* Do not overload novice governors - let them become confident in one specific area.

* Call on the expertise of other agencies such as the local education authority and local governor organisations, use their training programmes and ask governors to report back.

* Give your committees real responsibilities, and use them to give governors experience of taking on the chair's role.

* Do not allow the chair and head to spring decisions on the board for it to rubber-stamp. Make sure every voice is heard in all decisions - another benefit of a fully-working committee stucture.

* Make sure the headteacher's report includes everything the board wants to know about.

* Remember governors have corporate responsibility, and if individuals are not made to feel integral to its work, their sense of loyalty and commitment will diminish.

Alison Shepherd is chair of governors at a London primary school. Nigel Gann's website is at

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